Eden Prairie (Minneapolis), MN, March 2020….As a new decade dawns, leading meeting planners are identifying the most pressing issues confronting the meetings industry. Challenges include service delivery and value, creative meeting environments, the demand for unique, curated meeting experiences and an over-reliance on technology without accompanying technical support.
Teneo Hospitality Group, the premier group representation firm, polled top meeting planners coast to coast to determine their most pressing issues and concerns. These experts represent a spectrum of the meetings industry – finance, pharmaceuticals, real estate, insurance companies, non-profits, associations and technology.
“Planners cited a number of priorities, from unreliable technical services to concerns about budgets and outdated meeting room setups,” according to Teneo President Mike Schugt. However, a closer review of the survey reveals underlying concerns of consolidation of hotel sales offices resulting in response delays. “Trends toward centralization and an over-reliance on technology have created a bureaucracy that can slow the meeting planning process rather than expedite it.”
Priority #1 Delivery of Service and Value. Planners pointed to a decline in hotel communications services, particularly in the areas of prompt responses to requests for proposals and other crucial information needed by planners. Once contracts are signed, planners often noted difficulties in obtaining select services and facilities for which they contracted. Also reported was the need for greater technical support once a meeting is in process.
“This is becoming a serious issue for the industry,” says Mike Schugt. Planners asking for RFP responses usually need an answer in 24-48 hours and often contact three or more sources in order to present options to their clients. Planners we polled, all point to a situation where centralization of sales offices and dependence on technology has created a system best described as cumbersome, tech-driven and lacking in the kind of meaningful human contact needed to build lasting and effective relationships.” Service, service, service remain the watchwords of the meetings industry.
Suggested Solutions to Address the Priority: Planners can expedite the RFP response process from a hotel by simplifying their approach for information and meeting options, according to Mike Schugt.
“Today’s hoteliers face many competing demands and more layers of approval, particularly among the big brands,” he notes. By providing concise information, combined with flexibility, planners can reduce lead times and get the information they need. Be flexible with dates from the beginning. Even a slight shift in timing helps hotels create more and better options. It’s best not to source more than five cities at once as this may indicate to the hotel it has little chance of winning the business. At the beginning of the RFP process, limit initial concession requests to the most important issues. It takes hotels longer to respond if there are up to 25 requests to be approved. At this stage, planners should communicate key concessions, letting the hotel know there will be others but they are seeking availability and only certain terms with their RFP. Planners should also explain their decision-making process, the timing, and when they will narrow things down to a short list. This allows the hotel to prioritize accordingly. It is also vital that planners provide detailed history for each event so that the hotel has the information necessary to create a productive, memorable meeting.
Priority #2 Curated Meeting Experiences. “The impact of experiential travel on every segment of today’s travel industry cannot be overestimated,” Mike Schugt asserts. Planners view creative, transformative experiences as key in driving meeting engagement that in turn enables content absorption and post-meeting ROI performance. “Although Millennials have been influential in demanding more curated and meaningful meeting experiences, research shows that this is a requirement of all meeting attendees regardless of demographic,” Mike Schugt notes. “And, it is imperative that experiences be carefully curated to meet the specific needs of the organization.”
Suggested Solutions to Address Priority: “Look for independent hotels and smaller brands that have more flexibility in creating imaginative and inspiring experiences and a strong sense of place.”
Teneo members are predominantly independent properties in outstanding destinations that work closely with local travel partners to showcase the area’s attractions while delivering a high level of service. As such,planners can host a dinner under the Statue of Liberty or a brainstorming session in the middle of million-year-old red rock formations in Colorado. When in Rome, host a board meeting in a vault that was once a part of the ancient Diocletian Baths. In London, dine amid the thousand-year-old splendors of the Tower of London’s magnificent rooms and take a private tour of the fabled Crown Jewels exhibit. Also, look for venues where wellness concepts can be folded into the experience. Hiking or biking to a local attraction, outdoor yoga, jogging trails, white water rafting, horseback riding, meditation classes and unique spa treatments.
Priority #3 The Meeting Environment. The meetings industry has made great strides in bringing conference spaces into the 21st century but some venues have been slower to update technology and to revamp inflexible spaces.
Today, changes in the meeting environment are driven by its largest demographic – Millennials. “Millennials come from universities and work environments that consist of open, collaborative spaces equipped with the best in technology,” notes Mike Schugt. However, survey respondents reported that finding adequate space that allows for easy flow and access between rooms remains a challenge. Natural light, from skylights and large windows, is increasingly in demand by this demographic and newly built hotels are now designed with modern, glass facades, large windows and skylights, along with easy access to outdoor meeting spaces. Current, effective technology in meeting rooms, ergonomic, easily moved and comfortable furniture, privacy and protection of attendees, equipment and information, all were important planner concerns.
Suggested Solutions to Address Priority: Planners should examine and develop every aspect of the meeting room from interactive technology and WiFi to acoustics, room layouts and furnishings. Choose a hotel in a location that is conducive to meetings – quiet, well appointed, private and secure. Meeting rooms should be spacious and flexible with minimal time needed for set up. They should be equipped with top technology, easily moved, comfortable furniture, natural light and ample recharging stations built into tables and chairs, and enable meetings to flow easily out of doors.
Interior design should be simple and not distracting, but with pops of color such as accent walls, plants and artwork to add appeal and interest. Find a venue where the meeting can be mobile – on the beach, on a rooftop, in an historic building, in a garden.
Space should flow seamlessly to accommodate both meetings and social events and should be designed to provide a sense of place inside and out. Nature is an integral part of the Hotel 1 Brooklyn Bridge, renowned for its highly sustainable interiors and wood and metalwork recycled from Brooklyn’s industrial era. A living green wall studded with live plants brings nature inside the hotel. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook 85 waterfront acres that make up the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy and the stunning New York Skyline beyond. Two centuries of American history live in the lavish ballrooms of Washington, DC’s iconic Willard Hotel where planners can also bring the meeting outside with team-building exercises that showcase the capital’s legends and landmarks. Like The Williard, look for inventive team-building programming that teach a skill, promote camaraderie and give a sense of place: Boat building in California, a surfing lesson on Oahu, plus an array of exercises from golf to culinary contests.
Priority #4 Tech Support. Planners continue to be concerned with the costs of technology and charges for WiFi. However, a far more serious issue is a lack of adequate technical support. “This tells us that at a time when technology has reached new levels of sophistication, there still are instances where a planner’s worst nightmare is realized and an entire presentation can fail,” says Mike Schugt. Planners have reported problems linking WiFi and AV, compromised bandwidth and AV vendors who fail to be present at the event or are unable to fix problems that arise during a meeting.
Solutions to Address Priority: Do your homework, get in writing that someone will be at the presentation to test the system and address issues where they arise. Planners need to stay current on technical advances in order to negotiate costs and coordinate effectively with vendors, hotel staff and attendees, and anticipate and solve problems. Mike Schugt also notes that one advantage of the current trend towards independent big box hotels is their ability to provide topnotch equipment and in-house support.
Priority #5 Budget concerns dominated the survey and informed every other issue of concern to planners. According to Teneo President Mike Schugt, major advances in technology may have made for greater efficiency in some areas, but the accompanying cost increases make advance planning and cost control difficult.
Suggested Solutions to Address Priority: Solving budget issues is more difficult in the face of the hotel industry’s record-breaking rise in occupancy rates and group sales, according to Mike Schugt. “It’s a sellers’ market,” he notes, adding that sales staffs of big brand hotels, operating under more rigid corporate policies, may lack the flexibility to negotiate better terms. Given the volume of incoming RFP’s, they may also lack the time for an in-depth effort to solve these issues.
In finding solutions to these challenges, Teneo identified a significant trend that has strong potential to address these issues. According to Mike Schugt, “The number of independent hotels and smaller brands is growing, and so is the evolution of big box hotels.” These larger properties are increasingly breaking off from major brands and deploying their expansive meeting spaces, extensive room inventory and outstanding technical services to become independent operators. This offers planners more flexibility and negotiating power as well as greatly increased options to create meaningful, transformative meeting experiences.
“These solutions rely on building and maintaining relationships between the hotel’s sales teams and meeting planners,” says Mike Schugt. “That is the essence of our mission – to bring these groups together for the benefit of all. Technology can enhance those relationships, if used with thoughtfulness and humanity and as a means, not an end.”