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Creating an Effective Online Automated Group and Meeting Strategy

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October 25, 2006
Hotel | Distribution
Caryl Helsel - caryl@inspireresources.com

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© 2006 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Editor’s Note: In May of 2006, Caryl Helsel and Kathleen Cullen of Inspire Resources wrote a white paper for the Hotel Electronic Distribution Network Association (HEDNA) outlining the current environment and evolution of the automation of online group and meetings planning.

While conducting research for this paper, many hotel executives were interviewed to identify their current practices, goals and challenges in the group and meeting space arena. During the interview process, a common challenge amongst the hotel companies was identified. It seems that most hotel companies simply do not have a streamlined or concrete online strategy in place. Most companies are working in a manual environment with manual processes, as well as many hotels are working independently versus streamlining a company strategy.

The industry as a whole has recognized the need to streamline the group and meeting research and planning processes to make it more efficient for both the hotels and meeting planners.

Over the last several years, a number of technology companies and group brokers have developed a variety of ways to cater to the group market. Many of these developments have focused on the automation of group hotel distribution.

Due to the various criteria that go into the makeup of a group, it is very difficult to lump all types of groups and meetings into one category. This leads to challenges in utilizing technology to handle the industry’s group needs.

Additionally, there are varying strategies for each type of group business. The strategy a hotel uses can be impacted by group size, purpose of the meeting, non-sleeping room requirements and the type of business.
Furthermore, the lack of standardization in the hotel industry as a whole, as well as for group business specifically, exacerbates the difficulty in streamlining and automating this business. But advancements are being made, and with each improvement the process becomes more efficient and effective.

There are various criteria that companies can use to define what is considered a group or meeting. Some of these criteria include:
• Size of the meeting or number of attendees
• Dollar amount of expenditure, budget
• Site requirements such as onsite or offsite, sleeping room accommodations, type of venue
• Travel requirements
• Support services required such as audio visual, security, etc.
Now, the booking environment has changed from face-to-face conference sales to more Internet-based decisions because meeting planners are moving their group business booking to the Internet when possible. Additionally, there is a lot more integration between systems than in the past, thus the process is more efficient and accurate.
Defining an effective online group strategy for a hotel company or an individual hotel, regardless of its size, is vital to the success in this arena.
Requirements vary by geographic region. It is important for international hotel companies that the needs and requirements of all regions that have significant group contribution are considered and included in the strategy.
A cross-functional team should be involved in creating the appropriate online group strategy. The team should include not only sales and marketing resources, but also distribution, revenue management, operations and IT resources, at a minimum.
Be sure to check the sidebar below for the essentials of things to consider.
The foundation for a successful online strategy is set during the definition process.  Each hotel company will have unique requirements that when documented, will support achieving the goals outlined in the strategy. It is of the utmost importance to get the strategy right first and execute against it with excellence.

Kathleen Cullen and Caryl Helsel lead Inspire Resources, which specializes in hospitality analysis and selection, education and training. Kathleen can be reached at kathleen@inspireresources.com. Caryl can be reached at caryl@inspireresources.com.
This article includes excerpts from the 2005/2006 HEDNA White Paper Series “Online Group and Meeting Planning”. Authors of this white paper are Kathleen Cullen and Caryl Helsel. To purchase the entire White Paper, please see www.hedna.org.

Sidebar: Essentials

There are many essentials required for successfully implementing an online group strategy for hoteliers. Below are the key success factors that should be considered in order to define a successful online group strategy.
Identify what role group travel plays in your company’s overall business.

>> What percentage of business is this for your company? Do you want to change that percentage–increase or decrease? Identify group value dates on which you wish to increase occupancy during shoulder seasons.
What are your automation needs in the area of group travel? How automated would you like your group process to be?

Do you want to insource or outsource the group automation process?

What segments need automating the most and what are their specific requirements?

What are the various business models that require automation? What flexibility is required to meet the needs of the varying business models?

When developing the online strategy, outline how you will ensure a continued relationship with existing clients and also how you will define a relationship with new clients.

Know what your competition is doing. How are they operating in the online group arena?

Know your customers and create the right experience for them as well as targeted segments. Include groups in your CRM strategy.

Consistently communicate the strategic intent. Strategic intent must translate into detailed operating requirements that define how all activities are organized and managed as they relate to the online group processes.

The process:
>>Must be meaningful and understandable at all levels of the organization as well as to your customers
>>Must drive internal resource alignment and allocation
>>Must exhibit to the customers that you know what is important to them
>>Must help to broaden and enhance your reputation beyond your core business

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