Although in-person events may look different, the outlook is optimistic


With the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, can the return of meetings and conferences be far behind? Although the pandemic has no doubt changed the way events will be held—at least for the foreseeable future—most hoteliers and industry experts are feeling optimistic.

In fact, many properties and meeting planners are already glimpsing signs of life after COVID. “We’re seeing an increase in inquiries, especially in the second half of 2021,” said Blair McSheffrey, vice-president of global & hotel sales at Sonesta, who attributes the uptick, in part, to the all-too-human need to gather in person. “The social interaction that comes with meetings is significant.”

Not surprisingly, health and safety will be at the forefront of consumers’ minds, and properties are addressing that challenge head-on. “We’re implementing new ways to meet beyond just social distancing, including hybrid solutions, outdoor venues, and exploring testing options that give meeting planners and attendees peace of mind,” McSheffrey said.
 
Big brands roll out big programs
Hotels around the globe are pulling out all the stops to make sure business guests feel comfortable. All of the major hospitality brands have adopted wide-ranging health and safety protocols designed to deliver peace of mind to group meeting attendees. And most boutique and independent properties have followed suit.

Hilton’s EventReady with CleanStay program addresses every touchpoint of the meeting experience. An outgrowth of the chain’s CleanStay program, EventReady is based on extensive research as well as feedback from meeting planners. Aside from heightened cleanliness guidelines, other key tenants include book-to-billing flexibility and socially responsible solutions that speak to both environmental and health concerns. The company has also developed a comprehensive EventReady Playbook that outlines tangible ways to create safe yet engaging meetings.

Early on, Hyatt teamed up with top medical experts from organizations like the Cleveland Clinic to fine-tune its safety protocols. The Hyatt Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment now includes a cross-functional working group of healthcare and industry professionals that offer advice on every aspect of the hotel experience, dedicated hygiene leaders at each property who enforce cleaning and sanitization protocols, and cleanliness accreditation by the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.

At Marriott International, the MI Commitment to Clean program includes more than 200 cleaning protocols. The company has also created the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council, a group comprised of outside experts and in-house leaders from multiple departments who provide a holistic approach to hygiene and cleanliness standards that help ensure meeting safety.

Earlier this month, Kempinski Hotels launched its new global MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions) campaign, which features flexibility in bookings and cancellations. At the same time, the company developed the Our Meetings Promise program to meet the new demands of event organizers. The guidelines that address the pandemic are fully met with Kempinski’s White Glove Service, which was developed last year.

 In its UK properties, Red Carnation Hotels is using ACT CleanCoat, a transparent and chemical-free coating that offers long-term virus protection by decomposing harmful microbes in the air and rendering treated surfaces self-disinfecting. Hailed as a game changer by health and safety experts, the coating can be applied to all types of surfaces, including those with direct food contact. Treatment of an area with ACT CleanCoat allows cleaning with the ACT ECA System.

And Meliá Hotels International is preparing for a revival in business meetings with its Stay Safe with Meliá program. Certified by Bureau Veritas, a world leader in testing, inspection and certification services, the program addresses three critical areas that pertain to meetings and events—space layout, catering services and hygiene. The company has also improved its digital relationship with B2B travel professionals and adapted its operations to the new expectations of group and meeting planners.

Meanwhile, InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) has enhanced its Meet with Confidence program to provide safe and creative event solutions without compromising the experience that guests expect or the flexibility that meeting planners require. The company has also added industry best practices to its IHG Way of Clean, including pre-event inspections, meeting checklists, enhanced food handling guidelines, and technology solutions that support hybrid gatherings.

Omni Hotels & Resorts, which had planned to revamp its digital experience in 2020, quickly pivoted to focus on new expectations surrounding the pandemic and introduced an innovative social distancing filter to its meeting and event page on property websites. The feature allows users to book meeting and event spaces based on the number of attendees to ensure room for social distancing. Users can even toggle between standard, moderate, and strict settings while viewing meeting space diagrams and visuals.

Sonesta has partnered with Ecolab, a leading provider of hospital disinfecting solutions, to establish a rigorous health and cleanliness program throughout its growing U.S. portfolio. Its protocols, which meet or exceed CDC and government requirements related to the pandemic, continue to evolve as guidance from public health experts changes. And, according to Sonesta’s McSheffrey, “the program’s initiatives include significant attention to meeting and event spaces, addressing everything from food and beverage service to meeting room sanitization.”
 
A move toward larger gatherings
As time moves on and larger meetings begin to take shape, industry insiders predict a mix of face-to-face and virtual gatherings. Hybrid meetings, where some attendees join in person and others are looped in virtually, are already popular, noted  Kevin Rosa, director of sales and marketing at Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, the largest hotel in the Florida panhandle with 50,000 square feet of function space, including 10,000 feet overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

“Hybrid meetings help overcome the challenge of reduced capacity by allowing hotels to broadcast content to several meeting rooms on site or hold meetings across multiple properties,” he said. “They can help make people feel as if they are getting together.” Moreover, these meetings can be economical alternatives for companies as well as income generators for hotels, especially now. “At the end of the day, hotels want to retain group business revenue, and this option helps us do that.”

But Rosa expects larger in-person meetings to return, perhaps as early as next year. “I think companies are growing tired of virtual meetings,” he said. “Although they’ve kept commerce going and have provided a bridge to the future, people are eager for in-person gatherings and the networking opportunities they bring.”

After all, the hospitality industry is about people getting together for both business and pleasure. “Nothing will ever take the place of face-to-face human interaction,” he concluded. “Big meetings will come back. And when they do, hotels and resorts will be ready to host them.”