The sale and delivery of groups and meetings is perhaps the most significant and under-automated functions for many hotels. Even though groups often account for 30% to 60% of revenue, most group bookings are still handled manually for most if not all of steps, as they move from a meeting planner’s research to a confirmed booking.
Hotel sales staff are inundated with Requests for Proposals (RFPs), most of them sent via electronic portals such as Cvent. Most of these are not qualified leads: the hotel may not have the required function or sleeping rooms at all, or they may already be booked, or the price point may be wrong. Sales managers literally sort through mountains of RFPs trying to guess, with very limited information, which ones are worth pursuing. Meeting planners get frustrated that hotels don’t even respond to most RFPs. Large group bookings generate huge stacks of documentation, typically in the form of Banquet Event Orders (BEOs). Then every minor change, such as to a guest count for a single meal, causes regeneration of yet another huge stack, in which only one page has changed.
It’s sad, but perhaps the biggest advance in the traditional sales and catering (S&C) software programs over the years was the conversion of that huge stack from paper or fax, to sending it as an electronic PDF document. From a technology standpoint, this caught the sales process up to where the rest of the world was around 2000-2005, but about ten years later.
The good news is that today, there is lots of innovation in the S&C space, some of it quite disruptive. Amadeus and Oracle have long dominated the market for hotels, but for this article I spoke with eight companies trying to disrupt the status quo, and got a great view from them of some of the trends, as well as some cool new capabilities. Let’s start with the trends; each of these were mentioned by multiple companies or were reflected in their product designs. Then I’ll provide an overview of what I found interesting about six of the companies I spoke with.
There is a clear and definitive move toward instant online quotation and booking of both guest rooms and function space, as has been the case for transient guest reservations for at least 30 years. Where a group is larger or more complex, some of the systems now do electronic qualification before an RFP is sent to a sales manager’s inbox. There is more electronic connectivity, so that third parties such as Travel Management Companies (TMCs) or Online Travel Agents (OTAs, some of which have group specialties) can create RFPs within their own systems and get electronic responses from multiple hotels, often without human intervention (although the number of hotels able to support this is still quite limited). Group booking engines are proliferating, including single-hotel versions, white-labeled options for brands, and white-labeled versions for TMCs and OTAs.
Business rules are being used to manage the sales funnel more effectively, and to gather data to measure conversion at each transition point. Hotels using these tools are reporting dramatic reductions in the number of RFPs their sales staff need to respond to, and better conversion on those they do.
User interfaces and training are getting simpler, with some systems usable entirely on mobile devices and trainable in as little as 30 minutes. Many of these are have made S&C technology practical for even limited-service hotels, typically at a fraction of the cost of mainstream solutions. Many such hotels do have substantial group business, but it tends to be heavily skewed toward sleeping rooms rather than meeting space and catering; compared with most of the newer solutions, the traditional S&C solutions may seem overpowered, cumbersome, and costly. Many of the newer systems are also designed from the ground up to support the enterprise needs of hotel groups, with consolidated booking engines, reporting capabilities, cross-selling, support for cluster and national sales offices, and payment services that cater to this market.
Much industry attention has been focused on the Group360 deal with Accor, Hilton, IHG and Marriott, who are investing a combined $50 million to get “the first truly transparent, efficient, and cost-effective online tool for meeting planners to source and book meetings and events across a wide selection of brands.” Leaving aside the question of why this didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago, or whether the shared development model is workable (it doesn’t exactly have a great history in hospitality), the financial commitment from these major brands is clear evidence that they see this as an important and unmet need.
Four of the products I will cover this week fit roughly into the standard definition of an S&C solution, while two others are trying to solve more focused S&C problems.
iVvy offers a comprehensive S&C solution suitable for hotels of any size, but with two significant innovations vs. the status quo. iVvy enables hotels to define rules that can be used to qualify customers and leads, effectively triaging electronic inquiries into ones that can be quoted and potentially converted online; ones that can be rejected outright without human intervention; and ones that really need a sales manager to handle. Second, iVvy is designed for third-party distribution. Its white-label group booking tools are used by distribution channels such as TMCs within their own websites, as well as on hotel and brand.com websites, and they can accept electronic RFPs from other systems as well. Innovations in the electronic booking process allow a meeting planner to see, where appropriate, specific availability of function space down to the hour, so that a request for a two-hour meeting from 9am to 11am won’t be rejected if the group has some flexibility and there is availability later in the day.
Event Temple is another S&C package, targeting select service hotels with a focus on pipeline management. Sales managers work from a visual display that has a single column for each stage of the pipeline funnel with a brief summary of each opportunity; in one glance they can see which ones they should be working on to advance to the next stage. A simple right-click on any opportunity yields a menu to send an email, create a document or invoice, assign a workflow, add a note, change a status, or take another action. Event Temple can easily integrate leads from external sources such as Facebook. It sells for a fraction of the cost of higher-end systems, and the company’s claim that users can learn how to use it in 30 minutes was supported by the simplicity of the user interface I saw.
Another option is Tripleseat, which evolved about year ago from its prior focus on restaurant events, adding guest-room bookings in order to enter the hotel market. It retains much of the simplicity that made it successful in restaurants, where full-featured S&C systems were too cumbersome. With a low cost and easy installation compared to traditional S&C systems, Tripleseat targets limited service hotel properties. It is also designed to work well alongside a higher-end S&C system in full-service hotels that may need a simpler solution for restaurant events. Tripleseat started out in the enterprise space in restaurants and it maintained that approach with hotels; in addition to the normal enterprise functionality, it claims to be the only solution that can natively book a single group across multiple hotels.
Meetings Maker from BookingTek offers real-time booking for function space, although at this time sleeping room blocks can only be booked “on request.” One unusual feature, useful to many larger groups, is its SinglePay function, which allows each property in a hotel group to accept online payments without having to set up a separate merchant account per property; it works with multiple payment gateways and providers. Another feature, used by some Crowne Plaza properties for casual-use meeting rooms off their lobbies, is a tablet interface that allows immediate booking when, for example, an informal meeting in the lobby needs to move to a more private area.
MeetingPackage is not a traditional S&C solution but offers hotels a software layer with business rules that sits between the key data sources (S&C systems, Property Management Systems, and Revenue Management Systems) and the customer. It has a booking engine and web portal that can be white-labeled or inserted plug-and-play into a web site, and third-party connectivity via a group channel manager; it also connects to a payment gateway. Its focus on the connectivity layer allows collection of better end-to-end data on conversion and productivity across more of the marketing funnel, starting with search engine marketing, continuing through the booking engine, the sales process, and ultimately to revenue. Change orders for an event simply require online acceptance by the customer in the web portal, which always reflects the latest order – no need to send an updated PDF!
IDEM Hospitality focuses on the specific problem of managing individual bookings into group blocks, serving three parties: the booker (through a booking site), the venue (via integration with the Property Management System as well as direct reporting), and the event planner (who has full visibility of the block through a portal). Group delegates can book and securely transmit payment data. A key advantage over existing solutions like Passkey is that IDEM’s software is custom built for hotels rather than convention bureaus, so it is much simpler to set up a group block, taking just two to three minutes. At the same time, it can still handle city-wide events for a hotel group has multiple hotels in a city. It offers capabilities to upsell both within a hotel or to better hotels within the hotel group, and the ability to down-sell to less expensive hotels.
If your hotel handles groups and doesn’t have an S&C solution, or if you’re looking for an alternative to your current solution, potentially at much lower cost, there are some good options out there to look at. As always, these aren’t recommendations to buy, just companies I think are worth looking at – always do your own due diligence!