Definitely Doug 6/19/20: Meetings Technology in the COVID Era

by Doug Rice

Meetings Technology in the COVID Era

Much is unknown as to when, how fast, and how the hotel industry will recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Never has there been more uncertainty around what capabilities and processes hotels will need, when they will need them, or how technology should support them.

One significant area where there are perhaps fewer uncertainties, however, is the meetings business. While the timing of the recovery will vary by the type and size of meeting as well as the geographic location, we can be confident of a few things. One is that people are social animals and want to meet in person. While we can argue that Zoom is an acceptable substitute during a pandemic, and for cost reasons at other times, human nature helps ensure that it won’t completely replace face-to-face meetings.

Smaller meetings will return before larger ones, and larger ones (like the HITEC we should have all been attending this week!) will be much smaller for a while. I’m not suggesting they won’t eventually come back completely – I suspect they mostly will. But regardless, companies that have restricted or eliminated business travel in recent months, whether for health reasons, financial ones, or both, will restore it at varying points in time. For conferences and trade shows, some of the usual attendees will be able to travel, while others will not. Even where companies do allow it, many individuals who have COVID-19 risk factors themselves or in their families may be unwilling to travel until they see the risks decline. Others are eager and willing already. It is clearly a mixed bag.

This creates the near-certainty that a new reality – the hybrid meeting – will soon become very significant; it may even dominate the groups and meetings landscape. This change will persist for some time to come, perhaps permanently. Even pre-COVID, companies often held hybrid meetings using tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams: multiple groups would gather around a table in each of several office locations, while remote workers joined from their home offices.

Based on the factors noted above, we can expect that most meetings, conferences, and trade shows with more than 10 people traveling any significant distance will be either virtual or hybrid for at least a year. To be sure, the proportion of live to virtual attendees will increase over time. Whether it will ever get to 100% live, or whether hybrid meetings will become a permanent fixture, only time will tell.

Few hotels are well prepared to deliver the technology hybrid meetings need. The outsourced audiovisual (AV) companies who support the industry are typically cost-efficient only for hotels with at least $500,000 to $1 million in annual AV billings (maybe 10x what most small and midsized hotels get); as a result, smaller meetings are often underserved or overpriced when it comes to AV. And especially for hybrid meetings, it’s impractical for the organizers to bring all their own technology. Yet most hotels either don’t have in-house AV equipment at all, or what they do have is dated and poorly maintained.

So, this week I want to talk about meetings technology in the COVID-19 era. What can hotels do to provide the kind of support these meetings need? How can hotels use technology to land more meetings business during the recovery? Many of these ideas can apply to hotels as large as a major convention hotel or as small as a midmarket hotel with a single meeting room, and – like most of the technologies, I have been featuring in the past three blogs here – most of them will not break the bank.

The first set of technologies are ones a hotel can deploy in a smaller meeting room (e.g. boardroom sized) to enable quality hybrid meetings. Borrowed from the office environment (and therefore familiar to many attendees) are bundles with core technologies: a large-screen monitor with a camera, high quality microphone, and sound bar. What works in a home environment isn’t adequate for a typical conference room; it needs to be built-in and visually aesthetic, and it needs to have better audio and video quality.

There are numerous well-established technologies that are good, such as this all-in-one solution from Bose, and a flexible portfolio from Biamp. You can mix and match the components on your own, but sound systems in particular are hard to do well, so be sure to find high quality components such as Crestron’s Smart Soundbar or Biamp’s Parlé BeamTracking microphones (these are just examples to give you a better idea of what matters; needs will vary based on the size and layout of the room). The one caution is that the prepackaged solutions generally work well only for small meeting rooms with maybe up to a half dozen or so participants, who can all sit within 6-8 feet of the camera. More than that, or in a larger room, you’ll need better equipment in order for all participants to be able to see and hear well.

A great addition is an analog whiteboard with capture and sharing capabilities. This enables remote attendees to see and contribute to any discussion that needs whiteboarding. I haven’t found the perfect solution yet; ideally the in-person attendees should be able to draw on a physical whiteboard, while the remote attendees should be able to both see it on their own screen, and add to it from a touchscreen or pen-type device. The closest I have found are systems like this one from Crestron, but remote participants would have to ask someone in the room to help if they want to contribute something on the screen. That’s fine for many applications, but challenging if the remote participant needs to draw something visually that can’t easily be described in words.

All of these are great additions to be able to attract smaller meetings and can generate additional revenue. But is your hotel equipped to manage them? While today’s small-meeting AV equipment is inexpensive and relatively simple, it does need to be managed and supported; most hotels don’t have onsite AV or IT talent to do this. AVaStar is a young company with veteran talent trying to fill this gap, offering a combination of a SaaS AV technology management platform, with online training in basic AV sales and services. It enables hotels to use their own built-in or portable AV technology by providing an operating system, business model, and support for the basic AV equipment typically required for smaller meetings. It is a virtual AV supervisor for setup, preventive maintenance, invoicing and billing; it offers simple training, tips and documentation to support hotel staff, as well as remote support for more complex AV issues. The system also knows when a group’s AV requirements exceeds what the hotel can deliver in-house and can then recommend outsourcing those requirements.

What about hybrid conferences and conventions? Historically, hotels have rejected overtures from virtual platforms that support the segment, seeing them as competition for face-to-face meetings. But many of these are equally well suited to hybrid environments, which may be the only option available for many larger events for some time to come. There are numerous solutions on the market, but (with one exception noted below) they have primarily been marketed to event organizers rather than to venues like hotels. I think this makes sense for organizers of larger, more complex events, where there are very specific needs and objectives and they want to select the most suitable package. But for midsized events, I wonder if there isn’t a convenience factor for the event planner, and a revenue opportunity for hotels, in supporting hybrid meetings by offering one of the virtual platforms as part of a meeting package. Many of these systems can even be customized so that the virtual environment has the look and feel of the hotel’s physical meeting space.

One company in this space that has been actively marketing to hotels is Ugovirtual. They are focusing on providing a sort of digital twin experience for virtual attendees, similar but not identical to the in-person experience. Obviously, some elements such as social events can’t be replicated very well or at all. Others like presentations can be done quite well, and still others, such as trade-show exhibits, fall somewhere in between. There’s no playbook for how hotels might market a package like this, but it will be interesting to see how the concept might evolve; a number of hotel groups are reportedly looking at this option.

One last issue I want to touch on is virtual site visits for meeting planners. Many of these professionals are currently having to select future venues without ever seeing them in person. How can hotels help them fully experience the hotel meeting facilities, as well as the local area?

One company that should be on your radar in this regard is Threshold 360. It offers 360-degree immersive virtual tours of about 100,000 venues worldwide, quite possibly including yours (check their interactive map to see). These tours can include meeting rooms, bars and restaurants, guest rooms, and other facilities. If your local destination marketing organization, convention and visitors’ bureau, or chamber of commerce is one of their partners, there’s a good chance they have already filmed your location (as well as supporting venues nearby, e.g. for offsite evening events). And if they have, you can get an ‘embed’ link for your website for free (or have it customized with branding, etc. for a modest fee). One of the cool features is that the silent videos can be set to automatically play when the page is loaded, so web viewers are immediately drawn in – this can be especially useful for consumer events like weddings (you can experience this on the wedding page for the Intercontinental The Clement – scroll down to the four large square images and explore!)

That’s it for this week. As always, please let me know what you see that’s interesting and useful!

Douglas Rice

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