Groups and events are returning to hotels, even if in fits and starts. In the U.S., long-postponed social events such as family reunions and weddings are now filling up venues, especially on weekends. Smaller corporate meetings are still weak but have been buoyed by offices that went virtual during COVID and now need a place to bring the team together. Some larger events have been scheduled during the summer or fall, with many more planned for early 2022. The specific patterns vary in other parts of the world depending on government restrictions, infection rates, and other factors, but in general it seems like the patient is finally showing signs of recovery.
However, recovery does not mean a return to normal. Rather, the decimation of both hotel sales departments and meeting planners during the pandemic, together with rapidly evolving technologies, are ushering in a “new” normal. Hotels that have for years rejected or underutilized sales and event technologies have realized that not only may technology be the only way to operate effectively with permanently lower staffing levels, but that it is in fact a better way. Travel management companies have cut back staffing, and their corporate clients may no longer have access to planners for small meetings; administrative staff with little or no meeting planning experience may be the new decision makers. Many hotel sales professionals as well as meeting planners have left the industry permanently, meaning new-hire replacements who have limited experience and often no one to coach or mentor them.
Against this backdrop, I spoke to nearly a dozen technology companies scattered across the event and meeting space to find out what the “new normal” might look like and what they are doing (or have seen) to help adapt. Many commented on what they saw as a huge acceleration in technology adoption, and all talked about major initiatives to help … some complete, some in process, others still on future roadmaps. One specific comment, the sentiment of which was echoed by several others, was that COVID seemed to have accelerated the adoption of events and meetings technology by perhaps as much as ten years.
This week’s blog will highlight some of the interesting trends and new ideas in groups and meetings technology. Many pre-date COVID but have seen accelerated adoption, while others came about during the past 18 months. Vendors are at different stages of implementation, and they are moving very quickly, so I will not try to capture the exact status of each company or product. But I will try to identify the common trends as well as a few specific capabilities that are emerging. As you evaluate your own tech stack and the gaps that these might usefully fill, you should be better prepared for discussions with your preferred vendors; it is not only possible but likely that they are working on some of these initiatives. I do, however, encourage you to look at the companies that I have called out, even if just to educate yourselves on the latest approaches before you talk with your preferred providers.
As always, I spoke to the experts to collect their thoughts on best practices and capabilities. My sincere thanks to Amadeus, Cvent, Event Intelligence, Event Temple, Groups360, Groupize, Knowland, Infor, iVvy, MeetingPackage, Tripleseat, and Upmail for making key executives available to provide their perspectives for this article.
The first important trend is a move toward self-service for meeting planners. This is most evident in the research and discovery phase, where event organizers are trying to identify potential venues. One executive noted that finding a venue has been much like shopping for a home before Zillow: very limited information was available for self-discovery, and you had to talk to real people (real estate agents) to get more. For events and meetings, that did not change overnight with COVID, but more and more of the necessary information is moving online, and more and more meeting planners are happy to use it. A Groupize study from about five years ago found that 61% of planners already went to a hotel website, and that 81% wanted real-time rates and availability. Yet at that time, 79% of hotels still did even not have group links on their website. I have not seen more recent numbers, but I suspect the first two numbers have gone up, while the third has certainly fallen.
One executive cited a conversation with a hotel Director of Sales who said that 18 months ago, clients got in touch with them at step one of perhaps ten steps involved in booking a meeting; now they are coming in “at step 3 or step 4,” already having done a lot of research to identify and qualify venues. This is a significant change. How much more effective will it make hotel sales departments, and what would it take to get some of the planners to come in at step 8 or even step 10?
Just a year ago I was aware of only two reasonably robust solutions (iVvy and MeetingPackage) that enabled hotels to offer full online bookings for groups and meetings. By full online booking, I mean the ability to construct and confirm moderately complex events, with function space, sleeping rooms, and at least basic add-ons like food and beverage, audiovisual components, and perhaps merchandise. For smaller or less complex events, they could do this without any interaction with hotel staff, or with that interaction limited to just an approval. For more complicated events, online booking could still establish an advanced starting point for a more personalized selling process (as might be needed for a wedding), with both parties already in rough agreement on the usual deal-breakers like rates and minimum spend. These online booking capabilities could be made available both through a hotel or brand website and (using Application Programming Interfaces) through third parties such as travel management companies and meeting planner portals.
Today, many of the technology companies in the space have introduced at least some direct booking capabilities or plan to do so within coming months; most seem to believe it is the future and are investing heavily in deeper functionality. Groups360 is emerging as a new leader based on the financial backing of (and current or planned usage by) Accor, Hilton, IHG and Marriott; dominant players like Amadeus and Cvent are working on significant projects to enhance previously limited direct-booking offerings; and Tripleseat recently released TripleseatDirect to address the need. I am sure there are others.
Several of the companies I spoke with cited data on lead trends. While anecdotal, what I found interesting was that the companies that specialized in online bookings generally cited growth in same-store leads during 2021, while aggregators that passed leads or RFPs on to venues mentioned weakening volumes. There was not enough data to be certain, but this may well confirm a shift towards online bookings.
Direct booking, especially for smaller meetings, enables limited venue sales staff resources to focus on prospecting and on booking larger, more profitable events, or adding revenue to definite business that was initially booked online. One large European hotel group that recently implemented direct online group bookings initially limited the process to meetings with up to 25 guest rooms, but found it was so effective (and manageable) that is hotels have increased the limit, some to as much as 150 rooms. With the right technology, used the right way, most small meetings clearly do not need the involvement of hotel sales staff, or need them only for finishing touches.
Direct bookings are related to, but distinct from, what I might call a “connected RFP response.” In the former, the meeting organizer creates a room block, reserves function space, orders catering, audiovisual and other services, and provides a payment method. The website can complete the reservation, create a contract, get a signature, and charge the deposit and/or full amount due. Confirmation may be instant or (depending on the meeting size and hotel rules) may require approval by the hotel, but any required approval can ideally be accomplished with a simple button click by the venue. Through interfaces, sleeping rooms get blocked in the Property Management System (PMS), function space is reserved in the sales and catering system, and a Banquet Event Order (BEO) is created.
In contrast, a connected RFP response allows a planner to specify their requirements, and the hotel can respond electronically with a proposal, perhaps with links to sign a contract or submit payment. This response can be largely automated (e.g., for smaller meetings) and may create a tentative booking in the sales and catering system. However, it generally does not cover anything more than sleeping rooms and function space; items like catering, audiovisual services and Internet must be added manually later. A meeting planner will still not have seen the menus that could well break the budget and force her to select a different venue. And a venue will have no inkling that a 100-person group reserving a small ballroom is planning a food and beverage extravaganza with a $100,000 budget. The process starts with the RFP, but there can still be big surprises on either side.
Online booking tools are increasingly adding support for the complexities often found in larger group bookings, such as direct booking links for delegates, detailed menu planning, minimum spend associated with function room rental, internet and audiovisual requirements, pricing parity, deposit chasing, and revenue management controls. To be sure, many meetings will still need or benefit from human sales support, but online booking tools may get the meeting planner and venue 80%, 90%, or even 100% of the way to agreement, even before the first person-to-person contact. That is what meeting planners want, and what enables hotel owners to staff leaner but still-effective sales organizations.
Other self-service tools that are easing the sales burden on hotels include virtual site visits. While simple ones can be created using just a camera and microphone, there are many software packages that can make them more useful and engaging. One I have seen that specifically focuses on the hospitality market is Threshold 360. In a similar vein, three-dimensional interactive floor plans and room diagrams allow meeting planners to visualize and even play with room setups. A 3D visualization tool recently introduced by Cvent is a step up from the traditional two-dimensional offering, enabling a meeting planner to better see and feel what a room and setup will be like.
A huge barrier to self-service has been the archaic process of making changes to an event that has already been booked. A large event may have dozens of changes made between the initial signing of the contract and the actual event. Each change may require a request from the meeting planner to the sales associate or convention services manager (usually by email or phone), an update to the BEO (which can run hundreds of pages for a large event, and where possibly only one line has changed), a new contract, an email to send the revised BEO and contract to the planner, and return of a signed copy to the venue. The future, reflected in a few products today and on the roadmap for several others, is a shared portal where the meeting planner and hotel staff can interact. With online booking (but not with connected RFP response), many changes can be made by the meeting planner alone, or for more complex ones, they can request the change via the portal and the hotel can accept it, modify it, or deny it. Contracting and payment details can be handled with simple button clicks on each end.
Meeting planners, conditioned to instant gratification by the Internet in other aspects of their lives, increasingly expect immediate responses from venues. The Harvard Business Review cited a study that found that companies that tried to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving a query were nearly seven times as likely to qualify the lead as ones that waited just an hour more. Direct booking is the best way to satisfy the increasing expectation of instant response; connected RFP responses is the next best, but in both cases, venues need to prioritize responding to any requests that require their approval. Overworked venue sales staff should be able to respond quickly with a single click, such as ‘approve’ for a simple group that can be accommodated, ‘reject’ for one that will not fit, or ‘schedule a call’ for one that is in between.
Many venues have found that COVID has shifted their business mix, either temporarily or permanently; large group hotels have had to focus on smaller meetings while big events are mostly still on pause. The pandemic also caused a mass exodus of venue sales staff and meeting planners due to layoffs and furloughs; many have found new jobs and do not plan to return. The pre-COVID Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database for Sales is now badly out of date, and personal relationships need to be rebuilt. This means many sales organizations have a greatly increased need for qualified leads.
Historically, many of the experts believed that hotel sales organizations were in a reactive rather than proactive selling mode during the boom years since the last recession in 2008-09. Many hotel salespeople have never had to learn how to find and qualify leads; rather they could just work the ones that already came their way. Today, however, lead generation is critical.
Lead sources such as Knowland, with its vast history of events, can help, although there may still be some manual legwork to identify replacements for old contacts that have since moved on. Newer entrants like Event Intelligence collect forward-looking event data from various sources, which can be helpful especially for events where the host hotel has not yet been identified, or for events already booked into a nearby hotel but that may need overflow room blocks or venues for private side events. Event Intelligence is a promising new product but is currently available only in a few larger cities; expansion is planned as group business recovers.
Packages like Event Temple emphasize the process automation that they provide to help train new salespeople in how to view and manage the sales funnel. The more intuitive this is, the better the ability of a new hire to hit the ground running, for both proactive and reactive sales tasks. To be sure, most packages offer some support here, but the differences are significant and worth evaluating.
While many sales CRMs now have a lot of dated (pre-COVID) information, they should not be ignored. The better ones can select and filter past contacts based on various criteria, and assist in managing the reestablishment of relationships. This may take the form of an initial mass email to try to identify which contacts are still reachable, followed by additional steps to reestablish or find a new contact if the emails bounce or are never opened. CRM databases can also be expanded to cover a larger audience through integrations and partnerships.
One interesting recommendation was that hotels should focus on keyword advertising, a tactic well understood in the transient marketing world but rarely used for groups and meetings. Because it is so rarely used, keywords for groups and meetings are often very inexpensive. Furthermore, because very few competitors are likely using them, it is often easy and cheap to get to the top of the search rankings and capture the lion’s share of the click-throughs. There may be no permanent competitive benefit here, but there is unquestionably a first-mover’s advantage.
Sales Administration and Analytics
With sales staff at reduced levels, it is more important than ever to make sure they are prioritizing the best opportunities. Automated lead scoring mechanisms offered by some platforms can often help distinguish the more promising opportunities from the obvious duds, but they are as only as good as the data feeding them, which are often quite limited. They can, however, filter out and perhaps even automatically respond to leads that are obvious non-fits, such as ones seeking rates lower than the hotel would ever sell or groups too large to be accommodated. Data sources like Knowland can also help qualify repetitive, larger events by providing key indicators of their historical performance and likely value.
Sales staff spend much of their time, by some estimates five to seven hours per day, writing emails, so tools that can automate the process, while keeping it engaging and personal, can be a huge help. While many packages offer a certain level of support in this area, I have been quite impressed with the capabilities of an add-on package called Upmail, which specializes in email communication for group and event sales.
Like many packages, Upmail supports templates and mail-merge for campaigns and other communications, but where it really shines is in one-to-one correspondence. Its clients use it mostly alongside sales and catering packages from Amadeus and Oracle. Email templates are easily organized by stage of the sales funnel or post-booking task, and can vary by type of event, type of client, or other criteria. They can include attachments, photos, videos, virtual tours, or links, and specific images or videos can be selected from sets commonly used (such as for specific function rooms, hospitality suites, restaurants, or even food and beverage offerings).
The templates are designed to be both professional and personalized, and include both fixed text and media, and items where the salesperson needs to manually enter the appropriate words or select the best image. Text from the template can be deleted or edited, and personalized introductions or closings added. Client- or request-specific documents like proposals or contracts can be created directly in the platform or attached. A button can be added to enable the client to e-sign any document. Upmail’s near-term roadmap includes payment links as well as a “push” of signed contracts back into to sales and catering systems. Upmail integrates with Outlook, Gmail, Salesforce, and is in testing with Oracle’s Opera.
These capabilities enable a salesperson to produce a personalized, high-quality, professional-looking and ultimately very effective email, whether proactively or in response to an inquiry or request; it can include text, rich media, and attachments. In a minute or two, they can create a response that might take an hour to pull together manually; it will look much better and can more fully address the situation. For hotel groups, the templates can be developed at the brand level for consistency of design and messaging, but still customized for each hotel, even if the hotels use different sales and catering platforms.
In addition to templates, many packages offer support for automated workflows, such as to-do lists, reminders to do certain things at certain times based on prior events, adding tasks to calendars, and similar. These may be standalone or integrated with packages like Outlook. The best answer will be highly dependent on your venue and the systems you already use; it may be included in software you already have or available as an add-on. But choosing the best option can have a significant impact on sales productivity, prioritizing day-to-day and hour-to-hour activities and making sure that key tasks are not neglected. Workflows can be especially helpful for sales staffs where responsibility is shared among multiple people, or when someone steps in to take over the work of a colleague due to their absence or departure.
It is easy to think that group revenue management will not help when demand is low, but that is not completely true. It can be hard to find space for a wedding right now on a Saturday; most venues are full from the backlog of rescheduled 2020 events. But did you select the most profitable weddings, or just the ones that came to you first? Moreover, multi-event accounts may offer revenue during both peak and need periods over the course of the year; good revenue management tools can help you decide how low you can go for a peak-period meeting based on an account’s ability to fill need dates. Similarly, total account management (understanding both the transient and group side of corporate accounts) can offer opportunities to optimize but may require business intelligence platforms that can combine information from multiple systems (e.g., sales and catering, PMS, and point-of-sale).
Upselling the Delegate
Some of the more automated approaches to meetings and event bookings are opening up new opportunities to market directly to group delegates. In the past, meeting planners often held rooming lists close to the vest until late in the process and even then provided little more than the delegates’ names and dates, making it essentially impossible for the hotel to open a dialog with the actual guest. Newer systems, where delegates book themselves using a weblink, give the hotel earlier access to the list, and an opportunity to communicate with guests via a confirmation email. This can include links to book additional services prior to arrival. It also provides an opportunity to market everything there is to do in the destination, in the hopes of getting delegates to extend their stay or bring along spouses or family.
I believe it is now essential that hotels both enable and encourage direct booking into room blocks by delegates. The meeting planner is just an intermediary here, with no real interest in aiding (or preventing) direct communication that would benefit both the hotel and the delegate. The confirmation email should entice the guest to do more than simply attend the meeting and return home. Many hotels already have adequate tools to do this but use them mostly for transient guests. For those that do not have them, it is time to evaluate add-on solutions or core systems replacements. Technology and processes that do not support opening and maintaining a digital dialog with your customers belong in the 1970s, not the 2020s.
Hybrid Meeting Support
Most experts believe that hybrid meetings are here to stay, although they are evolving rapidly from where they were earlier in the pandemic. Some conferences will likely remain hybrid, and these require little from the venue that is different from in-person conferences, aside from more audiovisual support and bandwidth. What will be more challenging is an emerging form of hybrid business meeting, which is starting to appear and likely to grow as more and more businesses embrace virtual or hybrid workforces.
The need for face-to-face meetings is greater when a company operates virtually vs. in-person. The company may no longer have office space in as many cities as before, and the need to bring a virtual team together for face-time is greater than for fully in-person offices. Company-wide conferences in a single location will continue to be used but are too expensive to do more than maybe once or twice a year. So many companies are turning to hybrid meetings as a replacement, where staff join a hybrid meeting “node” in their metro area and connect to other nodes virtually. While some of the nodes may be hosted in company facilities, there is a role for hotels to play, both filling gaps where a company lacks adequate facilities, or by offering a venue with better space, catering, overnight accommodations for non-locals, proximity to evening venues, or other amenities.
Selling this type of hybrid meeting will require capabilities that few hotel systems support today, and you may need to push your vendors if this type of meeting needs to be in your sales kit. Key requirements are the ability to book multiple meeting rooms in multiple cities in a single transaction (only a few platforms can do this); more appropriate and standard equipment (built in or through an audiovisual partner) to ensure that each node is able to hear, see, be heard by, and be seen by the others and that any glitches can be quickly corrected; and Internet capacity and bandwidth management to ensure that every node is adequately provisioned based on the planned activities and their bandwidth requirements. Any one node going down anywhere in the world has the potential to reduce or even destroy the effectiveness of the meeting for all attendees, regardless of location.
Post-COVID meetings and events marketing, sales, and execution will be different from what they were pre-pandemic in many important ways. Venues that adapt well should be well positioned to thrive as groups and meetings recover into a new, more digital world. Those that fail to change will suffer the consequences.