What Do Planners Want from Hotels? For Starters, Flexibility
If meeting planners and event organizers have learned one thing from the pandemic, it’s that they are not always in control. So, in an industry defined by concrete numbers and steadfast dates, they are now asking for some leeway. After all, things change and no one situation is alike during this pandemic.
“I think the biggest thing for us is we are looking for flexibility so they’re not putting us all into a bucket,” explained LeAnn Koenig, vice operations of operations at Vertical Xchange, which organizes intimate gatherings among leaders of myriad industries.
Terry Matthews-Lombardo, professional meeting management and on-site trip director for her own company, TML Services Group, is looking for another kind of adaptability. “Flexibility in giving us plenty of meeting space, allowing for some format of social distancing,” she said tops her list of priorities.
With different parts of the country reopening at staggered paces and attendees coming to town with varied expectations based on their COVID experiences, host hotels are searching for ways to do the virtually impossible: Keep everyone safe and happy.
On one hand, outdoor venues are valued for their openness. On the other, upgraded internet bandwidth is a must for those unable to be there in-person. Food is a must, but hundreds of hands touching the same serving utensils may not sound appealing to even those at the front of the travel line.
For their part, hotels are doing their part to make guests feel safe, which in turn encourages further travel and a speedier recovery.
Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa in South Walton, Florida, announced it is partnering with FastLabs to provide rapid on-site testing. While debate rages over vaccine mandates, testing at hotels and convention centers may be considered an acceptable measure.
Another controversial subject may be mask mandates, though some like iPromo CEO Leo Friedman, predict they will be a mainstay for several years.
For her part, Matthews-Lombardo is interested in a sense of security through a scent.
“One of the things that impressed me a lot during a recent site inspection was the ability to smell the sanitation procedures that each venue was enforcing,” she said. “I know that might sound weird, but it’s something we’re all more aware of now and have come to appreciate — even in the airplanes – that clean air smell proving that safety measures are truly being taken seriously and [we hope] are here to stay.”
She added, “Most everyone I talk to about this now wonders how filthy/unsanitary things like our airline seats and hotel ballroom chairs may have been in the past.”
Matthews-Lombardo sums up her priorities with four key asks:
1. Greater meeting space for fewer people
2. Creative F&B, including pre-selected room service
3. Improved Wi-Fi coverage — “Most of the planners I talk with about this would absolutely love to see the day when hotels allow us access to live streaming from our session rooms right into the TVs in their hotel sleeping rooms,” she added.
4. More affordable AV costs — “virtual streaming is here to stay.”
Marwan Haddad, director of sales at The Westin Cape Coral Resort in Florida, relies on Marriott’s Commitment to Clean program as a selling point. Fewer people are seated at tables together, registration has been automated, lobby fixtures are spread out and the hotel utilizes its 14 outdoor venues as much as possible.
“We’re seeing the demand start to get strong for the future,” he said. “There is more trust. We have hosted groups and they’ve all been successful because we make sure they know about our commitment to the rules and that we follow the guidelines.”
Koenig has hosted two small events this year at The Westin Cape Coral Resort, a property she has used for meetings previously and where she went for a personal trip during the winter holidays. On that recent vacation, she was able to see how the staff implements policies so she would know what to expect.
That prior knowledge of how a meeting or event will proceed is crucial in the new era, she said. The planner must learn the procedures, study the hotel via virtual or in-person site visits, and then use marketing to effectively communicate how check-in, registration, meals, breakouts and more will work. Also, as hotels remain understaffed, the event organizer must plan accordingly.
“You have to have a really candid conversation,” said Koenig, whose company hosts intimate business meetings in myriad industries. “You need to understand what the needs of a client are and what, ideally, they are looking for.”
CVBs and destination management companies are augmenting the effort. The basic message is one to ease attendees’ concerns so they can focus on doing business and networking. Steven Schumacher, director of sales at Discover Dunwoody, which covers Atlanta’s perimeter, says teamwork is essential.
“As a DMO, we’ve worked with our destination partners to make sure that we are all placing the health and safety of our guests as top priority to ensure that we can welcome groups back smoothly,” said Schumacher, who primarily pitches a core group of five nearby hotels. “Luckily, our destination partners have made this easy and our relationships have grown even stronger throughout the pandemic, as we have collaborated and solved problems together over the last several months.”
Photo Credit: Discover Dunwoody