The Future of Meetings in Hospitality

by Greg Oates + Skift Team - Mar 2014

Skift Research Take

The hotel meetings and events industry is going through a radical evolution due to new communication technologies, Millennial psychographics, and a rethinking of the overall purpose and value. Pop culture events like TED and SXSW are also changing the perspective of what’s possible at conferences, but are meeting planners and hospitality executives jumping on these trends fast enough?

Report Overview

Wildly popular events such as the annual TED Conference, South by Southwest in Austin, Oracle’s OpenWorld in San Francisco, C2MTL in Montreal and others are beginning to influence the traditional meetings industry. Integrating new technology platforms, myriad programming themes and alternative education delivery systems, the meeting of the future is focused on improving engagement among continually fracturing and distracted attendee audiences.

This report examines the evolution of the meetings industry, specifically through the lens of hospitality. According to the latest Convention Industry Council report, which tracks trends and collects data across all segments of the meetings market, 85% of meetings in the U.S. are conducted at venues with lodging, generating more than 275 million room nights annually.

The traditional breakout room lecture and theater-style ballroom seating configuration are not going anywhere. However, there is a drive to supplant that with crowd sourced, co-created, hybrid events with mobility and technology driving the change. While this shift is still in its nascent stage, innovative meeting planners, hotel groups and hotel conference services staff are developing programs to add new dimensions into the overall meeting scheme.

As is the case in leisure travel, Millennials/Generation Y are driving these systemic changes in the meetings industry with their craving for speedy career progression and connected digital communities crossing personal and professional boundaries. They expect to cultivate as much professional development opportunities for themselves at business events as they do for their employers, and they’re much more focused on physical/mental wellness and work/life balance than previous generations.

The advancement of technology in meetings is helping to cut costs, improve efficiencies and open new communication channels. Hotels are desperately trying to keep up with broadband demand and fully integrate their front- and back-of-house departments. At many hotels, meeting planners and hotel staff can now manage every aspect of large meetings in real time through cloud-based apps and web platforms.

Social media is another major topic of discussion about how to enhance the productivity and level of engagement in meetings. However, it’s hampered by the reluctance of older generations steadfastly unwilling to embrace it. The rise of multi-generational meetings with three age demographics in attendance at any given event, each with different ideas of the role of meetings today, is becoming a significant challenge for the meetings industry.

With the rise in demand across all age groups for more experiential, authentic and local travel experiences, no longer solely the purview of the leisure traveler, hotels are becoming more integrated with their local communities. This is one of the most wide open spaces for evolution in the hospitality industry, with more immersive educational opportunities and networking experiences offering a strong return on time and investment for companies and attendees.

Executive Summary

Wildly popular events such as the annual TED Conference, South by Southwest in Austin, Oracle’s OpenWorld in San Francisco, C2MTL in Montreal and others are beginning to influence the traditional meetings industry. Integrating new technology platforms, myriad programming themes and alternative education delivery systems, the meeting of the future is focused on improving engagement among continually fracturing and distracted attendee audiences.

This report examines the evolution of the meetings industry, specifically through the lens of hospitality. According to the latest Convention Industry Council report, which tracks trends and collects data across all segments of the meetings market, 85% of meetings in the U.S. are conducted at venues with lodging, generating more than 275 million room nights annually.

The traditional breakout room lecture and theater-style ballroom seating configuration are not going anywhere. However, there is a drive to supplant that with crowd sourced, co-created, hybrid events with mobility and technology driving the change. While this shift is still in its nascent stage, innovative meeting planners, hotel groups and hotel conference services staff are developing programs to add new dimensions into the overall meeting scheme.

As is the case in leisure travel, Millennials/Generation Y are driving these systemic changes in the meetings industry with their craving for speedy career progression and connected digital communities crossing personal and professional boundaries. They expect to cultivate as much professional development opportunities for themselves at business events as they do for their employers, and they’re much more focused on physical/mental wellness and work/life balance than previous generations.

The advancement of technology in meetings is helping to cut costs, improve efficiencies and open new communication channels. Hotels are desperately trying to keep up with broadband demand and fully integrate their front- and back-of-house departments. At many hotels, meeting planners and hotel staff can now manage every aspect of large meetings in real time through cloud-based apps and web platforms.

Social media is another major topic of discussion about how to enhance the productivity and level of engagement in meetings. However, it’s hampered by the reluctance of older generations steadfastly unwilling to embrace it. The rise of multi-generational meetings with three age demographics in attendance at any given event, each with different ideas of the role of meetings today, is becoming a significant challenge for the meetings industry.

With the rise in demand across all age groups for more experiential, authentic and local travel experiences, no longer solely the purview of the leisure traveler, hotels are becoming more integrated with their local communities. This is one of the most wide open spaces for evolution in the hospitality industry, with more immersive educational opportunities and networking experiences offering a strong return on time and investment for companies and attendees.


Introduction

Following the free fall of the financial markets beginning with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, many corporations in the United States curtailed meetings, conferences and other events requiring travel in order to cut expenses. The debacle surrounding the infamous AIG insurance company retreat in California in the same month had even more detrimental consequences, forever known as “The AIG Effect.” It was based on the mistaken public perception of impropriety on the part of an AIG Insurance department due to gross media incompetence, exacerbated by the TARP hearings when the government was bailing out financial companies like AIG at 100 cents on the dollar.

The retreat cast a negative public perception on not just “incentive reward” travel programs such as the AIG event, but potentially any type of business meeting in any in-demand travel destination.

To defend its practices, the meeting industry started fighting back in early 2009. The U.S. Travel Association, meeting industry organizations and corporate hotel chains banded together to create the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMBC).

Pushing a branded initiative called “Keep America Meeting,” funded by the hospitality and tourism industry, the Coalition repeatedly met with congress members in an attempt to tone down the rhetoric against corporate travel. Their primary argument stressed the meeting industry’s impact on economic development and job creation.

“By demonizing or sensationalizing travel, all you’re doing is, you’re not hurting the businessman, you’re hurting the bellman, the maid, the town that counts on that travel,” said Roger Dow, President/CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, in 2009.

The industry began to recover in late 2012 in line with the global economic recovery. According to the 2014 Meetings Forecast by American Express Meetings & Events, hotel group rates are expected to continue to rise in 2014 between 3-5%, as they did in 2013, across all worldwide regions except Europe, which remains flat.

The report also states, “Meeting experts have noticed that the major hotel brands are becoming more focused on their meeting sales,” with overall corporate, association and government meeting spend holding steady. In North America, 90% of respondents polled expect meeting budgets to fluctuate no more than 5% in either direction.

During the last five years, the meetings industry was forced to reevaluate how it conducts business and rethink how it drives results during a period of drastic economic volatility and unprecedented changes in technology. Above all else, leaders in the industry never want to be placed in a position again to have to defend the purpose of their industry. That is what’s driving the diligence paid to measuring meeting spend and empirically proving ROI, while redefining the very meaning of ROI as it applies to overall meeting objectives.


Legitimizing meetings (again)

The Meeting Mean Business Coalition (MMBC) and Keep America Meeting campaign accomplished the goal of changing the conversation revolving around corporate events, to a degree. At the time, members of the coalition realized in order to be heard, they needed to prove the business value of bringing people together for destination meetings.

A volunteer-based organization, MMBC has always been on the defensive challenging public opinion and government oversight. As the economy picked up and negative views of luxury corporate travel subsided somewhat, the MMBC became less active over the last couple years.

In January 2014, the MMBC effectively relaunched with an unprecedented number of industry players coming together. The goal of the MMBC now is to be proactive in its promotion of meetings as business drivers. It is cataloging research papers, best practices, meeting planning toolkits, press materials and more at the newly designed website: meetingsmeanbusiness.com.

To actively engage with stakeholders, the media and key policymakers, the MMBC is organized around three pillars:

The purpose of the organization is to protect and prove the value of face-to-face meetings,” says Nan Marchand Beauvois, senior director of national council relations for the U.S. Travel Association, and liaison for MMBC. “What’s different this time around, versus back in 2008 and 2009, all of the meetings associations, what I affectionately call the alphabet soup, they’re all sitting at the table.”

The website, she explains, is designed to be one central library where all of the data on the value of face-to-face can be found.

“We’ve literally designed it in terms that government could understand,” says Beauvois. “It’s about jobs and economic impact and not just a frivolous by-product of corporate America.”

On the MMBC website, for example, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) just posted the 2014 Economic Significance Survey of Meetings & Events. This chart details the rise in economic impact from 2009 to 2012.

Source: Hilton Bomonti Istanbul

Source: Hilton Bomonti Istanbul

  • Creating Personal Connections – Personal relationships are at the core of every business decision, no matter what industry. A face-to-face meeting provides professionals with that personal interaction, which leads to deeper relationships.
  • Driving Positive Business Outcomes – Meetings and events deliver profits, help win new accounts and serve as education platforms. They provide a venue for introducing new products and ideas and allow colleagues and partners to come together to innovate and achieve results.
  • Driving Positive Business Outcomes – Meetings and events deliver profits, help win new accounts and serve as education platforms. They provide a venue for introducing new products and ideas and allow colleagues and partners to come together to innovate and achieve results.

“The fact that we have all of our associations sitting at the same table and participating, I think is huge,” suggests Beauvois. “And secondly, we have close to, in less than 60 days, raised the funds we need from the industry to executive our first-year plans. And we’re going to continue fundraising so that we can make sure we have at least two or three years worth of dollars set aside, because this has to be long term, multi-pronged initiative.”


Q&A with SVP of group sales/industry relations at Hilton Worldwide

Q&A with Larry Luteran, senior VP of group sales/industry relations at Hilton Worldwide and co-chair of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition

What sparked the creation of Meetings Mean Business?

We fell off the cliff. By the fall of 2008 we knew we were in trouble. It was really a challenging time. Our business in particular, meetings and events, was under a spirited attack from various angles, and we needed to organize in a way we hadn’t before to fight back and organize a rally cry on behalf of the industry.

From that is really where Meetings Mean Business was born, in January 2009 at MPI when Christine Duffy and Roger Dow came out with some very valuable insight.

What is the value of face-to-face meetings?

Meetings and events really drive the economic vibrancy of communities and businesses. We know for a fact that anything material that needs to be done for an organization, whether it’s introducing a strategic plan or generating revenue, it almost always starts with a face-to-face meeting. And we need to make sure people understand that.

Another thing, meetings and events have so many tentacles in our business reaching people who are paying taxes and have thriving families. All of that matters. And it matters that people connect the dots back to our industry and realize that we need to have a strong meetings industry.

How has the meeting planning profession evolved?

They’ve gone from a very logistical-oriented profession to one that in many cases has an executive seat at the table. And so the role of the meeting professional is no longer about pipe and drape and lighting and audio/visual, as much as it is about the effectiveness of meetings and what do we need to get the return on investment we want. I thinking it’s pushed the whole profession upward and meeting professionals are increasingly finding themselves in key executive positions now, which is where I think it should be.

We’re on an upswing and I think people are really understanding that in order to generate business you’ve got to get out there. And I think we’ve been through a business cycle now where whether you’re talking about association or corporate meetings, people have really looked at their businesses and scrubbed their expenses and have done a really good job of streamlining businesses. I think the general mindset among meeting organizers and companies is that it’s time to generate revenue and it’s time to grow. The first step in doing that is a face-to-face meeting.


The evolution of event technology

Source: Netherlands Tourism & Conventions

Source: Netherlands Tourism & Conventions Source: Netherlands Tourism & Conventions

The biggest meetings industry event of the year in the U.S. is IMEX America every fall in Las Vegas, which first launched in 2012. The much longer running IMEX Frankfurt trade show is among the top attended industry events in Europe as well. Every major hotel brand is represented at both IMEX events, alongside domestic and international destination marketing organization and other industry suppliers.

For the first time in the two events’ history, IMEX America introduced a Tech Hub and App Bar in 2013. For planners specifically interested in hotel-based meetings, IMEX is becoming a leader in the event technology field.

“We designed a whole new theater space dedicated to technology education because that’s what’s hot and that’s the type of content meeting planners want right now,” says Miguel Neves, senior online community manager for IMEX. “So if a hosted buyer has a half-hour slot open, they can walk over to the Tech Hub and hear about the latest technology, how to use social media, how to decide on a mobile app, how to use audio visual, etc.”

Participants in Las Vegas included companies like EventMobi who showed up with a Segway-style robot with an iPad attached at the top. Company representatives at a remote location were able to move the robot around the tradeshow floor, which generated a lot of attention. Neves asserts that kind of interactivity—if not exactly this specific implementation of it represents the future of meetings.

In the last IMEX America, Neves says he’s seen a huge increase in the number of downloads of the app. So far, most people are using it in a basic functionality to explore the floor plan and education listings.

Neves is also seeing a shift toward more engaging meetings inspired by today’s most successful pop culture conferences.

“Some of it comes from the kind of TED effect with that conference being so popular, and the TEDx films and community,” he says. “I think they’ve brought a kind of sexy appeal to conferences. Years ago you used to think of conferences as kind of these boring medical things where people do a lot of Powerpoints. And I think the user experience is becoming much more important at these conferences like TED and South by Southwest. A lot of thinking goes into all of their sessions, and I think that has kind of flipped the model.”


Technology driving the planning

Source: The Hive Network

Source: The Hive Network

Apps are all the rage in the meetings industry with demand soaring from both the buyer and supplier sides, according to Shawna Suckow, meeting planner and founder of SPIN: Senior Planners Industry Network. Here are a few innovators in the events business that she recommends, along with comments about each.

James Spellos: James Spellos tours the world offering presentations like “App-tastic: 60 Apps in 60 Minutes.” He’s always on the edge of what’s next. I mean, he was talking about Google Glass before there was Google Glass. And every time I sit through that it’s different because it’s changing so rapidly, and I always get nuggets about stuff that I can use as a traveler, as a planner, as a consumer.

Wine & Apps: Check out Wine & Apps with Dahlia el Grazar. She does a cool thing where everyone grabs a glass a wine and talks about apps. And check out themeetingpool.net. The Meeting Pool is less than a year old I bet and that is all about technology. It’s like a consolidator for planners about all the new technology that’s out there.

EventMobi: There’s a lot of interest around going paperless with meeting apps specifically. We’ve been using EventMobi out of Canada for four years. Bob Vaez is the CEO. Since 2010 at SPINcon, we have not had a printed agenda. And four years ago this was tough considering our audience of senior level planners, some of them in their 60s.

Interactive Meeting Technology: Samuel Smith out of Minneapolis at Interactive Meeting Technology was doing hybrid before anyone was doing hybrid. He did our hybrid event a few years ago when we dabbled in that. Now he’s doing a thing called SocialPoint. It’s a gamification experience with an iPad hub where you can take quizzes and follow a readerboard to engage with other participants.

Shawna Suckow is a meeting professional and one of the more active thought leaders in the meetings industry today. She is the founder of SPIN: Senior Planners Industry Network, which provides resources for meeting planners with at least ten years of industry experience. She also wrote two books Planner Pet Peeves and Supplier Pet Peeves, providing insight into the needs of planners and hotel executives.

Suckow launched a sister initiative this year called The Hive Network for front-of-the-line hotel sales staff to help them engage better and more productively with planners.

“I find that veteran suppliers these days are really struggling because what worked for them when they began their career maybe 10 or 20 years ago doesn’t work for them anymore,” says Suckow. “We’re our own species. We have these weird behaviors and these weird tendencies, and the suppliers are just constantly trying to figure us out, and it shouldn’t be that hard. The Hive is just about pulling back the curtain.”

The new network provides a curriculum of core classes and a revolving set of electives for various industry niches. Upon completion, participants earn a Customer-Certified Sales Expert (CCSE) certification. It shows planners that these hotel sales executives have given extensive time to learn about their customers, which in turn helps planners cull through the mass of sales pitches they receive on a constant basis.

“Sales calls and emails have doubled or tripled in the last five years because when the economy took a downturn, sales pools were cut, they couldn’t travel as much, and they couldn’t do as many trade shows,” explains Suckow. “So we trained ourselves to ignore all of that because, meanwhile, we’re working with pared down departments. We don’t have the bandwidth to just pick up the phone for politeness sake, so we don’t. And we can’t respond to every email anymore because there’s three times as many, so we don’t.
So what’s a supplier to do?”

One of the core Hive classes focuses on “social selling.” Suckow says there’s been a paradigm shift in hotel sales over the last few years, like many other industries.

“Social selling is a whole new philosophy where you no longer can approach someone as your company,” she says. “You have to approach them as a person first. A salesperson second, and then your company last. If you think about it, every industry is approaching us with their sales messages this way, because they’re figuring out that these glossy ads don’t work.

“The way I explain it, if you wouldn’t do it at a cocktail party, don’t do it in your communications. I wouldn’t walk up to you, not knowing you at a cocktail party, shove a brochure in your hand and say, ‘Hi, I have 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space in downtown Chicago. Call me. Bye.’ But most of the email messages we get these days are just that.”

In terms of the actual meetings, Suckow says the number one priority and challenge is creating real engagement among the meeting participants. She says people will give lecturers on average about five minutes before they start reaching for their devices unless the speaker is especially good.

“It’s a collision of generations, we need to engage people a lot better,” says Suckow. “I call it ‘ROA.’ You’ve heard of ROI, return on investment. That was big a few years ago. I coined ROA because I think it’s more important, and that is Return on Attention. So ROI is all about, did they get their money’s worth? I think today it’s more about, did they get their audience’s attention? It’s about rethinking how you’re delivering the education and the environment that you’re delivering it in. It’s as simple as that.”

Suckow calls that “Meetings 3.0” or “Moving from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side,” giving audience members the power to create their own experiences.


The rise of web-based meeting platforms

Starwood Hotels was one of the first major hotel brands to launch a proprietary web based meetings platform that allows planners to manage any event from a handheld device. Called “eVent Portfolio,” the platform should finish rolling out at all Starwood properties this year. One of the most significant benefits for planners is that it allows them to make changes on the go to their programs while communicating with colleagues, vendors and hotel conference services staff.

“We’re trying to take the meeting planning process today, which is antiquated at best with everyone sending all these emails and documents, and making all these phone calls, and put it on a web-based platform,” said Dave Dvorak, VP of catering/event management for Starwood, at IMEX America. “So we’re giving planners a free portal to everything involved in planning an event at our hotels.”

Every aspect of a meeting is loaded into eVent Portfolio, and then planners invite everyone they want to have access to all or specific sections of the overall program. Anyone with access can communicate with anyone else in real time, and everyone is notified when any updates are made, which can be customized in terms of frequency.

When asked why something like this hasn’t happened before, Dvorak explained, “We’ve been working on this for 2+ years. Everyone wanted this but no one knew how to do it. So we asked planners what they wanted, and by moving all of these integrated tools onto the web, and allowing planners to communicate with everyone in one place. we’re able to deliver on those planner requests.”

Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel was one of the first Starwood Hotels to test the beta product in 2013. The results are manifold, beginning with the fact that some large events are booked years ahead of time. With a fair amount of turnover in hospitality, eVent Portfolio keeps a record of everything to help someone new get up to speed.

“What this platform allows us to do is store all our key information in this platform so that no matter what the turnover is, or how we shift from one person to the other, everyone is looking at the same information,” says Mark Major, director of catering/convention services. “So if I go into the portal, as long as it’s being used to its capacity, I can trace every single email, every single conversation, and I can review every diagram and all the meeting specs leading up to the present day.”

Planners are also fans of the “911 Button.” For example, if the client is in a meeting and the room is too warm, the planner can hit that button on their device and request someone to come right away. That info is texted to the meeting’s dedicated Sheraton point person.

“Sometimes when you first had the discussion with the meeting planner, they didn’t quite understand it but once they started using it, some people really embrace it,” says Major. “There are more traditional meeting planners who want to stick with paper…. But those people who embrace technology absolutely love it.”


The rise of the hotel meeting website

Source: Hilton Worldwide

Source: Hilton Worldwide

At IMEX America 2013, Hilton Worldwide introduced its new online portal “Connect,” offering a collection of online meeting planner tools designed to juice up a planner’s ability to choose and collaborate with individual hotels. The Connect website includes a groupdedicated search engine, RFP utility, meeting industry blog, and hotel product information tailored to different size groups.

For smaller groups, the Meetings Simplified section offers bundled meeting packages with per person pricing. The rates are available at all of the Hilton’s brands catering to meetings of all sizes, ranging from Waldorf Astoria to Homewood Suites. From there, each brand lists participating hotels and package inclusions. When you click on a specific property, you’re directed to an overview page with the hotel’s description and meeting space specifics.

Another section of the new portal, Connect+ showcases 115 of Hilton Worldwide’s largest properties offering 450+ rooms and/or at least 40,000 square feet of meeting space. The search engine pulls data for a list of hotels by region, number of rooms and/or meeting space volume. Once a hotel is chosen, planners can then seamlessly submit an RFP for that specific property.

Other subsections of Connect+ include group promotional rates searchable by region and dates, and an interesting blog section with hotel developments and news updates from meeting industry organizations and trade publications.

Hilton Worldwide is supporting the online portal with a new LinkedIn Meetings & Events group and a Pinterest Meetings Board. The new web-based platform and meeting planner tools are designed to get people talking face-to-face, and ramp up the ROI.

“We consulted with a lot of meeting planners to ensure we designed Connect to help them best achieve their meeting goals,” says Mark Komine, senior VP of sales-Americas for Hilton Worldwide. “We believe in the power of personal connections. That’s what this is all about. I think Connect and Connect+ are really going to simplify the meeting planning process. It’s going to empower planners to maximize their time and resources to create amazing meetings.”


The Pinterest planner

Source: Marriott Hotels

Source: Marriott Hotels

In 2014, Marriott Hotels launched a beta version of its Meetings Imagined website. The portal’s most unique characteristic is its “Inspiration Gallery” with sample photos of all of the different components that go into destination meetings and events.

Much like a bride creates customized inspiration boards of wedding-themed photos on Pinterest, planners can log in and “heart” specific photographs to save them in personalized sets, ranging from coffee breaks in Atlanta to cocktail receptions in Amsterdam.

On the left side of the site, three drop down menus begin the search process. You start with the type of meeting, bucketed into seven categories: Celebrate, Decide, Educate, Ideate, Network, Produce and Promote. Marriott chose those after polling existing clients and analyzing the 40,000 meetings a year at its 500+ hotels worldwide.

For example, to search for healthy snacks during a sales strategy meetings, the planner first clicks on the Decide or Produce buttons, based on the meeting’s purpose. From there, the second menu covers Setup, Food/Drink, Tech/Supplies and Experiences, so the planner highlights food.

The third menu contains the various Marriott hotel brands. The planner might choose JW Marriott, and the search engine pulls up a selection of food and dining-themed photos. One result is a pic of the organic Om Snacks at JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE.

From there, a planner saves the photo of the chocolate-covered “Pistachioms” into a customized set inside his or her profile. Then, planners can email an entire set of collected F&B options to a client or senior executive for feedback. Or they can send the set to the conference services manager at any Marriott hotel, asking if that hotel has something similar. It could include just the Om Snack photo or any collection of F&B inspirations, from a food truck lunch to a gala awards dinner on the beach.

Basically, a planner can create an entire conference at Meetings Imagined, with multiple sets of photos covering the entire scope of the program. Hotel meeting webpages typically provide info on space, dates and rates, but the purpose here is to visually brainstorm the overall meeting experience aligned with a specific business goal.

“While others may focus on just meeting logistics, [the] Meetings Imagined concept infuses a more sophisticated approach based on objectives and outcomes,” says Paul Cahill, senior VP of brand management for Marriott Hotels.

The new website has a searchable hotel database with room count, meeting space capacity, contact info, etc, which will continue to grow through 2014. The portal also includes industry thought leadership from both internal and 3rd party suppliers and vendors.


Getting serious about Wi-Fi

REN Meetings

“Meetings comprise almost half of our business at Renaissance,” says David Keamy, senior director of sales & marketing at Renaissance Hotels. Keamy spearheaded the development of REN Meetings to “activate more of the senses” through three stages. The Renaissance Sensory Experience focuses on things like tablescaping,lighting, scents and ambience in general. The motivation behind that is the more senses you can engage at the moment of learning, the more robust that learning becomes.

The second component is Entertainment & Networking based on live music, art, culinary and other lifestyle-themed events in the hotel lobbies and public spaces. Renaissance works with planners to incorporate those events into meetings outside of scheduled sessions.

The third part of REN Meetings is the RNavigator “modern concierge” program consisting of multiple staff members designated as local experts. They’re encouraged to share the places that they personally patronize in their communities with visiting meeting attendees. And with enough advance notice, Renaissance can supply neighborhood guides specific to the week that a meeting takes place. “As Marriott’s lifestyle brand for business travelers, Renaissance is all about discovery,” says Keamy. “So REN Meetings is a big part of our focus and planners really like it because it enhances their program and adds more networking experiences without additional cost.”

MGM Resorts International is investing over $350 million in new Las Vegas meetings infrastructure at 12 MGM hotels up and down the Strip. The hotel group needs to be prepared for the surge in group bookings presently under contract for 2015 and beyond. So in late 2013, the company rolled out a $14 million, high-density Wi-Fi system that can be customized to any individual group of any size.

“We now offer high speed bandwidth throughout the MGM portfolio, so groups can stream video or work through the VPN simultaneously,” says Michael Dominguez, senior VP of sales for MGM Resorts International. “Cisco built a custom platform that goes across the entire MGM campus at all of our hotels. Now 5,000 people can be on the network with one meg of power per person at the same time.”

The problem with many existing networks is the ability to handle peak load when large events are in-house and everyone wants to be online during certain busy periods.

“The beauty of it is that we can move bandwidth,” says Dominguez. “That way, if I have a large group hosting a buyout and I know that they are hosting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., I can move bandwidth from the guest rooms to the meeting space. The flexibility is what you don’t see on a lot of Wi-Fi platforms in today’s market. And the resort fee for internet in the guest rooms also goes for the Wi-Fi in the meeting space. There’s not a separate change. It’s seamless as far as taking it to the meeting space.”

Another reason for the upgrade is a shift in Las Vegas meetings to incorporate more of the outdoors, which was unheard of a decade ago. Toward that end MGM is one of a few Las Vegas hotel groups building outdoor treed parks, and at the same time, they have to be fully wired.

“One thing that has changed is that we used to keep you locked into one place for your entire stay,” says Dominguez. “Now, Las Vegas has become a very pedestrian-friendly city. We have great weather nine months out of the year, so we really needed to create some outdoor space for people to use. That urban park will get you outside with food trucks, very similar to Gramercy Park. The whole idea is to have a great outdoor outlet where planners, for example, can rent out the Brooklyn Bridge and then use the park.”


A network of networks

Marriott’s Convention & Resort Network (CRN) is a collection of over 60 of the hotel group’s largest meeting and convention properties across the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico. Together they make up over 6.5 million square feet of meeting space, 2,700 meeting rooms, and over 70,000 guest rooms.

Tech Trends from Dave Nostrand, VP of Sales, the Americas for Marriott International

The trend I’ve noticed as it relates to technology has been the way it is being used from registration, to conference apps, to surveys and more. We launched the Red Coat Direct app in 2013 in all of our full service hotels in the U.S., and it will be rolled out globally in 19 languages by the end of 2014. It’s a personalized meeting app that allows planners to make requests without leaving the meeting. For example, they can change the room temperature, order more chairs, request additional food and beverage, etc.

We also recently began offering space for small meetings that can be booked online through a partnership with Liquidspace. It’s as easy as booking a room online. Marriott is focused on providing the technology and connectivity inside/outside the meeting rooms, but also offering meeting room setups designed to maximize learning, sharing and interaction.

In an era where 24/7 connectivity and social sharing is mainstream, people interact with myriad networks on a daily basis in both their personal and professional lives. In a business realm, those networks can grow in size and frequency to the point where they become unmanageable.

This is particularly challenging for any meeting professional due to the high volume of details and disparate pieces that need to be aligned in a seamless fashion. And for meeting planners building a heavy schedule of meetings with the same brand, year after year, there can be an overlap of duties and communications.

Marriott’s CRN group was created to build greater consistency within convention services and catering, and to help support meeting planners and groups execute larger meetings/events more efficiently. In essence, it’s a macro hotel network bringing together individual micro networks at each property.

“The network’s mission is to ensure we provide tools and technology to help make the meeting professional’s job easier,” says Dave Nostrand, VP of sales, the Americas for Marriott International. “We offer pre-convention to post-convention conveniences, including a streamlined billing system, a comprehensive communications plan and a cross network team of professionals that ensure a seamless meeting experience.”

The CRN website embedded in marriott.com was designed as a tool for meeting planners to identify the most appropriate hotels for their specific meeting needs without having the search a lot of different sites. Planners search for their key needs like resort or urban environments, peak room requirements, ballroom space, group leisure opportunities and other criteria.

The value of having this volume of hotels to cull through in one place saves times. It also helps planners booking multiple meetings or the same meeting year over year.

“The more meetings or years a group books the more savings and added benefits they receive,” says Nostrand. “Plus it saves a huge amount of time, which is another savings in itself. The planner can get those years confirmed and not have to worry about site selection and contracting. They can get it all done with one agreement and they can focus on other parts of their job.”


Deconstructed meetings

Operated by Hyatt Hotels, the lifestyle Andaz Hotels group hosts monthly Andaz Salon parties bringing together guests, locals and innovators in food, fashion, music and art. It was really the first of the corporate branded hotel groups to position itself as a community portal.

Family Meetings

According to Frankie Stua, director of sales & marketing at Wyndham Orlando Resort, more meeting and convention attendees are traveling with their families on business, either during a meeting or pre/post. Stua adds that in the case of pre/post, the hotel always extends the same group rates for the non-meeting nights.

About 52% of business travelers invite their families to stay with us,” says Stua. “A lot of it has to do with the economy and people don’t always have a chance to take a vacation every year. More companies are encouraging that because it inspires their employees and it shows that the company cares about their employees’ work/life balance.”

In addition, Visit Orlando actively works with planners to show them the different types of activities available for spouses and their children when one of the family members is attending a meeting. The hotel also arranges or suggests group spousal and family experiences customized to each individual group.

Planners can use those networks to create their own Salon-style events in the hotels’ creative spaces. The hotels can bring in anyone from local fashion designers to graffiti artists to add creative flair to any program.

The Andaz properties were also one of the first to champion residential design specific to their communities, while doing away with the check-in desk entirely. Guests are invited to sit in the lounge while an associate brings them a drink, registers them on an iPad, and then escorts the guest to his or her room.

For meeting planners, that combination of design and programming is a strong selling point.

“With the Salon essentially we’re using the whole hotel as a stage or an event space,” says Kenneth Villamil, corporate director of product/brand development of Andaz Hotels. “And since our meeting rooms are unconventional in a lot of ways with open layouts, residential kitchens and lounges, it’s really easy to set up a Salon-like environment. In Amsterdam, for example, they have a lot of supper clubs and fashion events. Marcel Wanders is the designer for that space so they have oversized artwork, very whimsical, kind of Alice in Wonderland.”

At Andaz 5th Avenue in New York, the Apartment 2E meeting space is designed like a hip apartment with an open kitchen and communal tables, connected to a lounge with a wine cellar wall, which is connected to a horseshoe bar and library.

“You can either take over one of those spaces or all of them, so it’s like having an entire apartment to yourself,” says Villamil. “Like your own house party.”

That type of flexibility and creative ambience is derived from Andaz Salon’s brand story revolving around EQ—emotional intelligence. Villamil explains that EQ places an emphasis on understanding what it’s like to be a guest in your own hotel. And creating an environment that doesn’t necessarily feel like a hotel. That translates to meetings as well.

“A lot of our furniture in the event spaces are just lounge furniture, or in some cases, they’re all high tables because we don’t want you to sit down,” says Villamil. “We want you to be empathizing, brainstorming, standing up, participating. For a lot of our meetings recently, there’s always a virtual component to it as well, where it could be multiple teams meeting in places from around the world or in the other room. And I don’t think a traditional conference room table facilitates that.

For example, a BCBG fashion show at the Lincoln Center can be streamed into the lobby and prefunction space during cocktail receptions. When the new Munich property opened its kitchen, the chef at 5th Avenue created a virtual meeting in his kitchen to discuss food prep with the German chef. And then invited guests and staff to join him.

“Planners always talk about flexible meeting space in terms of the furniture, but the technology has to be flexible too because a lot of times groups are using different parts of the hotel so we can stream videos in the different spaces to create that sense of engagement,” says Villamil. “Our groups don’t want to just stay in the meeting room, they want to break out of that. Technology needs to move with us wherever we go. It needs to be everywhere.”

The philosophy behind what’s referred to as “Andaz Style” is that attendees can personalize how they participate in a meeting to the point where, according to Villamil, it doesn’t even really feel like a meeting anymore.

“I think that’s where the whole world is going in general, because really the trend is that people’s time is valuable and everyone wants to have these enriching experiences,” he says. “It’s just about tapping into what people want, and how we want to relate with each other, and how we want to access information.”


Next generation strategy planning

Source: W Hotels

Source: W Hotels

According to Marylouise Fitzgibbon, general manager of W Fort Lauderdale, her group sales staff no longer presents potential clients with lists of standardized meeting experiences. Everything is now a one-off. Part of the reason for that is because she’s hired new employees from marketing/advertising backgrounds to fill some catering and conference services.

“I think at a lot of hotels you have all of these lists,” says Fitzgibbon. “You know, here are our event spaces, here are our events, and you have all these check boxes. My perception of the client in even just the last six months, they don’t want to check the box. They’re like, ‘I don’t even want to look at your list of what your special events can be.’ They don’t even want to go there because that feels so common.”

Fitzgibbon has a lot to say about customizing events. Here’s an abbreviated Q&A:

What do the non-traditional hires bring to event planning at W Fort Lauderdale?

The advantage of hiring folks who have a different eye is that they don’t really even care about what’s on the standardized list. Because that’s not the world they come from. There’s no lists in advertising. You sit down with your client and you say, “What are you trying to do? And how can we tie everything in together to tell a congruent message?”

There’s definitely a shift I’m seeing where everyone is saying, “Don’t send me what you’re sending every other client.” And I’m pushing that trend, so I’m telling my sellers don’t even show them the menu. If they’re really old school and that’s what they want, then we certainly have it but don’t even go there. Ask them what they want and how we can be part of that solution. And I think sometimes planners just aren’t use to that. They’re not used to the seller being part of the solution.

What are some of those solutions?

The luxury residential market, like in a lot of places, took a hit in Fort Lauderdale so we have these spectacular condos with patios that can hold like 50 people. I’ve seen a real spike in planners saying, “Hey I want that room. And not just one room, ten of them. I want that for my breakout because it feels different than a breakout.”

So we’ve seen a huge rise in planners saying, “I know you have the junior ballroom and I know you have your studio room available, and I know I can book that, but instead I’d rather use one of these converted suites because they feel really unique.

And this is a new trend?

Yes, that’s something I’m seeing where people are choosing these unique spaces even when the standard space is available. Versus, maybe even two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say that. Before, if the ballroom and surrounding rooms weren’t available, it was then we had to get creative, and the planner would feel kind of obligated to accept that. Now they’re asking for that first.

How are Millennials impacting meetings?

With Generation Y and Millennials we’ve noticed the need to be active is greater than ever, versus when I started 22 years ago, when you sat there, smiled and took notes about what your CEO had to say. And obviously we skew to a younger demographic, but the days of just listening to a speaker speak are gone.

I’m noticing a lot of multimedia things, so a lot of time people are being Skyped in, or where you have a hashtag and everyone’s sending that across all of the different social media channels. We’re always doing that and our A/V team is great about working with planners and groups to deal with all of that. They’ll say, “Hey, here’s 10 ideas how you can work social media into your meeting.” Or a younger generation meeting planner will come to us with some really cool ideas because they’ve researched all of this and they know what they want.

With the Boomer generation it’s more of a case where they’re asking us. At W, we do really well in that Boomer space, and it’s probably the reason they came to us, because they know that we know. So we sort of function as a subject matter expert when it comes to tech and media. And more and more, Boomers are no longer saying we don’t want any part of that. They’re saying, “Hey could you help me out with that?” So we’ll come up with 12 ideas and they’ll pick five that they think will work.”


Economic impact of meetings

Key findings from the 2013 U.S. Travel Association study conducted by Oxford Economics: The Role of Business Travel in the U.S. Economic Recovery:

  • Business travel represents a substantial force in the U.S. economy. In 2012, U.S. businesses spent $225 billion on domestic travel, supporting 3.7 million jobs and generating $35 billion in taxes.
  • Businesses have resumed spending on travel after substantial declines in 2008 and 2009. Trips have increased in each of the last two years while spending reached a new peak in 2011. Data for 2012 show continued increases with weekday room demand in high-end properties up 2.8 percent and associated revenue up 7.3 percent.
  • Historic data from 2007-2011 for 61 industries shows sectors that spent the most on business travel through the recession tended to post higher growth in profits through the past economic cycle.
  • Detailed statistical modeling over 18 years and 14 industries indicates that for every dollar invested in business travel, U.S. companies have experienced a $9.50 return in terms of revenue.
    The modeling also finds that U.S. business travel has yielded $2.90 in profits for every dollar spent.
  • Frequent business travelers who were surveyed confirmed these findings. Nearly 60 percent responded that increasing spending on business travel would have a positive impact on company revenue and profitability.
  • Those respondents whose companies reduced business travel spending since 2007 were asked about the effects of these cutbacks. Only four percent stated that these cutbacks helped company performance while 57 percent believe that reductions in business travel hurt their companies’ performance.
  • Business travelers believe that, on average, 42 percent of customers would eventually be lost without in-person meetings.
  • Business travelers also stated that prospects are nearly twice as likely to become customers with an in-person meeting than without one.


The rise of outdoor events

According to Brian Lang, director of catering at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, planners are asking more frequently for meeting and incentive programs that incorporate outdoors events, beyond the traditional recreational pursuits, teambuilding and cocktail receptions. Hyatt has responded with concepts for general opening sessions, town hall-style gatherings, and breakout meetings by the lakeside.

Unique & Small Spaces

“In terms of trends, clients are really looking for unique spaces to meet—they need places
to break away and get a fresh perspective,” says Lisa A. Potts, senior VP of sales/marketing for Trump Hotel Collection. “What we think about when we develop new properties is: Do we have some unique spaces for those clients who need the opportunity to step away from the traditional function room? Places with natural light and interesting gathering spots that are beautiful in their design to inspire new brainstorming ideas. Demand for outdoor space is tremendous.”

Meeting attendees are also becoming much more design conscious.

“Design aesthetic is really key as well,” says Potts. “When you step into our hotels, you immediately get a very residential feel. And I think Ivanka Trump, who’s directly involved with our designers and architects in selecting the best finishes and furnishings, she has found a way to strike that balance between comforts of home and a luxury hotel experience.”

Potts explains each hotel must also have great spaces for one-on-one, ad hoc meetings because planners realize sometimes those are the most productive meetings. Also, Trump Express Meetings is in the process of relaunching in Q2. Potts says those are prepackaged meeting solutions to meet a rise in demand for short term, smaller groups and meeting planners who might be looking to economize a bit.

“We’re seeing an uptick in group occupancy based on growing interest in a healthy outdoor door lifestyle, and that’s especially prevalent in our part of the country,” says Lang. “Planners are telling us they’re feeling limited about what they can do in a ballroom anymore. Nobody is interested in four walls and a chandelier anymore”

Langs believes that multiple factors are driving these shifts, including TV shows like Survivor and Amazing Race, the general trend in consumer behavior for more healthy lifestyles, and Millennial demand for more active experiences.

This has pushed Lang and his team to come up with more creative group programs that tap into these, which also tie into the business objectives of the meeting. For example, Hyatt Tahoe put together a 9 p.m. evening event for 150 people that involved glow-in-the-dark volleyball and kayak relay racing with a DJ providing tunes by the water.

“That’s not your average tug-of-war team building; the energy was the kind that you rarely see at a corporate event, I mean it was rocking,” says Lang.

Another event is a geocaching event in the forest using various modes of transportation.

“That is so that Millennial generation, to bring them up to Tahoe and give them a GPS device they love those devices and give them bikes to go find things in the forest,” explains Lang. “Geocaching events like those tie in the outdoors and technology, and they really get into it. It takes a bit of work to add in jetskis or kayaks to make it even more active, and build in those very Tahoe-esque experiences, but the payoff is great.”

Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe’s corporate group business is about 60% meetings and 40% incentive. According to Lang, most meetings include half a day or more for everyone to go fishing, mountain biking or hiking because it opens dialogue like nothing else. It’s also an imperative for younger generations of meeting attendees.

“I really think it’s the Millennials,” says Lang. “When I started in this business, everyone was wearing a suit and tie. It was all about being professional or appearing professional. And I think the younger generation is much more about being focused and being accomplished while having fun at the same time.”

Lang is quick to point out that these younger generations are as eager to work and learn as his generation, but they just want to do it in a different way. He says, “You know, it’s funny, I interviewed someone yesterday for an administration position who’s a Millennial. And I asked her what her ideal workplace would be like. And she said, ‘Someplace that is fun and casual, yet I feel like I’m getting something accomplished everyday.’ It’s amazing to me. She summed up everything we’re seeing in one sentence.”


9 takeaways for smarter meetings

  1. Keep up with technology — The level of technology integrated into meetings is going to continue to develop and bring together people in new and different ways. Many people continue to deny this, with a consistent emphasis that, “Meetings are about people.” True, but a line has been drawn in the sand. People unfamiliar with social media, apps, crowdsourcing, co-creation, sharing economy, and the new rules of engagement will be distancing themselves from new, younger and more global clients.
  2. Understand why social media matters — Social media is much more than Likes, Follows and pretty pictures on Pinterest. Social media is a communication tool used by people often motivated by “social and professional equity.” Many people active both personally and professionally on social platforms are sharing information to build up their reputation and improve the quality of their networks. Today, everyone everywhere is prospecting for a better job at any given time. Planners who can tap into that craving for personal development and social approval will engage with their attendees, colleagues and clients on a deeper level.
  3. Once you understand why social media matters — The more visual, experiential and unique an event is, the more likely it will get shared on social media. Give events a visual element out of the norm. Make someone do something. Keep hashtags visible through an entire event. Inject crowdsourcing and co-creation opportunities well before an event to build anticipation and buy-in. Then provide incentives to share the results during a meeting. The only way companies can grow in the digital era is if other people do it for them, by sharing and promoting the company or association online.
  4. Embrace the Millennials — There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding Millennials and a significant amount of pushback about their personal and professional behavior from older generations. The fact remains however that they provide a very clear channel into the future about pretty much everything. With so much systemic change today socially and economically, Millennials are a valuable resource because they can provide attuned feedback to today’s trends and younger attendees. You don’t have to agree with them but it’s a good idea to listen to them. They’re also going to be a major purchasing and decision-making demographic within a few years.
  5. Sitting is the new smoking — As the speed of technology and communication quickens, and the variety of things demanding our attention expands, it’s getting more and more difficult to maintain people’s attention. Sitting for hours on end in boardrooms and ballrooms is anathema to the next generation of attendees. Innovative planners are getting people out of their seats to collaborate in different environments and break up events. Mobile furniture and more flexible meeting rooms that can evolve throughout the day are booming as a result.
  6. Wellness is no longer a luxury — Healthy bodies and balanced minds are becoming a huge priority due to the level of stress and uncertainty over the last decade. More people are doing more work with less support and resources, and people are starting to fray. Hotels and vendors are responding with innovative ways to educate groups on the value of physical/mental health in today’s business environments. This has nothing to do with going to the spa. It’s about integrating proven systems into attendees’ daily lives to improve work/life balance and productivity.
  7. Unique spaces attract unique companies — There’s an aspirational shift throughout hospitality from luxury to creativity. Where once planners and executives sought the highest levels of elegance and exclusivity as possible, the next generation of travelers and attendees want to be inspired. Creativity and innovative thinking are among today’s most marketable skills and planners can align their events with that by sourcing unique venues and experiences. The most important shift impacting meetings over the last five years is that people are bored more easily than ever before, and they all have a smartphone. A planner’s greatest threat today is distraction.
  8. Hotel sales & meeting planning is evolving — The best front-line hotel sales staff are becoming solution providers willing to participate in the planning process more than ever before. Likewise, meeting planners who understand the new rules of engagement and collaboration are moving into executive positions. This is happening in all industries. Traditional job descriptions are evaporating, and industry buyers and suppliers who can drive business by shifting their traditional roles in a quickly evolving marketplace are better prepared for the future.
  9. Forget B2B and B2C; H2H is officially a thing — Personalization in hospitality and meetings is becoming the most important differentiator when everything is becoming a commodity. Companies that can reach individuals via personalized human-to-human (H2H) interactions resonate more than blanket communications. Options that allow the end user to customize their engagement with a company is the mantra of hoteliers in all segments worldwide. The same goes for meeting attendees, facilitated through technology.


Endnotes & further reading

  1. http://api.meetingsmeanbusiness.com.php53-15.ord1-1.websitetestlink.com/sites/all/themes/meetings/pdfs/MMB-Launch-Press-Release.pdf
  2. http://www.ustravel.org/news/meetings-events-incentives-toolkit
  3. http://www.internationalmeetingsreview.com/meetings-events/imex-america-2013-meetings-means-business-campaign-goes-forth-video-97645
  4. https://businesstravel.americanexpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/2014_Meetings_Forecast_US_letter_final_LR.pdf
  5. http://traveleffect.com/sites/traveleffect.com/files/fact-sheets/BusinessTravel%2BCompanies.pdf
  6. http://www.hbaa.org.uk/content/future-trends-meetings-accommodation-liz-hall-pwc
  7. http://www.spinplanners.com/
  8. http://www.thehivenetwork.org/instructors.html
  9. http://www.maritztravel.com/Meetings-and-Events/Design.aspx
  10. http://www.conventionindustry.org/ResearchInfo/EconomicSignificanceStudy.aspx/
  11. http://jeffhurtblog.com/velvet-chainsaw/
  12. http://www.eventmanagerblog.com/
  13. http://www.eventmobi.com/blog/2014/01/29/review-of-top-10-event-app-fusion-conference-app/
  14. http://www.collaboratemeetings.com/news/focus-at-imex-america-on-technology-advocacy/
  15. http://interactivemeetingtechnology.com/
  16. http://meetingpool.net/
  17. http://www.socialpointforevents.com/
  18. http://theirf.org/2014-Trends-In-Employee-Engagement-Incentives-Rewards-Recognition.6115782.html
  19. http://www.imexamerica.com/press/news-releases/imex-news-releases/2013/10/technology-and-creativity-dominate-knowledge-demand-on-imex-america%E2%80%99s-opening-day/
  20. http://www.mpiweb.org/_secure/HybridHowTo.pdf
  21. http://www.aibtm.com/Education-Program/Education-Session-Schedule/
  22. http://www.blogs.marriott.com/marriott-on-the-move/2013/09/the-future-of-meetings-is-a-game-changer.html