Conferences and events are mainstays for most hotel operations. From large-scale corporate extravaganzas, to intimate weddings and company retreats, events account for a significant portion of hotel revenues. However, conference planners are seeing a number of notable shifts that speak to an increasingly demanding customer base.

Digital planning services are now a given as a means to streamline operations and empower customers. Check lists now include detailed requests around sustainable practices, wellness offerings, food-and-beverage customization and local community support.

New competitors are emerging and lead times are shorter as clients become risk averse in unstable economic times. There’s still a robust demand for the usual conference-and-event basics but, in a tightly contested market, hoteliers are exploring more innovative ways to capture market share.

Almost every RFP now has a green-hotel component, says Steven Walton, director of Sales and Marketing for JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District. But today’s questions are much more detailed.

“At one point, as long as you had Green-Key certification, you were pretty much good. Now groups are delving much deeper into that: do you have smart lighting? Is your hotel paperless? What other green choices do you offer? What suppliers do you work with and are they local?” Walton explains. “People want to understand how we actually act on what we say.”

The Fox Harb’r Resort in Wallace, N.S. recently had a conference request for zero plastic for all culinary products, including the point of origin. “That impacts how you trace plastics that touch every-single point in the supply chain,” says Clee Varon, director, Business Development. “Even though that’s an aggressive example, it’s becoming a reality.”

Hand-in-hand with this are requests for social engagement locally, says Deneen Perrin, director of Public Relations for Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. “We often have groups asking to give back to the local community in some way, whether it’s packing food for breakfast programs, building bikes for the underprivileged or joining in city-cleanup or tree-planting events.”

In a world where budgets seem to be tightening, the case hasn’t been the same for grand social events, such as weddings, where planners pull out all the stops to create opulent experiences.

“For a long time, ‘less is more’ was a big thing,” says Kathryn Davis, director of Catering for Chateau Laurier. “That no longer applies. People are getting swept away with the romance and looking for opulence, such as signature drinks, champagne bubbles and Veuve Clicquot carts.”

As for food, she says, “Everyone wants to sit with the chef and customize their menus to meet their vision. They’re choosing like they would in a restaurant. And there’s a lot more customization around allergies, vegan, gluten free, et cetera. We’ve had one or two weddings that were completely vegan.”

Conventions are also happy to pull out some showstoppers, says Reetu Gupta, president and CEO of Easton’s Group of Hotels in Markham, Ont. “Some popular trends include interactive stations, from live cooking to cotton candy and popcorn.”

Creating individual experiences outside the norms of meetings and banquets is also becoming a competitive driver when selecting venues. Hotels are adding programming such as yoga classes, local tours and high tea to event agendas.

JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District is a veritable extravaganza of amenities, says Walton. The site not only has a direct connection to Rogers Place, where there’s plenty of additional meeting space and arena facilities to spare, but the public plaza, sports bars and concerts are literally at the hotel’s front door. Still to come are an outdoor skating rink and a licensed food hall.

For destination resorts, it’s easier, in many ways, to offer amenities that suit groups seeking unique experiences. Kevin Toth, president, Fox Harb’r Resort, says it can easily augment the group experience with onsite and local outings, from guided hikes, kayaking and golf to marine tours, vineyard visits and fly fishing.

That plays into the wellness trend, he adds. “Whether it’s morning yoga, biking, hiking or golf, [guests] want those experiences.”

The same holds true for The Malcolm Hotel in Canmore, Alta. “Groups want their delegates to find ways to connect beyond the meeting rooms,” says general manager Andrew Shepherd. “Anything that’s outside our doors is an adventure and an opportunity to provide activities for team building without the usual distractions of the city.”

Specialty resorts, in particular, can also hang their hats on delivering innovation indoors. Toth says a major attraction for Fox Harb’r is that, in addition to the main meeting space, the hotel offers unique sites, including a sporting lodge and outdoor terraces with ocean views for breakout sessions. “If you want the focus to be on meetings alone, then you’ll go to the city. But the idea here is to get individuals outside the standard space and encourage creativity.”

Scenic backdrops abound at The Malcolm, where the meeting spaces feature a panoramic view of the mountains. Shepherd says the hotel has made a point of creating unconventional meeting spaces, rather than theatre-style rooms with projectors and no windows.

All spaces feature floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize natural light, which not only helps to engage delegates, but also saves energy on lighting and heating, he explains. “Rather than having only breakout rooms, groups can use large corridor spaces, where we’ve placed comfy leather chairs, or the mezzanine area. On warm sunny days they can use the chef’s private garden.”

The all-around uniqueness of the experience is enough to draw groups from Calgary and Edmonton. “Some companies want to get away from traditional conference venues to something different and new,” Shepherd adds.

Almost every hotel with a substantial conference business is leveraging conference-planning apps to some degree. Not only do they streamline many administrative processes, they’re an effective means to empower customers.

A growing number of clients are expecting online planning tools, says Steven White, director Conference Services for Chateau Laurier. “Everything can be downloaded to their site and their mobile devices — from reservations to reminders on social media.”

Digitization is key to many aspects of planning and management, Gupta adds. For example, a new wedding-planning app the company uses allows guests to digitize their space to see what it looks like all the way down to the colours on the chairs, she explains. “Millennials especially love it.”

In today’s economic times, one trend that has not gone unnoticed is lead times for booking venues are shrinking, Walton says. “You have to be very flexible and quick on your feet on the group side of the business. A lot of galas and social events are now booking a few months ahead, when it used to be more like two years or even more. Corporations, especially, have been hurt badly in the last downturn, so tend to be more risk averse and wait longer to book.”

Another challenge is that, in their quest for uniqueness, larger groups are looking to non-traditional event spaces outside of hotels — such as museums and galleries — notes Gupta. “Our competitors are not necessarily other hotels. But the advantage we offer for events is [guests] don’t have to acquire the licenses and permits. There’s room in the market for everything.”

Written by Denise Deveau


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