Everyone knows the meeting and convention business has met with contraction and catastrophe in recent years. The global economic downturn was not kind to the industry, given its reliance on committed corporate largesse for its expensive existence. But the world’s gradual surfacing from the pit into which it stumbled is being reflected, increasingly, in this business category — a turning of the tide that’s not entirely due to macroeconomic forces but at least partially a function of clever hoteliers.
Business travel in Canada was on the decline in the latter part of 2008, but the worst was yet to come. By 2009, the number of travellers attending conferences and conventions in this country had shrunk by five per cent, and spending was down seven per cent. Internal corporate travel stats painted an even bleaker picture, with meeting attendance down seven per cent and associated spending cut by 11 per cent. The wheels were already in motion for some corporate gatherings when the axe began its devastating descent, says Greg Hermus, associate director of the Ottawabased Conference Board of Canada. That buffered the decline somewhat, says Hermus, especially relative to the United States.
But the impact on the industry was significant nonetheless. Hotel rates took a hit over the past couple of years. “We needed to be more aggressive and creative during the recession,” explains Uwe Walter, director of Group Sales at the Fairmont Banff Springs. “It’s going to take time to get prices back up to the value each property deserves.”
“There’s no question we felt the recession in that area,” says Edwin Frizzell, general manager of the Hilton Toronto. In response, his organization looked to offset the decline with a shift in emphasis, from trying to attract massive meeting business to smaller meeting engagements. “We deployed more heavily against those people deciding whether to have a meeting, to those customers who might bring in one person rather than two or three. We changed how we presented our meeting packages with this perspective in mind.”
Indeed, says Robert Lemieux, director of Sales and Marketing at Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle, the groups that used to typically come with largesize conferences gave way over this downturn to smaller groups — and the industry had to respond. “The [meetings] have gone regional; instead of flying everybody from Montreal, Calgary or Vancouver to Toronto, they’re now doing regional meetings; maybe they’re meeting three or four times a year instead of one big meeting. And companies are conscious about their spending. Instead of doing big dinners, they’re doing receptions.”
Frizzell and his team found themselves spending more time playing up the experience they could facilitate for gatherings than they did in the past. Suddenly, conversations drifted from the minutiae of dates and space and honed in on how meeting planners might offer unique options to attendees. Out of the blue, clients were asking whether a menu could be customized or if meetings could be held in a part of the hotel previously unavailable. “We got more flexible and creative during this time,” says the Hilton’s Frizzell, who notes his hotel’s executive lounge, a 32nd-floor space with a panoramic spread, normally reserved for its executive customers, was opened for VIP receptions. “They would never have had that access before, but it created a real ‘wow.’”
Menus were also revised during the lean times. Now, instead of picking from a list, meeting planners are invited to consider a road less travelled, with tasting menus, tapas, infusions and sous-chefs cooking tableside.
At the Hilton, they installed a rooftop herb garden from which the chefs at in-house restaurant Tundra regularly draw. The hotel even invited meeting planners to consider interactive experiences: guests can now meet the chefs, sample herbs and make meal selections incorporating the herbs into the menu. “Basil infused ginger lemonade,” Frizzell offers, “is one of the best things you can taste.”
THE LURE OF THE GREEN MEETING
Sustainability is another engine driving the meeting business through these challenging times. The possibility of conducting a socalled “green meeting” turns up often in meeting bids, says Frizzell, “and we are committed to this as a company. It’s not so much [that planners] would say no to a hotel that didn’t do it, but the fact that we do do it, is just one more element that makes it easy for a customer to agree to do business with us.”
Corporations are increasingly looking to have environmentally friendly values reflected in corporate gatherings. The Westin’s “clutter free meeting” option replaces pen-and-paper freebies and water glasses at every place setting with stations attendees can visit to have these needs filled. “It creates more space for clients at tables and reduces the wastefulness in a dramatic way,” he says. Meeting areas are equipped with large recycling bins; this hotel is one of the first to run on clean energy in the lobby, and management is investigating possibilities for its conference centre. Leftover food is dropped off at shelters, and newly designed linen-free tables free up the obligation to conduct boatloads of laundry.
And, in a unique twist, guests who hold their meetings at The Westin have access to a meeting’s impact report. This tool provides commentary on a meeting’s environmental impact, taking note of everything from how much water and energy was consumed, to what waste was recycled.
THE NEW LOGISTICS
A successful convention involves all departments working together, from the front desk, to food and beverage, to housekeeping. How a meeting planner coordinates this is more important than ever, and hoteliers keen to capture this business are stepping up their game. At the Hilton, every department is involved in the initial “summit meeting” that launches a client’s program. It’s a chance, says Frizzellfor meeting planners to express their wishes to the hotel team, and for the team to understand what success looks like for this customer. “From the moment a customer interacts with us, through our websites, initial introductions to the general manager and chef, and so on, they want to know when they choose us, they’re choosing ‘the Hilton experience.’”
At Starwood properties, meeting planners are immediately assigned a convention’s service manager to look after their event. The communication between these parties, says David Ogilvie, Starwood’s regional vice-president of Sales and Marketing, “is probably one of the most critical [ways] to make a meeting successful.” The hotel contact collects as much detail as possible, inquiring after much more than just wine and meal particulars, but also about such extras as the client’s anticipated use of the health club (so the hotel can bump up staff counts appropriately), their business centre requirements and even after work plans, so staff can provide meaningful advice on nearby amenities. And, during the conference, meeting planners wear special pins to identify them as decision-makers, so hotel staffers can facilitate quick responses on the floor. “It’s all about making things go as smoothly as possible,” adds Ogilvie.
MAKING THE CLIMB
In 2010, the volume of meeting travel crept up by 2.7 per cent over 2009, and spending by 4.5 per cent. This year, says the Conference Board’s Hermus, the numbers are expected to increase by another 1.6 per cent and four per cent, respectively. Additionally, says Banff Springs’ Walter, the economic climate has improved to the point where hoteliers can feel bolder about their rates, come RFP time. “You can be a little more courageous here than you could a year or so ago,” he says. “We’re starting the climb back — slowly and carefully.” Hermus concedes, progress will be modest in the coming months, thanks partly to reduced government spending on this front. The service sector in general has a much higher propensity for stimulating business travel than some of the resource-based industries, and he urges particular attention to those subsets engaged in finance, insurance, real estate and health care.
As the scene improves, the thrust shifts to accommodating an influx of meeting planners’ last-minute inquiries. When the economy started to improve, says Starwood’s Ogilvie, the same companies that didn’t hold meetings the year before, abruptly realized the need to get their company together, and short-term business spiked. “And, the next thing you knew, banks, financial institutions, insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms were booking and booking much more short-term than we were used to. Companies are saying, ‘We need to get 300 people together in Toronto or Vancouver in three months,’ and that’s pretty quick.”
In turn, hotel operators are forced to turn on a dime, and do so with every tool they can offer to facilitate the experience for a frazzled planner on the client end. At Starwood, Planners’ Edge tools help clients make comprehensive bookings online, complete with date commitments, menu planning and offsite venue booking. Packages, that bundle all of a meeting’s elements around a theme — such as Wii games nights, wine tasting and cooking competitions — are increasingly popular, in large part, believes Ogilvie, because of the timesaving they offer under-pressure planners.
“Hotels need to be flexible and to use [whatever] programs they can to help customers plan their meetings now,” says the Westin Harbour Castle’s Lemieux. “Being responsive, as the economy and the convention business improve, is more important than it ever was.”