The pandemic dealt a sizeable blow to meeting-and-event revenues for a large portion of hotel operations. But hotels are reporting that business gatherings are showing a surprising resurgence that could bring overall revenues back to pre-COVID levels. The challenge many are now facing is ramping up staffing to keep up with surging demand.
Tammy Routh, senior VP, Global Sales, Marriott International in Chicago, was pleasantly surprised to discover that meetings and events were rebounding faster than expected. “We fully expected that business travel would the be next to come back after leisure, but meetings and events returned much faster. It’s quite encouraging. We anticipate returning to pre-COVID levels by the end of the year in some markets.”
“In terms of business contributions, we’re very close to 2019 numbers and will likely surpass them this year,” says Brian Leon, CEO of Choice Hotels Canada.
He adds revenues are coming back so quickly, staffing to meet demand has become a challenge. “We’re struggling to have staff to take care of it, so are having to re-think how we’re doing certain things.”
Having opened its doors in 2021, the Muir Hotel in Halifax had the benefit of building its meeting-and-event programs rather than having to cut back, says Eugénie Jason, general manager. “We’re now creating additional positions and have just hired a conference sales manager due to the substantial amount of interest in events and board meetings. We thought the ramp up would be softer, but it’s been way more sudden than that and picking up more than we could have expected.”
Staying the course during COVID
The last two years have provided time for contemplation and change for hotel operators.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Marriott formed a group to consider groups and meeting spaces. “One goal was building confidence with customers on doing meetings in a safe fashion,” says Routh. A popular option was the hub-and-spoke model, where production was managed in one location and then connected with regional Marriott sites.
Marriott also held events to show customers how meetings could be done safely during lockdowns, she adds. “At the beginning, a lot of professionals had never done hybrid meetings. We felt it was our obligation to get in front of that, so we did a road show with our technology partners, inviting local customers to come and experience it for a day and learn how to keep audiences engaged virtually.”
Best practices are shared on the Marriott Bonvoy Events website, where customers can find everything related to meetings and events, including protocols and testimonials.
During COVID, one initiative that helped shore up declining revenues was promoting hotel rooms as office spaces, says Leon. “We’ve seen people going into hotels using them as bases to do virtual meetings. Even instructors have gone virtual, but couldn’t do that at home. Others were taking meeting rooms and guestrooms to set up as showrooms.”
When restrictions began to ease, meetings tended to be small and regional. Now it’s not unusual for customers to book meetings for up to 2,000 people with only 45 days’ notice, says Routh. “There are far more short-term bookings for larger meetings than I have ever seen in my career. When a company or organization makes the decision to do it, they pull the trigger quickly.”
Leon has also noticed that planning windows are much shorter. “We’re generally seeing that people want to meet in person and get back to seeing each other.”
Jason confirms that demand is often immediate requests. “We have people calling today for hosting an event in two weeks. We must have a great deal of flexibility and agility to make those requests happen. There is no plan anymore. Now it’s about scheduling
for the unplanned.”
As meetings and events gain traction, the pandemic has also allowed operations to spend time on what meetings need to look like moving forward.
Technology will continue to play an integral role in supporting meeting activities, says Jason. “We were fortunate in that g was in the design phase. It has given executive teams the opportunity to connect with teams outside the country. Working internationally will be part of the normal landscape from now on.”
Another emerging demand is sustainability, says Routh. “We’re examining what that means for meetings and events. We just finished a pilot with four hotels in Europe, taking into consideration what people are expecting us to do now.”
One change that is here today is a bespoke approach to meetings, she notes. “These days, every customer is on a different journey and every place is different in terms of bringing meetings back. Some don’t want packaged services anymore. We need to be ready to customize to what they need and do it in a safe manner.”
By Denise Deveau