After more than two years of isolation and endless screen time, hotel operators are finding that, it’s no longer business as usual when it comes to meeting preferences as business travellers seek more flexible options for conducting meetings on the road.
Today’s guests are expecting to seamlessly transition to a hybrid model whatever the location, complete with full streaming and video-conferencing capabilities at the ready. Group sizes are smaller and lead times for bookings are shrinking. Conventional boardroom-style settings are giving way to a more fluid approach, where a dining-room table can morph into an ad hoc meetings space should the mood
“We’ve learned so much about ourselves individually and as a culture during the pandemic,” says Jennifer Kazlauskis, director of Sales and Marketing at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Toronto International Airport. “We are such social creatures that had to be isolated for so long. As the world is trying to come back together, business travellers don’t want to be secluded anymore. We all want to be part of things around us.”
A new perspective
Lockdowns provided Fox Harb’r Resort in Wallace, N.S., the opportunity to re-think its approach to meetings for its Joyce Centre, a 37,000 sq. ft. flexible meeting space that opened in June of last year.
“Since COVID, a vast majority of groups request some sort of hybrid capacity,” says Kevin Toth, president. “We made sure that audio-visual technology was integrated into the design. Every room, including the ballroom, features built-in drop-down projectors and screens, and microphones.”
The property also transformed the food-and-beverage component by moving the front desk in the clubhouse to the new centre and building two private dining rooms in its place. This allows smaller groups to have a dining-room experience in a private space versus the typical banquet-style service, explains Toth. “We had to change banquet service considerably in order to respect individual dietary requests.”
A key post-COVID change is shortened lead times for business bookings, notes Toth. “Lead times are about 30-per-cent shorter than they were pre-COVID. That puts a significant amount of pressure on our catering and convention-services team. Today you have to be pretty nimble to accommodate everyone’s needs.”
Access to outdoor space has also become an important feature for business events and during breaks. One of the big design elements at the Joyce Centre is the extensive patio space, fitted with outside tables, barbecues, and audio-visual equipment.
Added to that is a full complement of outdoor-activity components, including offerings beyond spa visits and golf. A recent activity addition is axe throwing, while sport shooting and archery are growing in popularity.
Flexing your options
For Ben Sparrow, CEO, Sparrow Hotels in Winnipeg, keeping pace with changing business demands is all about flexibility. “At the Wyndham Garden Winnipeg Airport hotel, we put air walls in place that can divide the large ballroom space into five different configurations depending on the size of the groups.”
One unique feature in the ballroom space is that one entire wall is windows. “Having access to natural light and outdoor spaces in close proximity is key,” says Sparrow.
Another innovation that the organization has been implementing in its properties is writable walls and televisions for smaller meeting rooms. A major driver behind the decision is the ability for guests to easily and seamlessly connect with the technology they are using, he explains.
Large communal tables have also been incorporated into lobbies and small private dining areas in the restaurants with screens, projectors, and mobile-streaming capabilities. “What we are doing is creating unique spaces that are more designed to a lifestyle standard you would have at home,” says Sparrow.
One other element that is making an impact on meetings is the growing options for mobile bar and foodservice equipment. “They are more finished, highly designed, and can be customized to fit a room. They are having a bigger impact on the space than you might think.”
When the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Toronto International Airport finished its $30-million upgrade in March 2020, it became the stuff of the modern business travellers’ dreams.
“A lot of elements were worked into the concept to accommodate the new era of business meetings,” says Kazlauskis. “The technology was already built in. COVID just sped up the process.”
Part of the renovation was ensuring connection points everywhere, from the restaurant to private spaces to the public areas so people can charge their devices and conduct business wherever they sit.
As a focal point for international travellers on the go (average stay is 1.1 days), the design is specifically geared to accommodate small- to medium-sized meetings. The hotel has 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in total, broken into 24 rooms of various sizes and configurations over four floors, with the largest able to host up to 140 people.
Several small meeting rooms are integrated into the lobby in the form of both formal and informal spaces. These include four technology-forward small boardrooms with built-in turnkey video-conferencing options. Two are equipped with a boardroom-style table, the other two feature casual seating.
Lobby studio spaces are rented by the hour, while more traditional boardroom spaces on the third and fourth floors are rented by day.
Designers also added four individual complimentary working booths. “They’re always in use. It’s a great option for guests on private calls to still feel a part of everything happening,” says Kazlauskis.
The restaurant itself has a selection of communal tables for small groups to extend their lunches into a meeting.
Currently Sheraton Gateway is going through a full networking infrastructure re-fresh to meet the demand for hybrid meetings and deliver top-notch broadcasting and streaming capabilities throughout every corner of the hotel, she explains. “People expect to be able to live stream any time. In this day and age, the network is the backbone of how we live, how we connect with each other, and how we do business. It’s all about bringing the community to life and easily connecting with people around you and around the world.”
BY DENISE DEVEAU