Group business will eventually come back, so it’s past time to be prepared for those bookings.
It’s obvious to most, but COVID-19 will have a longer tail for groups than for transients. The biggest evidence is all the event cancellations or postponements and no definitive guidelines in place for how to safely resume meetings or conferences.
At the same time, talk to anyone who has made it past their probationary period in an actual office job and it’s apparent why in-person discussions are the most effective form of communication for any collaborative process as well as for networking. Even with all the video conferencing in the world, corporate meetings will inevitably come back. On the leisure groups side, just try having a wedding or anniversary party over Zoom; it’s just not the same.
While many say group travel will forever be diminished from this pandemic as companies look to shield their workers (and their expense accounts) from any super-spreader events, there are in fact quite a few reasons for why group travel will bounce back in the years following quarantine. Understanding the core reasons will help position your brand to capitalize upon any swell of inquiries in the near future.
Event postponements and travel debts
Many meetings, weddings and other events have been put on hold until as air travel restrictions are lifted and people feel comfortable traveling again. In what is best described as travel debts, all the various reasons for bringing people together haven’t gone away but are lying dormant, and people will be eager to regroup once the situation settles. Many of these events will simply skip a year while others will look to carve out a few days in late fall or early next year to get them on the books as soon as possible.
Employment contracts and group credits
Many businesspeople have travel built into their contracts with their parent companies, allowing for a certain number of paid-for trips each year with a per-diem spending allowance. It’s a great perk for helping attract top talent, although many of those with such benefits will be looking to cash in to make up for lost time and travel that went unused during lockdown. Moreover, while many groups were able to cancel their gatherings with a full refund or a minor penalty, others settled for future credit which will have to be rendered.
Private corporate retreats
Travel quotas may soon be reassessed as being too risky an incentive for the average employment contract, and this perk may be replaced by more group working vacations to nearby resorts where teams can interact in an inspirational, secluded and sanitized environment. Such corporate programs would look to partner with small properties—defined roughly as under 75 rooms—where contact with unknown persons can be minimized.
Remote team get-togethers
The pandemic has ushered in the age of working from home, which means less workplace interactivity. As this shift also means decreased overhead costs for sustaining commercial real estate, companies may reallocate a portion of the office rent and other displaced fixed costs toward hosting more intra-company meetings so remote employees can assemble periodically in real life.
Whether one or more of these four broad reasons applies to your hotel or not, the general current is that there are lots of reasons for group travel to make a comeback. This will likely not happen until well into 2021 because no company is going to risk even considering a contract or committing to a large-scale event until there are clear signals from government and international authorities that COVID-19 is completely gone or a vaccine is omnipresent.
Predicting a recovery is one thing; knowing how to seize the moment is what’s actually important. Even before new cleanliness and viral safety certifications are rolled out, there are a number of steps you can take to generate more appeal for groups:
1. Select service can mean contactless
In the traditional hotelier’s sense of the word, service implies hands-on. The more luxury a product is, generally speaking the more contact that occurs between any operation or amenity and the guest. Rather than finding ways to make everything contactless, why not instead go the select-service route by removing service offerings altogether? If groups are worried about room attendants touching personal belongings during cleaning, then allow the entire block to opt-out. And if a company is worried about viral spread while dining at your signature restaurant, ensure that room service or secluded dining options are available.
2. Fully technology-enabled spaces
Regardless of how big the post-pandemic surge will be for group bookings, video conferencing will remain popular. You need good connectivity and the proper devices in place for groups to seamlessly loop in off-site attendees. Savvy hoteliers have properly explored contactless technologies like guest messaging apps in lieu of having to visit the front desk, touchless payment gateways or phone-activated room keys. The more steps you take to mitigate contact, the more reasons you give meeting planners to choose your property.
3. Cleanliness theater
Aside from showing your compliance to all regulations, a key to winning any contract will be how the hotel gives its guests peace of mind so that they feel at ease during their stays. After all, what’s the point of holding a conference if all its delegates are too anxious to enter high-traffic areas? Brands must make their cleaning practices highly visible so all guests see the property is taking safety seriously. Moreover, just because it is labeled as ‘theater’ does not preclude you from the huge amount of work behind the scenes to make the production go off without a hitch.
4. Social distancing standards
Social distancing is ingrained in people’s minds and may be the norm for quite some time. Guests will want to see tables properly spaced out, middle chairs blocked off, strict limits on elevator capacity and tape marks on the floor to indicate where they should stand while in a queue. During a site visit (conducted in person or virtually), planners will also want to learn about how contact is being restricted between the group’s room block or event space and the rest of the hotel’s visitors or amongst the staff. This may compel you to forbid access to certain sections of the property before, during and after the group is using it or even having an operative pod of employees service only that group and no other guests while the group is in-house.
All events and meetings aside, what’s involved for these four broad activities are steps you may have to take regardless of whether you decide to bullishly pursue the groups segment or not in the next quarter. Now is the time to start putting these in place so you are fully ready to show just how well your hotel has adapted to meet all the new COVID-19 requirements for group business.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Hotel News Now or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Bloggers published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concern.