With more large group meetings being canceled or postponed to 2021, hotels are looking to host corporate clients via hybrid meetings, blending in-person events and streaming content for remote attendees.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Groups are canceling or postponing their meetings and events due to concerns about COVID-19, but hoteliers are finding creative solutions to use technology to host the event in a safe fashion.
Corporate clients are increasingly asking about hybrid meetings, which blend a combination of in-person speakers or presenters and attendees participating remotely. Sources said the trend is in its early stages as clients and tech vendors bring more creative ideas to the table, all in the hope of finding a sustainable method of group business throughout the pandemic.
The pandemic effect
Loretta Macke, SVP of sales at Remington Hotels, said in an email interview that clients have mostly postponed their meetings and events at her company’s hotels for the rest of 2020. She said there is still some meetings business, but it’s common to see much smaller groups.
“At the onset of the pandemic, most clients were hoping to reschedule for late summer and fall,” Macke said. “As the pandemic progressed into the summer, clients are now pushing these meetings to 2021. In some cases, the clients would like to host the meetings. However, the local or state mandates on the number of people allowed to meet or gather have resulted in cancellations or postponements. The meetings that we are hosting are very short-term and small in nature, usually less than 20 people.”
As the hotel industry monitors the performance trends looking for glimmers of recovery, the consistent refrain is leisure demand in drive-to markets has been the first to recover, while group business could take longer. Danny Hughes, EVP and president of the Americas for Hilton, said it’s a priority to come up with solutions to drive group business with guest safety first and foremost.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been conducting a series of customer advisory forums around the world to best understand the needs of our customers across various business segments and regions,” Hughes said in an email interview. “These conversations, along with valuable input from our owner community, led to the creation of Hilton EventReady with CleanStay, Hilton’s elevated cleanliness and customer service standards around meetings and events.”
Hughes said meeting planners can use EventReady as a resource to organize safe meetings, including ideas for what a hybrid meeting could look like.
“The events industry has always been grounded in meeting business and engagement objectives—and our customers are still hyper-focused on those goals, especially in these challenging times,” Hughes said. “As technology will better enable them to meet their goals, they are looking to partner with the right companies, firms and vendors to execute, when appropriate.”
Collecting feedback from meeting planners was one of the first things Remington did as COVID-19 gained momentum in the spring, Macke said.
“Within weeks of the pandemic, we hosted meeting planner focus groups with 12 meeting planners to gain insight into the future of meetings,” she said. “Virtual and hybrid meetings were a topic of high interest. They expressed a strong desire to get back to large meetings in the future, but in the short term anticipated that meetings would be small with some usage of virtual or hybrid.”
Brendan Morrissey, director of sales and marketing at The Study at University City in Philadelphia, said hybrid meetings could become a popular option for groups needing a change of pace.
“Employees are experiencing fatigue from endless Zoom meetings, so a hybrid format is a step in the right direction—though most are just looking forward to once again meeting face to face,” he said in an email interview. “Meeting planners are starting to plan for early 2021. When (meetings) do start to return, the general feeling is they’ll be smaller in size, 25 (attendees) and under.”
Joel Contor, director of sales and marketing at The Kimpton Gray Hotel in Chicago, said his team is looking at these first hybrid meetings as a testing ground for what hosting groups will look like for the foreseeable future.
“Companies are reporting productivity loss and such because of this work-from-home fatigue,” Contor said. “We want to get people back, and we want to get people back safely. It's going to be baby steps—what we can do in smaller groups—and then as we climb out of these phases, we'll already have experience with these smaller groups as we bring back the larger ones, hopefully.”
The tech requirements
Beyond the audio/visual technology needed for in-person events, a hybrid meeting typically involves some sort of broadcasting or streaming. Morrissey said hotels can lean on a big advantage of the tech infrastructure that they probably already have in place.
“An advantage of hosting a hybrid meeting at hotels: internet bandwidth,” Morrissey said. “At The Study at University City, we give clients a dedicated internet line, a key requirement for hybrid meetings.”
Sources said they have discussed with meeting planners and prospective clients how to leverage different areas of the hotel as meeting space. Vanessa Claspill, VP of sales at Pivot Hotels & Resorts, said in an email interview that outdoor spaces are a great option for meetings.
“We are activating rooftops and patios into learning environments,” Claspill said. “In some of our other properties to ensure proper attendee distancing, we are utilizing breakout rooms in addition to the general session in order to provide appropriate spacing all the attendees. In either example, webcasting solutions are the most requested. Many of the keynote speakers are delivering their message from a remote location. Our ability to provide a seamless technology experience at our hotels is critical to the success of these meeting and events.”
The Kimpton Gray Hotel has received requests from meetings planners who are interested in using Boleo—the hotel’s 15th floor rooftop restaurant with a retractable roof—as a meetings space, Contor said.
“Maybe an executive group wants to meet under the open air of this retractable roof, which again is kind of covering a few bases,” he said. “It's a multipurpose room, but it's also meeting the clients' need of wanting to be in a space or environment in the open air. It's kind of pivoting and using up spaces how we traditionally may not have used them prior.”
Even with limited event space, properties can keep speakers and presenters in one location and extend the tech and F&B amenities to attendees in their guestrooms.
“We have had conversations with our clients to become more creative with our meeting space, broadcasting meetings to multiple meeting rooms in the hotel as well as in the guests’ rooms upstairs,” said Gul Turkmenoglu, GM of the InterContinental Times Square in New York. “Clients are looking for high-speed, secure Wi-Fi to broadcast their meeting content to all of their attendees.”
Claspill said confirming the scope and details of the hybrid meeting will determine what level of tech is necessary to host the event.
“First and foremost, understand how many users will be receiving the content as that will dictate that bandwidth needed to upstream the signal,” she said. “How will the keynote speakers deliver their address? The planning and rehearsal involved to ensure a seamless transition between speakers is key. Will the audience have the opportunity to ask questions? If so, a two-way signal is required, which in turn needs more bandwidth.”
Find the right vendor
Turkmenoglu said a good partnership with technology vendors can deliver meetings participants the tech needed for the event to go smoothly, regardless of where the speakers are broadcasting from.
“These packages include additional lighting, microphones and, in some instances, a tech can come out to your home to assist you in getting set up, making presentations as professional as they were in person,” she said.
Open conversations with vendors are critical as hoteliers look to be flexible in meeting group requests, Claspill said.
“In the current environment, meeting and event customers need flexibility of services with the confidence in our ability to execute,” she said. “Over the last three months, we have worked closely with all of our audio/visual partners to create a menu of alternative services to meet small- and large-scale meeting demands.”