Eliminate the fear: How to bring back group business right now!

Like all of you, I am very concerned for both the health and professional well-being of everyone who has been affected by this pandemic. I am personally grateful that my family’s health and mine has been good so far. From a professional standpoint, as an event promoter and hotel investor, I have been in the crosshairs of this dreaded pandemic for the past 10 months.

Back in March, I watched as both the event and hotel industries came to a standstill. Would we be able to hold The 26th Annual Lodging Conference in Phoenix in September? At the time, many thought it was possible. In the end, it was fear that prevented us from holding the event. Fear for our attendees, as well as our own fear that we would become a super-spreader event. And it is exactly that fear that will prevent our industry from kick-starting 2021.

So what can a hotel operator do? What steps should hoteliers be taking now to bring back groups this year?

The first step is to embrace safety. Instead of focusing on fear, let’s focus on safety, which will eliminate the fear. Clearly, the hotel industry has enacted a plethora of safe cleaning, masking and social-distancing measures over the past year. From re-training team members and vendors to installing plexiglass and other physical barriers to testing protocols, we, as an industry, have made the grade. But, still, there is fear.

In Q3 2020, a Global DMC Partners survey of industry meeting planners revealed that 82% believe a vaccine is the most important factor in bringing back face-to-face meetings. A related statistic shows that fear or safety is the number one concern of event and meeting organizers. Well, that’s good news because now we have a vaccine. I won’t get into the politics of the vaccine right here, but let’s assume that 70-80% of the country is safely vaccinated. We’re out of trouble, right? Unfortunately, not really. What about the other 20%. Will attendees feel comfortable attending an event if a large portion of the group has not been vaccinated?

Help is on the way and it comes in the form of DVCs. 

As we go to press, Third-Party Digital Vaccination Credentials are being developed, which will certainly be a game-changer for all of us. In the 1960s, amid the yellow fever epidemic, the World Health Organization introduced the yellow card, which was an international travel document. The yellow card still exists today as travelers from certain regions are required to show a version of the card at airports. And this is exactly what is happening now, except the card is going to be digital. 

Digital COVID-19 credentialing will be embraced by airlines, employers, entertainment venues, schools and summer camps—and it should also be embraced by hotels. Rather than wait at the back of this trend, the hotel industry should move to the front of the line and get the word out to groups and guests. One organization leading the way on DVCs is the Common Project Foundation. The CommonPass app is being developed by the Geneva-based nonprofit in conjunction with the World Economic Forum, the forum that puts on the famous Davos gathering every year in Davos, Switzerland. In addition, Ticketmaster and IBM are rolling out a digital Health Pass in conjunction with Clear, a security company that uses biometric technology to confirm people’s identities at airports and sporting events. And local and state governments are taking notice of this inevitable trend.

While the vaccine is an essential prerequisite for getting group business back, the Digital COVID app (which will also contain recent COVID-testing information) is the icing on the proverbial cake. While we wait for this digital solution to come to fruition in the coming months, what else can our operations and sales teams be doing to bring back the groups? Here is a quick checklist that I’ve put together after speaking with many leading hoteliers and hotel companies:

• Reach out to existing groups to herald the good news about the vaccine and the digital credentialing. Let them know about the vaccine progress in your area.

• Re-visit existing contracts: In the wake of the pandemic, event promoters are taking strong notice of cancellation and force majeure clauses. Keep in mind that the live event industry has had a tough time of it as has the hotel industry and we have to work together to get both of our industries back on solid footing. Groups now have revised budgets and attendance expectations and subsequently, sales teams need to discuss these areas with their clients. 

• Testing, tracing, face covering and social distancing—Just because we have a vaccine, and digital credentialing, don’t assume safety measures are going away. Be proactive and stay on top of trends. Look at the government, concert industry and airlines for guidance, and communicate any new policies to your sales and operations teams. This has been—and still remains—somewhat of a political hot potato. Civil liberties groups and anti-vaxxers will no doubt raise questions about rules that require vaccines—and this author is not going to dive into those murky waters right now. 

• AV and technology: 2020 was the year of the webinar. Tens of millions of executives in every industry from all corners of the globe attended webinars over the last 10 months. They were helpful. They were a great band-aid. They’re not here to stay. Nothing can replace the need to meet face-to-face. Actually, the more time we spend working from home and away from our colleagues, the more that large-scale industry events will thrive. You’re not going to hire a management company, select a brand or buy a hotel over Zoom. You’re not going to bond with an existing client over a video call. That said, 2021 will see a huge demand for hybrid events that contain both a live and virtual component. Conference attendees who normally would not attend an event due to time or distance will gladly log on for a limited virtual version of a live event. With this in mind, hotels and their AV teams need to be able to provide robust solutions to event promoters and planners. 

As the hotel, hospitality and event industries move forward, it is clear that we will all need to work together in a cohesive fashion so that these great industries thrive and not just survive.

We hope you and your families remain healthy—and we hope that 2021 will be a good year for all of us professionally as well! HB

Harry Javer has been in the live events business for 40 years. An avid hotel investor, he founded and produces The Lodging Conference, which is held in Phoenix every September. He currently serves on the AHLA board of directors. 

Let us know what you think… To comment on this opinion piece, or to voice your own opinion about pertinent industry topics, please email Editor-in-Chief Christina Trauthwein at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you and share your point of view.