Meet and Greet? Face-to-face is returning. What will it look like?

Heading into 2020, there were hundreds of thousands of meetings and events planned at hotels throughout the U.S. for the year. In fact, from January to the second week of March, there were an average of 23,000 meetings and events per week, according to figures from Knowland, a provider of meetings and events analytics.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the country to go on lockdown, and the number fell to 11,000 during the week of March 15, 2020. A week later, the bottom fell out of the meetings and events business; there were fewer than 1,000 events worldwide.

But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. According to Knowland, the number of U.S. group meetings in April increased 58.5% over the previous month, and the average number of attendees per meeting was 63, not far off from the average of 74 people in the same month in 2019.

“Many states declared they are ‘open for business,’” said Kristi White, VP of product management, Knowland. “This, combined with vaccination numbers increasing and general pent-up demand, is driving the growth. Businesses are getting more comfortable gathering: Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Parents are pushing for kids to return to school and sports. All of this is moving things forward and will continue to do so. At some point, people need to meet to move forward.”

At first, the smaller markets were the choice of companies who felt safe to meet in person. “In every economic downturn in the past two decades, drive-to markets and smaller markets have recovered before the larger markets,” said White. “Those markets tend to be less expensive and easier to get to, so companies, organizations and individuals pick those to save money.”

Once the top 25 markets started seeing meetings return, the largest cities were at a disadvantage, according to White.

“New York, Chicago and San Francisco—three of the biggest group markets—have had some of the hardest restrictions,” she said. “Additionally, New York and San Francisco were decimated due to infection rates. For many, there is still a fear of sending people in, combined with what people will do when they get there. Even one step further, these are major gateway cities that are often dependent on international travel. So, it’s a bit of a double whammy.

“On the opposite side of this, cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix have very few restrictions and weren’t seen to be hit as hard with infection rates,” she added. “Additionally, all of these markets have the benefit of being drive-to markets in addition to air markets. So, companies with offices in the right places can have employees drive there, limiting risk and the expense of flights. And, once their travelers are there, there are things for them to do.”

According to an April poll from the Global Business Travel Association, two-thirds (65%) of poll respondents feel their employees are ‘’willing’’ or ‘’very willing’’ to travel for business in the current environment, and as state restrictions ease, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines are revised and more people are vaccinated, the meetings and events business should really start to rev up.

“If you look back at many of the meetings that didn’t take place in 2020, you’ll notice that instead of being canceled, most were just pushed out or postponed until a later date,” said Lauren Hall, CEO, iVvy, a cloud-based sales, catering and venue management firm. “So, now that vaccines are rolling out and people are beginning to feel safe traveling again, we see the meetings business coming back with a vengeance. The second half of 2021 will be an incredibly busy time for meeting venues and it will only get busier over the next 12 to 24 months as larger meetings and conventions rebook their postponed events.”

Eric Gavin, chief sales officer, Benchmark, a global hospitality company, agreed that it will take some time for larger group events to return.

“We anticipate that most meetings taking place for the balance of 2021 will be small and mid-size regional groups,” he said. “However, as we look ahead to 2022, we are seeing a significant shift to larger and more national-type groups. In reviewing business on the books for 2022, 2023 and beyond, as well as data from industry partner Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI), we feel the regional, drive-to meetings are a temporary solution to enable people to gather quickly, eliminating many of the longer-lead logistical requirements. With more time and planning for 2022 and beyond, larger events will return.”

This year, especially, there are things hotels and meetings planners need to consider before scheduling that event, noted Carol Lynch, SVP, global sales,  Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.

“We’ve always partnered with meeting professionals in the past to be able to provide the best meetings possible at our hotels, but now we have to take into consideration different things,” she said. “We’re working very closely with meeting planners on understanding and translating what the CDC guidelines are, how many people really can meet in a city or a local area, etc. We have to be very flexible on attrition, cancellation and the food and beverage minimum.”

There will always be a place for face-to-face meetings in-person because, as Lynch put it, “That’s what our industry is all about and that’s how people do business.” But the pandemic has changed some of the ways meetings are presented, whether its health and safety measures like COVID screening, social distancing and mask wearing, or the emergence of hybrid events as a way to target a larger audience.

So, what will the meetings look like in the near-term, and in the future when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror?

It’s the size that counts

Just as no two hotel companies are alike, so too are the meetings and events they host. For Wyndham, the majority of meetings today fall right in its wheelhouse.

“We’re not a big-box hotel company, although we have hundreds of hotels with meeting space,” said Lynch. “Our niche has always been the small-to-midsize meetings. I think that plays very nicely with the way that meetings are being planned today, and probably for the next year or so. You’re not ever going to get lost in one of our properties if it’s just a 50-person meeting.”

MGM Resorts International, which controls millions of square feet of meeting and convention space in Las Vegas and other locations across the globe, has been forced to be creative with its meetings configurations for both large and small events as gathering guidelines change.

“We have the capability to provide many different options, and as we increase our occupancies, and soon minimize our six feet of social distancing,  we’ve had to do hundreds and thousands of floor plans,” said Stephanie Glanzer, the company’s SVP/chief sales officer. “Every group throughout the past year has said, ‘OK, what if I do it this, this and this way?’ So, what we’ve been trying to do is take the best practices of how groups are laying out their spaces, and using them not necessarily as templates, but to say what works in each space. The other capability that we have is having a lot of properties within proximity to each other. So, for example, if you were a group at Luxor [in Las Vegas] and you needed more space, we’ve got 2 million sq. ft. of space under one roof at Mandalay Bay. We’ve really been trying to be flexible, to stay creative and, more importantly, to be able to be fluid as government gatherings guidelines change. And to always have that backup plan. We’ve  been able to host close to 400 groups since reopening.”

Health and safety

A primary concern of hotels and meeting planners today is the health and safety of their guests and attendees. Virtually every company in the industry has come up with a set of enhanced guidelines surrounding health and safety at their hotels, and many have extended them to meetings and events.

“Like any dramatic change that has happened in the world, it is great to see how quickly the hospitality industry has adapted and abided by safety concerns and rules in order to provide a great experience for their customers,” said Jonathan Morse, CEO, Tripleseat, a catering and event management web-based platform for hotels, restaurants and other venues.

MGM is one of those companies. It devised the Convene With Confidence program for the safety of its meetings and events guests with partners CLEAR, the creator of Health Pass; Cue Health, which provides portable COVID-19 tests that can send results to a smartphone in 20 minutes; and Impact Health, which administers the tests.

“We are very fortunate at MGM Resorts that we have a health and safety team—a team of individuals who have been working with our epidemiologists, medical consultants and experts since before the pandemic,” said Glanzer. “We have the ‘unfortunate fortunate’ experience to have a property in Macau and, as coronavirus started to spread throughout the world, we had the lessons of what happened in Macau very quickly. So, starting back in March of last year, our health and safety team wanted to be ahead of what was coming, and started doing exploratory work on who potential partners will be and what the future of travel is.”

Through the CLEAR app, attendees are able to fill out a real-time health questionnaire and have their temperature checked via integrated kiosks before being given the OK to enter a meeting or conference. Vaccination data will soon be able to be uploaded to the Health Pass, according to Glanzer. The Cue COVID-19 Test for Home and Over The Counter (OTC) used is the nation’s first molecular diagnostic test available without a prescription with Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA.

“Because many of us have had CLEAR on our phones at the airport and it is a known brand, we felt very good about [partnering with the company],” said Glanzer. “The Cue and Impact Health partnerships came about from the learnings of who was doing this the best of the best, and specifically for us, the learnings of the NBA and the NHL bubble. So, we had our health and safety team watching what they did and how they did it.”

She added that the health screening and testing is not mandatory, but something MGM gives to groups that want to create safe perimeters.

Boston-based management company Pyramid Hotel Group has outfitted its hotels with the Meeting Bubble concept, which allows groups to book entire or half floors, instead of the typical full hotel buyout.

“The inspiration for the Meeting Bubble came from watching professional and collegiate sports organizations successfully operate during the pandemic by developing a safe and separate environment for their participants,” said Brian Berry, the company’s EVP of commercial strategy. “When we explored this with Pyramid team members, we discovered creative examples of our hotels partnering with customers to successfully host meetings in a similar fashion.”

He said that the program has been a great success at the hotels in his company’s portfolio. “The extra distancing and safety precautions at one of our hotels in New Hampshire gave a group the confidence to book 10,000 room nights,” Berry noted. “The Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach Shores, FL,  is offering double the traditional meeting space, outdoor dining options, a complimentary 60-minute yoga class and 20% off in-venue hybrid meetings, which has resulted in multiple group bookings. The Holiday Inn Cincinnati Airport booked a company’s staff-training program because they were able to block the entire floor for their group as part of the Meeting Bubble program.”

The emergence of hybrid meetings

Last year, probably the phrase you heard a lot was “You’re on mute!” as face-to-face meetings moved to the virtual realm over Zoom and other platforms. As the industry moves more and more to in-person events, there are still some companies and people who are weary of traveling due to health or expense concerns. Enter the hybrid meeting at hotels and event spaces.

“While many people are eager to meet in-person again, not everyone is as comfortable leaving the safe surroundings of their homes just yet, making hybrid meetings a viable option for events this year, especially corporate events,” said Morse. “With a hybrid event model gaining in popularity, a shift in how event planners are allocating their budgets is expected to change. I think we will see more event spend allocated towards A/V [audio-visual] and production costs in order to elevate the experience for hybrid attendees. For venues, it will be important to have hybrid event packages ready that include enhanced audio-visual capabilities.”

While hybrid meetings have that safety element, Gavin also pointed out that the solution enables organizations to expand their attendee reach, adding, “The key for hybrid meetings to be successful is to focus on the attendee experience, in-person and virtual, through event design, programmatic content and interactive experiences to keep attendees connected and engaged.”

The hybrid solution also allows someone to attend even if they have a reason they cannot be there in-person, noted Leslie Menichini, VP of sales and marketing, Rosen Hotel & Resorts.

“Our corporate and association meetings last year were split between virtual and hybrid meetings,” she said. “In 2021, feedback we are receiving is that most planners are anxious to return to normal. They may be incorporating some type of hybrid element, but only to extend conference attendance to those who may already have a date conflict or another reason they cannot attend. Hybrid can actually extend their attendance, not replace in-person attendance.”

Social distancing has also pushed organizations to provide a virtual option for their in-person meetings because of the limited space available.

“It was all about maximizing our space [before the pandemic], and now it’s more about optimizing our space because there are different requirements,” said Wyndham’s Lynch. “Where we were able to put 100 people, we may now only be able to put 50-60 people. This will be something that hoteliers and meeting planners have to work with for this year and next year, probably.”

In order to create a more robust hybrid offering, Hyatt Hotels Corporation has partnered with Swapcard, an all-in-one virtual and hybrid events platform.

“As we collectively navigate the path forward for meetings and events, we are committed to supporting meeting planners and helping them discover the possibilities of hybrid formats, so we set out to find a solution that could simplify the planning process and unify the in-person and virtual attendee experience,” said Steve Enselein, SVP of events, Hyatt. “After extensive research into numerous event technology platforms, Swapcard came out on top. Powered by AI, this virtual and hybrid events platform helps planners create events from registration to live streaming to networking and community building. Through our unique relationship with Swapcard, we plan to provide our customers with access to a seamless way to simplify and unify the on-site and virtual attendee experience, creating an event that makes everyone feel like they’re at the table.”

The company, through a survey of its customers, found that almost half of meeting planners expressed difficulty creating a “synchronized and compelling hybrid experience.” So, it devised the Care + A Community of Experts program.

“We created a brand-new role and hired a team of dedicated certified hybrid event experts, who bring a deep-rooted expertise in technology and events,” said Enselein. “Alongside on-the-ground event colleagues, planners can partner with the hybrid event experts on setting up the event technology platform; brainstorming on networking and collaboration; A/V; food and beverage; and more. In addition to their existing knowledge of the technology landscape, hybrid event experts will also be trained by Swapcard’s teams so they can further support our customers.”

Omni Hotels & Resorts is another company that has created a program—Ready, Set, Go Hybrid with Omni—to upgrade the production level of its virtual offerings, as well as to provide support to organizations planning hybrid meetings at one of its properties.

“Under the veil of COVID, we created Ready, Set, Go Hybrid with Omni specifically based on feedback from our customer advisory boards with the goal to assist them as everyone navigates their own organizations’ needs in returning to meetings,” said Dan Surette, chief sales officer, Omni Hotels & Resorts. “The Omni Virtual Studio is our simplest solution and allows for high-quality audio, lighting and on-site support to give everyone the most confidence in presenting. Our other options increase in complexity with many choices as will suit a client’s specific needs from small meetings to much larger productions.”

For groups of 15 or more, there is Omni Hybrid Your Way, which offers multiple cameras, displays and sound reinforcements to enhance both the in-room and remote experience. “[It] works well for groups who need to accomplish more extensive business goals, including interactive elements such as gamification, voting or connecting audiences and presenters across multiple Omni venues and locations,” noted Surrette.

The concept of the hybrid meeting has been around hospitality and other industries ever since the speakerphone was created. Remember gathering in a boardroom with executives around the table with the speakerphone placed in the middle? Today’s hybrid meetings take things up a notch, and having a monitor with virtual attendees in the room, along with the in-person group likely on any number of electronic devices, bandwidth should be a concern for any hotelier.

“Now, more than ever, bandwidth is critical to support the advanced audio-visual technologies being used in the hybrid meeting environment,” said Benchmark’s Gavin. “Additionally, most attendees travel and connect at least three wireless devices—laptop, smartphone and tablet—making bandwidth a must have.”

Say goodbye to the buffet

The pandemic has forced hoteliers to change their food & beverage offerings, and the same can be said for meetings. Gone for now—and likely for a long time—are the self-serve buffets where everyone touches the serving spoons and grabs a plate from a stack of them.

“The pandemic has made many people hyper-aware of how easily germs can spread, making buffet-style F&B offerings not as appealing as they once were pre-pandemic,” said Tripleseat’s Morse. “In place of buffets, we’ll continue to see people opt for smaller, individualized portions and takeaway offerings.”

For MGM, it’s all about creating something special with F&B, but also keeping their guests’ safety in mind.

“We’ve really used this time to say, ‘How do we stay creative and provide wows with food and beverage, but do it in a healthy and safe way?’” said Glanzer. “For example, buffets for the past year obviously have been nonexistent for a number of reasons. So, we’ve created what we call marketplaces, where it is pre-packaged—but still in a creative, high-scale manner—with a covering or wrapping.”

Catering teams can still craft fun and creative menus that are simply served in a different format, noted iVvy’s Hall. “Self-serve stations are mostly out, and individually packaged food and beverages are in. Boxed lunches are popular and, while it might require a little extra work from the kitchen, made-to-order cuisine served directly to each guest can elevate the experience while keeping attendees safe. Buffets are still an option, but usually these are broken apart into stations where staff serves each guest individually.”

Pyramid Hotel Group has even focused on the flatware and tables. “For corporate and association clients, quite often, less is more,” said Berry. “This means less linen and fewer items on the tables, surfaces that can be easily wiped and cleaned and one-time use options for utensils and china.”

Benchmark has created what the company calls action pods, “which are spaced apart to support guest flow/egress while avoiding lines queuing,” said Gavin. “Attendants are positioned to support service, while improving opportunities to further engage guests.  Food is prepared in batches to support freshness and micro-plated for guest ease while effectively portioning to reduce waste.”

If you book it, they will come

There is no question that business travelers are ready to hit the ground running when they feel safe to book that hotel room. But, how long will it take for meetings and conventions to return to pre-pandemic levels?

“I absolutely think that meetings will return to pre-pandemic style; it is just a matter of time,” said Tripleseat’s Morse. “This past year has been transformative, to say the least, but people are eager to return to normalcy. Recently, we surveyed 1,000 Americans to gather their sentiments around events in 2021, and more than 70% of respondents are planning to host in-person gatherings this year; a nod to where we can expect events to head as more people become vaccinated and local restrictions are lifted.”

Benchmark’s Gavin pointed out that the pandemic has allowed hotels to change for the better the way meetings and events are done.

“We talk a lot with our teams about the post pandemic new normal; from everything that we are seeing and from the feedback received from our meeting planners, the new normal will look a lot like meetings pre-pandemic, only better,” he said. “Mindfulness around attendee safety and wellness and the leveraging of new technology will remain. However, the purpose and benefit of meetings, from executive retreats to large conventions and trade shows, has not changed. Business gets done in-person; teams are more productive in-person; and reward and recognition and celebrations are conducted in-person.”

Moreover, for meeting planners, the process of creating a request for proposal (RFP) has changed with the advent of new technology.

“Instead of the traditional paper RFP process, meeting planners want the ability to search, compare, book and pay for function space online,” said iVvy’s Hall. “As many hotel sales teams have been downsized, these tools centered around automation to make their jobs easier because they can manage the operational processes, including diagramming, invoicing and payments more efficiently.”

Wyndham’s Lynch has seen the itch from her colleagues for face-to-face meetings. “If you think about all of our strategic planning we did last year, we did that all over Zoom, and it was very successful,” she said. “But, we really miss that face-to-face and being able to walk into somebody’s office and run something by them before your next strategic planning meeting. And I think all organizations are feeling that way.”

She added, “I think as years go on, more and more people will feel more comfortable going back in person. Will they get back to the 6,000-people meeting? I think that’s probably the million-dollar question. I do think, though, that we’ll be moving toward that. I think, eventually, we’ll get back there. It’ll just take time.”

Moving forward, meetings will need to be more than just sessions and speakers, said MGM’s Glanzer.

“People are craving and want experiences,” she said. “I think a trend of the future is how to make meetings more experiential and to make people excited. It’s not just about coming to a meeting with general sessions and breakouts,” and added, “As we all look at what we’ve been through in the past year, whether it was working out at home or not going to yoga or not doing your meditation to get through your day, health and wellness is going to be a continuing part of meetings.”

Glanzer, Pyramid’s Berry and Rosen’s Menichini all stressed the importance of in-person meetings to the hotel industry.

“Companies and individuals—whether it’s social interaction or for professional business—have learned that the value of face-to-face is there,” noted Glanzer. “To pass someone in the hallway and have that conversation in between meetings and breakouts is so important.”

Berry noted, “We are social and are better together than apart. We look forward to the time when we can invite all our friends and family members to weddings and celebrations, and when corporate events again can bring all team members, vendors, suppliers and guests together to connect and engage. It is in the fabric of our country to work together in-person, and that day will definitely return.”

Menichini summed up perfectly what the many in the industry have been feeling over the last year-plus of lockdowns, quartantines, hotel closures and cancellations.

“A year without face-to-face meetings has actually taught us all how vital they are to networking, relationship-building and expanding business—the primary reasons for hosting a meeting or conference,” she said. “A Zoom call can only take you so far.”

Hotels take more meetings outside

Due to the pandemic and the fact that medical professionals believe people are safer being outside, hotels have found ways to turn exterior spaces into meeting spaces. What used to be, say, a scenic lawn or pool area is today’s boardroom. But, it is not only about safety—there’s an opportunity for more experiential events.

“We have a lot of outdoor space in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and California, where we started to see meetings come back a bit sooner,” said Carol Lynch, SVP of global sales, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “And we’ve changed those spaces to make them more conducive to meetings vs. just what used to be a reception outdoors.”

Scott LaMont, CEO of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based landscape architecture firm EDSA, has worked on projects such as the Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas and 1 Hotel & Homes South Beach in Miami. He has worked with hotels who want more flexibility for their outdoor spaces.

“As landscape architects, we’re always thinking about the outdoor environment as an extension of the hotel. What’s happened in the last several months—and really over the last year—is we’re seeing that operators are beginning to look at those spaces differently and understand their value,” he said. “When we start the planning, we also start to think about how these spaces can be scaled and developed to host any size group.”

The emergence of hybrid meetings has EDSA rethinking the design of an outdoor space.

“We’re going to have folks interacting in a socially distanced outdoor environment joined by folks who are on real-time video,” LaMont said. “It’s giving us an opportunity to have to think it through with our operators and owners and to plan for that as we lay out these new spaces and retrofit some old ones.”

One project EDSA is currently working on is the reinvention of the Boca Raton Resort & Club, which was built in 1926.

“Some of the lawns that are being added into the program have the ability to function as both an event space and an amenity space,” he said. “Having that flexibility from an operations point of view is key. In addition, in some of the areas we are developing, we do need to plan for an increase in outdoor events that will need more infrastructure in place. For example, we may want to have water or a sewer connection, or power so that we can set up cooking stations or a temporary outdoor kitchen for an event. And when [the event] is gone, it’s back to a beautiful resort environment.”  —Adam Perkowsky