Returning to meetings & business travel

Business travel has been slow to ramp up as the recovery begins post-pandemic. However, smaller meetings and hybrid events are taking place, and there are a large number of meetings and events booked for later this year and into 2022. Large group events will likely take longer to return, but they will inevitably be back because this industry thrives on face-to-face interaction.

During the Hotel Business Hot Topics session, “Planning Ahead: A Return to Meetings & Business Travel,” with sponsor support from Delos, panelists discussed business travel—when it will return and how it will change post-pandemic.

Moderated by Christina Trauthwein, Hotel Business’ VP of content and creative, the group of panelists included Anthony Antolino, chief commercial officer, Delos; Gretta Brooks, founder/CEO, SalesBoost LLC; Michael Dominguez, president/CEO, AHLI; Cindy Estis Green, CEO/cofounder, Kalibri Labs; and Tamara Laster, VP, global sales strategy, IHG.

Communication between hotels, meeting planners and attendees is essential in creating safe environments at meetings and events, and Laster said her company has created a database “to show what our individual hotels have been doing from a cleanliness perspective and the cleanliness protocols they have in place,” adding, “We actually did something like that last year where customers could just grab that information as they needed to and look at this database that was updated on a weekly basis. We would also sendout to our customers a new update.”

Internally, she pointed out, IHG made sure its hotels were meeting those standards. “It behooves us to make sure that our franchisees and our hotels are meeting the cleanliness status because we want [guests] back,” said Laster. “So, we have these checks and balances that recur on an ongoing basis with our individual hotels, to make sure that they’re following the proper protocols. We are trying to make sure that our owners as well as our guests and planners understand that we take it seriously.”

Dominguez has cochaired the Events Industry Council’s taskforce on COVID recovery, which has created work streams that work as a database on hotel safety protocols. “It’s an open-source content platform, so anybody can access it,” he said. “We’ve aggregated and curated all the information that’s out there because every hotel company has it just named something different.”

The pandemic has made people more aware of what surrounds them, Antolino noted, adding, “People have become overnight experts on subjects that we really just took kind of for granted. We didn’t think about touching surfaces—we always had some Purell and washed our hands—but surface contamination earlier in the pandemic was a heightened concern. People became experts on hand hygiene. When did anyone ever say the words hand hygiene?”

He continued, “Now, science tells us that’s no longer a primary transmission concern, but the airborne pathogen concern and airborne transmission are new ways of talking. They were not things that were part of our day-to-day conversations. But, with that level of awareness comes increased responsibility to solve those problems and then communicate them.”

Adding days to stay

One of the positive things that has come out of the pandemic is some business travelers have extended their stays because of their ability to now work remotely.
“What we’ve seen in our data is longer lengths of stay, so people attend a meeting or they have a business trip, and they’ve got Friday and Monday where they can work remotely,” said Estis Green. “What used to be the shoulder periods that were the worst nights—Thursday and Sunday—are now second only to the weekends. So, I think that filling in those nights is not going to be a displacement issue when the business comes back; that’s incremental new business.”

Hotels should jump on the opportunity to book these “bleisure”-type stays, she noted, adding, “It always happened a little bit, but I think the opportunity is for it to happen a lot more, and to create business. It’s not displacement when the Monday to Wednesday gets filled in…which means we can be looking at higher occupancies from this kind of business leisure. It could be promoted within the group and meetings community and within the business traveler community as advantages for traveling to be able to tag on that night before and night after.”
Brooks agreed, commenting, “Extending the stays for occupancy sake is really a huge opportunity. It’s all about the length of stay right now, so the ADR it’s really much of an issue.”

So far, Kalibri Labs is seeing one- to one-and-a-half-night extensions on the stay. “That’s massive,” Estis Green exclaimed. However, she said, “We’re going to have a leveling off before some of the natural groups, meetings and BT [business traveler] business comes back, but when it comes back, I’m very excited about this incremental new type of business that existed in a very small way before, but we could actually institutionalize it, and we should.”

Dominguez offered up advice he has given to AHLI’s partners: “It’s a good time to be decisively indecisive,” he said. “Don’t make definitives on what we know right now because we don’t know where it’s all going to settle down.” He opined that the reason for the longer stays is because business travelers haven’t traveled in a year. “But when you’re starting to travel all the time, you may not want the extra night; you may want to get to your home because you’re always on the road,” he said.

He also advises hoteliers to get every dollar they can right now during the leisure surge. “Don’t be pre-determining that that’s what it’s going to look like in January when we can finally travel to Europe and we can go to the Caribbean without testing—and we can go around the world,” Dominguez said. “We’re in a bubble right now, and I just think that’s important to understand.”

Changes to F&B

Social distancing measures and the need for touchless interaction means that the F&B component of meetings and events have to be tweaked.

“We really have been doing it since COVID [began] when we started with grab and go,” said Laster. “Now we’re thinking of creative ways to have our F&B services provided. So, what does that look like? Is it socially distanced tables? Does the buffet look like a grab and go? It’s really interesting to watch people come back because our guests still very much remember what travel used to look like. And I think those expectations still exist when it comes to meetings—they want to have the drinks at the bar, they want to be able to have the sit down table rounds and things like that. But, we have to figure out what is the right and the safest way to do that.”

Hotels are using every square foot of space to maximize safety at themeetings and events on property, noted Brooks. “If there’s a patch of grass, stick a table on it because people want to have their own personalized comfort related to where they want to network,” she said. “They also want to have a safer environment where if they want to sit outside and be in the fresh air, they have a place to go. A lot of hotels, especially resorts, jumped all over that because they could see customers running outside and sitting everywhere. For those urban properties, they just need to maximize their space in a way that allows people to branch out so that they can maximize that networking opportunities. The reason why people like to get together is to collaborate and network.”

Dominguez said that at an event he attended, the MPI World Education Congress in Las Vegas with more than 1,000 people, “It got pretty normal pretty quickly.
“Nevada had gone to zero protocols and, because of that, it became mask optional because of what the CDC guidelines were,” he continued. “I think we’re gonna get to normal pretty quickly.”

He believes that 10 at a table should be a thing of the past. “When we were running these meetings [under COVID safety protocols], having tables of four and seven [led to] a level of engagement and conversation that was phenomenal,” he said. “We’ve been saying to the planners—and this was a learning from COVID, but it should continue from a service aspect— there is not a lobby bar in the world that is prepared for 300 people breaking from their dinner and going to crash it. We’ve all seen it—when you’re done with your dinner going to this postage stamp of a lobby bar that was meant to be a lobby bar. We’ve been telling planners to just turn your bar into a cash bar.”

The new normal

While the industry will never forget the struggle that was the COVID-19 pandemic, and the learning that came out of it, business will come back, as it always has after times of crisis. But when will that be?

“I think we’re going to just get back into traveling, and once everyone has the safety issues down pat and we’re comfortable with that, we’re going to revert back in a lot of ways to the way it was,” said Estis Green. “But some of the new things we’ve talked about may become sustained as well. I think they’re good for business, and it’ll make for a better experience for the attendees as well.”

Antolino commented that “people are adaptable” and “once we come out of the acute phase which we are at now—we travel more, go to restaurants, get on planes and be at meetings—even if there’s an anticipation of another wave, which is being talked about in the fall, we’re adaptable. We all want to try and resort back to what normalcy is. Normalcy will never be what it used to be, but we just adapt and move forward.”