Unique group experiences top meeting trends for 2018

THE WOODLANDS, TX—The meetings marketplace is cautiously optimistic about the new year, according to hospitality company Benchmark’s Top Meeting Trends for 2018.

The company surveyed its 70 hotels, resorts and conference centers within its Benchmark Resorts & Hotels and Gemstone Collection brands. Hal Powell, regional VP of sales and marketing for the company, said that this year’s trends show a greater emphasis on unique group experiences. “Our fifth trend, ‘What’s Shaking in Your Hood,’ is a case in point,” he said. “Visiting and having events at local attractions, historic sites and unique venues is more prevalent than ever. Likewise, trend six, ‘Free and Private On-Property Experiences,’ also speaks to the concept.”

Here are this year’s top 10 trends: 

Cautiously optimistic. The meetings marketplace is cautious nationwide for 2018, but optimistic in major markets like Boston and Los Angeles where demand is strong, according to the results. The American business environment and consumer sentiment is encouraging, and the pending tax implications are expected to create a positive effect for meetings throughout 2018 as businesses leverage the opportunities and increasingly invest in their employees.

The new technology normal. Technology is absolutely revolutionizing meetings in 2018, and in ways never before seen. Properties are being asked to create apps on-demand during the meeting, to launch live streaming of sessions to remote points so team members outside the conference can participate, to set up dedicated WiFi signals for specific meetings or sessions within a meeting, and to provide Apple TV on demand.

Locavore team-building. Despite all the unique team-building programs out there that have moved well beyond the ropes courses, trust falls and Outward Bound-like activities, culinary team-building initiatives originating out of the hotel’s kitchen remain, by far, the most popular coast to coast, the most requested by meeting planners, and the most approachable for meeting groups. 

“What’s on the horizon?” said Powell. “Bar Wars, where a team creates its signature cocktail and then samples the recipe.”

Fab food. Lights up! What are top priorities with meeting planners going into 2018? Superb, creative, participatory and healthy food options sourced locally. That may include food trucks on property, Iron Chef competitions, customized dining experiences and highly creative refreshment breaks. After the body is sufficiently and creatively nourished, the mind needs a perfectly lit environment for productive learning, and planners are demanding 21st-century lighting in all rooms—not just the meeting space—complemented, wherever possible, by Mother Nature’s natural illumination.

What’s shaking in your hood? What’s happening in a property’s neighborhood is paramount for meeting planners—specifically, what the locals recommend as the quirky, under-the-radar highlights of their destination.

Many groups like to get off property and explore the unique aspects of the locale where they are gathering. “So when at Doral Arrowwood in Westchester, NY, treks to nearby Sleepy Hollow are in order—particularly around Halloween,” said Powell. “At Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore [in Hawaii], groups can catch some rays at Queen Lili’uokalani’s private bathing beach, or take surf lessons on some of the world’s best waves. Or at Hotel Contessa in San Antonio, immerse themselves in Texas history at the legendary Alamo a few blocks away. Afterward, they return to the meeting refreshed and invigorated.”

Free and private on-property experiences. Complimentary on-site and state-of-the-art recreational amenities that provide tangible, unique experiences for meeting attendees are another of the top requirements requested by meeting professionals in 2018. “Though this may seem obvious, in today’s fitness-crazed world, recreational facilities are expected to include state-of-the-art and challenging fitness options, which are complimentary and readily available to groups around the property—and able to be experienced at guests’ leisure, increasingly 24 hours a day,” he said.

For the first time, “privacy” is a top demand from planners coast to coast. As business becomes increasingly competitive, privacy within meetings and apart from all other groups on property is essential and demanded by planners.

“I’m busy, just email me.” Professional meeting planners are busier than any previous year with more on their plates and fewer team members to deliver expected results. Though they love personal visits when schedules permit, severe time constraints dictate email communications as their preferred method to stay in touch and learn of opportunities and special promotions.

Value pricing. No matter how hot the economy, value is always important and properties best remember this and negotiate accordingly. How to meet this challenge? Sell value-packed meeting packages.

“Though the economy is strong and expected to continue its uptick throughout the year, value is in vogue,” said Powell. “Why? Because new supply is coming online in multiple markets, creating pricing pressure, and planners are using this to negotiate best-value pricing with no hidden costs.”

Demand is steady. Meeting demand is healthy nationwide, with select markets looking to exceed last year’s numbers and select mature markets falling a bit behind. The expectation, though, is for demand growth in 2018. Group size is steady to last year with some planners discussing considerably larger group sizes for meetings later in the year.

Meeting lengths are tightening up, and the average meeting for 2018 is projected to last just two days. Off-shore or remote meetings are longer, given transportation logistics getting to islands or more distant resorts. 

Making it personal. Planners are looking to hotels and resorts to create meeting environments that empower attendees to be introspective, inspire engagement, openness, honesty, transparency and epiphanies that are mutually beneficial to the attendee and their organization. Those properties stepping up let loose with a little whimsy that stimulates joy, spontaneity, appreciation and fun during the meeting experience.

What’s next? Powell sees on-site virtual entertainment as an emerging trend for next year’s list. “One of our newest properties recently opened its own virtual reality center, cinema and café,” he said.

Empowered with the knowledge of these trends, operators should embrace change. “Meeting group client and guests needs requires innovation and continuous improvement.” HB