With new technological disruption and rapidly gestating trends taking hold for other key revenue streams for hotels, the department that runs your meetings, conferences and events is next to feel the pressure to innovate.
That pressure is coming mainly from the modern changes to how FITs behave and consume, and the halo effect of this leisure travel evolution onto other market segments. While there is a myriad of new guest expectations, one in particular is the desire to fully experience a destination, which is presented to us in the form of ‘living like a local’, ‘authentic’ activities or excursions, ‘locally produced’ or ‘artisanal’ products, ‘craft’ or ‘house-made’ F&B and a plethora of other instances.
In short, people crave unique and memorable experiences. At first, they only sought these out for their vacations, but now with the vast proliferation of bleisure or hybrid business-plus-leisure travel, it’s quite reasonable to suspect that this demand will creep into the business and group travel arenas.
Learning from Airbnb
One of the greatest catalysts for this evolution has been the sharing economy, and in particular the alternate lodging provider with over five million rooms available, Airbnb. Now larger than the sum of all other major chain on the planet, you would be wise to peruse every action take by this industry leader, specifically three key developments.
As a start, simply by offering a wide diversity of guestroom types and amenities, the reservation engine has added a profound sense of discovery as well as an element of surprise to the booking engine. With Airbnb, a room is no longer just a room; you have choice and the selection process is part of the fun. While there’s something to be said about the guarantee of uniformity when booking a big box hotel, without any unique touch points the guestroom experience is not amplified.
Next, Airbnb kept up with the zeitgeist when it deployed its Experiences platform in late 2016, giving travelers a safe channel by which to connect with locals and partake in the best of what the destination has to offer. The demand for tours, access to events and memorable activities was already there; Airbnb simply gave its customers an easier way to procure these experiences as they no longer had to source a third-party operator.
Last to highlight here is the even more recent launch of Airbnb for Work, the company’s entrant into the corporate travel segment that offers vetted rooms as well as streamlined bookkeeping and guest monitoring within its platform. One of the key motivators for this business development was the fact that over half of Airbnb’s total bookings for last year included a Saturday night, indicating that many customers traveling for work were already extending their stays to incorporate a weekend getaway – that is, bleisure.
With millennials and centennials very often preferring alternate lodgings for their vacation accommodations, Airbnb has sensibly deduced that members of this generation would therefore feel more comfortable – and thus be more productive – by staying in one of their offerings while traveling for work over that of traditional hotel. In other words, their collective experiences for leisure trips have been partially grafted into what they now expect for business or group travel.
A Slow Start for Experiential Meetings
Knowing that experiences are important to guests of all segments will already help to clue you into the fact that your meetings and groups business can no longer solely rely on price, locations and essential services as the driving forces for sales. You need to offer something extraordinary, an activity that gets all five senses working or a signature moment that differentiates your product from all others.
After all, if all you have to compete on are the three abovementioned points, then know that meeting planners and the organizations they represent are often quite flexible on the location of their events nowadays, they will continue to gouge you for better rates or discount until the overall deal is hardly profitable and all of your essential services can inevitably be copied by another property with the right amount of training.
The only way to survive is through the addition of experiential and emotional elements to your meetings and events, but this is far easier said than done. That’s why I stress not to try and reinvent the wheel right off the bat.
Start slow with this new initiative through little touch points to augment any conference or event. Knowing that your business guests probably don’t have a full two extra days to fill up with 12-hour excursions, you will want to investigate what short-term activities – that is, taking up less than two- or three-hours’ time – you can utilize as complements to your meeting packages. Here are some ideas:
- Incorporating onsite activities that can include teambuilding exercises or even F&B components like group tastings that feature local goods
- Cooperating with tour operators or building these internally so that business guests have the opportunity for a quick morning or afternoon sojourn to get them out of the meeting room
- Developing local retail partnerships that can provide your groups with exclusive discounts at their outlets or those that can visit your property
- Capitalizing on the wellness trend by offering a slate of spa bundles, healthy dining options, fitness classes or other forms of informative group sessions
- Promoting bleisure-driven room packages so that meeting planners and their groups are incentivized to experience more of what you have to offer before they even book
- Rethinking the physical design of your meeting, conference and event spaces to imbue more emotionality and interactivity like wall art, visually stimulating furniture or tabletop gaming units
Aside from the last point, none of these will necessitate any untenable capital expenditures if you develop a long-term plan to gradually incorporate experiences into meetings and groups. With every destination and every hotel having a different situation, what I stress is that when strategizing about this topic, you should look to ‘own’ one singular element rather than try to do everything at once.
What makes your area truly special? What is your hotel already doing that’s exceptional? How can your property become known for being the absolute best at one particular activity? If you are able to answer these questions, then that’s a great place to start developing your experiential meetings program.