Neither hoteliers, nor meeting planners themselves, can afford to ignore the preferences of the most rapidly growing demographic within corporate America. Millennials, aka Generation Y, are often defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. According to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, Gen Y surpassed Gen X to become the largest share of the American work force in the first quarter of 2015. By 2020, they are expected to comprise almost half the work force.
Hoteliers know this is a customer they need to focus on, and certain brands, such as Starwood’s Aloft and Hilton’s Curio, are especially geared toward that segment.
“You can’t do a sales or summit meeting for millennials without it being active and interactive. You can’t show them an experience; they have to be a part of that experience.”
— Amber Allen
“Our clientele is made up of the new emerging global traveler — those that are hyperconnected, hypercurious and hypercommunal,” says Paige Francis, vice president of global brand management with Starwood’s Specialty Select Brands. Sandra Heydt, director of sales and marketing at The Logan Philadelphia, Curio Collection by Hilton, also stresses the prevalence of the millennial customer, having observed a high percentage of them in advertising, legal, fashion, technology, retail and political organizations, and in the meetings those organizations conduct.
“It’s important to note that many organizations have young associates and millennials in support roles, and they plan happy hours and networking events for their organization to drive engagement and collaboration with their coworkers,” Heydt says. “Additionally, the technology sector has exploded in the past 10 years, with meetings becoming more of a dynamic way to roll out new products. Many technology companies also use meetings as platforms to drive employee engagement via social media and other avenues.”
By partnering with hotels that cater to millennials, the planners of these meetings go a long way toward engaging their audience. Numerous aspects of the hotel environment, including event space flexibility, local flavor, F&B service and technology, can make the experience Gen Y-friendly.
Millennials are not opposed to traditional meeting rooms, but they also tend to enjoy gathering in a variety of informal spaces. “As these groups continue to grow, we’ve noticed that more areas in our hotels are being utilized for meetings beyond our tactic rooms,” Francis observes. “Since all Aloft Hotels are fully equipped with fast and free Wi-Fi as well as ample charging stations, on any given day there could be brainstorming sessions being hosted in the lobby over a game of pool, or during happy hour at the WXYZ bar. We’ve even noticed huddle sessions held poolside on sunny days.”
Part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, The Highland Dallas is a prime example of a hotel that offers event space flexibility. The 198-room boutique hotel is certainly well stocked in traditional meeting spaces, with an overall 13,490 sf including the 6,470-sf Opus Grand Ballroom, Fresco and Impressionist meeting rooms, and Maestro Boardroom. But the hotel is open to planners using nontraditional event spaces in order to design meetings with a spontaneous feel that appeals to millennials.
Amber Allen, CEO of Austin, Texas-based Double A Events, has partnered with The Highland Dallas to create a dynamic meeting for a major U.S. multinational technology company and Anderson Merchandisers that extended well beyond the meeting rooms.
With numerous clients in the video game industry and other areas of high tech, Allen (a millennial herself) understands that a straightforward general-session-and-breakouts format won’t keep these professionals fully engaged. Says Allen, “We focus on how to make the conference not boring, how to get them out of the ballrooms and mix it up. You have to get them out of there after three hours or you lose their attention. The problem with some hotels is that they only think ballrooms and conference room breakouts.”
It wasn’t a problem at The Highland Dallas. “Literally they let us take over their entire hotel,” says Allen. For example, the group utilized the top-floor storage space for a live-music event in an industrial setting (the idea was suggested by Sarah Springer, the hotel’s catering sales and conference services manager — also a millennial).
A digital scavenger hunt included part of the restaurant and lobby, where attendees also created music videos and engaged in fun challenges. “We had executives in their 20s running down the stairs going to the lobby area where the next challenge was,” Allen recalls. “You can’t do a sales or summit meeting for millennials without it being active and interactive. You can’t show them an experience; they have to be a part of that experience.” The conference concluded in the pool area where attendees enjoyed drinks and conversation about their experience, complemented by live feeds from their iPads to the TVs.
“The Highland Dallas couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for our national meeting,” says Mark DuBose, director of client services, Anderson Merchandisers. “Finding a hotel that meshed with program culture was critical, and a young, modern vibe was just what we were looking for. …Our event couldn’t have been more memorable and team motivating.”
As compelling as planners can make the onsite experience, “Gen Y attendees want to experience the city when they travel,” says Judy Anderson, CMP, director, meetings and travel with Grapevine, Texas-based GameStop, “so that’s what we give them.” The meetings Anderson plans are typically 85–90 percent Gen Y, which is to be expected in the video game industry, and they look for “the total package” when it comes to the meeting experience, she notes.
Thus, a hotel caters to millennials in part by being in a location that these attendees will want to explore. “We secure hotels that offer a competitive rate, available (hopefully comp) Wi-Fi and an engaging location,” says Anderson. “Within four to six blocks of the hotel there must be restaurants, bars/nightlife and things to do/see to keep our attendees engaged and excited about the event. This is a tall order, but our team is successful at securing hotels in a great area for our attendees.”
Hoteliers can facilitate the exploration of the neighborhood through concierge services or specialized programs. For example, The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte recently introduced a new option for event planners — Meetings on the Grid, which allows attendees to network while experiencing the city of Charlotte “like a local,” including the thriving craft beer, recreation, art and entertainment scenes in nearby neighborhoods.
Several offsite meeting venues can be booked through the program, such as Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Music Factory and the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
The Logan Philadelphia, Curio Collection by Hilton, brings local flavor inside the hotel walls with artwork that “connects all guests to the story of Philadelphia’s evolution by making the city the thread that ties the design together,” says Heydt. “Regarding Curio – a Collection by Hilton as a whole, each hotel is a part of the city it calls home — embodying the distinct culture and spirit of its communities.”
Starwood’s Aloft brand also integrates local culture in an artistic way, via a social element. “Social offerings like Aloft’s ‘Live at Aloft Hotels’ intimate acoustic performances enable guests to enjoy the local culture while enjoying a hand-crafted cocktail in the WXYZ bars,” Francis notes. “For example, Aloft Liverpool, located in the city that’s home to one of the world’s most famous bands, The Beatles, has built a strong cult-like following through the Live at Aloft Hotels series as a way to showcase the area’s history and emerging artists, as well as pack their WXYZ bar with regulars.”
A more literal “local flavor” comes from destination-inspired F&B offerings, which answers to the foodie trend that is especially strong with millennials. “This is where The Logan Philadelphia truly shines thanks to our Urban Farmer Restaurant and banquet offerings,” Heydt says. “The farm-to-table/food sustainability movement has become incredibly important to this generation, and it is a huge selling point for us vs. our competition in the Philadelphia market.”
The Ritz-Carlton serves up numerous experiences with local food across its properties. Examples include The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island’s Honey Break, served by the resort’s beekeeper with both honeycomb and honey-infused treats; The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas’ “Sea to Sails” experience, where guests greet the fishermen daily and hand-select their fish and lobsters; and The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis’ themed coffee breaks with pretzels, local Fitz Root Beer and Kaldi’s Coffee served to the sounds of jazz.
“Tailoring custom experiences for attendees has always been a priority for us, and today the localization of those experiences has become extremely popular,” says John Harper, vice president, sales with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.
Healthful options also are important to Gen Y, Allen adds. As hors d’oeuvres, “we did these cups with hummus and veggies, so it’s easy for them to walk around and use their other hand for their phone.”
Also well received were trendy items such as liquid nitrogen popcorn and interactive F&B experiences such as a hot chocolate bar where attendees could create their drinks. “They want to create their own experiences and choices in their food,” Allen observes.
According to some experts, 93 percent of millennials say they want a job where they can be themselves at work, and that includes dressing in a way that makes them comfortable and stylish. Thus, the trend is for more and more hotels to design staff uniforms (often millennials) that also are appealing to millennial meeting-goers.
The recently debuted Hilton West Palm Beach visited sleek bars in Manhattan to develop looks that would speak to trendy millennials, while channeling the popular “Palm Beach Chic” look. Valet staff wear all black Shell Top Adidas, known as Superstars. Bartenders flaunt leather vests and baristas wear trendy flat caps.
In Houston, the JW Marriott Houston Downtown called upon local designer David Peck to create a wardrobe for their associates.
“Traditional uniforms can mask individuality so we wanted the JW Marriott Houston Downtown associates to stand out and feel confident,” said Peck. “The employees have to wear the clothes all day, so they need styles that last, would pop, but not be too cumbersome. Everyone loves that the clothes are made here, and the quality is better than you would typically find in a standard hotel uniform.” The wardrobe includes elongated pencil skirts, jackets with defined shoulders, sheath dresses and blouses with neckties.
“The inspiration for the wardrobe program came from the building itself and its rich heritage,” said Peck. “I love that it was Houston’s first skyscraper and that it has been brought back to its original splendor. The hotel’s thoughtfully curated art program, its iconic architectural design and décor and its exquisite attention to detail inspired us to create a wardrobe program that the associates could have in their own closets and make personal, but still remain put-together, stylish and appropriate for a luxury hotel.”
Most hotel guests, and millennials in particular, appreciate the latest technological conveniences. Aloft is Starwood’s frontrunner when it comes to tech innovations. “Many of our team members are testing these innovations at home so that we truly understand how it works and, in turn, can better understand the guest experience,” says Francis.
She discusses some of the brand’s latest developments: “Aloft Hotels became the first hotel brand to ‘employ’ a robotic butler, Botlr. Other high-tech experiences that attract millennials include SPG Keyless, an evolution of Aloft’s Smart Check-in, which allows guests to use their smartphone as their room key. We also are currently testing Smart Carpet, voice-activated technologies (imagine asking your room for a toothbrush!) and other ways to marry technology with the guest experience.
“Our guests are the first in line to buy new smartphones and test new high-tech toys for their home, so why should their hotel stay be any different?”
In the mobile app arena, The Ritz-Carlton App is a particularly robust example. In addition to mobile check-in and check-out, the app includes features such as real-time service requests, food and beverage ordering, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards account review, hotel offers review, concierge tips powered by the brand’s FourSquare “World Concierge,” and Travel Poster memories for attendees to download and share.
In terms of connectivity, hoteliers are increasingly catering to millennials’ desire for free Wi-Fi, but capacity for live streaming is an area that could stand to be improved in many cases, Allen points out. “I really wish more hotels would get this. We have to stream these events, (and we need) an Internet that is strong enough because these millennial tech companies have offices all over the world. They’ll sign on because they’re so used to streaming things in Twitch anyway, so they just stream the conference on a separate monitor at their desk. The Highland Dallas was really good at understanding that I just needed a straight fiber line in, but a lot of (hotels) really don’t get that.”
Most hoteliers do “get” the social media trend and are continually finding ways to use these media in their outreach to planners and groups. For example, Ritz-Carlton’s Art of Meetings Pinterest page is intended to inspire planners to craft, photograph and share images of memorable events by The Ritz-Carlton.
The company’s social media team curates images of meeting setups, F&B presentations and indoor and outdoor venues.
But it’s not just about hoteliers being active in social media; it’s also about facilitating its use by attendees as part of the event. For instance, The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte offers as many as four breaks and room turns during a single morning or afternoon session, so that participants can take a few minutes every hour to audit social media. (The hotel also can set up a customized Spotify playlist for attendees to enjoy while on break.)
In addition, hotels are facilitating live social media feeds at meetings and special events. “During our Live At Aloft Hotels concerts, there was a real-time screen on display during each performance that showed live social media updates from guests and attendees,” notes Francis. “We are always looking for fun new ways to make an experience more interactive with social media.”
While millennials are keen on interactivity, Allen stresses that a certain balance must be maintained during sessions. “It’s still a job, and you’re still teaching them; otherwise, you’re not running the meeting, the millennials are. So you’ve got to keep your sessions to where you’re still respecting your speakers,” she explains. “The easy way to do that is you give them a private Facebook page as a forum — because ‘I don’t want my boss to see my page’ is their attitude. And then as they’re in the sessions they can go in and ask their questions. And then after the presentation we go into that forum, and we can read off the questions and provide the answers, so they’re still getting their say.”
Hoteliers’ initiatives to cater to Gen Y can have a lighter side, but overall it’s serious business. Developing brand loyalty in younger clientele is critical in any industry, and every hotelier wants to ensure they engage the guest — and meeting attendee — of the future. C&IT