At last, it seems the meeting industry can breathe a collective sigh of relief. After years of worrying whether the economy would take another dip or how things would play out for the industry, The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) in early April significantly increased its forecast for the year, driven in large part by healthy corporate profits, rising management confidence and increased job development — a continued positive sign for the U.S. economy.
GBTA’s outlook for group travel was revised to increase 7 percent in 2014 to $126 billion — up from the 6.5 percent growth GBTA predicted last quarter.
While corporate meetings in many industries have remained relatively healthy throughout the recession, small meetings and executive retreats have increasingly come under scrutiny. Because they affect fewer people — and thus can be seen to have less valuable results for the expenditure — and can be perceived as “splashy” spending that only benefits upper management, many small meetings face the prospect of being replaced by lesser digital versions or phased out.
Always an inventive group, planners have responded to these challenges by showing why small meetings and executive retreats serve a crucial role for corporations. Planners today are engineering the intangible: intimate meetings that spark genuine connections among attendees.
As technology has become ever more integrated into meetings, and the recession has made budget and ROI come into focus more than ever, many fear that meetings — particularly small, face-to-face meetings — are in danger of losing out in the digital revolution. According to Meeting Professionals International’s Outlook 2014, 54 percent of meeting professionals are using digital or hybrid meetings.
But corporate planners — and their companies — still believe in the significance of face-to-face interaction. MPI’s study, based on a survey of meeting planners around the globe conducted by Association Insights, reports that only 3 percent of meeting planners are using virtual and hybrid to completely replace face-to-face meetings.
One of the key ways planners are continuing to demonstrate the value of in-person interaction is by putting extra effort into fostering attendee interaction through the specific spaces they’re choosing for their meetings. “I deal with investor meetings, executive retreats, strategy summits, board meetings and dinners, and corporate golf and tennis tournaments here and have in the past for other small- and medium-sized businesses that I’ve worked for, and I’ve found that companies are going more towards smaller venues,” explains Christine M. Eggert, CAP, MCT, executive assistant and office supervisor at Ewing, New Jersey-based Celator Pharmaceuticals Inc.
“I find that small venues are great because they provide us with personal attention in a private setting. It’s very important for our people to maximize interaction among attendees. I see better interaction when it’s a relaxed setting,” she says. “For instance, when I’m looking out of town, I don’t look for a conference room but rather a hotel suite living room, because there is more comfort there but there is still catering capability and the same quality of audio-visual capability. When I am booking a meeting that’s local, I insist that I go to the site before booking to check it out and make sure it has the meeting space we’re looking for but it’s also intimate.”
Increasingly, venues are responding to planners’ need for intimate spaces that foster interaction by renovation or restricting their venues to create unique spaces. In an interview in the MPI report, Darren Temple of the MPI Dallas Fort Worth Chapter and chief sales officer for the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau explains that the CVB is planning to reconfigure their ballroom space to accommodate these requests for smaller meeting and multi-use spaces.
“It’s about unique spaces for people to collaborate. We think that’s what meeting planners are requesting. There’s an emphasis on education and ways to collaborate. Sometimes that takes place in very small environments,” Temple says in the report.
Hilton Worldwide also has already responded to this need by launching a small-meeting-specific planning tool in November of last year as part of their Connect online meeting-planning portal. Called “Meetings Simplified,” the tool highlights properties that offer packages for 25 or few attendees with Wi-Fi, flip charts and beverages automatically included, and options for meals and guest rooms.
As the meeting planning business picks up and expands, hotels have been reacting to the increase in demand as basic economics dictates, raising prices when they can’t increase supply. But while planners around the U.S have been struggling to find space for many of their events, small and executive meetings are experiencing an interesting inverse of that: increased hotel availability and attention as venues look to cater to this market share.
Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI) has responded to this need on the part of small meeting planners by creating the U-200 Gems Collection — a new specialty segment of their portfolio that highlights more than 20 member hotels with 200 rooms or fewer. “These gems can provide a wonderful, secluded atmosphere for your group, which can be particularly appealing if you have a very tight-knit group, one that requires privacy or total confidentiality, or one that wishes to utilize the property’s beautiful public spaces for private functions,” says David Gabri, president and CEO of ALHI in a statement on the new collection. “These hotels and resorts also enable smaller groups to be the main program at their property, which can have its benefits too.”
For planners looking to engineer an event that fosters interaction and breeds connection, buy-in from hotel staff is a key piece of the puzzle. “Besides booking early to make sure you get the space you want, I think having a terrific rapport with the site is one of the most important parts of planning small meetings, because if they know you’re organized and detailed oriented, they’re more likely to bend over backward,” explains Eggert.
Karie Timion, marketing director at Plymouth, Minnesota-based Matrix Communications Inc., agrees. “The success of our Grenada trip began far before we arrived with the talented assistance of Antonecia Sweeting, Sandals group events coordinator, and Francine Stewart, Sandals resort sales manager. Antonecia worked with me remotely prior to our trip to ensure our group was registered accurately and our group celebration dinner was planned down to the last detail.
“In general, we have found the Sandals brand focuses on complete customer satisfaction, and it aligns perfectly with what our organization looks for in a resort and destination.” — Karie Timion
“On the property, I began working with Francine Stewart, and I knew from the moment I met her that our group was in very good hands. She took care of our group with grace and excellence that made our entire party feel like we were the only guests she had to attend to on the entire island. Francine went above and beyond to always make herself available to assist during the entire stay to ensure our group was completely satisfied,” adds Timion.
“In general, we have found the Sandals brand focuses on complete customer satisfaction, and it aligns perfectly with what our organization looks for in a resort and destination,” says Timion. “You can always rely on Sandals as they focus on the ultimate experience for their guests.”
When hotel staff treats your attendees as if they are special guests, they feel increased connection to the location, event and each other. Carol A. Monaco, executive assistant of Netherlands-headquartered Damco Distribution Services Inc., has experienced this during her company’s executive retreat at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. “We’re a company that provides service to clients, so we know how important that is, and we want people to come back to us.” Monaco, who is located in Damco’s Madison, New Jersey, office, explains, “One thing that stood out for us during our executive retreat at The Broadmoor was definitely their customer service. The moment you check in to when you’re having breakfast to when people are just walking by, people who work at the hotel greet you by name.”
“One thing that stood out for us during our executive retreat at The Broadmoor was definitely their customer service. The moment you check in to when you’re having breakfast to when people are just walking by, people who work at the hotel greet you by name.”
— Carol A. Monaco
Like Eggert and Timion, Monaco has found that securing a connection with hotel staff early on in the planning process goes a long way to ensure an intimate event that goes off with a hitch. “We originally went last November to speak to the folks that would handle our account, and they were wonderful,” Monaco explains. “We went back in January, and there wasn’t anything that wasn’t covered. They work with you, and they will do anything they can to make sure you are completely happy. The food, the facilities, the cleanliness, and we had quite a few things that we did offsite that they arranged for us and all went perfectly.”
Planners have long understood the value of giving meeting attendees an experience they couldn’t have anywhere else as a way to bond them, but today, one of the best ways to do so is to tie your activities to your location.
The days of flying in top singers, bands or comedy headliners are gone, and not just because of budget. When you provide attendees with an activity or experience you could only have in the location you’re in, it provides an extra element of exclusivity that also ties in to the rest of the meeting and reinforces the memory of the event for attendees.
Timion has planned incentive trips for her company’s “President’s Club” for 13 years, and this year, she found a way to make the flight home into an experience attendees won’t soon forget. On the way back from Grenada, the flight scheduled necessitated that her group have a long layover in Miami. Rather than have attendees pass the time in the airport, she arranged an excursion into Miami’s most exciting neighborhood for the afternoon. “The group ventured out to South Beach to check out the local fare on the way home. It turned a long travel day into yet one more day of vacation in the sun,” she says.
When Monaco held her executive retreat at The Broadmoor, the hotel delivered everything she could have hoped for as far as the meeting was concerned, but it was the activities the hotel helped her organize that really stayed with attendees. “All our meetings were at the hotel, and they had the Cheyenne Lodge located on their premise, a seven-minute drive up a mountain,” she explains. “We went up with provided vans for dinner one evening, and a local woman who raises wolves as her pets brought them into the lodge during dinner. We did it to surprise my boss because it was his birthday. They were very sweet, and there were a couple (of pets) that were there for an hour. People were petting them, and it was a very surprising experience.”
The Broadmoor’s 6,300-sf Cheyenne Lodge, adjacent to the Mountain golf course, offers both indoor and outdoor event and conference space.
“One night we had dinner offsite at the Olympic Training Center (in Colorado Springs),” she continues. “The chef from The Broadmoor came and cooked for us and three Olympic gymnasts performed for us. They don’t just let anyone have dinner there. We were able to go because The Broadmoor has a relationship.”
Relying on the relationships of the venue and their staff allows planners to create an experience for attendees that highlights parts of the meeting location planners might not know about otherwise. “For our incentive, we had 30 attendees, basically the employee who had been awarded the trip and their guests,” says Timion. “Sandals LaSource Grenada had just opened December 2013, and the property was incredible from the room configurations, amenities, décor, waterfalls, pools, which were all over-the-top gorgeous.”
But rather than stick with beach and pool time, she followed the hotel’s recommendations to integrate an exploration of Grenada, including St. Georges, the capital of the Grenada, known for its market square where locals shop for fresh fruit and fish. “We had a sunset cruise along the coast of Grenada organized by Island Routes, the Sandals excursion desk, and a trip to St. Georges to experience the local market and restaurants,” she says.
Deciding who travels and when is a decision that ultimately comes down to senior management, but it appears that more and more meetings are taking place across city, state and country lines.
MPI’s Outlook 2014 reports that 30 percent of respondents are using digital or hybrid components to integrate onsite and remote meeting elements. “Videoconferencing has become more widely used, and we’re using conference calling more,” says Eggert. “If we’re so busy in one area of the country, we can’t be everywhere, so we might meet individuals in New York, but then need to ‘meet’ individuals in San Francisco in another hour.”
“Most meetings can be WebEx, and most of mine are,” agrees Danell Smith-Wright, senior executive assistant, meeting planner, at Hillsboro, Oregon-based Grass Valley USA LLC. “Not board meetings, obviously. We have 100 percent attendance for those, though I suppose if one of the members had to be teleconferenced in you could, but that would be on an emergency basis.
“The CEO makes the call on whether a meeting should be face-to-face or digital, sometimes based on information I don’t have, but there is always a specific reason for a face-to-face meeting. In my experience, it’s been because he wants to impart some critical information to the leadership team to do with acquisitions, layoffs, reorganization or information that he needs to share and would like to share that face-to-face.”
“But with our technological tools, we’re able to not necessarily have face-to-face meetings or need them that often,” she explains. “I’m located in Northern California, and so we’re always looking at what kind of tools we can use to have cost savings and increase efficiency.
“Leadership team members don’t need to fly across the country to have a meeting, we can use tools like WebEx and even Skype once in a while, to have digital face-to-face meetings and be just as effective. We use other technology to share documentation, like DropBox, then everyone has the documents and we jump on, and we’re all set, says Smith-Wright.”
The MPI study also found that 24 percent of meeting planners are using digital or hybrid tools to enhance face-to-face meetings. Increased incorporation of technology into small meetings often has more to do with ease than need, however. While planners once risked wasting valuable meeting time making sure everyone was properly connected to a video conference or online PowerPoint presentation, the mainstreaming of digital meeting technologies — along with lower prices that are easier to fit into budgets — has made it more of a no-brainer to incorporate a digital element into meetings.
“I find that now technology is easier and more affordable,” Eggert explains. “Recently we got involved with Office 365, and I personally ran a workshop recently that used Microsoft Lync. The whole webinar, including video, PowerPoint and audio, ran online from the beginning, and it was a cinch. It’s extremely affordable, just $2 or $5 per month per user. Now you don’t necessarily have to purchase GoToMeeting because you can do it so much more affordably now.”
While you may keep seeing sensational headlines touting that digital is killing face-to-face meetings or that small meetings are getting the budget axe, planners’ experiences, hotel programs and raw data still speak to the contrary.
Companies, particularly upper management, continue to see the value in small meetings for connecting employees for meaningful results, strategizing and delivering key information, while planners work more closely than ever with venues to create intimate meetings in unique spaces that make successful small meetings practically a guaranteed result. C&IT