As in-person meetings make a meaningful comeback after the ravages of the global COVID-19 pandemic, organizations and companies are looking ahead, asking how best to regroup, reward and incentivize teams in today’s new meetings environment.
Enter event planners ready to respond to today’s evolving meeting needs. Virtual programming? Check. Hybrid events? We’ve got you covered. Back to live meetings? Let’s go! Yet the meetings landscape looks different post-pandemic. After spending much of the last two years working remotely and with fewer meetings, the expectations of attendees for in-person events have changed, particularly when it comes to matters of health and personal well-being.
The topic was highlighted in a recent videotaped panel discussion of wellness experts hosted by Hotel Business and sponsored by Peloton Commercial. Some of the featured panelists included: Sonya Haffey, principal of V STARR; Kenneth Ryan, vice president – global operations: spa, fitness and retail at Marriott International; Anne Dimon, president/CEO of the Wellness Tourism Association (WTA) and founder/editor of TraveltoWellness.com; Kevin Edmunds, MS, CITP, vice president, meeting & incentive sales at AIC Hotel Group; Mariela McIlwraith, former chief sustainability officer of the Events Industry Council’s (EIC) Centre for Sustainability and Social Impact; Celine Vadam, WE(i) Think founder & CEO; Ryan Crabbe, senior director, commercial experience and partnerships at Peloton Interactive; and Sonal Uberoi, global wellness expert and author of “The Wellness Asset: How Wellness Can Transform and Future-Proof Your Hotel.”
Ryan acknowledges that the pandemic has heightened the importance of prioritizing personal health. “It allowed us all to pause and look at our lives individually,” Ryan says. “We saw more people working out outside, walking, hiking and the like, and also put a focus on what they’re eating.”
Dimon agrees: “What we have seen is that the one greatest things that has come out of the pandemic is people are now realizing how important making their own personal health a priority is.” In fact, she says, “The meetings and events side of wellness is bound to grow as more people are becoming more educated about how their daily lives affect their health, longevity and sense of well-being.”
Yet, despite high demand, persuading businesspeople to attend a live event requires more effort than it did pre-pandemic, Edmunds says. “Events are no longer all about business — instead, attendees insist on bringing spouses or partners, expect activities both on and off the hotel property for themselves and their families, and demand a menu of activities that allows for personalized experiences,“ he says.
McIlwraith echoes Edmunds, saying opportunities to get together in person need to be leveraged to have the greatest impact possible. “We want to make sure we design events that matter, where people come back energized and solutions are created,” she says. “The power of human connections is the ultimate renewable resource. Sustainability [and its connection to health and wellness] is about more than environmental issues. It’s about the interrelationship of people, planet and purpose, and how our decisions affect each area.”
To be sure, spa and fitness centers remain the gold standard of amenities among conference attendees when it comes to health and wellness. “In the luxury space,” Ryan says, “spa and wellness are synonymous.” Karen Devine, CITP, CEO and founder of 3D Cruise Partners, says this has even extended to meetings and events that take place on cruise ships. “Our clients look for a good spa and fitness area, no matter the size of ships, and inclusions on port offerings featuring athletic offerings for all levels,” she says. “Health and wellness activities for corporate meeting events are as important as they’ve ever been. Particularly, coming out of the last couple of years, there is renewed interest in travel with a definite application to continue health and wellness inclusions on programs.”
Still, today’s meeting attendees have elevated their expectations of wellness to encompass a more holistic approach beyond on-site fitness centers and luxury spas and what has become standard post-pandemic cleanliness and safety protocols. Meeting planners have seen more people who have adopted a wellness lifestyle who want to incorporate those elements into their travels. “At the WTA, we see two types of travelers who can fall under the umbrella of being a wellness traveler: those who already live a wellness lifestyle, and want to take that with them on the road, and those who want to use their travel time, their vacation time, their leisure travel time to actually get on a path to wellness,” Dimon says.
Location remains top of mind among corporate planners and their clients in choosing desirable sites for meetings and events. Sandra Barnhart, president of JWB Management Group/Continuing Education/University at Sea, oversees an organization that runs more than 100 meetings each year, in addition to managing meetings for organizations. “Our clients, for the most part, lead very stressful, overworked lives. As a result, we seek locations that are conducive to physical activities and have on-site gyms and spa treatments,” Barnhart says. “When on ships, we have [health- and wellness-oriented] shore excursion options in each port. We also plan optional outings for attendees to participate in, such as fishing, whale watching, hiking, surfing, golfing, tennis, etc.”
As far as specific geographical locations, Barnhart says, “We are seeing a big demand for nature walks at our Alaska cruise meetings. Nature walks can be very fulfilling; Alaska is perfect for that. The trails are endless and just beautiful.”
From heightened awareness of the importance of personal health and well-being, paired with elevated expectations of the meeting experience from attendees, comes positive opportunities for destination properties to up their game in support of overall wellness. Sally Mainprize, owner of Iron Peacock Events, notes, for instance, that health and wellness programs in events are included, or not, based on several factors.
“With some clients, free access to the hotel fitness center suffices,” she says. “Others want a daily activity.” Physical activities and spa pampering packages may be where health and wellness programs start, but for today’s discerning meeting attendee, having a choice of curated activities enhances the wellness experience. In recent client events, Mainprize has incorporated morning yoga instruction, 5K runs and Zumba activities for clients.
Michelle Zwirek, director of sales and marketing at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, notes that incorporating mindfulness and active movement into programming really depends on the client and type of meeting. “A more corporate, business-focused group usually prefers wellness elements that are very approachable, like movement breaks and healthy food options,” she says. “By contrast, if it’s a conference for mental health providers, they may want to explore the more immersive wellness offerings like meditation or sound healing.”
Zwirek emphasizes that “every client is different, so we like to collaborate with them to ensure they are aware of all the possibilities.” One popular activity at the resort has been to “incorporate elements from our Best Life-ing program, a group wellness service offered through our spa, with customizable programming available to our group clients,” she says. “Sessions can include meditation, breath work, yoga, life coaching and more as whole day, half day or a-la-carte option for attendees.”
Haffey, in the video, cites the impact of customers’ changing expectations of health and wellness. “It’s everything … from head to toe, from the moment you arrive,” she says. “That includes whether or not a person smiling when they open the door, F&B — and scent is also a big deal that sparks emotion — your comfort level, [and even] how easy is check-in?”
Vadam notes that the evolution of meetings has gone “from physical appearance to now wellness-related and how to improve overall health, sleeping, eating, moving and socializing well …,” she says.
Dimon recognizes that health and wellness has evolved to be so much more than spa and luxury, while Ryan finds more planners asking to incorporate elements of health and wellness into the meetings themselves, in addition to offering separate amenities and activities. “Can you do a wellness zone, a Zen den in addition to healthy food choices?” she asks. “Wellness is a filter that everything is being looked through.”
Well rooms, in which meeting attendees are offered a bounty of individual, curated wellness experiences within the comfort of their own guest rooms are also finding favor among planners, Haffey says. Features can include a healthy mini-bar, motivational books, mood lighting and free water, for instance. Other guests might enjoy receiving yoga mats, sleep masks, luxurious bath products and exercise programs as welcome amenities.
Toward that end, Crabbe notes that the Peloton app in partnership with Hilton represents one of the biggest shifts in promoting health and wellness. It offers the concept of “connected fitness” that can deliver motivation and fitness training to guests outside of fitness centers, providing users with live and on-demand classes in yoga, meditation, cardio, strength training and more.
Ryan notes Marriott’s successful launch of partnering in the digital space to promote health and wellness as well. “We have put wellness in the palm of our hands as a membership benefit so members can stay fit on the go with Marriott Bonvoy, which offers curated fitness classes on demand and exercises you can do in your room — meditation, yoga and visualization — among the programs,” he says.
For Devine, ensuring there is a wide variety of healthy food choices is also key to health and wellness. “There are so many different interests now — vegetarian, vegan, keto, low salt, low carb, etc. — you have to be careful and work to please as many tastes as possible,” she says. She adds that the cruise industry has responded “in amazing ways to the interest in health and wellness, from including more smoothie and juice bars with options for clients to choose their own shake or drink, to food choices locally sourced and prepared with health in mind.”
Barnhart agrees: “Nutrition, of course, is always a consideration for our guests. We keep that in mind when ordering food for breaks and meals. In fact, we organize our agendas so that meal times are spent with their guests and families,” another touchpoint in health and wellness.
For Mainprize’s clients, “The most frequent requests I receive are nutritional in scope, such as clean menus with flexibility, together with locally sourced, seasonal food items,” she says. “Consequently, those destinations that are willing to put the catering menus to the side and build the F&B offerings needed for the group are hitting it out of the park with meeting attendees.”
From the venue’s perspective, Zwirek says, along the lines of healthful eating, one trend they have noted at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa specifically is requests for more plant-based options for meals.
So has Chris Reed, vice president of global sales at The Ranch in Malibu, California, resulting in the property’s featured plant-based menu, “artfully prepared and rich in nutritious value to help further cleanse the body,” he says, along with cooking classes and garden tours.
Beyond the boundaries of hotel lodging, today’s advocates of holistic health and wellness practices seek authentic experiences and activities that take guests out in nature, such as forest bathing, sustainable and green practices, and connection with local culture, Uberoi says.
Haffey cites hotel guests who ask where a nearby path or trail is so they can take a walk or hike, while Ryan mentions how some guests seek areas where they can go on runs around the destination city and spas that use locally sourced luxury products.
“Especially now, attendees are learning they need to put their well-being first,” Reed says. “The Ranch offers natural, open-air spaces to detoxify the mind and body while reconnecting with nature. In fact, time in nature is a key component of our program, which also offers sequestered settings where guests spend their mornings hiking in the nearby mountains.”
Recognizing the importance of mental health as a current health and wellness trend, Reed says they emphasize the importance of nature, which is scientifically proven to have incredible health benefits, from reducing stress to improving creativity and focus. “Our guided hikes leave guests with a refreshed and rejuvenated mind and body as they take in the beautiful scenery,” he says. “Also on tap is a daily schedule of morning stretching, hiking [built for time, not distance, allowing all ages and fitness levels to easily participate], nap time, afternoon fitness classes, yoga, meditation and daily massage. Sound baths, acupuncture and chiropractic services are also available, any and all of which can be customized, even added into meeting programs, as requested.”
Experts agree that wellness travel is at the top of everyone’s minds right now. “But few are seeing it as an incredible opportunity in the corporate event space,” Ryan says. “By booking this type of experience for your team, not only are you ahead of what is becoming a huge trend, but you are also showing employees that you are prioritizing their health.”
And if you’re wondering where best to begin, Mainprize offers this: “You can start small and implement changes most important to your audience — one step at a time.” C&IT