Small. Simple. Short.
As the meetings industry awakens from the shock, uncertainty and upheaval caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, events organizers are reinventing ways to build community, celebrate achievements, and engage attendees for positive and productive results. To survey respondents of the “2021 Global Meetings and Events Forecast” sponsored by American Express — 560+ meetings and events professionals and 16 industry experts — this means a focus on small, simple meetings of shorter duration than previous years, and “in all formats, i.e., in-person, hybrid and virtual.” Other trends cited in the survey results include continued emphasis on health and safety protocols, as well as increased bookings at local, non-traditional venues, and outdoor spaces in inspirational settings.
Maureen Sloan, CTA, manager, global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, agrees that “Meeting sizes are smaller now. In executive retreats, where spouses were previously also attending, they’re now excluded in some cases,” perhaps due to budget constraints, COVID fallout or a combination of both. “Or in the case of incentive trips for sales professionals, the qualifications may be even tougher to get to go on the trips,” she says. Sloan also sees a shift in selecting meeting locations among her clients. “Whereas some retreats were further away, requiring airfare, they now opt to use a destination within a two-hour drive distance.”
Ronnie Weber, area director of operations for Convene, a company providing world-class meeting and conference venues, says, when it comes to timing, the industry is just now starting to see booking windows as far as three months out for meetings that can be planned on short notice. From a big-picture perspective, “As more companies gear up to return to work, confidence is growing and people are planning for either their return to the office, team gatherings, board meetings or in-person client meetings,” she says.
Despite the trend toward small, simple meetings of shorter duration, industry insiders, such as Carol Galle, president and CEO of Special D Events, say that doesn’t make things easier, whether coordinating events for five, 25 or 50 participants. “As every planner knows, planning a small meeting can be just as time consuming as a large one,” she says. As a business owner herself, who says she left her brick-and-mortar building in 2020, like her clients, she wonders, “How do I reinforce our culture and build a team when we don’t see each other on a daily basis?” She says, “As a leader, I will need to work harder to build community.” Galle’s solution, and for many of her clients, is regular face-to-face meetings and events. “We plan to hold face-to-face events quarterly, for instance,” she says. “So, I predict employee meetings will soar in the coming months. Work from home isn’t going away. With employees at all levels of organizations working remotely now, having smaller, more personal and more frequent meet-ups can replace that sense of community people lose when they are no longer face-to-face on a daily basis.”
To build community, Weber finds that more emphasis is being placed on the ‘post-event’ with happy hour and receptions complementing meetings and events again. “As people start to come back together for the first time, they are looking to connect and prefer to keep this portion at the same venue to avoid transportation and the need for additional contact at a second venue,” she says.
Showcasing small meetings provides an exceptional opportunity for events organizers to plan differently when it comes to choosing meeting sites. For client meetings, Galle prefers something that is isolated and inspirational for retreats. Sloan agrees: “When executives are away from the responsibilities of everyday work, in an environment conducive to relaxation and inspiration, so much more gets done in a tranquil setting,” she says. “The togetherness, cuisine, views and off-site experiences can bring colleagues closer together. Inspiration, productivity and camaraderie should result.”
As far as the particular type of desired venues for small meetings and executive retreats, Weber recommends a distraction-free environment that has been thoughtfully designed to foster collaboration. The amenities conducive for the best brainstorming run everywhere from “natural light in the room, to ample built-in power for laptops and cell phones, to whiteboards for collaboration and all-day coffee and beverage service, and snacks that are always available for that extra kick to keep the creative juices flowing,” she says.
Galle says, “Non-traditional venues can be interesting for one-day sessions, but for multi-day events, we recommend a smaller resort or boutique hotel.” Sloan’s preference for her client meetings is also a mid- to small-sized hotel that has ample meeting space, that is also tech-friendly with a flexible A/V team, and in a nice setting, such as a beach, mountain or wine country where there are options for dining and entertainment in the evenings. “A knowledgeable and attentive sales manager is key also,” she says.
In the sphere of non-traditional meeting venues, Val Streif, marketing manager for GetMyBoat, observes: “Boat rentals have grown in popularity drastically over the past 18 months, as people have been in need of venues for small events that are socially distanced, outdoors, and regularly cleaned and sanitized,” she says. “Even with the pandemic subsiding in many locations, boats have remained a popular choice for hosting events, even for businesses. Yachts are a fantastic way to show your employees appreciation for their hard work and host business-related events.”
Most importantly, keep in mind, Galle says, “If team building or providing a sense of community is one of the meeting goals, ‘right sizing’ is key.” She adds, “Bringing a smaller group to a large hotel just isn’t the right vibe. Consider the benefits of choosing a venue in which you will be a ‘big fish.’ If you need service on-site and you are the smallest group in house, you may find it challenging.”
Service comes into play in other ways as well, advises Sloan: “Some hotels are quite large, with many meeting rooms, and would rather save meeting space for groups that will occupy more sleeping rooms, which equals more revenue for them,” she says. “They may turn down these groups, or charge higher rates on food and sleeping rooms. When they do accept them, the attendees may feel overlooked by busy conference service managers (CSM’s) managing all the meeting spaces as a result. Or if they opt to book a smaller hotel to be the ‘big group,’ the meeting space in these properties may be limited or not available.”
Unlike Galle, Weber thinks the benefit of having a small meeting is that they are seamless to plan and execute. “But there is a common misconception that a boardroom or more intimate gathering should be inexpensive,” Weber says. “To ensure a seamless meeting, you still want to have the best technology, food and beverage and, most importantly, a hospitality team to welcome and serve your guests.”
Yet, Sloan suggests that maybe some businesses don’t have the budget they had pre-COVID, so they might be forced to spend less with reduced budgets. She finds that many executive retreats choose leisure destinations, which have been especially inundated with visitors since the vaccines became available. “Prices have really sky-rocketed at resort properties” such as Hawaii, she says.
Still, Weber says that, among her clientele, most recently, they are seeing a “65% increase in physical, virtual and hybrid events booked for the trailing 12 weeks, with banking and financial services, nonprofits/associations, e-learning an education, technology, pharma & health care leading the return, in that order. And companies are investing more in each event.” She adds, “Our 2022 booked meetings revenue is pacing 155% ahead of where we were at over the same period in 2019, with the average revenue per event increasing by 70%.”
In her experience, Galle also notes that smaller groups don’t have the same buying power as groups hosting larger meetings, a potential hurdle that she thinks can be minimized by using a meeting planning agency. For instance, “Instead of just bringing one small meeting to a hotel,” she says, “we bring multiple programs and our clients reap the financial benefits.”
In addition to minimizing costs, Weber says another benefit of coordinating meeting services with a single company “means we absorb a lot of the complexity that comes with hosting hybrid meetings, which comes with small meetings, too,” she says. “From start to finish, you don’t have to worry about any tech issues, presentations or designing the space to ensure everyone is engaged each step of the way.” Plus, Weber notes, “We’re also able to share our insights with the team after the meeting finishes to show how engaged attendees were.”
Streif mentions another potential challenge for meeting attendees aboard boat rentals: Not every boat outing is accompanied by fair winds and calm seas, for example. “Unfortunately, not everyone loves being on the water, and people who experience seasickness might not appreciate being on a boat,” she says. “It is also far more dependent on weather conditions than traditional meeting places/event venues.”
Events organizers cite a host of desirable client amenities when booking small meetings and executive retreats, similar to those planners seek for larger meetings. Weber cites client requests for “beautifully designed spaces, delicious, nourishing meal options and access to technology. We know that food is an important part of communities, and this isn’t forgotten in the boardroom,” she says. “Our executive chefs work with local food suppliers and partner-farms to create inspired renditions of classic dishes for clients and teams to bond over.” Sloan’s clients appreciate having breakfast included, as well as “free bottled water replenished daily, reduced or free parking fees, waived resort fees, and an upgrade to a suite for the board or company president.”
Planning small meetings aboard boats, however, comes with additional desirable amenities, such as having a captain and crew member, yachts with bars onboard, catering vendors and connections to make arranging food and drinks easy, sound systems for listening to music, equipment to set up presentations such as microphones, a screen with projector, and sometimes entertainment such as live music, Streif says.
To ensure a successful small meeting or executive retreat outcome, industry experts recommend several best tips and practices, starting with the RFP. “Make sure you ask all the questions up front,” Sloan says, including: “What is your attrition policy? What amenities can you offer? Can fees be waived or reduced [such as parking, A/V, resort and Wi-Fi]? Does the hotel offer bonus loyalty points to groups? When was your last renovation? Does the destination have a CVB offering meeting incentives?” In addition, she advises: “Alert the hotel that if the experience is great, you will return.” And for sure, “Carefully review cancellation and deposit policies.” Plus, don’t be afraid to negotiate a better deal on your client’s behalf. Sloan shares a recent negotiation for a medical client’s executive retreat. “I normally contract for additional days pre- and post-stay after the meeting,” she says. “This time, the extra rooms would not be granted at the group rate I contracted at $369, but they cited a ‘gray area’ seldom used, saying, ‘It’s our discretion to grant additional rooms upon availability and/or at the group rate.’ Well, the rooms were available, but they wanted an additional $300 per room per night as well as the $78 resort fee, which I had gotten waived. The demand for resorts in Hawaii — Maui in particular — is so high. It was difficult, but I eventually came to a better result.”
As the content of executive retreats is often confidential, Galle provides several strategies to maintain client privacy, such as minimizing public signage at the venue because advertising your presence may attract unwanted attention. She suggests sharing meeting locations with attendees electronically. On the site visit, also test to see if the meetings space is sound proof. In addition, planners should negotiate the venue contract to prevent competitors from booking space at the venue while your event is in house; sweep the meetings space and surrounding area during breaks and then at teardown because planners must ensure clients leave nothing confidential behind; and bring a shredder on-site if the volume of print material will be significant and disposable.
When booking a meeting aboard a boat, Streif offers several suggestions for meeting success. “Clearly communicate all the details of the meeting to the boat captain so all expectations can be met,” she says. “Keep in mind if you have any employees with disabilities for whom boating may be challenging, communicate that with the captain and make sure the boat is wheelchair accessible or other disability friendly.” Also, Streif recommends, “Only book a boat charter with a captain instead of a bareboat rental.” Why? “You’ll want to be able to focus your attention fully on your team, so even if renting a smaller boat, having someone who is not associated with the company do the driving is the best bet.” Streif reminds planners to “Be flexible, as weather is unpredictable, and will dictate whether or not a boat will be a good idea for an event.” Additionally, Streif notes: “Make sure to be transparent about how many people are coming on board. In a restaurant or normal venue, there’s always extra food in the kitchen in case extra people show up. On a boat, that is usually not the case, and the crew is leaving with a very specific quantity of food, drinks, etc.” Finally, says Streif, “Make it fun. Have icebreaker games or other things to do, as everyone will be in relatively small quarters together, so keeping it lighthearted and pleasant is essential.”
Weber advises planners to hire a team that has the ability to do everything under one roof. “You don’t want to have to deal with the headache of working with multiple teams.” She acknowledges that “Planning meetings of all sizes can be challenging, but as long as you have a team of professionals, technology and space to keep your audience engaged, you’ll be set up for success.”
Sloan adds: “Show you care about your group, and that what you’re asking for is for their benefit. A great experience for others is what you’re planning. A smart sales manager will do their best to accommodate them because they’ll be back and earn more business, get great online reviews and obtain long-term customers and great referrals.” C&IT