Michael Cheng, Ph.D.
The dean at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University, Cheng is transforming hospitality, starting with the learner experience. He was previously a tenured associate professor and director of the Food and Beverage Program. He has subject-matter expertise in competency-based learning, hospitality management, Culinology, food product development, restaurant development, sensory analysis, and food and beverage management. Visit hospitality.fiu.edu
The abruptness of COVID-19 has caused many of us in the hospitality and meetings industry to stop in our tracks and pause for a minute. At first, we thought it was a temporary pause on life as we know it, on the way we socialize and the way we do meetings. But as the layoffs and furloughs started mounting in the hospitality industry, we began to realize this didn’t resemble anything normal. At the same time, restaurants, bars, hotels and conference centers were trying to determine their next move. As the weeks became months, it was evident that new health and safety protocols were going to be implemented when the economy reopened, and there was a new need to address and allay attendees’ fears over dining together. As a result, I project five group dining trends that will affect the corporate meetings industry emerging in a post-pandemic world:
Trend #1 Transparency and Communication
There will be a hyper-awareness of safety and sanitation on the part of meeting attendees in the post-pandemic world. The key will be to actively demonstrate adaptation to new safety and sanitation protocols, and simultaneously communicate this to groups at all times. It will be crucial to ensure that staff teams feel safe returning to work, and attendees feel safe on-site. A recent webinar hosted by a trend software, predictive analytics and consumer insights firm casts doubt on businesses acting responsibly when non-essentials reopen and travel resumes, which includes corporate and incentive travel. To allay concerns, cleaning should be highly visible at all times, and protocols should be clearly posted on the website and visibly displayed in all common areas for all to see.
Trend #2 Innovation and Creativity
During the COVID-19 shut down, select hotel restaurants and bars introduced service extensions, such as delivery and take-out options, as well as pop-up grocery stores, and there is no reason for that to stop once the economy is fully open. In fact, research shows that these new off-premise eating habits have been widely adopted by consumers and, we suspect, returning meeting attendees, alike. Planners can expect attendees to seek the same conveniences that they are growing accustomed to, including options for sanitary and easy-to-assemble individual meal kits as well as an abundance of grab-and-go or even grab-and-match dining options for their groups. Of note are the properties and restaurateurs who have paid it forward by providing meals to essential workers during this time. Will this continue and will it pivot toward a different demographic of interest after the pandemic is over? Only time will tell, but the spirit of corporate social responsibility can continue to thrive with operators making a stronger commitment to helping essential workers and responding to conference groups requesting this. In spite, or perhaps because of, the pandemic, innovation and creative social involvement has soared.
Trend #3 Technology and Gamification
Contactless check in, meeting agendas, payment and grab-and-go-like eating establishments will continue in the foreseeable future, as attendees continue to practice social distancing. In the meantime, the need to have contactless everything has intensified the meeting industry’s reliance on technology.
From socially distanced events to virtual team meetings, the conference and event industry is poised for a dramatic shift. Meeting planners will be looking for ideas and innovations on how to engage attendees through social distancing and, virtually, before and during, and with new modes of networking that have traditionally taken place over break-outs, refreshment breaks and meals.
With wireless capabilities readily available through smartphones, attendees can engage in virtual gamification designed to enhance their experience while maintaining their social distance.
The use of advanced analytics and Internet of Things, or IoT, technology will also reveal more robust information about attendees, allowing meeting planners to tailor program strategies and offerings targeting different segments of the industry and different demographics. Robotics and labor automation will become commonplace on-site as the need to adhere to safe distances and contactless capabilities continues.
Trend #4 A Collaborative Community
The conference and meeting planning community is tight-knit. During these uncertain times, many industry insiders and operators have been sharing their playbook. From launching relief funds within days of closure, such as the SOBEWFF & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund, to sharing best practices for packaging and deliveries, they have all banded together to help each other out and prepare for post-lockdown reopenings.
Some have even recommended their own laid-off or furloughed employees to others who needed help setting up their technology or increasing their social media presence. As more and more brands, and families of properties, have set reopening dates, they are collaborating with key planners on reopening guidelines and providing feedback on what works and what needs retooling.
This collaborative bond that is created today will continue as meeting planners continue to share resources and information with each other within the hospitality industry.
Trend #5 Reset!
This is a chance for a reset in the meeting planning industry. When a disruption of this magnitude hits our industry, the damage will be catastrophic, and not all businesses will survive.
Until a vaccine or herd immunity is achieved, federal guidelines will continue to recommend social distancing and a reduction in capacity. This disruption has accelerated the widespread adoption and reliance on technology. At the same time, it has also opened up vast opportunities.
With technology and a hybridized approach, meeting planners can plan virtual events with unlimited capacity spanning the globe while designing a curated event for VIPs or executive leaders that can reach all corners of the earth.
A large group event, such as Art Basel that is held in Hong Kong and Miami Beach, on different dates can now be organized to run simultaneously with the use of virtual and augmented reality. Global forums with leaders from different countries and simultaneous translation will become more commonplace, all designed with enhanced personalized experiences for local attendees.
Closer to home, hotels and conference centers are looking at their meeting and event space differently, applying social distancing and enhanced sanitation methodologies, contactless technology, and new food and beverages best practices that provide nutritious refreshment breaks, and meals, in a non-traditional dining set up or setting.
While these are signs that we see today, the next 12 months will give us better clarity of the way forward. Whether or not we can secure herd immunity or provide a vaccine for everyone will determine if we can return to travel and meet at conferences the way we’ve been accustomed. We may not, however, want to give up some of these new learned best practices and behaviors. C&IT