6 ways to manage a new era of group business

It’s been an incredibly long year for those of us in the hospitality sector and we’re all excited to see the green shoots of recovery starting to take shape. At the same time, we realize there’s a lot of ground left to make up. While leisure demand is returning across the world, the hotel industry will not be the same without groups meeting in our hotels again. 

Before the pandemic, events, meetings and group business made up anywhere from 30-35 percent of hotel business globally. It’s often the highest rated business because it typically comes with ancillary spend on things like food and beverage, meeting space rental, audio/visual, etc. Before COVID, it was a common strategy for many hotels to get group business on the books far in advance and then fill in with leisure business as day of arrival approached.

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Now the script has been flipped. No one can predict if or when group business will return to what it once was. Instead of longing to return to normal, we must learn to adapt to a new environment. Cost-cutting strategies and operational efficiencies will remain in place long term. Both hoteliers and guests demand digital tools that replace our traditional ways of doing business.

Here are six ways the pandemic has forced hoteliers to adapt their meetings, events and group business strategy:

1. Learn to fill the books with smaller groups

Will we ever see a citywide convention that attracts 50,000 people and sells out every hotel in the market again? I don’t think anyone has this answer. We do know it will be a long time before this type of business returns.

In the short term, hotel sales teams must adapt and focus on smaller meetings and smaller groups. Your ballroom dividers will come in handy; breakout rooms will be more popular over the next year. This means more grassroots prospecting and building better relationships with hometown businesses and organizations. 

One positive trend we’ve observed is that many larger events have chosen not to cancel their event altogether; rather, they’ve pushed the event out to a later date. We must stay in constant contact with these meeting planners, keeping them abreast of local regulations and new, innovative ways we’re preparing to host their attendees safely. 

Hoteliers also must prepare to host hybrid events, meaning a large number of attendees on site and many more in remote locations across the globe. Recent Morgan Stanley research surveyed corporate travel managers and found they now expect a 27 percent long-term shift to virtual meetings. If you haven’t already evaluated technology to allow your meeting planners to stream presentations online, plan to do so immediately.  

2. Be prepared for last-minute event bookings

It’s easy to understand why group plans are coming together last minute in today’s dynamic environment with COVID regulations changing on what seems like a daily basis. There are so many variables in play—a key speaker or attendee could get sick, stay-at-home orders could be put in place, sporting events or festivals could be canceled altogether. 

In fact, iVvy data shows the average booking window for group business has shrunk from 59 days out prepandemic to 36 days in the current environment. And we expect the booking window to remain smaller well into the future as both meeting planners and venues get comfortable operating on shorter time frames. 

For this reason, hotels must have agile strategies in place to compensate. Rates and availability must be updated in real time. If one group should cancel, the space needs to be made available to another potential meeting planner immediately. 

Shorter booking windows also means there’s less time for tweaks or changes leading up to an event. Should a group need to add or remove a breakout room, for example, the entire team needs to be alerted immediately and changes need to happen on the fly.

3. Consider a centralized sales structure

In most cases, hotel sales teams have been reduced and reps are no longer required to work from their office at the hotel. But outside of simply allowing your sales reps to work remotely, there is bigger organizational restructuring in play. 

Moving forward, many hotel companies will choose to have their sales organizations managed from a central hub. The chief revenue officer, or even the director of sales, can work from corporate headquarters and manage a remote, road-based team. Salespeople must now be trained to work across different brands and throughout different regions.

With the right processes and resources in place, companies will move from having 20 sales reps building business for five hotels to five sales reps building business for 20 hotels. Teams should be trained to cross-sell and software should be implemented that allows everyone to stay up to date in real time on prospect accounts and booked business. 

4. Ensure every department is coordinated on every event

The different departments of your hotel simply cannot work in silos any longer, especially when it comes to meeting and events business. 

Marketing and sales must work together for obvious reasons—you don’t want the marketing team promoting meeting space for dates you’ve already got booked. Operations must be kept in the loops so they know how many people will be arriving on property during upcoming dates. The catering team needs to know the menu for each specific event so they can order the right amount of food in advance.

Again, the advantage today is that cloud technology allows all of this coordination to happen digitally in real time. No longer is the sales team filling out paperwork to pass to the catering team. Kitchen staff can log in and see the breakdown of every meal for every event on the books with the click of a button. Whereas something as simple as changing one dish from pork to chicken may have thrown a wrench in past operations, today changes are seamless, happen in a matter of seconds and all the right players are notified immediately.

5. Move site visits online

When a meeting planner needs to come to your hotel to make sure the venue will work for his or her event, it significantly delays the booking process and ties up inventory in a holding pattern. Technology has become so advanced over the past decade that there’s no reason a hotel can’t put its best attributes on display online.

Content is king here. Go beyond professional photography and well thought-out descriptions of your meeting space by thinking about every aspect of an event. Make pictures of the kitchen available. Ensure planners can see the ceiling so they know whether they can hang a banner in a certain spot. Show the A/V rack. Three-dimensional walkthroughs of the entire floor space will help your meeting planners feel as if they’re right there in the building.

6. Move past paper processes and adopt digital tools

All of the above strategies can be implemented by tapping into the power of a digital platform to help manage the events process from end to end. No longer should meeting planners be emailing or faxing requests for proposals. With cloud-based tools, rates and inventory are updated in real time and RFPs are turned into quotes within minutes. When an event is booked, all the stakeholders at both the property level and corporate level should have all the details of the event immediately. As more details of the event are worked out and changes come in, everyone is kept in the know and operating on the same page.

As we’re all adapting to this new normal, moving to a modern venue-management platform will help meeting planners feel more comfortable booking and help hoteliers manage the entire process more efficiently and with less human capital.

Lauren Hall is CEO of iVvy.