Getting Creative to Make an Experience Not Just Another Meeting

By Greg Hopton-Jones Director of Sales, Hotel Indigo Tuscaloosa Downtown | September 24, 2017

In the past, group and meeting business was considered a great ‘filler’ for soft transient demand periods in hotels. That sentiment has clearly shifted over the years and most hotels have adopted a robust group sales strategy as an essential part of their revenue mix. The recession and subsequent corporate ‘hangover’ that persisted, along with the virtual elimination of government travel, combined with the continual growth and adoption of virtual meeting services had the industry scrambling to source and replace meeting and group opportunities for years.

I held a position tasked with sourcing and booking government group business based in my territory of Alabama. Striking the optimal balance between managing a ‘sales funnel’ and prospecting for new leads seemed to be my chief concern of the day due to the sheer volume of groups and meetings that were being generated from the territory at the time. The government group heyday began to wane and eventually came to a definitive halt with the U.S. budget sequestration in 2013. This event was the equivalent of a water faucet being turned off in terms of government meetings and travel in general. Federal agencies and departments had their budgets abruptly slashed and became extremely anxious over any possible misperception of exuberance due to the exposure of the radical ‘wasteful’ spending exemplified by meetings such as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Orlando conference in 2012.

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Corporate and Association groups and meetings were stifled as well in the lingering shadow of the recession. Adherence to corporate managed meeting policies came under strict enforcement in addition to an increase in compliance reporting. The popular sentiment of corporations over the majority of the last decade, to include the major players within our own industry, was that corporate sponsored meetings and conferences that weren’t ‘mission critical’ should be curtailed until the dust settled and brighter days were ahead. This position on the relative importance of meetings caused budget controllers and decision makers to err on the side of caution in respect to approving meeting requests and limiting attendee levels. This coupled with the exponential use of virtual meeting services such as Webex and GoToMeeting helped set the stage for lackluster corporate meeting growth in terms of both frequency of meetings and level of attendance up until the eventual U.S. economic turnaround over the last few years.

Despite the inherent difficulties and obstacles the meeting landscape presented during the better part of the last decade. The environment helped foster a movement in meeting innovation by virtue of cut-throat competition for the meetings and groups that were still viable. Simply submitting ‘cookie cutter’ dates, rates, and space quotes would not suffice if you wanted to garner the utmost attention from your prospective client. For a time, it seemed like an absolute ‘buyer’s market’ and hotels had to find a way to expand their appeal and offerings beyond conventional wisdom. Pun completely intended.

Relaxing or flexing on long standing ‘industry standard’ contract terms and conditions required to win a meeting became acceptable if not routine. Compromising on rooms-to-space ratio or number of complimentary rooms requested to make a meeting ‘work’ were regularly entertained. Dates, rates, and space were understood parameters of acceptance. If you submitted a proposal with any deviation, it would usually stand to be a substantial challenge to overcome. It was just too easy to move on to another hotel that didn’t pose an objection.

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Coming up in February 2018...

Social Media: Engagement is Key

There are currently 2.3 billion active users of social media networks and savvy hotel operators have incorporated social media into their marketing mix. There are a few Goliath channels on which one must have a presence (Facebook & Twitter) but there are also several newer upstart channels (Instagram, Snapchat &WeChat, for example) that merit consideration. With its 1.86 billion users, Facebook is a dominant platform where operators can drive brand awareness, facilitate bookings, offer incentives and collect sought-after reviews. Twitter's 284 million users generate 500 million tweets per day, and operators can use its platform for lead generation, building loyalty, and guest interaction. Instagram was originally a small photo-sharing site but it has blown up into a massive photo and video channel. The site can be used to post photos of the hotel property, as well as creating Instagram Stories - personal videos that disappear from the channel after 24 hours. In this regard, Instagram and Snapchat are now in direct competition. WeChat is a Chinese company whose aim is to be the App for Everything - instant messaging, social media, shopping and payment services - all in a single platform. In addition to these channels, blogging continues to be a popular method to establish leadership, enhance reputations, and engage with customers in a direct and personal way. The key to effective use of all social media is to find out where your customers are and then, to the fullest extent possible, engage with them on a personal level. This engagement is what creates a personal connection and sustains brand loyalty. The February Hotel Business Review will explore these issues and examine how some hotels are successfully integrating social media into their operations.