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.

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.

Aside from revisiting the terms and conditions of contracts and agreements, hotels realized that they had to exceed the conventional service expectations of clients and meeting planners to compete for the smaller pool of meetings. The catering menu you had been touting for years with minimal changes year after year became a liability. The banquet presentation with the 'linen clouds' surrounding the tired steel chaffers and dated serving dishes that you've been able to 'get away with for so long' elicited muffled if not outright laughter now. Inventive and trending culinary talent, multiple menu choices, numerous diet options, food presentation that pops, and excellent meal execution are now more prominent factors than ever in influencing meeting planner decisions. Innovations in food and beverage offerings and display are current trends that are only gaining steam and hotels that keep up with the trends are standing out. Technological capability, internet bandwidth, internet security, and meeting space flexibility in general have become key and hotels adapted to win the business.

Hotel Indigo Tuscaloosa Downtown
The Lookout Rooftop Bar at Hotel Indigo Tuscaloosa Downtown
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Coming up in February 2019...

Social Media: Getting Personal

There Social media platforms have revolutionized the hotel industry. Popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Tumblr now account for 2.3 billion active users, and this phenomenon has forever transformed how businesses interact with consumers. Given that social media allows for two-way communication between businesses and consumers, the emphasis of any marketing strategy must be to positively and personally engage the customer, and there are innumerable ways to accomplish that goal. One popular strategy is to encourage hotel guests to create their own personal content - typically videos and photos -which can be shared via their personal social media networks, reaching a sizeable audience. In addition, geo-locational tags and brand hashtags can be embedded in such posts which allow them to be found via metadata searches, substantially enlarging their scope. Influencer marketing is another prevalent social media strategy. Some hotels are paying popular social media stars and bloggers to endorse their brand on social media platforms. These kinds of endorsements generally elicit a strong response because the influencers are perceived as being trustworthy by their followers, and because an influencer's followers are likely to share similar psychographic and demographic traits. Travel review sites have also become vitally important in reputation management. Travelers consistently use social media to express pleasure or frustration about their guest experiences, so it is essential that every review be attended to personally. Assuming the responsibility to address and correct customer service concerns quickly is a way to mitigate complaints and to build brand loyalty. Plus, whether reviews are favorable or unfavorable, they are a vital source of information to managers about a hotel's operational performance.  The February Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to effectively incorporate social media strategies into their businesses.