Contributed by Megan Rowe
Despite ongoing COVID-related implications, steady growth in group bookings this summer was welcome, especially in the U.S.
“We are very encouraged, particularly on the group side. We are seeing a lot of indicators for 2022 being stronger than 2019,” said Jenna Fishel, vice president of revenue management at First Hospitality, headquartered outside Chicago, Illinois. She notes that First Hospitality concentrated more heavily on analytics and forecasting over the past 18 months and said pent-up demand for face-to-face connection and meetings that were postponed this year or last are likely causes for the bump.
Weddings originally planned for 2020 have been a bright spot this year for Dorchester Collection, said Helen Smith, chief customer experience officer for Dorchester Collection, London, especially compared to international corporate business from overseas. Smith said local markets have been the focus and will continue to be so through the first half of 2022. She added that the unending flux in rules and border controls are hampering any efforts to forecast. “We are anticipating a general lack of compression in our main markets with the USA corporate group business restricted by legal clauses,” she said.
At the Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows in Arizona, small high-end meetings have returned, with attendees eager to make the most of the resort’s 23 acres. “We are actively pursuing groups, and—knock on wood—we’re optimistic: Q3 and Q4 bookings are tracking ahead of pre-COVID numbers,” said Deanna Zuber-Galloway, director of sales, events and marketing. Through July, her team was focused on local and regional clients looking for an intimate upscale experience, often for high-end retreats or incentive programs. An executive retreat package for up to about 15 offers a menu of activities such as picnic lunches, yoga, bootcamp or aquatic fitness activities, team-building s’mores and star search events, a mixology demo and dinner in the resort’s herb garden.
Lisa Bush, director of sales and marketing for Thompson Nashville in Tennessee, said groups are seeking creative add-ons for their events, with health and well-being a common interest. The hotel introduced Executive Performance, working with a local wellness company. An IV infusion is designed to increase energy levels, sharpen focus, reduce fatigue and maximize performance. The hotel also offers guided yoga sessions, rooftop group exercise classes and juice bar breaks.
One factor that has affected the group sales process: in-person visits are rare these days. First Hospitality put together virtual tours to help meeting planners get a sense for properties; those tours are available to individual travelers as well. “With fewer people touring our hotels, another thing we’re focused on is group response time,” Fishel said. “Since we’re less likely to have multiple chances to interact with the client, we have two priorities: we have to be the quickest to respond, and we have to make sure we have a competitive bid.” Improved analytics have been essential to the latter.
Another by-product of the pandemic: the need to help planners convince groups that are hesitant to meet in person. Cleanliness and safety are important, of course, but “it’s about partnering on flexibility and sharing best practices to help our customers sell the power of in-person meetings to their own internal decision makers,” observed Julius Robinson, Marriott International’s chief sales and marketing officer, U.S. and Canada.
Through its corporate and association advisory board and conversations with group clients, IHG has determined that sustainability, technology, a consistent guest experience and ease of doing business are priorities for business and group clients. The company’s Meet with Confidence addressed one pain point—it was designed to help planners manage hybrid meetings.
“Lead volume is up considerably for very short-term meetings,” said Derek DeCross, IHG’s senior vice president of global sales. He says small, regional meetings are growing in popularity. And interest in large, citywide events for 2022 is gaining steam, especially among large technology firms.
When normal corporate travel patterns will return or be replaced by new patterns remains anyone’s guess, but Clayton Reid, CEO of MMGY Global, said the current trend for leisure business to drive RevPAR is a temporary phenomenon. “We think long term that’s not sustainable, and we’ll return to more normal growth patterns next year,” he added. While many observers are pointing to 2024, he said 2022 is more likely, especially given the healthy rebound this year in group bookings.