Internet Travel Monitor - Marketing, Research & Tech

March 27, 2019

The Digital Transformation of Group Business Travel - Are You Ready?

Changing consumer expectations, new technologies, and new players in the market are pushing hotels and venues to ramp up their digital strategy and capabilities to capture a greater share of meeting and event business.

Consumer expectations around the digital experience are now set at a high bar from daily interactions with user experiences that are instantaneous, seamless and personalized.

"From the research we are seeing, groups fit into that same paradigm," says John-Michael Jenkins, director of product marketing at Amadeus.

"Digital expectations around group business are being shaped by the world of instant gratification that consumers have come to expect from customer-facing technologies for individuals. Hotels and venues in general will be expected to provide that same level of service. It is quickly becoming a main expectation as opposed to a nice-to-have option."

From Amazon to Netflix and beyond, consumers have also come to expect online offers and recommendations that are tailored to their individual preferences. That reality has influenced meeting planner expectations for a more personalized digital experience around group and event search and sales.

"The group booking process is a journey, from the time a planner starts to explore a venue, through the collaboration process, to execution and follow up," Jenkins says.

"These areas are all opportunities to engage the planner in a more personalized experience along the way. You can provide digital touchpoints and interactivity that allow planners to let you know what they are thinking and feeling, and communicate back that you understood, as well as to do things like upsell and provide them alternatives to things they are proposing as part of their plan."

He adds, "Creating a more connected experience from start to finish will transform the journey for the planner and better meet their needs and expectations, and those of attendees."

The website's role in capturing group business

The website is a crucial starting point for creating that connection. According to a recent industry report and trend forecast from Destination Hotels, 72% of planners get most of their information about a potential venue from its website.

"People are spending an extensive amount of time evaluating a venue online—understanding its capacity, the type of venue it is, the capabilities it has, and the features and amenities it offers - before they ever contact that venue," says Rich Matthes, solution strategist for Amadeus.

"A venue's only avenue for communicating their group capabilities before that planner reaches out to them is through their online presence. This is a one-way interaction, so creating a good online presence is really important."

According to Jenkins, the hotel website will always be the cornerstone of any digital strategy. "It's a foundational component, the place to tell your story and showcase your property in a very innovative and memorable way," he says.

While the website's pivotal role in a hotel's digital strategy remains the same, the tools available to showcase group and event capabilities online are changing.

"The traditional way was you would put information up on the website in a variety of forms including text, images and pdf, and hope it would resonate enough that someone would pick up the phone and call you or click on your RFP page," Jenkins says.

"Now we are starting to see more hotels and venues find better and more interactive ways to create that visualization so a planner can immerse themselves in the venue before they actually get there."

Interactive tools enhance the online group sales process

Hotels now have access to a variety of digital tools designed to showcase a hotel’s group and event capabilities online and engage planners in a more interactive, informative and streamlined experience.

These include chatbots to answer common questions during the research and submission process, and collaboration tools that enable discussion, RFP submission, and proposal review in a common environment with real-time edits, viewable by both the venue and planner.

Diagramming software can help event planners visualize their layout in a venue's space.

"You can take that static room capacity information and apply it to diagrams, photos and interactive maps of the surrounding areas in the hotel that show the relationship of meeting rooms to each other," Jenkins says. "All of those things help a planner understand what they can get by selecting your venue."

Matthes recommends that hotels add rich digital media to their websites to give planners a real sense of the property, including digital imagery that supports what events look like in available spaces.

Digitally showcasing meeting capabilities, including audio-visual packages, catering menus and spend options, and general budgetary outlines are also helpful for both planners and hotel staff.

"This results in more qualified opportunity when the planner actually contacts the venue and connects with them," Matthes says. "They are already somewhat familiar with the space and they have an understanding of the price point you come in at. The more you can give those planners through your digital presence online is really important."

When considering which digital tools to add to a website, Matthes recommends that hoteliers begin by stepping into a meeting planner's shoes. "The first thing is to take a step back and look at how a planner would engage with you," he says.

"Imagine you are the planner who will look at your hotel for an event. What will they see? What kind of information will they be able to get? Looking at what the experience is like through the lens of your customers is a really healthy first step."

Distribution options for group sales through indirect channels

Hotels that want to increase their group business and reach a broader customer base will need to go beyond enhancing their websites with more interactive digital tools to adding indirect distribution channels.

"The website isn't enough anymore because it's just one of many channels," Jenkins says.

"Hoteliers are looking for better exposure, and that means getting your hotel in front of buyers where they like to buy. You have to look at other channels that are available and then leverage those outlets to let planners know that you do group business and that their meeting experience with you will be incredible."

Matthes pointed to the emergence of what he describes as "non-hotel marketplaces" that enable online bookings of meeting rooms and event spaces as distribution channels hoteliers should consider in crafting their digital strategy for groups.

Many are regionally or special-interest focused. These include Peerspace, Venuebook, Meetingsbooker and Meetingpackage, to name just a few.

According to Matthes, these marketplaces are primarily focused on capturing the 80% of the $360 billion U.S. corporate meeting market that has 50 or fewer attendees. While this small meetings segment has a high volume in terms of transactions, it generates less revenue than larger groups—about 25% of the overall group revenue for any given property, according to Amadeus research.

Even so, "that segment is really important to pay attention to," Matthes says.

"A lot of these marketplaces are very much geared toward occasional or independent planners who tend to book smaller meetings, and they tend to book in shorter windows, inside 30 to 45 days. These are people who do event planning as part of their full-time job, so they don't have a lot of time to do the research, or for a lengthy negotiation," Matthes says.

He notes that it's important for venues to understand how they research and shop for their meeting needs. "They are not entrenched in the industry," he says.

"They want a simple solution, a simple way to book a meeting online. They aren't looking to negotiate; they are looking to shop, and they want to buy the same way they do business on Amazon. They want to do a little research, see a price, and buy one of the options."

The marketplaces are particularly relevant for independent properties and small chains who often struggle to get the attention of professional meeting planners and are unable to compete with the marketing engines of big brands.

"It's important for independent hotels and small chains to get the attention of these occasional meeting planners because that’s where they are on level footing with the big brand hotels in a lot of ways," Matthes says.

"It's important for them to connect with those planners and get that meeting business in a way that relates to them, which is through a more digital means of engaging and booking."

The point, he adds, is for hotels of all sizes to get their group product online in channels where potential customers are looking.

"These online marketplaces are very interesting. Hotels should want to connect with them and keep an eye on what's happening in this space in the industry. They should know the relevant players and who is emerging, and think about how they can connect with them in a way that enables them to pivot and be agile in the business," Matthes says.

"What a hotel needs to think about is how do I connect my meeting space online, and how do I position myself best for the future with the ability to connect to more than one channel, change channels easily, and have a different strategy for each channel, in much the same way that guest rooms are managed today."

Mobile capability is front and center for group business

Mobile capability for group business search and sales has become an increasingly important and integral part of a venue's digital strategy for groups.

"Mobile capabilities are front of mind for all vendors because the majority of the population is booking business in some shape or form on a smart phone," Jenkins says. "It has to be part of a venue’s digital strategy for groups."

He notes that the complexity of group and event sales means that it will take a little longer for most hotels to make their group segment fully mobile friendly.

"Some of the challenges are around trying to make the user experience simple but also robust enough so you can track all the details that are required in planning an event," Jenkins says.

"Those things are still easier to do on a bigger screen but it won't be long, especially as packages become more prevalent, until all the components will be interchangeable. A lot of it will be driven by where planners shop and what portion of those planners are looking to shop off their mobile device. By the time we get to 2025 it will have evolved into something that’s commonplace."

Matthes says enabling online bookings should be part of a venue's mobile group presence. "All hoteliers at this point know that their websites have to be mobile ready because a lot of planners are not going to be using traditional browsers when they research these hotels. That extends to booking events online. They need to be able to book small meetings online on mobile."

Enabling group bookings online

For a lot of hotels, it's a big leap to fully enable online bookings for groups and events. Making meeting packages bookable on a hotel's website and mobile platform is a good first step.

"From the planner's perspective, putting meeting packages on your website and making them bookable online feels like they have an immediate digital call to action that they can execute on," Matthes says.

"Packages are easier to book on all platforms, but on a mobile platform a package is even more convenient because the planner doesn't have to make quite as many choices.

"They can just choose an inclusive package that has a per-person price that represents what the venue can offer for the meeting. It's a nice, easy shopping experience for the planner where they don't have to make a thousand clicks."

Offering meeting packages that are bookable online are also a way for hotels to market their group capabilities to occasional planners who tend to book smaller meetings close in to the event.

"They want the easy button. They want the ability to choose a package that has everything they want, where everything is straightforward and there are no unexpected fees," Matthes says.

"Professional meeting planners have been in the business a long time and can probably navigate without a package just fine. But even a professional planner who is booking a short-term meeting would appreciate the ability to have a simple and easy-to-book package."

The approach to getting packages bookable online, if not the execution, is straightforward, according to Jenkins. "If you just take guest rooms up a tier and put small meeting packages on your website and on other endpoints and channels, planners will benefit extensively," he says.

The emergence of multiple online marketplaces for booking groups, the availability of new tools to digitize group capabilities online, and the shift to enable online bookings for group business are all part of what Jenkins describes as a digital transformation of the meetings segment now well underway.

"In the last 15 years, we dipped our toe in and started wading into the digital, and now we are waist deep and we have a great big swim in front of us," he says.

"The technologies and the capabilities are there to go all the way in. Some people are out a little bit farther out than others, but it's up to properties to decide when they are ready to go after it. Digital offers a huge opportunity for group sales, no matter where you are in your business cycle."

Copyright 2019 Northstar Travel Media LLC. All rights reserved. From By Diane Merlino.
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