March 22, 2023

From Designing a Nightclub to Adding Quiet Spaces, Group Hotels Are Meeting Unique Requests for Customization

Tech Companies Often Ask for More Engaging Group Meetings

With the pace of recovery for group business travel kicking into high gear, hoteliers across the U.S. are strengthening their on-property events teams and offerings to meet the increasingly diverse needs of groups.

Amaury Piedra, managing director of the Caribe Royale Orlando, said his 1,337-room hotel saw group business start to recover in 2022, and "midway through '22, we really saw the trend of the group segment picking up steam."

The lead volume for 2023 has kept the same pace, he added, especially for meetings larger in size. And this trend doesn't seem to be slowing down.

"That's the good news for the entire industry and especially the more group-heavy, meeting-heavy hotels," he said.

What's happening now, Piedra said, is meeting planners know there's a finite amount of destinations that can do a 900- to 1,200-person meeting, so they want to get those events on the books before space runs out in their preferred destination.

In preparation, Caribe Royale strengthened its event management and banquet teams to serve the needs of meeting planners.

"We're very fortunate we did because if we would have had this volume of business in [winter] of 2022, we probably could not have handled it as well. But we saw what the trends were, so we invested in our human capital to make sure we were able to take care of the groups," he said. "That's one of the advantages of being an independent, and [part of] a privately owned corporation, that we made the decision that we were going to invest money upfront. The reality was it cost us money upfront, no doubt about it, but the return has been so positive."

Not only did the hotel staff invest in people, it also put capital toward its technology, Piedra said. Caribe Royale recently rolled out its new mobile app that has functions to help leisure guests and meeting attendees. In stages, the team will continue to add levels of sophistication to it.

When the hotel's team started planning the app, it was with the customer in mind.

"What do we think the customer is going to want? We're a big hotel, what are the issues we might have? It took us a while ... and we finally got it ready to go. A lot of it right now is about in-house service," Piedra said.

Within the app, staff receive about 30 to 40 guest requests a day that go straight to the guest services department. From there, staff can reply back with an answer or dispatch a team member to that guest.

The app also hosts a variety of property information such as a map of the hotel, restaurant schedules, shuttle service hours and more.

"So many people are just used to using their phone. It's a win-win for everybody. For the customer, it's on the spot and for us it takes some of the pressure off," he said. "Our competition is primarily branded competition, so we wanted to do our own [app] so that we're not missing anything that the customer needs."

Scott Gentile, director of sales and marketing at the 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston, said in an email interview the property launched its Event Experience Team program in 2022 as a solution to a gap it identified between its teams and meeting planners.

Through the program, meeting planners are now assigned a personalized team dedicated to them. The meeting planner and members of the Event Experience Team have calls together two to three weeks in advance of the event to collaborate right before event day.

"Many hotels have a transition period between event planning and event operations, with different teams owning different components of the process," he said. "We ramped up the program in summer 2022 ahead of what we knew would be a busy 2023. We had six months to ease into our new way of work, and meeting planners have responded with positivity and gratitude for our full-service offerings."

The benefits of this program are two-fold: The customers receive seamless service, and the event planning team is benefiting from more available time to assist future customers.

Jennifer Maxwell, regional director of sales at development, management and investment company Raines, said her hotels are already experiencing an increase in group travel and meetings bookings this year compared to 2019 levels. Her team expects that increase to continue throughout the year.

The top priority for her team now is assessing strategy weekly, ensuring the group rate and ceiling is maximized and not turning down any incoming group request even if there aren't dates available.

"Instead of turning it down, we're trying to shift it to an alternate date that we have a need for. We're incentivizing the planner to choose those alternate dates by offering a better rate if its an off-week pattern. We're also just being very flexible."

What Do Groups, Meeting Planners Want?

Piedra said requests for customized events are on the rise.

As a recent example, the hotel's team turned its entire two-story lobby and reception building into a nightclub. Piedra said the client wanted a "neon nights" party. Next year, he said the team will host a group that is looking to transform the space into a Hawaiian luau.

"It's not something we have on our stock menu, but we work with the meeting planners to customize these events. It's very important to us that our event planners, myself, our sales team, we form a relationship with them; we want them to come back. In fact, the group that did the neon nights party is coming back in 2025," he said.

Caribe Royale is currently working on building a 600-seat venue that's "a combination sports bar with a touch of night life," he said. "Instead of turning the reception building into that neon nights, [that group is] going to go into this two-level venue that we're doing and that's where they're going to do their party. It'll be done by the end of this year."

Piedra said different types of organizations typically want different types of meetings. Insurance companies, for example, lean toward more formal and traditional events. Tech companies, however, generally request more nontraditional themes or styles, like beer-brewing events, or styling the space into a speakeasy.

Tech companies "just don't want the cookie-cutter experience, they want something different. That's where that customization piece comes in," he added.

Gentile said meeting customers now are more open to including unique and engaging experiences for their attendees.

"Unification of teams and team-building has become important as companies continue to rebuild their teams," he said. "In our case, the Altitude Rooftop & Pool deck has been in demand by meeting planners as it is a unique environment where people want to socialize/team-build."

Another example was how a group customer in January, who typically splits up its group and does a "dine-around-Houston" event, kept it on property, Gentile said.

"It was so important for them to keep their people together so they could build relationships. They reimagined the entire hotel lobby and did a dine-around-the-Marquis [event]," he said. "Not only was it a cost savings to them, but it keeps the energy of the conference alive and engagement high."

As for meeting planners themselves, Gentile said they need support, most of all.

"Many are new in their roles and have new bosses and CEOs of their respective companies. This usually means changes in their programs, new ideas, etc. The way we are designed allows us to be a partner with these organizations and help them grow and evolve," he added.

Maxwell said meeting planners appreciate that Raines' on-property sales teams can refer them to other properties within the portfolio if one property isn't a great fit.

"That increases the planner relationships, and it saves them time from having to call other hotels, if we can cut out some of the steps for them," she said.

Other ways Raines offers ease and convenience for meeting planners is by providing group booking links, easy billing setup and extra pre- and post-event dates. Instead of the traditional two pre- or post-event dates, some are asking for three or four so group attendees can take advantage of remote work.

One of Maxwell's hotels is getting requests for "quiet spaces" during group events. She said meeting planners don't necessarily want to reserve a full breakout room but do want a designated quiet space to send attendees for quick calls or breaks.

To accommodate that request, the hotel's team will design small nooks in the lobby area that are designated to a specific group.

Inclusion of Wi-Fi and AV hookup in the meeting space rental are also top requests from meeting planners, she added. And with food-and-beverage costs increasing, Raines is being flexible with its food-and-beverage minimums for groups.

Copyright 2023 CoStar Group. All rights reserved. From By Dana Miller, Hotel News Now.

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