November 29, 2023

Group Business Outlook is Strong for 2024

Event planner expectations are running high — as are projected costs

If you enjoyed 2023, you’re going to love 2024. That’s the underlying message driving industry predictions for the coming year, which are bursting with positivity and great expectations.

Confidence among meeting professionals is notably stronger this year than last, according to American Express Global Business Travel: 82 percent of respondents to the 2024 Global Meetings & Events Forecast are optimistic about their business — 5 percentage points higher than the lofty level of a year ago.

Planner sentiment in North America is strong, too, according to the Northstar Meetings Group/Cvent Meetings Industry PULSE Survey. Although optimism has softened a bit since earlier this year, nearly half of respondents to the September/October survey (49 percent) were more optimistic than they were just six weeks prior, with 34 percent retaining the same level of optimism over that period. Planners clearly are anticipating a favorable 2024.

Attendance makes a quick rebound
Optimism is reflected across a variety of metrics, including attendance. Seven out of 10 meeting professionals globally expect their 2024 participant numbers to meet or exceed 2019 figures, found the Amex GBT forecast, which surveyed more than 500 meeting professionals. More than a quarter report they’ve already achieved prepandemic attendance levels for their events this year, representing a faster return to “normalcy” than many predicted.

North America is leading the pack in attendance expectations, with a full 77 percent projecting a return to 2019 levels next year, per Amex GBT. A third of planner respondents to the most recent Northstar/Cvent PULSE Survey expect 2024 attendance to exceed this year’s, with 8 percent anticipating gains of 10 percent or more.

Projections vary based on event type. Internal team meetings and client/customer advisory board meetings lead the way for attendance gains, with 42 percent of planners expecting increases in those categories, respectively, according to Amex GBT. Next up are incentives and special events, for which 38 percent expect higher attendance. Larger events will draw more attendees, too: More than a third of respondents globally (35 percent) expect more people at their conferences that have trade shows.

Volume is closing in on 2019 stats
It’s not just crowd size that’s growing; the number of events is approaching pre­pandemic figures, too. As of late September, year-to-date event volume reached 90.1 percent of the comparable 2019 mark, according to Knowland, which provides venue data and analytics.

Knowland has been tracking the gradual recovery of meetings volume since Covid restrictions relaxed, and the gap is closing quickly. “Meeting demand is surging as organizations see value in face-to-face events,” notes CEO Jeff Bzdawka. “We expect the overall meetings industry to be operating at 2019 volumes or above by the end of Q1 2024.”

Most top markets are recovering
The pace of recovery differs by destination, of course, but even places that have been slower to bounce back are making significant progress. “While some markets will take longer to fully recover, demand for group will continue to grow, providing the strong revenue foundation needed by hoteliers as transient and leisure business plateaus,” says Bzdawka.

Thirteen of the country’s top 25 markets already have recovered to pre­pandemic volume, according to Knowland stats:

• Austin, Texas
• Dallas
• Denver
• Detroit
• Los Angeles
• Miami
• Minneapolis
• Nashville
• New Orleans
• Phoenix
• San Antonio
• San Diego
• Tampa

And six more cities are on pace to recover in 2024:

• Atlanta
• Houston
• Las Vegas
• New York City
• Orlando
• Seattle

The remaining six are likely to recover in 2025 or later.

• Boston
• Chicago
• Philadelphia
• San Francisco
• St. Louis
• Washington, D.C.

Small, corporate groups dominate
Corporate meetings account for the bulk of the rebound, according to Knowland, as remote work drives the need for team gatherings. In Q3 2023, 70 percent of the meetings held drew an average of 200 attendees or fewer, according to the Hospitality Group and Business Performance Index produced by Knowland and Amadeus. More than one-fifth had between 100 and 200 participants.

Looking ahead to next year, planners expect a rise in meetings volume across the board, particularly for small- and medium-sized gatherings, according to a report from global hotel giant Accor. Its Meetings & Events Industry Forecast Survey found that 78 percent of 70 high-level planners with established meetings programs expect to hold more events for fewer than 100 attendees, and an equal percentage anticipate more meetings for 100 to 300 attendees. More than half (57 percent) also predict a rise in large events for more than 300 attendees.

Hotels are banking on group travel
Hotel forecasters are softening their occupancy projections as leisure bookings slow, following the post-pandemic travel frenzy. We've seen seven straight months of year-over-year occupancy drops, according to PwC's November 2023 Hospitality Directions US — and group and business travel have been making up most, but not all, of that shortfall.

“We’ve seen and continue to expect to see leisure demand slacken — not necessarily in a bad way, but more of a normalization, returning back to prepandemic vacation trends,” says Kelsey Fenerty, manager of analytics at lodging data provider STR. “It’s really been the weekday demand and business-related travel driving demand this year and into next, and groups are a big part of that.”

What’s more, business events are the primary driver of that growth. “Weekend group demand is actually down year over year,” adds Fenerty. “And that corresponds with what we’re seeing around leisure travel — there aren’t 1,001 weddings stacked up anymore. But weekday group demand continues to strengthen; it keeps growing year over year. We’re seeing conferences come back and, anecdotally, there are more smaller groups than in the past.”

Rates will drive hotel revenue
Planners looking for deals as leisure demand wanes will be disappointed. Business and group demand should eventually more than compensate for that shift, and will continue to drive rate growth. Average daily rate overall is about 18 to 20 percent ahead of 2019 levels, and demand is expected to reach the prepandemic mark next year.

In fact, although PwC softened its projected occupancy and demand for this year, the November 2023 forecast update actually raised the average daily rate outlook for 2023, from a previous 4.1 percent increase up to a 4.5 percent gain. The latest hotel forecast update from STR and Tourism Economics likewise raised their outlook for 2023, now predicting a 4.2 percent year-over-year rise in average daily rate — significantly up from their previous prediction of 3.6 percent.

PwC expects overall rate growth to decelerate in 2024, with a 2.4 percent year-over-year increase. However, STR and Tourism Economics foresee more resiliency in the U.S. hotel sector, and have stuck with the 3 percent ADR increase they forecast previously. With hotels increasingly relying on group and business travel for revenue, any deceleration may not be noticeable for planners.

“Group rates continue to grow,” says Fenerty. “They’ve been growing at a good pace and will continue to drive overall rates in higher-end properties.”

While STR doesn’t track specific group rate increases, the Amex GBT forecast projects average group rates to rise 5.61 percent globally, with an even steeper 6.41 percent jump specifically in North America.

Availability likely will be tight in many markets, as few new-builds with meeting space are in the pipeline. In some resort destinations, however, competition with leisure travelers for space should ease. Hotels will be more inclined to lock in group business as leisure demand softens, particularly in a time of economic uncertainty, political strife and potentially prolonged international conflicts.

Budgets are growing — and stretching
Meeting budgets are expected to rise overall for the coming year — significantly, for some. Two-thirds of respondents to the Amex GBT forecast survey (67 percent) project a budget increase for the coming year, and of those, 13 percent expect the bump to exceed 10 percent.

Among respondents to the Northstar/Cvent PULSE Survey, a lower 44 percent expect an increase in meetings budgets, but a strong 60 percent of those anticipate a boost of more than 10 percent. In the other direction, 16 percent of planners expect to cut budgets; of those, about half believe budgets will decrease by more than 15 percent.

While the budget increases are a positive development, higher meeting costs are likely driving that and will offset at least part of that windfall. The costs of goods and services was the top concern for planners in the PULSE Survey, followed by budget constraints. Price per attendee is expected to rise by 3.5 percent for client/advisory board meetings, according to the Amex GBT forecast, by 3.8 percent for conferences that have trade shows, and by 3.9 percent for senior leadership/board meetings, as well as for incentives and special events. Group airfares are projected to rise by 5.53 percent globally.

“Most believe their budgets are going to go up,” notes Gerardo Tejado, senior vice president of professional services for American Express GBT, “but not to the level of inflation in different places.”

International ambitions are marked by uncertainty
One clear indicator of optimism, and the industry’s collective desire to move past any pandemic-imposed restrictions, is the desire for international travel and meetings. Nearly half of respondents to the Northstar/Cvent PULSE Survey (46 percent), intend to produce cross-border events in 2024. Of those, 55 percent have plans for Europe, 43 percent for the Caribbean, and 37 percent each for Mexico and Canada. More than one-third (34 percent) are planning to host inbound international groups in the United States. This surge in international interest was reflected on the show floor at IMEX America. The October industry event in Las Vegas drew a record 15,000 participants and 360 exhibiting companies, a large percentage of which were from outside the United States.

At the same time, conflict in the Middle East and political uncertainty in the U.S. serve as reminders that developments beyond our control could hinder progress — perhaps not deeply enough to derail the industry’s pervasive optimism, but enough to preserve a level of caution as plans for 2024 take shape.

Copyright 2023 Northstar Travel Media LLC. All rights reserved. From By Michael Shapiro.

To view all articles, check out the Internet Travel Monitor Archive