A panel of sales executives at the recent Hotel Data Conference talked about the trends driving group meetings bookings at hotels.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee—What meeting planners want from a hotel is a swift and hassle-free booking process, and personalized and unique experiences for their groups.
More and more, they’re finding this at smaller hotels, according to sales executives on the “Group hugs: Let’s talk meetings” session at the recent Hotel Data Conference.
Meeting planners feel like if the hotel’s too big, “it’s not personal enough,” said Leticia Proctor, SVP of sales, revenue management and digital strategies at PM Hotel Group. “So it’s important when you have those big-box hotels to create a hotel-within-a-hotel concept … because you don’t want to lose that layer of business.”
Proctor cited research from The Knowland Group that shows a 10% increase from 2015 to 2017 in group meetings bookings by some corporate sub-segments—for example, urban infrastructure—at hotels with less meeting space.
Smaller markets are also gaining ground on group bookings, she said, with 48% of the corporate groups that participated in the Knowland study reporting they booked a larger percentage of their meetings in non-top-40 markets in 2017 than they did in 2015.
“The smaller markets are getting it better because they do better,” Proctor said. “The top 25 can get it done; they just have to reset and re-center and look at their core business.”
Group performance declines
Kathy Hood, VP of sales, marketing and revenue management at Davidson Hotels & Resorts, agreed it’s up to hoteliers to take control of their own destinies to drive group bookings and meetings.
“We have so much data that tells us what meeting planner trends are,” she said. “How many times do we look at those trends and complain about it? Until we embrace those trends and figure out what to do with them, group is going to go down.”
Data from STR, parent company of Hotel News Now, shows U.S. hotel industry group occupancy declined 6.1% year over year and revenue per available room fell 4.6% year over year in July, largely due to comparisons in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the sites of 2016’s national political conventions.
But Hood said there is reason to be optimistic. She cited a study by TravelClick that shows a 5.3% increase in committed group occupancy for fourth-quarter 2017 in the top 50 markets, compared to last year. That metric, according to TravelClick, dips to just a 0.7% year-over-year increase for first-quarter 2018, but then surges up 8.4% for the second quarter.
To continue to grow group business, however, will require creativity and change, she said.
“Everybody believes that a sales manager needs to put business into a hotel,” Hood said. “But I think there’s another job for our sales managers. We have to protect our industry, and we need to figure out how to train our sales managers to sell the dream of having meetings on property.”
Part of that is leveraging technology to execute your sales strategy, said Ellis Connolly, VP of hospitality sales at The Rainmaker Group. “That’s what tech does; it gives you time to think,” he said.
Technology also helps with the customer service aspect when working with meeting planners.
A meeting planner in 1980, sending requests for proposals to 15 hotels in five different markets, would have started with a phone call to each hotel, Connolly said, and the whole process might have taken two or three months. But today, he said, technology has reduced that process to days.
“The point I’m trying to make is that as meeting planner behavior shifts, hotelier behavior will always have to accommodate that,” he said.
Proctor said the No. 1 thing meeting planners want is a quick response to their RFPs. Generally, that means some communication “within a four-hour period,” she said, though “some people get responses within 20 minutes.” If a day or two goes by before a response, many times “the ship has already sailed,” she said.
“It’s not just about responding; it’s about a quality response, too,” she said. “They’re multi-tasking, so many things going on … it’s so easy to engage via email so they can forward it to their bosses.”
It also helps, she said, to have a fresh, intuitive website with updated photos of the property, and even virtual tours in the right market.
Back to basics
Sometimes, Proctor said, it’s best to go back to the basics to get that meeting booked at your hotel. That might include offering freebies that are “baked into the guestroom rate,” she said. “Free doesn’t always mean free.”
Even after the meeting is booked, Hood said, the hotel can do a better job to drive revenue from that booking. Take food and beverage, for example.
“The other trend we’ve heard from our properties is that meeting planners are not spending as much on F&B,” she said. “Whose fault is it? It’s our fault.”
Part of the problem is that meeting planners are not willing to pay the ever-increasing service charges.
“When somebody wows you, you’re willing to pay that extra money,” Hood said, but too often hotels only offer group guests the standard menu.
Variety is important, Proctor added.
“If they’re at your property for five days, my goodness, please change from sausage to bacon,” she said. “Don’t give them sausage every day. You’d be surprised how many don’t look at that.”