Reach Your Meeting Market Online

Over the last three years, the meetings industry has taken a tremendous hit -- with the economic recession being magnified by the "stigma" of luxury meetings as a result of the finally fading "AIG affect," spurred by an infamous incentive meeting involving the bailed-out insurance company.

But the meetings industry is massive -- and recovering. The question for hotels and other travel suppliers is reaching that market online -- a task that seemed daunting in the earlier days of the Internet because of the "complexity" of an event -- all the logistics of many people getting together in one place at one time.

But now the tools have become more sophisticated and, according to Max Starkov, CEO of Hospitality eBusiness Strategies, "89% of meeting planners use the Internet to find their next venue."

To save money, said Starkov, the number of in-person site inspections is going down as is the production of expensive meeting kits done by destinations. As a result, a great deal is riding on the web presence targeted at meetings.

And Starkov believes that many companies are failing in that mission. He said that it takes a lot more than showing the meeting space and allowing for electronic requests for proposal."You need very deep information," he said, including "what's happening in the neighborhood, activities for spouses, things to do if attendees stay over the weekend."

As an example, Starkov points to the site for the new JW Marriott in Indianapolis, Ind., the largest JW Marriott anywhere and with huge meeting space, whose site his company produced. Prominent on the easily found meetings home page is a complete meeting package (CMP), including rooms, food & beverage and more. "Planners love CMP's," said Starkov, who noted that only a small percentage of hotels even put together a CMP.

"You have to build your site as a sales tool for planners," says Starkov, who noted that the JW Marriott provides 150 pages of information about the city itself. To gain visibility, said Starkov, "We are running a sweepstakes for qualified planners with a package to the Indianapolis 500 as a prize; with that kind of appeal, you get the best planners."

But even an attractive and appealing site is only the beginning. According to Starkov, "The site has a constant management system, continually updating the marketing messages. Once a new special is introduced, it automatically populates Facebook, Twitter and other social media."

And once a meeting is booked, said Starkov, a special group code is attached which is then used by participants who book their own rooms and make plans. Participants can book the rooms at their leisure, taking advantage of special packages and browse for leisure activities.

And although Starkov calls the JW Marriott's site a "model website," he added that it is not that expensive and that research shows the return on investment for a well-done site is more than $20 on the dollar.

Starkov said many hotels still rely on old-fashioned group lead generation, which is fine, but that "your message is diluted if that's all you do." He said "Many hotels still do not understand that the meeting business has shifted to the Internet. And even if they're online, their content is too thin and lacks the necessary tools."

Starkov said it makes no sense that hotel employees have solid information about their property on their desktops -- while the hotel has a website that hasn't been updated in years.

Aside from its own efforts, said Starkov, every hotel should be part of Cvent, Starcite and other meetings management sites that provide "additional tentacles." Starkov said Starcite alone claims a base of 150,000 planners. Another must is Passkey, a group-booking solution.

And as with any other site, search is critical. "When a planner searches for 'Indianapolis meeting hotels' or even 'Indiana meetings' or even 'Midwest meetings,' said Starkov, "your site has to be optimized for keywords. Then you have to launch a concerted effort to attack -- not just reach -- meeting planners from SEO to SEM to email marketing and social media. There's a robust social media element to meetings."

Ready. Set. Attack.

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