Not too long ago, I sat at a Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International Conference, and all everyone seemed to be focused on were the Online Travel Agencies (OTA) and the growing problems they were creating within the travel distribution chain. One speaker after another waxed on about the challenges of rate parity, burdensome commissions and scores of other issues. Finally, the head of marketing for a prominent hotel brand got up and said, “I don’t know why we’re all totally fixated on OTAs. They only represent 8-10% of my volume. The group market is 30-40% of my business and yet no one is talking about how challenging this market has become.”
The reality is that group business has long been a cornerstone for many hotels and hospitality brands, and the challenge of a soft to flat group market doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better in the near term. Last week’s government shutdown only throws more water on a dimming flame, as the already shrinking government market came to a sudden halt.
The extended weak forecast has seemingly become a wake-up call for the travel industry, as there appears to be a heightened focus on addressing this critical group audience with new products and technologies that seem to take aim at revitalizing the marketplace, while addressing some of the shifts in consumer needs.
With its bevy of large hotels in key markets, it’s not surprising that Marriott is among the big brands that are acknowledging that it can’t be group business as normal. In fact, its recent initiatives focus on three key areas that every travel brand attacking the group market would be wise to consider.
The first is Marriott’s Workspace on Demand program that addresses the growing movement toward a mobile workforce that increasingly wants easy ways to collaborate and work in a fluid manner. By partnering with LiquidSpace, Marriott is offering a simple way to reserve everything from a table in the lobby to conference rooms, all rentable by the hour. Leveraging existing facilities and exploring different uses, distribution models and pricing are things every travel brand can readily do.
Marriott has also begun to reimagine the way group space should be configured with its Workspring concept at the Redmond Marriott Town Center in Redmond, Wash. Designed in consort with furniture maker Steelcase, it is a cluster of suites around an open space that readily accommodates various-sized groups and purposes. Featuring windows, outdoor access and the latest touch screen technology, it creates a bright, airy, flexible venue that serves as a reminder of just how far meeting spaces will need to go to address evolving trends in business needs and consumer attitudes. Add in a mix of healthy and locally grown foods plus sustainable office supplies, and it would seem that Marriott has successfully touched all of the style, productivity and health-related hot buttons of today’s traveler. And, while the concept is clearly focused on the future, it’s not clear how fast, or even if, the concept will be rolled out across large portions of the brand.
Nonetheless, Marriott has sent a strong signal to the industry that it will need to begin to make significant investments to reshape its approach to accommodating group business, and that anyone contemplating upgrading property needs to think beyond mere electronic improvements and fresh furnishings if it’s going to keep pace with customer demands.
Marriott has also embraced the reality that some of the most exciting developments and biggest gains in the group space are going to come from using technology to actually improve the quality of the meeting experience itself. Indeed, the industry may find that there’s no better way to grow group business than by enhancing the quality and outcome of the meeting and getting those that plan and attend the meetings to become champions of the benefit of meeting face-to-face.
For Marriott, the introduction of its Red Coat Direct app allows the planner to use a mobile device to make requests to a property’s convention service staff without leaving the meeting room. It’s an initial step in what promises to be an accelerated race by brands to better use technology as part of the industry’s process to rethink its approach to targeting the group market.
Just the idea that the industry continues to call those who go to meetings “attendees” or “delegates” seems old fashioned, especially in a world where engagement and participation are increasingly keys to success.
In that spirit, Marriott and other brands would be wise to look at how they can leverage services like Eventifier.com that can collate all the related content from an event so that it can be archived and showcased in an easy-to-use event page. The service grabs the content from such sources as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, et al., allowing all the content being created by everyone at an event to be gathered and curated in one place. Another example is Conferize.com, a free social platform that was designed for following and attending a conference in real time to find conversations, photos, videos and more.
We’re also now seeing the rapid emergence of services (Eventmobi.com; CrowdCompass.com; QuickMobile.com) that make it possible for each group to have a unique app that supports their venue and event. Indeed, apps serving as conference event guides are increasingly becoming standard for large conferences and before long will be a must-have for even small meetings and events. Much like the custom booking platforms many hotels now offer a group, can the personalized meeting app be far behind? More than just providing an electronic itinerary of activities, these sophisticated platforms have the potential to transform a meeting through polling, gamification, videos, contact exchanges, social media and more.
Marriott may be pointing the way, but there’s still ample opportunity to innovate and energize your approach to the group market—through new products, new technologies and new perspectives.
The future of your group business doesn’t just require it. It demands it.