Meeting Trends Put Planners to the Test in 2016
by Maria Lenhart

Executing meetings this year promises to be anything but business as usual. Planners will face a steep learning curve in all directions, whether it’s negotiating in a robust hotel seller’s market, keeping abreast of new technologies or providing engaging content that meets the demands of today’s attendees.

Here’s a look at some of the ways meeting planners will be tested in the year ahead.

A race for space
High demand for meetings and event venues in North America is exceeding supply, resulting in the strongest hotel seller’s market since the early 2000s. According to the 2016 Meetings and Events Forecast from Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) Meetings & Events, room rates will rise by 4.3% this year as “demand continues to grow at up to quadruple the rate of supply.”

The implication for meetings goes beyond higher room rates, but touches on every aspect of the event, according to David Moran, executive vice president of CWT Meetings & Events.

“We anticipate tighter hotel cancellation policies, growing food and beverage costs and companies trying to harness their combined spend as they look for ways to control costs,” he said.

While hotel development is rebounding after years of stagnation, industry analysts note that few new properties are full-service hotels with much in the way of meeting space. Instead, most new hotels tend to be limited service or boutique, which take less time and money to build.

“Not much is being built to accommodate meetings,” said Bjorn Hanson, a consultant and professor at the Preston Robert Tisch School of Hospitality and Tourism at New York University. “Even the new full-service hotels and resorts that are being built have less meeting space than they used to.”

Adding to the squeeze is the fact that increasing demand from leisure travelers is making availability tighter for meeting groups, particularly at upscale resorts, he added. “Meetings are viewed as less desirable, so groups are being steered toward dates when transient business is low.”

Flexibility on dates and location is the best strategy that planners can employ during the seller’s market, advised Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services for PKF Hospitality Research.

“While there’s a lot of competition now for space, all hotels have their dead spots and they’re eager to fill them,” he said. “So look at your calendar. Timing and geography are big factors.”

Technology: reality check for meetings
Aided by a proliferation of new immersive visualization tools, the use and scope of virtual reality at meetings and events is taking off in new directions, according to meetings tech guru Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball & Associates.

Ball points to the development of such tools as VR headsets that can demonstrate products at tradeshows, minimizing the need to ship actual products. VR technology is also helping to engage attendees at trade show booths as well as enabling planners to conduct hotel and venue site inspections from remote locations.

Event intelligence—the use of mobile event apps to track attendee behavior and preferences while a meeting is in progress—is another significant development, according to Ball. Planners can now get immediate feedback on which hot topics are trending, who the favorite speakers are, what exhibit booths are drawing the most attendees, and much more.

“Modern smartphones have an array of sensors,” Ball explained. “When combined with mobile event apps, they can provide a goldmine of information about participants’ likes, dislikes, interests, movements, and more that can be used to improve future events and to provide customized marketing content based on the participants’ individual needs.”

Meetings content gets curated
Coinciding with the increasing ability to track attendee preferences in real-time is a growing desire among attendees to be able to follow their own path during a meeting. This was among trends outlined by a recent panel of experts assembled by Marriott International and PCMA to discuss the future of meetings.

Noting a desire among attendees for “curated content,” Sherriff Karamat, COO of PCMA, stated: “I don’t want the organizers to determine my experience for me. Instead, I want them to create a platform where I can personalize my experience.”

For planners, this could mean the need to restructure content or manipulate a room’s physical set-up at a moment’s notice in order to adapt to the real-time feedback they’re getting from attendees. 

Tribal gatherings
In this age of social media, meetings need to address the demand for community. Another trend identified by the Marriott/PCMA panel is a shift away from individualism “toward tribal communities of likeminded passionate individuals who can push each other to a higher level.”

As a result, the panel asserted that the value of a meeting becomes “less about the content and speakers and more about the attendee list. Further, we believe participants will increasingly value connection at physical events.” To achieve this, the panel concluded that meetings should provide opportunities to foster small group connections that support collaboration. 

F&B: multiple personalities
The pressure is on to provide food and beverage at meetings that addresses an ever-growing range of preferences and dietary needs while also equaling the quality that attendees enjoy at fine restaurants. This is the conclusion of The Year of Multiple Personalities, a new trends report issued by Andrew Freeman & Co., a hospitality and restaurant consulting firm.

Asserting that attendees don’t want to “compromise quality for being in a group and want their food to feel made to order,” the report noted that event catering is continually getting more creative and experiential. “Everything is customizable, interactive, fresh and delicious with street foods, mason jar salads, noodle bars, make-your-own sandwiches and build-your-own desserts.”

Pic: Robert Scoble

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