The global small meetings market amounts to about $11 billion annually – and it offers a rich opportunity for smart travel agents to build their business.
Even companies that are sticklers for following corporate travel policies on business trips usually do not have a formal process for small meetings. But managing these “rogue bookings” can bring both cost savings and extra benefits, and win over new customers for the agency that delivers them.
“There is huge potential and a lot of opportunity to grow, especially for smaller agencies, since the majority of the unmanaged meetings and events business currently goes either direct or through smaller agencies,” said Oliver May, global lead, Meetings Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE), for HRS Group, a hotel technology company based out Cologne, Germany. May helps shape HRS’s MICE strategy, offering direction in terms of product roadmap, client services, marketing initiatives and operational efficiency.
Travel agents trying to win the meetings business of small-business owners and entrepreneurs need to be persistent and willing to adopt technology. And they need to proceed methodically and slowly.
Meeting and event planning is a growing business for First in Service (F1S) in New York City. The company books on average about 250 meetings year, averaging 25-50 people per booking.
“We handle everything – trainings, product launches, sales incentives, employee retreats, executive management meetings, road shows and VIP events,” said CEO Fernando Gonzalez. On the corporate side of the agency, meetings are the largest area of sales growth.
“The bulk of our corporate clients are small to medium-businesses, in the $1-5 million travel budget range. We work with some of the leading luxury brands in the world, in addition to entertainment, production and media companies.
“In the past most clients allowed their admin or marketing teams to handle this sector in-house through personal relationships with a particular hotel. But they found that they weren’t getting the best deals or weren’t even aware of properties that should have been considered. We can leverage the best terms because of our relationships and experience in the business.”
Building a meetings business will test sales and management skills
While the opportunity is large, May said, it takes some work by a travel agent, especially as the agent initiates sales discussions with senior management. “They’ll need to get all the key stakeholders involved,” May said, including finance, procurement and the company’s in-house travel manager, if there is one.
“But smaller enterprises might have a better chances to align processes more quickly as they can introduce new processes faster than large enterprises. The initial alignment with the relevant stakeholders is likely to be easier in a smaller company, too,” May said.
Focus on solving each stakeholder’s pain points; “if you make their lives easier, that helps get them on board,” May said.
Slow and steady keeps the business
Agents shouldn’t seek to change a company overnight. May recommends a six-month pilot, rolling out and testing new procedures. “One year after rollout, sit down with the high-level executives and review their meetings data,” he advised.
And remember that travel is a very emotional thing, and people have their own alliances that you will need to change. Give the client’s employees time to adapt to the idea of using one agency before you push them to preferred suppliers, he suggested. After the first year, perhaps, “a company can look at its suppliers and spend, and try to negotiate with hotels,” May said.
Agents might also want to explore what technology products their consortia or other business partners provide to help manage what can be a labor-intensive business.
“Agencies will need to embrace technological solutions to simplify and streamline the process for both their customers and themselves,” May said.
Gonzalez at FiS agreed. “Right now we are beta-testing a new product that eliminates sealed bidding [for a client’s meetings business], so suppliers have to be as competitive as possible upfront,” he said.
Don’t be intimidated by large competitors
Recently, American Express Global Business Travel delivered a marketing e-mail that tried to proclaim that large travel-management companies are best suited to serve corporations of all sizes. But Gonzalez is finding that being more nimble and close to the client has been an advantage for his firm.
“Being a smaller boutique-style company is a huge advantage in meeting planning today. As our name implies, service and relationships are paramount,” he said. “We take the time to understand each client’s business model and corporate culture. From there we design a custom product.”