Industry Update
Opinion Article 6 August 2020

How Meeting and Event Venues are Adapting to the New Normal

By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited

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As the stay-at-home orders subsides and leisure travelers look to rediscover their own backyards, we cannot forget that numerous hotels around the world derive a healthy portion of their topline revenues from groups. And even after all the postponements, cancelations and booking credits, this side of the business is still a question mark insofar as when exactly it will return to 2019 levels.

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While undoubtedly a clearer picture will emerge as summer fades into fall, there are nevertheless several critical adjustments needed in the near-term as to how you can safely facilitate a conference or event so that you are fully ready once the meeting planners come knocking.

To help understand some of the steps you can take to prepare for this return, I've recruited Andrew Hodd, President of Vantage Venues, a dedicated venue rental space based out of my hometown of Toronto, to answer a few questions. Occupying two high floors in a downtown office tower and lacking a guestroom component presents a distinct set of challenges and opportunities for the facility.

For one, being in the heart of any city poses the issue of contact tracing and enforcing social distancing, and this is further magnified by the Vantage Venues' capacity to host multiple events simultaneously. Next, with an F&B team led by two award-winning executive chefs, foodservice has always been a strong differentiator as well as a profit maker, yet how does one uphold this silo amidst so many new cleanliness concerns? Thirdly, what can hoteliers learn from an operator who isn't mired by appeasing overnight guests? Let's hear what Andrew has to say on some of these issues.

What challenges did you face when retrofitting your spaces to meet the new physical distancing requirements?

I am sure we will continue to learn new techniques and strategies, but the industry has proactively strategized together and come up with a tremendous set of practices. Setting up floor markers for spacing, shields at reception desks, cleaning procedures and sourcing PPE are crucial implementations. The challenging part is how to provide a collaborative experience with physical distancing measures in place. We can set up tables to allow for physical distancing, but colleagues gather to meet as a group and learn from one another. Acoustics have become increasingly important, as guests will need to communicate while maintaining distance. Adding audio equipment might be a necessary addition to the room, but we can't forget to clean the mics!

We believe an important step is keeping groups independent from one another. We designed Vantage Venues for privacy, as three quarters of our total space has dedicated lounge areas for food and beverage. We will ensure that is the case for the remaining quarter by providing in-room service or an additional adjacent private room. Each group can isolate while meeting, leaving the only interaction with other people being in elevators or washrooms, which are very short in duration and thus low risk.

What measures are you taking to reassure groups through cleanliness theater?

We will have a team dedicated to cleaning only. This ensures there is no crossover of duties between those serving food and those responsible for sanitization. Safety of staff is key, so the PPE required is also specific to each set of responsibilities. Washrooms, door handles, light switches and so on are all targeted for a thorough regular cleaning. Not only is this important for our guests to see for their own peace of mind, but also to provide cues for guests so they are participating in safe practices. It is a constant reminder to wash or sanitize their hands and wear masks.

As Vantage Venues is focused mostly on hosting groups from Toronto, what efforts has your sales team taken to drum up business from the local market?

Fortunately for us, this has always been our clientele. We engaged our clients before putting together our health and safety guidelines. Now that we have a strong program in place, we are communicating it to clients holding space as well as those who have hosted events here recently. Given our expertise in providing hybrid meetings through our strong AV/IT department, facilitating private groupings of guests and the fact that we are not a hotel property, we feel well-positioned to continuing serving the Toronto business community.

Moving into the kitchen, what efforts are you taking to reassure attendees of your commitment to food safety and to build this revenue stream?

We are committed to three things. First is continuing to provide a terrific culinary experience. The second commitment is to food safety in the face of COVID-19. Third is maintaining our pledge to reduce waste, both food and plastics.

After ensuring groups are isolated from one another, the next step is single serve rather than buffets. Guests will be able to pick up a salad bowl, plated main course and dessert, all served on our fine bone china and covered for safety purposes. Next, we ensure safe collection and washing, which involves gloves and face shields. In our mind, the move to plastic containers and throwaway products is going backwards.

With everyone looking for hybrid meeting solutions, what technologies have you deployed to accommodate people attending remotely and differentiate Vantage Venues in this regard?

Hybrid meeting are certainly not new but the necessity for them is. Long before COVID-19, we were investing in hybrid meeting solutions and equipment for producing webinars and videoconferencing. To accommodate the current environment, our IT team has taken leading webcasting components (Wirecast, Wowza etc.) and successfully married them with videoconferencing technologies (Zoom, WebEx, Teams etc.).

This allows presenters to join from anywhere in the world to present virtually to any size audiences. In today's landscape, clients' expectations have changed, with value-driven quality being our top priority. Tech toys and software cannot achieve success alone, though, as hosting a professional live event requires complex logistics, all of which must be managed by a talented team.

Many are saying that group business won't recover simply because all these new measures have taken the fun out of hosting an event. What steps are you taking to make onsite meetings dynamic and engaging while still abiding by the all the new requirements?

Firstly, we have to remember that this will not last forever. As humans, we thrive off of human connection. On the meeting side of things, the technology piece will be crucial. Hybrid meetings will be the norm and it is up to our team to ensure that virtual attendees feel as included as possible. This involves reliable bandwidth, testing procedures, engagement features and proper video displays. As for the fun events, the food experience must be better than ever. We want to use the lower guest counts as an opportunity to get even more creative and attentive to our food product. With masks being strongly recommended, we are having fun by creating our own with a smile on the front. It might take an open-minded group, but I'm sure a game could be made out of mask wearing. Perhaps a game of 'Who am I?' where the name is written on a mask provided for the guest.
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