Industry Update
Opinion Article24 August 2020

Getting Bullish on Group Travel for 2021

By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited

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Obvious to most, COVID will have a longer tail for groups than for transients, as has been made clear from all the event cancellations or postponements, and with no definitive guidelines in place for how to safely resume meetings or conferences in the physically distanced next normal.

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At the same time, talk to anyone who has made it past their probationary period in an actual office job and it's easily apparent why in-person discussions are the most effective form of communication for any collaborative process as well as for networking. As such, even with all the videoconferencing and enabling teams to work from home, corporate meetings will inevitably come back. Then on the leisure groups side, just try having a wedding or anniversary party over Zoom; it's just not the same.

While many are saying that group travel will forever be diminished from this pandemic as companies look to shield their workers (and their expense accounts) from any super-spreader events, there are in fact quite a few reasons for why group travel will bounce back in the years following quarantine. For these, understanding the core reasons will help to position your brand to capitalize upon any swell of inquiries in the near future.

1. Event postponements and travel debts. As previously mentioned, many meetings, conferences, corporate retreats, weddings, reunions, funerals and other leisure events have been put on hold until such time as air travel restrictions have been lifted and people feel comfortable to go abroad again. In what is best described as travel debts, all the various reasons for bringing people together haven't gone away but are lying dormant, and people will be eager to regroup once the situation settles. Many of these events will simply skip a year while others will look to carve out a few days in late fall or early next year to get them on the books as soon as possible.

2. Employment contracts and group credits. Many businesspersons have travel built into their contracts with their parent companies, allowing for a certain number of paid-for trips each year with a per-diem spending allowance. It's a great perk for helping attract top talent, although many of those with such benefits will be looking to cash in to make up for lost time and travel that went unused during lockdown. Moreover, while many groups were able to cancel their gatherings with a full refund or a minor penalty, others were made to settle for some sort of future credit which will inescapably have to be rendered.

3. Private corporate retreats. Travel quotas may soon be reassessed as being too risky an incentive for the average employment contract, and this perk may thus be replaced by more group working vacations to nearby resorts where operative pods or amalgamated teams can interact in an inspirational, secluded and sanitized environment. Already a trend for stylish tech companies looking to generate the next big thing through such activities as guided yoga sessions or mediation hikes, now this trend may go mainstream. Such corporate programs would look to partner with small properties - defined roughly as under 75 rooms - where contact with unknown persons can be minimized.

4. Remote team get-togethers. The pandemic has ushered in the age of working from home, which means more regular isolation and less workplace interactivity. As this shift also means decreased overhead costs for sustaining commercial real estate, companies may opt to reallocate a portion of the office rent and other displaced fixed costs towards hosting more intra-company meetings so that all these newly remote employees can assemble periodically in real life.

Whether one or more of these four broad reasons applies to your hotel or not, the general current is that there are lots of reasons for group travel to make a comeback. This will likely not happen until well into 2021 because no company is going to risk even considering a contract or committing to a large-scale event until there are unambiguous signals from government and international authorities that COVID is completely gone or a vaccine is omnipresent.

Predicting a bounce back is one thing; knowing how to seize the moment is what's actually important. Even before new cleanliness and viral safety certifications are rolled out, there are a number of steps you can take to generate more appeal for groups.

1. Select service can mean contactless. In the traditional hotelier's sense of the word, service implies hands-on. The more luxury a product is, generally speaking the more contact that has occurred between any operation or amenity and the guest. Rather than finding ways to make everything contactless, why not instead go the select service route by removing service offerings altogether? If groups are worried about room attendants touching personal belongings during cleaning, then allow the entire block to opt-out. And if a company is worried about viral spread while dining at your signature restaurant, ensure that room service or secluded dining options are available for all meals.

2. Fully technology-enabled spaces. Regardless of how big the post-pandemic surge will be for group bookings, videoconferencing will remain popular. Even though the number of attendees may be small, there will still be those that cannot make it for one reason or another, so you need to have good connectivity and the proper devices in place for groups to seamless loop in others that are offsite. Savvy hotels are also those that have properly explored contactless technologies like guest messaging apps in lieu of having to visit the front desk, touchless payment gateways or phone-activated room keys - the more steps you take to mitigate contact, the more reasons you give meeting planners to choose your property over others.

3. Cleanliness theater. Aside from being compliant with any new standards that emerge, important for winning any contract will be how the hotel gives its guests peace of mind so that they feel at ease during their stays. After all, what's the point of holding a conference if all its delegates are too anxious to enter high-traffic areas? Brands must therefore make their cleaning practices highly visible so that all guests see with their own eyes that the property is taking their safety with the utmost seriousness. Moreover, just because it is labeled as 'theater' does not preclude you from the huge amount of work behind the scenes to make the production go off without a hitch.

4. Social distancing standards. With this concept now ingrained in people's minds, it may soon become the norm for quite some time. Guests will want to see tables properly spaced out, middle chairs blocked off to separate either end, strict limits on elevator ridership and tape marks on the floor to indicate where they should stand while in a queue. During a site visit (conducted in person or virtually), planners will also want to learn about how contact is being restricted between the group's room block or event space and the rest of the hotel's visitors or amongst the staff. This may compel you to forbid access to certain sections of the property before, during and after the group is using it or even having an operative pod of employees service only that group and no other guests while the group is in house.

All events and meetings aside, what's involved for these four broad activities are steps that you may have to take regardless of whether you decide to bullishly pursue the groups segment or not in the next quarter. Now is the time to start putting these in place so that you are fully ready to show just how well your hotel has adapted to meet all the new COVID requirements for groups business.

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