Revenue from the global events and meetings industry, as reported by Research Dive, is projected to increase from $23.9 billion in 2018 to $33.4 billion by this year.
The primary catalyst for this growth is the expansion of virtual and hybrid event solutions.
A solution catapulted by the pandemic, hybrid meetings have significantly changed how meetings, conferences and other events are delivered to attendees. And while in 2023, the need for virtual events has seen a slight decline as fully in-person meetings and events return, more than half of the meeting planner market, according to Skift, will continue to host virtual events, including webinars, hybrid events and more.
Hybrid events quickly became the norm over the last few years – in fact, 67% of event professionals say hybrid will be their go-to format for events in the future, according to research conducted by Skift. Such events allow meeting planners to reach a wider audience or new audience, including the younger workforce who are more likely to attend meetings, events or conferences virtually as they have become accustomed to a full remote or hybrid teams and office culture. And while hybrid event models offer a lot of advantages, they present significant challenges and opportunities for growth among meeting planners and the venues who host.
Parks Hospitality Group is an award-winning, hotel development and management company dedicated to providing upscale accommodations and uniquely curated food and beverage experiences. Since 2008, Parks has partnered with Hilton and Marriott to develop a thriving portfolio of over 1400 rooms spanning North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.
In Asheville, North Carolina, Parks manages and owns two Hilton properties: DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown, which opened in July 2021, and Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown, which is slated to open winter 2023.
DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown features 140 guest rooms and more than 3,000 square feet of meeting and event space, including include boutique rooftop spaces – Montford Rooftop Bar – and ballrooms.
Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown, the neighbor property of the former, is conveniently located in the heart of the city and offers sweeping views of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. The newly constructed 188 all-suites hotel brings more than 7,000 square feet of new event space to the downtown market, including a ballroom, conference center, board room – even Soprana, an Italian brick oven pizza rooftop restaurant and E'Terie, a lobby-level restaurant and bar – making it a premier destination for weddings, events and meetings.
As director of sales and marketing for both properties, my team and I have the unique advantage of experiencing the beginning of the hybrid meeting model at DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown during which we endured many challenges and setbacks, had to get exceptionally creative, pulled off massive wins and became a more successful team. Now, we have the opportunity to not only apply those learnings to the same property, but apply them to the brand-new Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown where we're set-up for complete success the moment we open our doors and welcome our very first group.
The challenges incurred at DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown include technology integration and support for in-person and virtual attendees of meetings and events. We found that we had to adjust event layouts to accommodate both the attendees and the hardware of technology to allow us to maintain audience engagement. The opportunities for both DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown and Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown lie within the improvement on these challenges, including a more efficient collaboration process with meeting planners when it comes to technology and the hybrid meeting and event packages that we are able to offer. We've found that in-person and virtual site visits are incredibly conducive to the planning process and allow us to walk through each event's unique needs and integrations to accommodate the hybrid experience.
What's more: According to Explore Asheville, the destination's Convention and Visitors Bureau,
2023 is anticipated to be a record-breaking year for group travel, as employers and groups seek to foster meaningful connections…. With 26 direct flight destinations including major hubs, and within driving distance of major cities, including Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville, Asheville's abundance of outdoor and wellness experiences, award-winning restaurants and inspiring cultural attractions makes it a top destination for an invigorating meeting that will leave attendees feeling recharged.
While we're poised to have an abundance of in-person visitors and groups in our city, we're eager to continue leveraging our successes for future opportunities with repeat or new meeting planner partners that cater to both in-person attendees, as well as the equally important virtual audience, through hybrid meetings and events.
Technology Integration & Hybrid Meeting Packages
For a hybrid model that combines in-person live events with a digital component, it goes without saying that technology integration is key. Since going fully, then to partially virtual, we – like most – battled our fair share of technology woes at Doubletree by Hilton Asheville Downtown. It is critically important that the IT infrastructure inside a hotel supports the level of expectations from the meeting planners with whom we partner. From Wi-Fi bandwidth that's strong enough to support an audience both in-person and a wholly separate audience online, to compatible audio-visual equipment and screen resolution – the list goes on. We know that if technology is not up to date, our delivery of service will suffer.
Applying the learnings of such technological challenges to both properties – even in advance of the opening of Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown – we have begun the collaboration process with meeting planners during the Request For Proposal (RFP) process so that our technology is fully verified for their needs. This allows us a competitive advantage as we're able to work with our partners to bring in the necessary equipment to ensure success for each party.
Moreover, knowing now what to expect with the hybrid meeting model from a technological perspective, it's vital to us and the clientele we serve to offer a pre-configured menu of packages that accommodate several levels of service delivery, including Polycom – or conference call – only, a video conferencing-specific boardroom, fully hybrid experiences and more. All of this is supported by a fully trained technology support staff who are available to troubleshoot any technical issues promptly and efficiently.
Event Layouts & Pre-Event Virtual Site Visits
Another challenge we've experienced over the last two years at DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown are the evolving nature of event layouts. At the hotel, we offer five meeting and event spaces with the ability to offer six room configurations to host groups of anywhere between 15 and 140 people. These, of course, are numbers reflective of in-person-only meetings and events. Some hybrid events, we have found, because of the hardware they require to meet the needs of two audiences and, ultimately, the physical footprint that such equipment requires – change the capacity and function layout of event space. In some instances, this even means decreasing the number of total guests that can be accommodated in one space.
Additionally, we've seen a shift in demand for spaces, as natural lighting has always been key for in-person events, but can be problematic for virtual attendees. To overcome this, we've looked at shifting happy hours and receptions to these areas, while reserving the more traditional meeting spaces for hybrid-functions.
As stewards of meeting planners' needs and goals it is vital to us to offer virtual site visits as part of the planning process. This means coordinating video calls in advance through something as simple as a one-on-one FaceTime or virtual site tours for several partners at once on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Vidyard. Utilizing software such as TrueTour by Visiting Media, a leader of immersive sales and virtual site inspection technology, gives us the ability to guide planners through 3D or 360-degree spaces with an array of functions. This helps the meeting planners we serve to gain a complete understanding of our physical property through virtual tours, leading to day-of success.
Audience Engagement and the Hotel's Responsibility
On the day-of, hybrid meetings then present the challenge of audience engagement. There's no denying it: The challenge of keeping both in-person and virtual attendees engaged at the same time is a tall order. These attendees are each presented with their own set of distractions with virtual attendees, especially those joining from their home offices, having their completely individual distractions. For hotels, the onus of that responsibility might seem to lie on the content team of any particular event but in reality, it is a collaboration between both the meeting planners, the event's content team and the hotel. In fact, the delivery of the "feel" of that meeting or event's atmosphere relies on the hotel. This means again looking at the technology, having a knowledgeable staff on-call for ongoing assistance throughout an event, ensuring accessibility for all guests, and customization for groups from space to catering.
With all of this in mind, successful hybrid meetings and events are possible. And more than that, they should become fodder for booking even more opportunities in the future. Using challenges – even flat-out failures – as moments of learning is important but so, too, is merchandising what went well. My team and I have made a habit of turning our successes into testimonials and case studies almost as soon as they're complete, while also capturing imagery to utilize through our social media channels that further showcases an exceptional hybrid event.
For meeting planners, seeing that a hybrid meeting went successfully – whether through testimonials from former partners or engaging imagery online – might just be a deciding mark for a signed contract in the future.
Reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission from http://www.hotelexecutive.com/.