For some hoteliers, group travel seems like trying to lasso wild horses. Like an unruly herd, the group market continually shifts, heading in one direction, then another, year after year. With different—often more demanding—needs than individual travelers, wrangling group travel may seem like too much of a wild ride for some. But for many properties, group travel is essential to the bottom line.
“Group business is very important especially during down time in transient business,” says Christopher Polak, director of catering and convention services at the Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa in St. Maarten. “We supplement the transient business with group business in almost all resorts and hotels. It’s an important part of reaching projected revenues.”
Similarly, the Bavarian Inn Lodge in Frankenmuth, Mich., about an hour and a half north of Detroit, counts group travel as a significant part of the business, with nine full-time staff members devoted to meetings and conventions. The lodge hosts 50 to 60 wedding ceremonies and 100 receptions each year. About 300 groups visit the lodge’s restaurant annually and 127 motorcoaches roll in with groups staying and occupying more than 3,000 rooms per year.
“This past year, we’ve seen an increase in group bookings,” says Judy Zehnder Keller, president of the Bavarian Inn Lodge. “Pre-bookings are up about 10 percent. As the economy changes, that’s how group sales acts. We’re still not back to pre-2008 levels, but we’re getting there.” In response to this trend, the resort’s sales department is being reformatted to focus on outside group sales, according to Zehnder Keller.
Other hoteliers are responding to the uptick in group travel by seeking ways to attract more business. This past October, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts launched Group Bill, which is a real-time tracking system for meeting planners. Group Bill and the Hyatt Passkey system allow meeting planners to check billing and book, modify, or cancel reservations online. “Hyatt’s new Group Bill simplifies the billing process and gives the most valuable currency back to our customers—time,” says Rodahl Leong-Lyons, Hyatt’s vice president of sales operations.
The Passkey system also allows meeting planners to upload lists of attendees and create reservations for each. It also notifies planners when quotas have been met. The Group Bill and Passkey complement Hyatt’s already deep commitment to pursuing group sales. For example, the company’s American Sales Organization has 70 salespeople devoted to group business. And Hyatt’s Global Sales Organization has 30 staffers devoted to groups with travel needs between two or more continents.
Marketing: Calling All Groups
From large chains, such as Hyatt, to single-property operations like the Bavarian Inn Lodge, marketing to groups follows a similar path—through social media. According to Leong-Lyons, Hyatt is ramping up its marketing efforts to reach planners with sites such as Cvent and Starcite and through trade and association publications. “We are increasingly focusing on connecting with planners where they already spend their time, particularly online,” Leong-Lyons says. “We strive to be a resource to them and will continue to connect planners through our LinkedIn Hyatt Community.”
The Bavarian Inn Lodge has increasingly turned to social media for its marketing efforts. “We have a real awareness of what groups and individuals say about us on sites such as TripAdvisor,” says Zehnder Keller. “While meeting planners may not rely on TripAdvisor, we feel that the recognition from the site helps build our reputation, and we’re still tracking it to determine how beneficial it is for bringing groups.”
However, some low-tech marketing efforts have paid off, too. “In each of our rooms, we have a guest book that encourages visitors to consider us for group business,” Zehnder Keller says. “About one-third of our guests are referred by other guests, and we have several group bookings based on someone’s leisure stay.”
The Bavarian Inn Lodge staff visits several trade shows each year and works closely with local and state convention and visitor bureaus. For example, in conjunction with the Michigan Convention and Visitors Bureau, the lodge recently made a presentation to host a Michigan Bowling Association tournament. The visitor bureau introduced the lodge staff to the meeting planners, and that partnership translated into 811 rooms during the tournament.
Such person-to-person contact is appreciated by meeting planners, according to Trudy Lagerman, a Selinsgrove, Pa.-based travel consultant with Liberty Travel, who has booked thousands of group events throughout her 29-year career. “I get lots of emails, but if some property’s rep takes the time to come in, I can learn a wealth of information about the property in just a few minutes,” Lagerman says. “Just the other day, I made a $20,000 booking as the rep sat there after making a 10-minute presentation about the property.”
Amenities: Power Up the Perks
The changing group market may mean making some small tweaks to how hotels manage group packages. For example, the Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa in St. Maarten isn’t an all-inclusive property, but meeting planners have requested more add-ons for the same price. So to entice groups, the resort began offering some modified packages, including breakfast, beverage packages, and other options into the room rate.
For Polak, this customized approach allows the resort to maintain high standards of food and personal service while still being able to attract groups with a modified all-inclusive package. Other amenities that may help sway a group to sign on could include complimentary or discounted Internet access. Hyatt negotiates such requests on a hotel-by-hotel basis.
Travel consultant Lagerman also says small things such as having a private check-in desk with the group’s logo or hosting a cocktail party will encourage the group to return. “Doing little things that make the stay easier means repeat business,” Lagerman says. “When groups have to pull for every detail, it leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths and they may not want to come back.”
For many groups, though, rates and discounts count more than other amenities. At the Bavarian Inn Lodge, typical group discount ranges from 20 to 30 percent, depending on weekday versus weekend and seasonal scheduling. When business was slow in 2008, Zehnder Keller says that deep discounts had to be offered to lure groups. With the improving economy, the lodge doesn’t need to offer as many discounts.
At the Westin Dawn Beach, a four-night package of 25 or more can save groups 30 percent along with providing other perks, such as oceanfront accommodations, a daily breakfast buffet, a welcome or farewell reception, and a buffet dinner with entertainment. To compete with other resorts, the Westin can be flexible on rates and provides complimentary upgrades and cocktail receptions for groups.
“Some chains offer no discount or only give the 26th person a free room,” Lagerman says. “In the current market, that’s not attractive enough to be viable for most groups.”
With a combination of attractive rates, hoteliers can attract groups to bolster their bottom lines. Teaming with convention and visitors bureaus, along with creative marketing, can also help drive group traffic. And offering perks such as free receptions and upgrades can set your group business above competitors. Treat groups right and your business will grow.