The Woodlands (Houston), Texas — Benchmark announced this week the top 10 trends impacting and transforming meetings in 2021 as observed by its portfolio of 80 meeting hotels, resorts, and conference centers located coast to coast. The U.S.-based independent hospitality management company operates properties within its Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, Gemstone Collection, and Benchmark Conference Centers brands.
“If there’s one thing we learned in 2020, it’s the true definition of what it means to pause and pivot, and just how resilient and creative the folks in the meetings industry are,” said Eric Gavin, Benchmark’s chief sales officer. “With the anticipation of widespread vaccinations in late Spring, we are seeing early signs of pent-up demand for meetings and gatherings. In our view, 2021 is a turn-around year that will kick off a substantial recovery for the meetings industry.”
Optimism Towards Recovery
The industry is expressing optimism for the first time since the pandemic began, according to Benchmark’s report. Vaccines are being administered to increasing segments of the population, raising optimism for a meetings industry comeback during the third and fourth quarter. To date in 2021, meeting RFPs have reached the highest levels since March 2020. As destinations begin to safely open back up, so are the size and quantity of group gatherings.
Road Trip Meetings
Corporate gatherings in 2021 are primarily regional drive-to at this point, though Benchmark expects fly-in meetings to take hold during the latter part of the year. Hybrid meetings remain a key option for including entire teams within a meeting, with attendees nearby driving in and those further afield attending virtually due to travel apprehensions, or the need to remain home for family or health reasons. That said, the demand for hybrid meetings is not as strong as might have been expected, Benchmark noted—the desire to gather in person surpasses hybrid meetings, and there may be fatigue setting in with remote connections.
Technology can make or break a meeting experience. The most important technology request and concern among planners for a superb conference experience in 2021 is bandwidth, according to Benchmark. Other priorities include a property’s virtual meeting capacity and a dedicated tech support team available at a moment’s notice throughout the meeting.
Year of the SMERF
The most important industry segment delivering the majority of inquiries and meetings in 2021 is SMERF (social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal) business, with a heavy emphasis on social, educational, and religious meetings, according to Benchmark.
Rapidly becoming the new standard in hospitality, contactless technology rallied during the past year and is expected to outlive the pandemic, according to Benchmark. Contactless technology has become the expectation of planners and meeting guests, from arrival through entering the guestroom, conference registration, meeting agendas, conference services, dining with virtual menus, and ordering room service.
The pandemic has led to a shift in hotel F&B—hotels have incorporated QR codes and contactless menus, attended buffets, individually packaged menu selections, and reinvented boxed meals featuring fresh food. A strong preference remains, though, for served meals or modified buffets with individually packaged selections and hot and cold choices served behind plexiglass. Given the current environment, properties are accommodating guests in any way they can, tailoring to individual customer preferences, which may also include bento box meals and boxed hors d’oeuvres, as well as drop-off catering in guestrooms. Some properties are packaging meals in eco-friendly containers to reduce plastic waste.
Creative, Local, and Sustainable
In 2021, creativity, taste, and sustainability remain important priorities to planners and guests, Benchmark noted in its report. Culinary teams remain passionate about providing locally sourced and sustainable food items, not only for freshness but to support local farmers and purveyors during this challenging time. Farm-to-fork dining experiences are as important today as they ever have been. In all regions, outdoor dining reigns, with chefs in Northern regions planning hearty winter menus served in large outdoor spaces surrounded by fire pits and heaters, enabling safe, appealing, and socially distanced dining experiences.
Some states and local restrictions limit the size of events to as little as 10-15 people and, as a result, average group size in 2021 is smaller, according to Benchmark. With more destinations modifying and lifting restrictions, however, Benchmark reported an increase in larger group requests of 50-100 guests, particularly at larger properties that offer extensive space for social distancing, break out spaces outside for greater accommodation of social distancing with small group sessions, and the ability to offer select breakouts virtually so guests can easily transition into the break out of their choice. Meetings being booked in 2021 extend for two days on average, which is not dissimilar to previous years. Benchmark added that properties are preparing for last-minute meeting bookings throughout the year.
Meeting outdoors has been a growing trend over the past few years. In 2021, it’s a necessity. Outdoor spaces are being created where they don’t currently exist: ballroom courtyards, resort lawns, and sandy beaches are now meeting rooms for larger groups, as are restaurant terraces, pool decks, outdoor pavilions, and newly installed tented rooms that reimagine the “traditional” meeting room. Adirondack chairs are stand-ins for ergonomic seating, portable heating elements bring warmth to outdoor rooms in colder climates, and, where appropriate, plexiglass offers another line of safety between guests and staff.
Meeting contract language is where the rubber hits the road in 2021, according to Benchmark. Many planners are adamant about the need for flexibility around attrition clauses, cancellation clauses and fees, rebooking clauses, group rate clauses, and commissions. Vaccinations have only recently become more broadly administered and planners remain cautious about rescheduling meetings in the shorter term.