Editor’s Note: This article is the second part of Smart Meetings’ December 2021 issue Dash of Smart column. 

Frustration with the current state of sourcing meetings predates the global pandemic. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are just getting longer, more prolific and, too often, ignored. Meeting producers are looking for dwindling dates, working with shorter planning windows and increased requirements for everything from safety precautions to hybrid technology provisions. Hotel sales teams are barraged with automated forms, lean staffs and limited information to determine what the customer really needs.

More, Faster, Pricier

Jeffrey Emenecker, senior director of analytics at Cvent, confirmed that trend of meeting organizers sending requests to more properties with shorter turnaround times. “We are seeing more hotels being included in RFPs,” he said. He attributed some of the increase to comfort in multiple destinations, and compression leading to organizations putting out broader feelers than normal in order to secure a place with availability. In October, the average number of hotels copied (8.1) was greater not only than compared to March 2021 (7.2), but more than pre-pandemic (7.6).

There has also been a shortening of booking windows almost throughout 2021. While booking windows are typically about 180 days, he was seeing RFP booking windows of more than 200 days in March and as few as 150 days in late September.

Some of the shopping around could also be connected to increased in rates above 2019 for 2022 dates and beyond. “While this can likely be attributed to independent venues feeling confidence among leisure travel, we’re seeing strong rates for both groups and business travel,” said Emenecker.

An Automated Future 

“Automation is critical,” said Emenecker. “As the hospitality industry continues to face headwinds in hiring and retaining enough employees, hoteliers are focused on finding ways to do more with less and cut down any time spent on manual processes,” he said. He pointed to the company’s Proposal Assistant tool, which enables hotels to “auto-respond” to RFPs that meet certain criteria. It also enables creating draft proposals in seconds so that hotels only then need to tweak the proposal, cutting an activity that might take over an hour into one that takes a matter of minutes.

Small Meeting DIY Solutions Emerging

The hospitality grail being pursued right now is the ability to allow customers with small, simple meetings—many of whom may not be full-time meeting producers—to find available space online, book it and the associated rooms and food and beverage just by clicking.

Cvent has partnered with Amadeus to roll out Cvent Instant Book for direct reservations. Hotels that agree to participate put their available meeting room inventory, pre-set terms and conditions online. Meeting shoppers can see options for setup type, time-block packages and prices, reserve and pay, all without talking to a salesperson. Benefits could include better compliance with corporate policies and enhanced visibility into small meetings spend with a clear audit trail. “A critical need exists in the small meetings space to streamline and automate those processes—for both planners and hoteliers,” Emenecker said.

Katja Bohnet, director of hotel distribution, hospitality at Amadeus added, “Group business is critical for the recovery of the hospitality industry. Instant Book…is the start of a shift in our industry where booking a small meeting or event can be done as easily as booking air, rail, car or overnight accommodation.”

Another emerging option is Groups360, a company launched in 2014 by former Gaylord Entertainment Company executives. Their GroupSync technology has already booked hundreds of millions of dollars in business with an average meeting size of 400 people. The company estimates it has reduced the time it takes to book a space to an average of 19 days compared to an industry average of 77 days. In 2019, it attracted a $50 million investment from Accor, Hilton, IHG and Marriott to further develop the product.

Enhanced, real-time, easy-to-use booking could be available in a matter of months and could relieve a lot of friction. Marriott International estimates that a full quarter of meetings in the U.S. and Canada fall into that category. “We know meeting planners want a platform where they can instantly book everything in real time,” said Marriott International CEO Tony Capuano. “We want to make it easy and intuitive and give information you need when and how you want it and it is seamless,” he said.

However, for the other two-thirds of meetings, RFPs will continue to be part of doing business, he predicted. “This is still a relationship business and we are partners who can help with everything from protocols to creative use of space that requires a real conversation.”

Julius Robinson, chief sales and marketing officer for the U.S. and Canada believes his team is more invested in working collaboratively with meeting professionals on those more complex events. “Everyone has more personal relationships after what we have been through and seeing each other in their homes,” he said. In fact, salespeople are now allocating more time in their calendars to have longer conversations. “That is a good thing,” he said.