Benchmark, a global hospitality company, has shared its "Ten Top Trends" that are impacting and transforming meetings in 2021. The trends were observed by Benchmark’s portfolio of 80 meeting hotels, resorts and conference centers (including Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, Gemstone Collection and Benchmark Conference Centers).
“If there’s one thing we learned in 2020, it’s the true definition of what it means to pause and pivot,” said Eric Gavin, chief sales officer for Benchmark, in a press announcement, “and just how resilient and creative the folks in the meetings industry are. 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.”
Trend 1: Road To Recovery
The industry is expressing optimism, for the first time since the pandemic began. Vaccines are being administered to increasing segments of the population, raising optimism for a meetings industry comeback during the third and fourth quarters of this year. According to a leading meetings, events and hospitality technology provider, 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.
Trend 2: Road Trip Meetings
Corporate gatherings in 2021 are primarily regional drive-to at this point, though Benchmark is seeing fly-in meetings 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 as some may 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. It seems the desire to gather in person far surpasses hybrid meetings, and there may be fatigue setting in with remote connections.
Trend 3: Technology Driver
Technology can make—or break—a meeting experience, and planners know that better than any other. So, what is the most important technology request and concern among planners for a superb conference experience in 2021? Bandwidth! Bandwidth is technology priority No. 1, 2 and 3. After that are a property’s virtual meeting capacity, and a dedicated tech support team available at a moment's notice throughout the meeting.
Trend 4: Year of the "S.M.E.R.F."
And not the little blue creatures we grew up watching on public television. One would think that major pharma would dominate in 2021, or the tech industry, or the insurance or financial industry would reign as the most important industry segment delivering the majority of inquiries and meetings. But not this year. In 2021, it's all about S.M.E.R.F. (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) business, with a heavy emphasis on social, educational and religious meetings.
Trend 5: Don't Touch
Rapidly becoming the new standard in hospitality, contactless technology rallied during the past many months and will outlive the pandemic. It has become the expectation of planners and meeting guests, facilitated by smart phone capabilities at check-in and checkout. From arrival to entering the guestroom to conference registration and meeting agendas to conference services to dining with virtual menus for ordering breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks or room service, contactless technology is here to stay.
Trend 6: Dinner Reimagined
QR codes and contactless menus, attended buffets, individually packaged menu selections, the reinvention of the a la carte box meal, and which, in addition to sealed fresh food selections and snacks, may be accompanied by face masks, bottled water and hand sanitizers within the box. Some properties are even elevating the box meal to grazing boxes in lieu of grazing tables. A strong preference remains, though, for served meals, or modified buffets with individually packaged selections, and culinary staff-served hot and cold choices all behind safety plexiglass. Given the current environment, properties are accommodating meeting 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. Eco-sensitive as ever, individually packaged meals are presented in curated eco-friendly containers.
Trend 7: Creative, Local and Sustainable
In 2021, creativity, taste and eco-appeal are important priorities to planners and guests—the pandemic hasn't changed what makes dinner delicious, memorable, responsibly prepared and talked about six months later. Culinary teams remain dedicated to 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 ... often pairing with "soul-warming" signature drinks.
Trend 8: Size Matters
In many destinations, state regulations are restricting the size of events to as little as 10 to 15 people, so, understandably, average group size in 2021 is smaller. With more destinations lessening their restrictions, however, Benchmark is seeing larger group requests of 50 to 100 guests, booking at larger properties that offer extensive space for social distancing, with some break out spaces offered outside for greater accommodation of social distancing with small group sessions, and with select breakouts offered virtually so guests can transition into the breakout of their choice. Meetings being booked in 2021 extend for two days on average, which is not too dissimilar to previous years. Meeting package rates are holding, on average, to those negotiated in 2019 to remain competitive and win business. Properties are preparing for many meetings to book very last minute throughout the year.
Trend 9: A Fresh Perspective
Meeting outdoors has been a fun 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 beaches are now meeting rooms for larger groups, as are restaurant terraces, pool decks, outdoor pavilions and newly installed tented rooms, which reimagine the "traditional" meeting room this year. Adirondack chairs are stand-ins for ergonomic seating, while portable heating elements bring warmth to outdoor rooms in northern climates. Where appropriate, plexiglass offers another line of safety.
Trend 10: Partners in Planning
Meeting contract language is where the rubber hits the road in 2021. Many planners are adamant about the need for flexibility around attrition clauses, cancellation clauses and fees, rebooking clauses, group rate clauses and commissions. Though moving along at a more rapid pace than previously, vaccinations have only recently become more broadly administered and planners remain cautious about rescheduling meetings in the shorter term. Planners are keenly aware of what the industry has been through, and are eager to be a partner—particularly for those hotels that have been gracious with cancellation policies and have remained in active touch.
Bonus Trend 1: Importance of a Destination
The destination experience and destination programming are a top priority this year, particularly drive-in destinations offering significant transportation accessibility. In fact, the destination experience has probably never been more important. Deep dives into the local cultural amenities of a destination are being requested by planners, as most destinations offer wide open spaces desirable for social distancing, peaceful, relaxing and safe down time activities/experiences that can be customized to the group's needs.
Bonus Trend 2: Spirit Through Team Bonding
There has very likely never been a greater need than in 2021 for team-building programming. After many months of working out of the home and connecting with colleagues and clients virtually, there is a yearning to come together, to reconnect, to rebuild the team and rekindle the team spirit. The need to do so outside, given the times, is ideal for team-building and these programs are being actively requested. Orvis Fly Fishing, Land Rover Driving School, falconry, hiking, golf, Lost Shaker of Salt scavenger hunts, margarita mixology courses, Continental Drifter cardboard boat regattas, "Flip-flops and Tie-dye Kind of a Day," coconut bowling, ax throwing ... anything that will offer the team a chance unwind, reconnect, share and delve into renewal experiences, gain courage and maybe blow off some stream.