Global hospitality management firm Benchmark has announced its top meeting trends for 2021. The trends were reported by properties in the company’s portfolio of 80 meeting hotels, resorts and conference centers.
“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.”
Trend 1. Recovery Optimism
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 is the Driver
Bandwidth is technology priority Number 1. 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 SMERF
S.M.E.R.F. (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) business, with a heavy emphasis on social, educational and religious meetings is key for 2021.
Trend 5. Touchless Technology
Contactless technology, which is rapidly becoming the new standard in hospitality, rallied during the past many months and will outlive the pandemic. It has become the expectation of planners and meeting guests, facilitated by smartphone capabilities at check in and check out. From arrival to entering the guest room 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 featuring fresh gourmet salads, grilled shrimp with orzo, 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 Plexiglas. 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 guest rooms. Eco sensitive as ever, individually packaged meals are presented in curated eco-friendly containers.
Trend 7. Creative, Local & 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 exceptionally 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 under the stars.
Trend 8. Meetings Sized to Fit
In many destinations, state regulations are still restricting the size of events to as few as 10 to 15 people, so understandably average group size in 2021 is smaller. With more destinations loosening their restrictions, however, we are seeing larger group requests of 50 to 100 guests, booking at larger properties that offer extensive space for social distancing, with some breakout spaces offered outside for greater accommodation of social distancing with small group sessions, and with select breakouts offered virtually so guests can easily 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. Outdoor Events
Meeting out of doors 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 scenic lawns and sandy 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, portable heating elements bring warmth to outdoor rooms in northern climates. Where appropriate, Plexiglas 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. Many find comfort in Benchmark’s Meeting Accelerator Program launched early in the pandemic, which offered zero attrition or cancellation fees and zero risk in rebooking through March 31 of this year. 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.