Managing small, simple meetings continues to be an elusive goal for much of corporate America -- and a perennial hot-button topic at industry events. Easily replicable gatherings with basic requirements make up about half of corporate meetings globally, but fewer than half are booked via managed channels, according to new research by the Global Business Travel Association sponsored by HRS Global Hotel Solutions.
Meeting the needs of impromptu planners was a key factor in the launch of this very site, the new home of Northstar Meetings Group. “Occasional, impromptu meeting planners – corporate professionals whose primary job spans a range of functions, meaning their day job isn’t planning meetings – are the 'long-tail' of the meeting planning industry,” said the group's executive vice president, David R. Blansfield. “Their primary planning tool is Google, or whatever search engine they’re using. We’ve relaunched our database and our event-venue finder tool
so that it’s easy to discover and easy to use, with the latest curated destination and how-to content on a single platform." The event-venue finder tool is powered by Aventri's Zentila.
In terms of booking small meetings online, "there's a lot of work to be done," affirmed Kevin Ruhman, who joined Aventri (formerly eTouches) this past April as senior vice president, venue sourcing and hospitality. "Why haven't we evolved the technology side for planners and venues like we did the individual traveler?" he asked, noting that online booking tools have given people the power to make their own arrangements, particularly in providing live, online access to inventory. On the meetings side, Ruhman said, "there is a real opportunity for up-and-coming venue-sourcing companies to take advantage of this need."
Hotel companies have long been working toward providing real-time small-meetings inventory, even if it means giving up some sales control over the space. "I'd like to see the group-booking process completely automated for a certain size and below," Michael Massari, chief sales officer for Caesars Entertainment, told M&C in a recent roundtable discussion with hotel executives. "It exists really well on the rooms side; it exists not so well on the meetings side, and not at all in the way I'd like to see it as a combination of the two. But we've challenged our tech partners to help us get to where, for a certain size meeting, you could block your own meeting space, book your own hotel rooms, generate a contract and sign it, with real-time availability. I think we're two years away from having that."
Hilton Worldwide expects to offer that technology within the same time frame, according to Danny Hughes, senior vice president and commercial director for the Americas. "In terms of automating meeting-space booking and real-time availability, we're in the test phase now with certain properties, and our intention is within the next 18 to 24 months to have that systemwide," he said.
Meanwhile, hotel sourcing and booking platforms are investing heavily in tools to more easily automate the process of booking small meetings, many of which are not booked by meeting or travel professionals.
Cvent's long-awaited Instant Booking for small meetings will be rolled out to early adopters late this year and set for a wider release in 2019, the company announced at its recent user conference, Cvent Connect. Planners will be able to book smaller meetings instantly, completely bypassing the RFP process: Customers will be able shop and book quickly while remaining in compliance with company policy and maintaining an audit trail, according to Cvent's product managers.
"Some of the barriers to automating that process are being taken down," said Cvent co-founder and chief technology officer David Quattrone. "Due to the volume of eRFPs, hoteliers have become more interested in handling larger-meetings business and are more open to adopting automation for the smaller gatherings."
Cvent's recent acquisition of Kapow, a platform for finding and instantly booking unique venues and packaged experiences, was a major push in that direction. "Having that network is really valuable," said Quattrone. "We can see how those venues in the Kapow network are handling that automated approach and learn from that. Kapow has a refined model, beyond platforms like OpenTable and the like, which really haven't been adapted for groups."
Cvent customers were already using Kapow, Quattrone noted, and were pushing for more functionality like it. "We need to make it more robust," he said, "but there's lots of demand for it."
Aventri executives are seeing similar demand for nontraditional meeting spaces, an area Ruhman believes is ripe for massive growth. "Roughly 90 percent of venues sourced in North America are still at traditional venues like hotels and convention centers," he said. "However, in EMEA, that number is approximately 45 percent, leaving a large percentage of events in that region going to nontraditional venues like wineries, museums, purpose‐built meeting venues, etc. To get ahead of this trend, Aventri is looking to add unique venues to its offerings across the globe to fit the needs of event planners."
And that's happening concurrently with the prevalence of less-practiced meeting professionals doing the booking. "We see growth in the occasional planner," Ruhman said. "People are Googling 'How to plan a small meeting.'"
HRS' current sourcing platform "makes it very easy for a non-practiced meeting planner to go in and set up a very simple meeting and send an RFP," said Suzanne Neufang, vice president, Americas. "The tool is user-friendly today and is now going through a massive restructuring so it will be even simpler."
The HRS tool has built-in contract clauses with necessary protections for planners. "The real killer app is that when a customer chooses to do central billing and payments, we do the reconciliation, handle disputes, and then we provide that reconciled bill back to the hotel," said Neufang.
Among hundreds of clients, "our biggest reach is in Western Europe, and we'll just grow from there," Neufang added. "It's really nice when you're talking about combining transient and meetings. You can see which hotels have been used for both."
That degree of visibility, along with demand from buyers and suppliers alike to better automate the process, seems on the cusp of transforming small-meetings management on a much larger scale.