This article is sponsored by Marriott International.
Meeting planners and attendees have felt exhilarated getting back to face-to-face events after a long hiatus. But while the industry is ready to turn the page on the pandemic, thought leaders have found that the creative solutions developed over the past two years can now be reimagined or built upon to meet the needs of this new era of events.
Few organizations are doing this as effectively as Marriott International. Throughout the pandemic, the brand deepened its engagement with meeting planners through its Connect With Confidence program and customer events (at first virtual and then in-person), while investing in hybrid technology and increased health and safety efforts.
Now, as FaceTime has shifted to face-to-face time, Marriott properties have built on these innovations to enhance the impact of in-person events. The technology and safety advancements made during the in-person hiatus are now fueling new programs and enhancements for groups.
To discuss these efforts and how the organization is building on innovations developed over the past two years, we spoke with Kathy Mouw, Vice President, Global Sales, U.S. & Canada as well as Mike Wainwright, Vice President, Sales, Convention & Resort Network, for Marriott International. Below are selections from that conversation.
Q: In-person gatherings are now back in a big way. From what you’re seeing at Marriott properties, how would you say the hiatus on live events has helped attendees to appreciate the value of face-to-face?
Kathy Mouw: We have learned that being together in a physical setting cannot be matched through technology, despite the incredible advancements made over the past two years. Similar to when families and friends who had connected through FaceTime catch-ups and Zoom happy hours finally reunited in person — that heightened level of energy, emotion and the intangible “feeling” of being together filled a human need at the core once again and has been a welcome change now in business.
Overall, we are very optimistic about the return of in-person engagements, and we are seeing an increase in short-term demand for meetings and events. The U.S. Travel Association (USTA) reported that this year’s Global Meetings Industry Day broke records, reaching more than 8.5 million people with a multitude of successful in-person events in 30 countries. USTA produced survey results that 88 percent of business travelers agree that being in person fosters stronger leadership skills, benefits overall company culture and broadens cultural understanding, with 90 percent in agreement that in person settings advances professional growth.
Mike Wainwright: Marriott couldn’t be more thrilled to champion getting back to true “face time” at meetings and events, understanding the overwhelmingly positive benefits in terms of broadening horizons and ideas, career fulfillment, collaboration and meaningful relationship building. Following one of our recent Marriott customer events, Travel Partners Conference, we received 100 percent customer satisfaction and heard from attendees that the meeting created a great environment for networking and building relationships that will help them going forward.
To share another example, recently an association held its annual meeting at the Marriott Marquis Chicago, with the goal of reuniting in-person to foster connectivity, networking, and reunite with colleagues who had been communicating only virtually for the past two years. The association took various actions to help ensure the health and safety of those in attendance, by using a third-party application to collect vaccination status according to CDC guidelines, arrange for testing on-site, and requiring masks when not eating, in accordance with city and state guidelines. The meeting successfully hosted 730 attendees with no Covid cases reported. One attendee shared following the meeting that getting together had been essential to their growth, as well as their mental health.
Q: What are some ways that groups can capitalize on being together, on-site for their events—for example, through interactive networking and hands-on activities?
Wainwright: Creating networking opportunities that are interactive and hands-on supports an inclusive environment that breaks the ice in a truly fun and engaging way. There’s been a lot of attention and speculation about reentering business settings simply from a social standpoint, and what that looks like after two years of isolation. Social interactions can be daunting for some and considering creative sessions and breakouts to help ease comfort levels for natural interaction and collaboration with colleagues can help alleviate stress and spark creativity all in one. Throughout our properties, planners have been guided to elements such as screen-printing workshops, a cooking or mixology lesson, a paint-and-sip session, and more to promote group camaraderie, team building and evoke collaboration in a fun, fresh way.
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is a great example of a property that has continued to offer innovative event setups for groups throughout the pandemic. With advance planning, adhering to cleaning standards and using physical distancing, the property hosted its popular bourbon tasting events during the pandemic directed by signage, stanchions and floor clings leading to an individual taste experience with a local distiller. Guests happily complied, they just needed communication and cues. Another recent group held a skeet shooting activity on the resort’s Ocean Front Lawn, socially distanced, with an attendant sanitizing equipment between each use.
Mouw: The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort is highlighting the importance of the overall wellbeing of each guest by introducing a “Zen Den” to meeting goers. This pop-up, spa-like environment can be curated throughout any of the resort's unique meeting spaces. The space features a floor-to-ceiling video wall which plays mesmerizing scenes from nature, dim lighting, individual chaise lounges, immersion headphones with calming music, as well as hot tea and water service. This innovative alternative to a traditional coffee break enhances the overall conference experience and is available for group sizes of five to 100 guests, allowing attendees to decompress and stay in an optimal frame of mind.
Q: How are the strides in technology that Marriott made during the pandemic evolving to suit planners’ changing needs as they get back to meeting face to face? Is there still a place for virtual/hybrid programming?
Mouw: One of the silver linings during the pandemic was certainly tech innovation to allow for more streamlined yet personalized travel and group experiences. During the pandemic, we continued to refine and invest in Marriott’s Meeting Services App as well as the Marriott Bonvoy Mobile App to more seamlessly connect planners with hotel teams in real-time, while creating a more streamlined and personalized experience for meeting attendees. These technology advancements have empowered meeting planners and travelers to personalize every event from planning through billing, allowing more time for meeting planners and attendees to focus on what’s important – being back together again and forging invaluable in-person connections. Additionally, leveraging the technology of the Mobile App creates more efficiency in the arrival experience for the guest and helps the hotel staff meet peak arrival demands.
Wainwright: As we get back to being in person, we are now leaning into tech to enable and enhance in-person gatherings. Last year, we rolled out Marriott's Hybrid Event Learning Labs to markets nationwide, which were 90-minute, immersive sessions designed to educate meeting professionals on how to plan and execute a hybrid meeting.
This year, we are turning our focus to what we are calling, “Meet with Momentum,” which will offer immersive in person experiences at our premier meetings and conventions hotels for meeting planners in America’s top cities in the U.S. and Canada.
These special sessions will reintroduce all of the new property developments and capabilities for hosting in-person events, as well as showcase new technology advancements, new local collaborations and experiences for event attendees to become better acquainted with the destinations in which our hotels are located, and more. Powered through Marriott Bonvoy Events, we continue to offer resources to empower and educate meeting planners, and foster meaningful connections among event attendees and industry colleagues alike.
Q: What are some other innovations that groups meeting at Marriott properties can (or will soon be able to) capitalize on?
Learn more about how Marriott International is innovating for meeting planners by checking out this conversation
with Marriott International's Julius Robinson and Tammy Routh.
Mouw: We are continuing to refine our Marriott Bonvoy app to create an even more seamless check-in and check-out experience and also refine dining capabilities. Marriott launched a pilot program in 2021 for contactless arrival kiosks at several hotels, including at the Moxy NYC Times Square, Courtyard New York Manhattan/Midtown East, TownePlace Suites Monroe in Louisiana and the Moxy Miami South Beach. The company also launched a proof-of-concept for contactless grab-and-go marketplaces at two Fairfield by Marriott hotels, ideal for meeting and events attendees to grab a quick bite in between sessions. Developments such as these streamline time and the guest experience, specifically relating to large-scale events, and we see that as a unique selling point for planners who book with us.
Wainwright: Most importantly, we don’t see technology as a barrier for human connection. It’s all about the marriage of high-tech and high-touch and how technology can enable in-person interactions. The warmth and personalization of the human touch should be present in every facet of the guest experience, and even more so as we continue to gather for in person events, meetings, conferences and experiences together once again.