Coronavirus and Meetings
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So much about what's next for the meetings industry — let alone the global economy and general public health — is still unknown. Putting off firm decisions about rebooking a scheduled event might seem like a prudent choice. But as a growing number of postponed meetings and conferences are being pushed to late 2020 and early 2021, industry insiders warn that such a wait-and-see approach could pose greater challenges for planners than taking the leap and rebooking now.
"2021 is already very saturated with group bookings," said Michael Ferreira, MHA, owner and founder of meeting services company Meetings Made Easy. "Every single day that goes by, that's meeting space contracted by a rebooking group that's shifted to 2021." Ferreira has been urging his team and others he speaks with to take action. "Don't wait -- jump in now," he advised.
A number of the clients MME works with have been looking at dates as early as late summer and early fall 2020 to rebook their events, and they are not alone. According to Northstar Meeting Group's most recent weekly pulse survey, a growing number of planners are rescheduling or intend to reschedule their postponed meetings in 2020 and early 2021. Fifty-seven percent of respondents reported scheduling their events to September, Q4 2020 or Q1 of 2021 — a four-percent increase from just one week earlier.
Brian Cuthbert, group vice president of Diversified Communications U.S., said during a recent webcast presented by Connectiv and the Specialized Information Publishers Association, both divisions of the Software & Information Industry Association, that planners should "get into contact with your existing hotel or convention center. It's like a hot real estate market, and if you don't act quickly when you have the opportunity, you can lose it."
He pointed to an example of an event he's holding at a Disney property in mid-May that had to be moved. "If you are thinking about it, move and move quickly and when you have a chance to lock something in, lock it in. You may need to make some concessions, but you may be surprised at how incredibly busy the hotels and convention centers are and how space is getting eaten up from the middle of July to the end of the year. It's moving and it's moving fast."
Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, president and CEO of JDC Events, started in early March to rebook events for the fall.
"We got ahead of the mass exodus before the news became more dire and shelter in place was established," she said. "We figured planners would try to push it out as far as possible so we went ahead and rebooked with those clients that could."
Even that early, she found that her preferred dates at a hotel in St. Louis were taken by another group -- although another property did have availability, so she was able to make the switch.
Protect Your Event
For those planners that hesitate to rebook, worrying that they might find themselves in the exact same position if the pandemic persists or cases suddenly spike, Ferreira urged speaking to venue partners to find a compromise. He pointed to a client that is rebooking an event for October: MME asked the hotel in question to either waive attrition for the fall 2020 dates or to rebook the event there for 2024.
"The hotel came back and took that [attrition-waiving] offer instead of cancelling," said Ferreira. "A hotel doesn't want to sit empty. There's all the ancillary spend they get, plus by having people on site in the restaurants and whatever they do on property, that makes it worthwhile for the hotel."
Ferreira said they worked with another property that agreed to waive attrition and F&B minimums as well. "Event planners see discounts on A/V and comped WiFi in the meeting space, and that's all fine, but these properties have really got to send out something that's really going to catch their eye and limit the risk of booking with them."
Those on the hotel side echoed these sentiments.
Crystal Carmichael, director of sales at The Bristol Hotel in Bristol, Va., says they have been rescheduling events that had a no-cancellation policy, which has "assisted in building trust with our clients" and has helped it to hold on to 75 percent of the group reservations that had to cancel or postpone events due to the coronavirus.
"Do not to wait until the fall or winter to reschedule these events," advised Carmichael. "While we may not know about the length of the timeline, being proactive and getting their dates on the calendar is the most important part."
Nicole Phillips, director of sales at The Foundry Hotel in Asheville, N.C., said she has heard from some planners who have reached out and voiced how reluctant they are to rebook at the moment, given the uncertainty of sheltering orders and future travel restrictions. "But I'm taking the approach of being understanding," she said, "and I tried to encourage them to reschedule for later in the year when sources expect for things to be back to normal." So far, that flexible approach has generally worked: 80 percent of the property's April and May events have been rebooked for the period from the third quarter of 2020 through the first quarter of 2021.
MME's Ferreira emphasized that whatever may have been laid out in the original contract, planners are likely to find that their hotel and venue partners are much more flexible than usual in these unpredictable times.
"Some people look at their hotel contract and think that it is what it is, but I encourage people to pick up the phone and have an honest, transparent conversation with their salesperson," he advised. "Just because it's in the contract doesn't mean that's the way it's going to be. These are unprecedented times. You just don't know what the hotel salesperson can do -- and at the end of the day, it comes down to relationships."