Coronavirus and Meetings
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Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the meetings industry with hotels forced to shut down and government regulations banning in-person gatherings of more than 10 people through the end of April. While events across the country are currently on hold, planners are looking to get affected meetings back on the calendar.
One company that has been able to do so with little hassle is Transamerica. The insurance and investment company had five meetings that needed to be postponed due to COVID-19, four of which have already been rescheduled. Cindy Villa, vice president and director of meetings and events, shares her success story and offers tips for other planners navigating rebookings amid the current crisis.
When did you start the rebooking process and for what dates did you reschedule?
This was something that we jumped on very quickly and we had to make some hard decisions fast. When we first started, the hotels weren't even thinking about a force majeure situation. We are actually in that kind of a situation now because it’s impossible to be at a hotel with a group at this point. But when we first started, it was mainly a rebooking situation.
We looked at what was going on and brought together a list of our meetings to start having conversations about rebooking early on. I reached out on March 9th to reschedule my biggest meeting — that was the first one we rebooked. In total, we’ve had five meetings impacted: two in March, one in May and two in June. The smallest was 30 people and the largest meeting was 250.
We’ve been able to reschedule four of the five meetings. One was moved to July and three were moved to September. The last one we have not placed yet. But we are going to have a very, very busy fall.
What did your contracts cover?
Having a very strong contract from a liability standpoint that is both fair to you and the hotel is very important. We almost never do a contract unless we have some type of rebooking clause.
We actually have a clause document that we follow as a company based on working with our legal counsel. We’ve color coded the clauses. So, our red clauses are absolutely mandatory. Those are high-level, must-be-inserted clauses. If we cannot get those in a contract, we will actually walk away from a hotel. Then we have mid-range — purple clauses and blue clauses are things that may be needed depending on the type of hotel or group that it is.
Rebooking is one of our red clauses, along with force majeure, notices, personally identifiable information disclosures and an indemnification or insurance clause. The rebooking clauses usually dictate that you would get 50 percent to 100 percent of your cancellation fees back within six to 12 months.
All our contracts already had a rebooking clause but in this unprecedented time that we are in, I think we're seeing a bit more flexibility with the hotels across the board. They want to try to retain that business coming back, rather than just seeing it walk out the door.
Did you consider moving any of the events online?
It’s funny, I have two meetings today on virtual software. Everyone is reaching out to people to look at that, but it’s not something we are currently set up to do. We're digging into it and looking at it as an option moving forward, so that we can be prepared for these situations.
There may be some meetings that we can think of doing virtual versus face to face in the future. But for the particular meetings that we rebooked, we felt it's very important to have that face-to-face connection if at all possible.
How will this affect your planning or event contracts going forward?
We did rewrite our force majeure to be a little stronger. It was already pretty strong and protected against acts of God, declared or undeclared war, government agency or authority disasters, government requisitions, severe weather, fires, floods, earthquakes, restrictions or regulations on travel, terrorism, threats to public safety and public health crises. So, they got really specific, but we also added tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides, flight conditions, pandemics, epidemics, diseases and comparable conditions.
Once we started getting into this, we realized we could add some language to our force majeure so it would cover a broader scope. But even then, I was on a webinar about force majeure recently and from a legal standpoint, it comes down to that line where it says it makes it “illegal, impracticable or impossible to provide access.” That's what you have to prove. So, it comes down to proving that by law you cannot get to where you need to be or be in the building.
What would your advice to other planners be right now?
Relationships with your hotels and your global service folks are really important. Have open conversations about rebooking and ask the general sales managers or the general managers of the hotels to actually be involved in those conversations. Most of the time, your sales manager that you've worked with on the contract are not going to be able to make those calls, so it’s good to escalate. Make sure the right people are on the phone, which would include the hotel managers, general managers and your GSOs.
Secondly, we need to come up with options that are fair to both parties because we're all in this together and I think that this is a time where everybody has to have some flexibility. We certainly understand the financial hit that the hospitality industry is taking.
It needs to be fair to both parties. It can't be one-sided. I really believe that based on my experience working with the hotels; we were flexible. One of things that we said was, “If you will give us a full, 100 percent rebooking with everything and no loss of money, we will guarantee you that we are doing this in 2020. We'll shift these dates and we'll find something that works. We understand that we're going to have to slot in between meetings that you already have but we will be flexible, and we will make sure it happens in 2020. If it doesn't, we will forfeit that money.”
So that was one way we did it. We weren't asking for something for nothing. For another contract in Las Vegas, we needed to reduce the size of the contract. In a rebooking situation, you’re usually looking for a meeting of the same size and revenue, but we needed to cut the number of rooms in half. So, in that particular situation, I said, “Look, I really need to reduce this. We need to write a new contract and do an amendment. It’s going to be a smaller meeting and needs to be a reduced room block, but I'll guarantee you this meeting in 2020 and you can come back to me with dates you have open.”
It comes down to this: without the hotel and hospitality industry, we're all kind of sunk. So, we all need to do our part to help bring them back out of this and we need to think about rebooking these meetings. The other thing that we thought about from a Transamerica standpoint was reinserting back into the economy. We didn't want these meetings to drop off the books completely. They've already been budgeted for and we want to make sure that we're doing our part to bring back the economy.