A new decade is just around the corner. On deck for the 2020s: high-tech innovations like 5G wireless networks, autonomous vehicles and robots. Lots and lots of robots. Before turning their attention to the future, however, meeting planners will spend 2019 engrossed in trends that remind them what's truly important to their attendees: security, flexibility and togetherness, predicts global hospitality company Benchmark, which has just published its list of the Top 10 Meeting Trends for 2019.
"We learn a lot from our guests, often by observation in addition to their direct feedback," said Ted Davis, Benchmark's chief sales and marketing officer. "The speed of life and business is laser-fast today, communication devices intrude constantly and lifestyles have adjusted accordingly. This includes when in meeting environments. But we've also learned that moments of togetherness, where the pace slows a bit maybe over cocktails or dinner, are genuinely treasured, and this is where successful relationships are forged and strengthened, lasting long after the conference comes to an end."
The convergence of "high-tech" with "high-touch" is evident in the following trends, which Benchmark culled from firsthand observations at the properties in its portfolio:
1. Planners Prize Privacy
When it comes to technology, security will be meeting planners' No. 1 requirement this year, Benchmark predicts: "Yes, super-fast and reliable WiFi throughout a property is a must, and every planner hammers hard at this in contract discussions, as it can make or break a productive meeting. But it must be secure WiFi. Privacy and security of information for conference guests is paramount to planners. Not just the content of the meeting — the content of participants' personal communications, too. Privacy and security is at the top of every planner's list."
2. Fresh Food, Served Family-Style
In food and beverage, groups want dishes that are fresh, healthy and shareable, Benchmark reports: "Food brings people together, whether they know each other already or are just getting acquainted. It's about engaging and savoring the moment. Since conference guests tend to be curious and concerned with wellness, learning what food they are putting into their bodies is essential, and they come to the table well informed. Here's what they want in 2019: Food that is fresh and locally sourced, in-season when flavor is most robust, presented in small bites and enjoyed interactively, family-style."
Dietary restrictions also are becoming more and more prevalent. "With informed consumers comes increased demand for growing dietary restrictions or preferences well beyond vegetarian and gluten-free. Paleo, keto, pescatarian, vegan and religious dietary requests are just the beginning of specialized conference dining this year, and chefs have taken note."
3. Email Reigns Supreme
Email will remain the medium of choice for planners in 2019, Benchmark predicts: "It's not that professional meeting planners aren't sociable. They are. It's just that email by far continues to be the most preferred method of communication. What's new, though, is that they don't want to be contacted for business by social media, period. So, don't Facebook them, or tweet or Instagram. Be respectful of a planner's time and aware of how they prefer to communicate, including those who may or may not welcome a personal phone call. A simple and personal handwritten note will go a long way in making a memorable impression, too."
4. Independent Hotels Become Appealing
This year will be the year of the independent hotel, Benchmark says: "Flexibility, customization, authentic and unscripted experiences all rank high in the minds of planners today, as does the feeling that independent properties excel in providing these for groups needing to create memorable and highly productive meetings. Another issue is also at hand with planning professionals relating to independent properties: commissions, which are generally higher with independents. As more meetings involve third-party planners, this is of significant importance to planners going forward."
5. Millennial-Minded Venues Win Out
Millennials increasingly are finding their way into senior positions within their companies. Planners this year will therefore take extra care to choose venues that appeal to them, Benchmark predicts: "State-of-the-art technology, multiple plug-ins and USB ports for their myriad of devices in the meeting room, public spaces and in their guest room; entertaining and fun activities on property and outside; nontraditional seating and meeting arrangements to enhance engagement in meetings during the day — this is what Millennials are demanding today. It's a sharing economy, and this extends to Millennials sharing guest rooms, resulting in fewer single-room requests. The big reveal, though, is Millennials want privacy rooms for personal conversations, sensitive phone calls and for personal needs."
6. Experiences Attract
The experiential travel trend will continue in 2019, according to Benchmark: "Curated travel for groups (and their spouses/partners) on- or off-property is of very high importance. Even corporate executive leadership is weighing in with a growing desire for a trained and diverse workforce, and at the same time their younger workforce is valuing unique experiences. So even though groups may want to huddle on-property after a day of intense meetings, companies are urging their employees to get out into the destination for a broader experience. Cabaret show in town, anyone? Groups are requesting activities just like this."
7. Trendy Team Building
"Culinary team building just gets hotter every year," Benchmark reports, "whether in the kitchen with chefs, learning about flavor-balancing and fermentation, at the bar with mixologists, in the dining room at table or outside for a picnic-like experience. Bringing groups together interactively and family-style as a culinary team is red hot. But planners also are looking for entertainment to be included in team building, so learning is not only instructive and flavorful, but also great fun to enhance learning. Examples are lip-sync battles, live interactive dinner shows, wildlife tours, hiking excursions, skiing, mountain biking, petting zoos and go-cart races on property — anything that in an entertaining way teaches new life skills that can be used at the office and home. Planners today increasingly desire to enhance the lives — and life skills — of the 'whole' person."
8. Outdoor Escapes Embraced
Groups spend all day locked indoors. After the meeting, they want to be outside. Outdoor activities will therefore be a big focus in 2019, Benchmark predicts: "Believe it or not, the most popular after-hours meetings group scene is gathering around an outdoor fire pit on-property, kicking back and relaxing with colleagues over cocktails and s'mores. Absent fire pits, doing something — anything — outdoors and nearby is how today's meeting participants want to ease into their evening. River and lake barges, anyone? Groups love the relaxed pace on a body of water. So whether chilling at the venue or out for the evening, the key thing for groups is relaxing together and getting the know colleagues as people and not just as co-workers."
9. Speed Breeds Success
Successful relationships between planners and properties will hinge on speed in 2019, according to Benchmark: "Lightning-fast response to RFPs is essential to winning business with planners today. A request that comes in in the morning better be responded to by early afternoon, or the venue may lose that business opportunity to a competitor. Want to gain an edge over the competition, beyond rapid response? Pay commissions promptly, maybe immediately. Today many more meetings are being managed by third-party planners with accompanying commission demands. Respond swiftly and generously, and win."
10. Balance Is Better
Work/life balance is important to meeting attendees, and in 2019 it will become just as important to them when they're out of the office as it is when they're in the office, Benchmark concludes. "Diet and healthy menu planning remain an active focus in negotiations. But wellness today is so much more than a proper diet — it's about work/life balance. Planners believe a healthy mind and body helps enable productive participants. So yoga, meditation and breathing classes for meeting breaks are in growing demand, as is spiritual exploration."