Meetings and conventions historically have played a significant role in the health and success of the hospitality market.
According to a study by the Convention Industry Council, meetings in the U.S. generate approximately $440 billion annually. Other data by the organization shows there are nearly 1.9 million conventions nationwide each year with more than 250 million participants. On average, these meetings generated approximately 300 million room nights each year. Then along came COVID-19.
The pandemic turned the economics of the hotel industry upside downs as the vast majority of meetings and conventions scheduled for 2020 were cancelled or went completely virtual. In fact, the world’s five largest hotel chains—Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Choice Hotels International, Marriott International, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Hilton Worldwide Holdings—suffered huge losses in market capitalization in 2020 with a combined $25.2 billion plunge.
A November 2020 survey of 1,200 member hotels by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found out just how real the struggle has been. Half of the hotels reported they are struggling to keep their doors open and are in danger of foreclosure. The majority are still unable to rehire all of the employees that had to be laid off throughout the year. However, out of struggle typically comes invention, and many hotels are getting creative in finding ways to make up for the year’s shortfalls in the meeting sector.
A new take on bleisure
‘Bleisure’ travel—extending business travel by adding leisure time to the trip—had already started to become more common pre-pandemic, and hotels were finding ways to capitalize on business travelers bringing along their families and tacking days onto their stay. In 2018, Expedia Group Media Solutions reported 60 percent of bleisure travelers extended their business trip with vacation time. Though bleisure travel took a hit in 2020 as the majority of business trips were canceled, hotels have found new ways to attract work-related travel with creative workspace offerings.
In August 2020, Hyatt launched a ‘Work From Hyatt’ package at many of its hotels across North America and in the Caribbean. The package focuses on the millions of people working remotely and offers a change of scenery in which to work.
“By continuously listening to our members and guests, we understand people are prioritizing wellbeing and want more flexibility and creative ways to enjoy a change of scenery and avoid burnout,” said Asad Ahmed, Hyatt’s senior vice president of commercial services in the Americas. “We launched [the program] to encourage more work and school-life balance.”
Hyatt’s package offers guests a resort experience, where they have private accommodations with access to the hotel’s amenities. Guests can check email while lounging poolside, take a lunch break on the beach, and enjoy dining services.
Due to such strong interest, the package has been extended and expanded to include the ‘Office for the Day’ option. With this program, guests receive a standard guest room all day, with a workspace and a view, along with amenities such as Wi-Fi, a food and beverage discount, and access to the hotel’s business facilities. The hotel chain has been seeing significant interest in the South in spots such as Thompson Nashville in Tennessee, Hyatt Place Greenville/Downtown in South Carolina, Hyatt House Ft. Lauderdale Airport & Cruise Port and Hyatt Centric Key West in Florida.
“We continue to see a pent-up demand and a desire to escape and enjoy a change of scenery, even for the day,” Ahmed said. “In major cities, Hyatt is seeing a heavier concentration of local guests compared to the same time last year, highlighting people’s desires to stay close to home while still getting away.”
Marriott International, also recognizing the ways work has changed because of the pandemic, started its new ‘Work Anywhere’ program last year as well.
“Many people are being forced to work remotely, adapting everything from spare rooms to the dining room table into makeshift offices,” explained Peggy Fang Roe, Marriott International Global Officer, Customer Experience, Loyalty and New Ventures. “When we asked travelers on POV—our internal research community of 2,600 travelers—we heard about the pain points of working from home like unreliable Wi-Fi, frequent distractions while trying to focus on work projects, and growing monotony. When we first asked them about working from a hotel room, 42 percent said they would consider that option.”
Launched in October 2020, the program has multiple options, including day, stay, and play passes. Day passes offer guests a hotel room for the day, stay passes combine a day pass with an overnight stay, and play passes allow time for guests to work while also time to enjoy amenities as if they were on vacation.
“The program gives people a comfortable and safe place to work when they really need to focus and concentrate on assignments such as presentations or to meet project deadlines,” Roe said. “Also, with occupancy so low, we had many unoccupied rooms and started to think creatively how we could repurpose them and drive revenue for our hotels at the same time.”
Furthering educational opportunities
In addition to attracting work-related guests, hotels are also focusing on remote learners. While offering space for parents to work remotely, The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Ga., is offering students the opportunity to participate in a half day or full day of a new customizable program, The Ritz Kids Study Buddy program. The program debuted last summer before the 2020/2021 school year began, and it focuses on families that are working and learning remotely. “We wanted to cater to the increasing number of guests who were looking to extend their stays, along with being able to maximize the week on Lake Oconee to give families the ‘endless summer’ experience,” said Joshua Franklin, ‘director of all things fun’ at The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee.
The Ritz program provides assistance to children in virtual school and fun activities so they can be fully-immersed in the destination—all while parents can easily balance remote learning with parenting and possibly remote work themselves.
“The pandemic has changed the way people are traveling, and the Study Buddy program is meeting these new demands,” Franklin added. “Families are seeking destinations that offer enriching experiences for their children who are no longer receiving classroom learning.”
The Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach has taken a similar approach with its ‘Study Hall in Paradise’ offering, a partnership with Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is just steps away from the resort. Created this past August, the program focuses on attracting families with remote learning and remote working to provide staycation opportunities.
“Prior to COVID, more than 30 percent of our business would have been meetings and events, and 90 percent of meetings and events that were scheduled between March and December 2020 have been canceled,” said Miguel Diaz, Wyndham Grand’s area director of sales and marketing. “This opens the door to travelers that have increased flexibility this year.”
Boca Raton Beach Club also started its ‘Oceanside Edu-cation’ program this past fall as management saw that the ‘new normal’ meant there could be guests who needed workspaces and families who needed classroom spaces. The interactive and educational program includes extracurricular activities for the younger travelers, amenities for the whole family, and work space for parents.
“Our goal is to provide a learning experience that’s enjoyable for kids and as easy as possible for parents so they can relax knowing their children are safe and productive in an enriching environment,” said Boca Beach Club general manager Christophe Baraton.
Filling the college housing gap
With so many social distancing protocols in place, many colleges and universities have been facing on-campus housing availability issues, and many schools and hotels are working together to fill the gap and create a win-win for both.
One such example is Xavier University of Louisiana, which turned to Hilton New Orleans Riverside for student housing. Soon after discussions began early last year, the school almost immediately expanded its room block. It has more than 600 rooms for the academic year, noted hotel general manager David Piscola.
“At the start of this pandemic, our sales team quickly realized we would need to pivot and explore unconventional business opportunities with alternative use such as dorm housing,” Piscola said. “We reached out to all of the local universities early on to see how we might be able to help with housing or space for classrooms to continue teaching with remote learning. It quickly became apparent to the universities that their students would need to return to campus in a safe way, and it became clear single occupancy dormitories were part of the solution. As the universities did not have this infrastructure in place on campus, and we had rooms available, it was a perfect match.”
This is actually nothing new for the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, as it housed students from Dillard University for a semester after Hurricane Katrina. For Xavier, the hotel worked closely with them to transform a section of the hotel into a campus-like setting, even building a self-serve laundry facility for the students, establishing a market to pick up food items, toiletries, and other essentials, and utilizing some unused meeting space to create a student union and study halls.
“Our partnership with Xavier University has been a win-win for not only Hilton Riverside, but our team members and Xavier students, faculty, and parents,” Piscola said. “We were able to keep our doors open, the school semester going, provide comfortable accommodations for the students, give parents peace of mind, and provide our team members with employment.”
While many hotels are finding ways to keep business coming through the doors, employees and management are anxiously waiting for travel to return to ‘normal’ so meetings and conventions can once again be commonplace. Many of them are doing all they can to prepare, such as instituting new safety and health protocols to keep guests safe and adding ways to help meeting planners execute hybrid events more successfully.
In the meantime, they continue to focus on other market segments to drive business and fill the gaps caused by COVID-19. For example, in addition to its other new offerings, the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach has turned to the fitness market with a new package offering guests a private trainer, spa options and healthy meals.
“With parents working virtually and kids participating in distance learning, [these programs] allow us to cater to this specific segment of travelers and help fill a void, but it will not replace the loss due to the pandemic,” said Diaz.