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Simple Meetings: Not a Small Challenge

Simple Meetings, typically low risk and low visibility meetings, can represent 60% to 80% of meetings at a corporation. This represents a sizeable portion of the $140B hotel spend on meetings in the USA. Instead of concentrating exclusively on the size of a meeting to segment, SIMPLE allows greater segmentation by complexity, event type and size and a far more strategic approach to the corporate meeting category.

Corporations Are Focusing On Simple Meetings

We are seeing an increased discipline from corporations’ procurement departments on managing more of that rogue spend. Although Simple Meetings are mostly non- commissionable (i.e. meeting space, F&B & A/V isn’t commissionable), the changes in commissions from 10% to 7% makes for thought-provoking dialogue. Corporations and their TMCs are looking to find labor and cost-effective solutions to manage and reign in these meetings. There is a trend of shifting responsibilities away from professional planners and decentralizing duties to occasional planners, which can be very effective as long as the appropriate technologies and controls are in place. Since sourcing or contracting the hotel space is only one component of Simple Meetings, we have learned that our clients require integration to their other corporate platforms such as booking air and expense solutions.

Houston, We Have A Problem!

For so long, the industry has been handling Simple Meetings using the same laborious processes as large and complex meetings. Studies show that 35% of RFP’s are for day meetings, and using a process that was designed in the early 1990’s. No wonder we’re drowning in RFP’s. As an industry, we can’t be complacent on an inefficient model that requires planners to fill out a Meeting Request Form (MRF) and hotels to respond to unqualified RFP’s, proposals, contracts, menus, BEOs, rooming lists, credit card authorization forms, invoicing and folios just to book a simple meeting. I don’t think we could have a more complicated process if we tried. We should all be embarrassed by this archaic methodology in 2018. American Express GBT has done research that states it can take an average of eight days to book a Simple Meeting. Minutes, not days has to be our aspiration.

We’ve Been There Before

In 2008, the HEDNA Group Online Committee, which included over a dozen leading hotel, travel distribution and technology professionals, as well as research by Phocuswright, published a guide to the migration of real-time, online booking for group rooms and meeting space. The white paper outlined the opportunity and the monumental task of integrating PMS, CRS, revenue management systems and sales and catering systems. Ten years ago, it looked like it was a done deal and that Simple Meetings were the next innovation, only to be littered with a graveyard of companies and hotel chains who were unsuccessful at it.

Hotels Are Offline, And Today’s Planners Are Online

Millennials are the new executive admins and department heads, and they don’t want to talk to anybody when they book a meeting. They are trained to research and to transact online and expect instant gratification. Over 80% of group and meeting planners desire self-service booking and planning tools. They tend to book last minute, and they also want to differentiate themselves by booking something different (and more fun).

Small and Simple Meetings Technologies

Globally, a new wave of technology players has reenergized the space, trying to help fix the problem. With technologies evolving, and online adoption being the norm, the timing seems to be right this time to aggregate enough demand to finally move the industry. Companies like Bizly, Groupize, HotelPlanner, IVVY, Meetago, Meeting Booker, Meeting Maker and Social Tables all bring innovation and approach the Simple Meetings market from different angles.

Competition from Alternative Spaces

Significant investments are being made in alternative real estate, venues and technologies to hold meetings outside of hotels. Today’s planner doesn’t necessarily want to have a meeting in the basement of a hotel. Hotels are well aware they have to keep their inventory exciting and easy to book. Investments have been made in Event Space as a Service, players like We Work ($8.6B), Convene ($332M), Regus and Breather ($123M) where meetings can be booked via an app, with no contract and a 2-hour cancellation penalty.

Peerspace, evenues, Kapow (acquired by Cvent) and others offer marketplaces with thousands of unique venues where meetings can also be held. We expect to see more investment in venue finding technologies, especially for markets outside of North America. Airbnb has made an entree into the meeting space with their event booking widget, and one could see them move into the alternative meeting space in the future.

Hotels will increasingly compete with cool and hip venues that offer simplified end to end experiences by working with such technologies as EZ Cater ($170M in funding) to deliver a unique experience. Can your F&B department deliver sushi within 45 minutes notice from an app without a BEO?

From ‘Fake’ Instant Bookings to ‘Real’ Instant Bookings

With the globalization of meetings programs, we are seeing traction for meeting packages (or Daily Delegate Rates) that were traditionally reserved for programs outside North America. Meeting packages are a much simpler process to automate than shopping for meeting components a la carte. There are technology solutions that can offer the illusion of instant bookings of meetings today. However, they offer a glorified shopping cart where the planner can pick their package, enter their credit card and wait up to 24 hours to see if the hotel accepts it. With integrations to live meeting inventory on the horizon, we will improve on that experience, although combining live sleeping room and meeting room inventory is not an easy and simple user experience to deliver. Early attempts have failed with solutions that didn’t convert online users from the hotel’s websites.

Additionally, the sophisticated buyers and agencies know that the package price is the rack rate and a starting at price. They can do significantly better by contacting the hotel directly and shopping for individual components. A Simple Meeting is also a spot buy, and there is still the natural propensity for cross-shopping brands and to look for properties which have availability and need dates. Also, some larger corporations have security policies that prevent their employees to sign electronic contracts.

Packages will not be the answer to all our prayers and satisfy both the novice and the experienced planners. I even wonder if by moving to packages, if the industry will make it easier to have commissionable Simple Meetings programs that include sleeping rooms, meeting space, F&B & AV.

Most Chains Are Investing In Their Technologies

Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Hyatt and Accor are investing in various improvements to their groups and meetings technology which include upgrades to online meeting content, revenue management, direct book capabilities of meeting packages and meeting space, room block management, API’s, as well as end to end management between the hotel and the planner. At first glance, these solutions will help the hotel chains differentiate themselves, and I’m sure they hope will help them in their direct booking initiatives. Historically, hotel chains have experienced limited traffic to their individual groups and meetings websites, and we already see signs these capabilities will be incorporated into marketplaces that allow planners to cross-shop brands. These marketplaces will need to deliver quality business to hotels at a fair distribution cost. We are about to see some early products being released, but we anticipate the industry won’t be offering meaningful instant bookings of meetings at scale for another 3–5 years.

Simple Meetings: The Next Battleground

Simple Meetings are becoming the next battleground as well as the next opportunity for the industry. Hotels and planners have different expectations and drivers. On one side, Simple Meetings are the bread and butter of some hotels. Chains are focused on generating the demand, while properties want to maximize revenues for their assets. On the other hand, in corporate travel management, Simple Meetings are the “bane of their existence” as they are being booked outside the meeting management programs and policies. Organizations want the ability to transact the more straight forward meetings in a cost-efficient manner while optimizing their savings and limiting risk and financial exposure to the organizations.

Simple Meetings Automation Is Not the Holy Grail, But It Will Be Exciting

I don’t have a crystal ball. Early attempts at automating meeting space have had limited successes. I am confident we can deliver processes that are incremental improvements, but there are many moving parts to fix. We need to crawl, walk, and then run; ultimately, we always need to deliver simple user experiences to a complex problem.

We are energized to see that corporations are focusing on Simple Meetings. Hotels are investing in technologies, there is pressure from outside competition for alternate space, and technology is emerging to improve user experiences. With this evolution will come the inevitable question of who owns the customer? The chain, the property, the agency, the corporation or even the technology provider? I assume that in the end, some people will book direct, some will book via their agencies, some will do RFP’s, some will use their corporate booking tool, some will book packages, some will book a la carte and yes, while others will still pick up the phone. ARRGH!

All that being said, it is hard to say who all the winners will be. However, eradicating the friction from such a broken process is long overdue. Ultimately, the planners will benefit with a better booking experiences, better meeting spaces, F&B choices and end to end experiences.

It’s finally time that technology catches up with the way other industries operate, and if we stay focused on the customer, we will build a much stronger industry.

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