Travel & Meetings: Heavy Merge Ahead?

29 April 2024
Meetings and travel experts dissect management
strategies and how they both converge and diverge.

Source: Travel & Meetings: Heavy Merge Ahead?, Elizabeth West, Business Travel News, 2024

Photo credit: Pixabay

Listen to any hotel company earnings report and you’ll hear immediately where they are focusing their sights when it comes to business travel: groups and meetings.

Marriott CEO Tony Capuano called the segment “the standout customer set,” on the lodging giant’s full-year 2023 earnings call in late February. The segment not only grew 9 percent globally year over year in terms of room nights but also delivered higher margins to the company with 13 percent revenue growth. The song was similar for Hyatt, Hilton and Sonesta. Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta, as on example, remarked about the segment, “Every quarter is the next new high-water mark in terms of booking for all future periods.”

That kind of global momentum is pushing a red-hot trajectory for the future of the meetings, incentive, conference and exhibition business. A 2023 report from Grand View Research projected the global MICE industry would expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 percent from 2023 to 2030.

Northstar Meetings Group, a portfolio mate of Business Travel News under Northstar Travel Group, conducts a “Pulse” survey every quarter to gather meetings industry sentiment across a range of planner types that includes corporate, association and third-party planners. According to 367 planners who responded to the March 2024 survey edition, the outlook for 2024 continued to be robust in terms of meetings investment and overall volume.

Nearly two-thirds said their organizations or client organizations viewed meetings as more critical now than prior to the pandemic, primarily for their ability to deliver face time and networking with key colleagues and clients. As a result, two-thirds of respondents were actively sourcing and booking new events.

Yet with all the demand, there are challenges. To use Nassetta’s flood analogy, the “high-water mark” of the current demand picture has been met with an equally high-water mark for rates—not only for sleeping rooms but also for food and beverage and other onsite services like audiovisual, according to Pulse survey respondents. Space availability also remains an issue for nearly half of those survey respondents, while open-ended commenters remarked—somewhat ironically—on the fact that request for proposal response times had improved slightly, but largely because hotels had initiated more “take it or leave it” contract terms.

What’s Precipitating Demand & Who Will Manage It?

Among the 167 meeting buyers BTN surveyed in the 2024 Meetings Strategy Survey in March and April, more than half said their organization’s expenditures on small meetings of less than 50 attendees would increase in 2024—34 percent said their investment would increase by more than 10 percent; 18 percent said it would be limited to 10 percent or less. Nearly two-thirds said the internal travel associated with such events had increased significantly in the most recent 18 months—33 percent said they strongly agreed with that characterization of their organization’s small meetings volume; 30 percent said they agreed.

American Express Global Business Travel Meetings & Events corroborated that trend. The mega-agency released its 2024 meetings forecast in October based on responses from approximately 500 meeting industry professionals. Keeping in mind the more diverse buyer and supplier respondent base for the GBT survey and also that it stretched across associations and possibly third-party planning agencies, the vantage point was slightly different, but still supported BTN’s findings.

GBT found that Internal meetings and client/customer advisory boards would see the biggest volume increases in 2024, with 42 percent of survey respondents saying there will be more of both this year. That was followed by 38 percent who said they would see increases in incentive program volume and 37 percent who said they would see an increase in small/ad hoc team meetings, product launches and senior leadership meetings. Only about a third said larger conferences and tradeshows would increase in 2024.

” Honestly, I think the travel manager is the best person to manage it. It’s in their wheelhouse of savings, duty of care, making sure you are using the right contracts and preferred suppliers. “

Proske’s Kevin Iwamoto

Meetings management veteran and Proske consultant Kevin Iwamoto told BTN those growth trends could signal a tide change for travel managers in coming months, if they haven’t already, as companies come to recognize not only the value of being together but also the costs—and how they need to get their arms around both concepts as they operate in the world of hybrid and remote workplace structures.

“Companies have found themselves forcing people to come back into the office, but in the meantime, 30 percent of employees have potentially moved out of the area,” said Iwamoto, especially in some larger cities with high cost of living. “Organizations also downsized their offices or closed them altogether, which materially changed their travel programs in the short term—they no longer have volume on citypairs to closed headquarters—but they also have to now figure out how to maintain their corporate cultures, onboard new recruits, conduct more education and training and keep teams collaborating effectively. Team travel and internal meetings have become integral to that.”

What’s also happened, he said, is that those types of ad hoc, HR training and internal divisional meetings have a natural affinity with managed travel, more so than with the big marketing, sales meetings or incentive programs that often are the purview of marketing and more robust meetings management services.

“Because the demand for the experience piece is smaller or the opportunity to save a million dollars on a large-scale event is not necessarily there, I’m seeing [things] like training and development, internal board meetings, internal group departmental meetings and events like that assigned to someone to do internal meetings—and, often, that’s the travel manager. And, honestly, I think the travel manager is the best person to manage it. It’s in their wheelhouse of savings, duty of care, making sure you are using the right contracts and preferred suppliers.”

That care with policies, preferreds and contracts not only applies to the meeting planning itself, but also to the travel associated with meetings. Historically, such travel can get lost in the mix, with air booked through a corporate agency but not always associated with the event. And as for hotel bookings—those can get absorbed into a room block and never tied back to the individual for duty of care.

“We’re taking on this whole new area of travel or meetings management to accommodate [remote work needs]. It involves facilities, it involves HR, it involves me on the travel side. We’re also working very closely with finance and budget owners on supporting all of this from a cost perspective.”

Travel & Meetings Manager

Walking the Walk

Elizabeth Crompton is building a program with this exact delineation at its core. Meetings management at consulting firm ZS Associates is what she called “a Covid baby”—conceived during the pandemic and now in its infancy but designed from the start to meet the needs of the post-pandemic workplace.

Speaking to an audience at BTN’s Strategic Meetings Summit in Chicago last November, she explained that ZS offers a workflow for internal meetings that is separated from external-facing events. The meetings team is using newly contracted technology designed for self-service planning that allows straightforward group bookings for teams of nine or fewer, as well as a simplified RFP process for larger groups. The process utilizes the firm’s preferred hotels but does not limit users to those properties.

The objective, said Crompton, is to drive internal planning through the tool thereby capturing the data not only around the meeting expenses but also to capture travel. ZS is unique in its travel management strategy in that it encourages direct booking for airline tickets to ensure travelers are getting the best fares and most convenient itineraries. ZS uses an email filtering system to capture travel confirmations and bring them into a reporting suite that the firm is configuring into a dashboard tool that combines meetings and travel spend but also can detail it separately for analysis and negotiation purposes.

Another travel manager who did not have permission to speak on the record, but wanted to detail her experience, took small and internal meetings into her management portfolio coming out of the pandemic after her company implemented a “work where you want” policy for employees. The result of which was some employees coming into the office and some working 100 percent at home, but others dividing their time two or three days a week.

The variables in that arrangement have put pressure on cost and flexibility requirements for employees to meet, especially since some have taken the opportunity, as Iwamoto pointed out, to move away from a central office location.

“Before the pandemic there was some attention that was paid to [small and internal meetings], but not a tremendous amount because it was just teams getting together, you know, meeting with each other on an as-needed basis,” she said. “But after travel started coming back, there has been a very notable and measurable increase in demand from teams wanting to get together.”

What there has not been, yet, was the structure for decision-making around why, when and how to make that happen effectively.

“So we’re taking on this whole new area of travel or meetings management to accommodate that need,” she said. “It now involves facilities, it involves HR, it involves me on the travel side. We’re also working very closely with finance and budget owners on supporting all of this from a cost perspective because it’s not something that’s necessarily budgeted.”

The travel manager has begun, with the help of HR, to put together guidelines and policies for such meeting needs. She joins the 20 percent of BTN survey respondents who said they were currently working on such policies (32 percent already have them).  She’s had some success in leveraging existing transient hotel partners to provide rates and spaces for ad hoc team get togethers. “I thought that might be difficult because hotels generally want to silo [meetings versus travel] spend, but so far they’ve been very willing to work with us.”

Industry Sees the Opportunity

Such shifts are not lost on industry players—particularly those in the technology space, who rightly foresee support issues for programs that want to configure policies and services in this way and then enable users to take independent action when meeting needs arise—because precious few have the headcount on the travel team to manage the incoming demand.

Even prior to the pandemic, simple meetings technologies were making some headway into the travel management space. Iwamoto himself—who was among the pioneers of centralizing a Strategic Meetings Management Program with strong command and control guardrails—signed on as a chief strategy officer for simple meetings management platform Bizly. He has since left the company for consulting and partial retirement, but during his tenure there he had to “unlearn” many of his own tenets about how meetings should be managed, he said, and learn to let intuitive technologies help distribute responsibility and drive in-policy workflows that rolled up into corporate strategy.

“This was for smaller meetings, of course,” he said, acknowledging that more robust platforms and strategies still are required for more complex events. “But still it was an education about how new technologies had to operate in the workplace because today’s more casual meetings users aren’t going to tolerate heavy or confusing tech and data requirements. They’ll push back or just blow it off.”

A host of such technologies have entered the market, including Groupize and Hubli, both of which facilitate simplified RFPs as well as some level of instant booking for meetings. Other providers are focusing more heavily on instant booking.

Groups360 took a large investment from a consortium of major hotel companies to develop instant meetings booking technology and it’s been building its marketplace brand by brand. It also provides booking capabilities direct on hotel websites as a white label solution, though there remain some limitations with the number of attendees when it comes to instant bookings. Cvent introduced instant meetings bookings in a limited release in 2021. It has steadily rolled out more inventory and more partners, but adoption has been slow among travel and meeting management programs for all such technologies. Read Michael B. Baker’s article here for potential reasons why and for a status update.

Other companies are working on the travel piece itself. TripGrid was an early player that made it onto BCD Travel’s SolutionSource marketplace in 2021. It enables team and group air bookings and CEO Jake Hoskins said somewhat presciently at the time, “Tripgrid offers management software for project-based group travel that falls outside the scope of traditional meetings and events travel and standard strategic meetings management workflows.” The tech provider also teamed up with Frosch in 2021, and more recently linked up with TripStax for global distribution system content and profile technology.

AmTrav introduced its Gather tools in 2022 for guest travel and added a meetings management piece to it the same year. It offers attendee invite links that lead to appropriate booking and payment capability. Human-powered services were wrapped in to support venue sourcing and negotiation.

Spotnana in March released Spotnana Events which, again, addresses the travel piece of the meetings equation, providing a number of different attendee profile options like guest, internal or external attendee, to help route travel requirements appropriately through a number of travel booking and payment workflows. The technology allows for room block management and ground transport management. Spotnana previously—and still—worked alongside the unique big-data-powered site selection automation tool Troop as a booking partner.

Options, Options, Options—Be Smart

Head of the global meetings and travel center of excellence at pharmaceutical company Takeda, Michelle DeCosta is getting her hands around the travel spend associated with meetings and will soon provide a new technology option for smaller team meetings and internal gatherings that even Takeda’s best-in-class program with a group of highly tenured travel and meetings professional knew they didn’t have covered.

“It was a gap,” she said.

“There didn’t used to be a technology piece that could do this, so knowing there are now options catalyzed us to try to help.”

Takeda’s more traditional strategic meetings management program focused on the “big events where you need a professional meeting manager to do the logistics, you need procurement and all these things.” But if someone came to the team and said they were interested in a room block, that was not a service DeCosta’s group could provide, and it was too small for procurement as well.

“So they’re a group where I don’t have any idea where we are with spend—and I know they need support. They’re not comfortable signing contracts, and we shouldn’t be asking them to do that,” she said. “We are a helping organization, plus I want to make sure they’re using our preferred suppliers because those are going to give them the best service and experience.”

DeCosta is also taking steps to know more and direct more of the travel spend associated with the bigger, known events as well. Air travel, she said, is booked through a logistics company into which her group has not necessarily had full visibility into those bookings or the spend data.  

To that end Takeda is engaging with a data firm to collect its meetings data from all different sources and combine that with travel to get a full view of what the company is really working with from a spend standpoint, from a supplier and market share standpoint and from a sustainability standpoint. DeCosta’s group set a goal of one year to do it—and, yes, it’s a big job.

So big, that the first attempt fizzled without the right technology and without the right resources. Today, however, the project has new life.

“We feel really confident with the Cerebri team, and I hired somebody who will have this as all he does. He is dedicated to travel and meetings technology. I feel really good that I have someone to focus on this,” she said. But why—why is it so important?

DeCosta has three reasons:

Stakeholder access and confidence: DeCosta said she wanted this as a foundational tool where stakeholders would have access to self-service data for duty of care, budgeting, tracking spend. And they need to have confidence that the data is accurate and actionable. Without complete meetings data, Takeda is missing a major piece of the puzzle. 

Supplier management: “Meetings really is a different set of data,” said DeCosta. “And we’re not always necessarily using our preferred transient hotels for meetings, but it should be a part of the conversation at a higher level with the Marriotts and Hiltons of the world. Right now, I don’t think they’re looking at us through the lens of that combined spend. So I want to have that irrefutable data source that we can move forward with.”

Sustainability: Takeda has a strong track record on sustainability actions, but measuring the results of sustainability on the travel side has been elusive. “In order to put more pieces into play for sustainability, we have to be able to show analytics and show that the actions we are taking actually influence choice as the point of sale,” said DeCosta. “I also want to be able to show that when I pull a lever—whether it’s for supplier management or sustainability—I want to see the impact across my whole program, not just part of it. The meetings piece is a big piece of my program.”

Not everyone will have the same remit or resources as Takeda. But DeCosta was encouraging about getting meetings data in hand. “I think there are easy ways to start,” she said. “I even think there are some free tools out there that you can try and then level up to purchased tools when you think you find one that works for your program.” The key, she said, was to do the projects that are within your resources to succeed at, because one success could initiate another… and another.

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