By Kaitlin Dunn, Writer, Hospitality Sales & Marketing International (HSMAI)
A panel at Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals’ recent CYBER HITEC conference offered a potential revenue source for an industry eager for recovery solutions. HSMAI President and CEO Robert A. Gilbert, CHME, CHBA, joined MGM Resorts International’s Stephanie Glanzer, CMP, Prism Hospitality Consulting’s Mark Haley, CHTP, and Electro-Media Design’s Jeff Loether, ISHC, to discuss “The Cure for Empty Ballrooms: Exploring the Virtual and Hybrid Event Models.”
WHY ARE VIRTUAL/HBYRID MEETINGS SO IMPORTANT?
Meetings and events are a valuable source of income to hotels. According to Gilbert, more than 1.5 billion people participated in meetings and events last year worldwide, supporting 26 million jobs and generating $1.5 trillion in GDP. Since the pandemic hit, the vast majority of events have been canceled or postponed, but that doesn’t mean that nothing has been going on behind the scenes.
“Salespeople have been busier than ever,” Gilbert said. “The changes that salespeople have had to go through to move meetings around has been significant. There are some glimmers of hope, but this has been a crazy time.”
Glanzer said that cities have been affected by the gathering limitations put in place by the state. “In a city like Las Vegas, our group business carries us through the week,” she said. “It’s a huge impact. Salespeople and customers have had to collaborate and find solutions.”
Loether said that it’s going to be interesting to watch the industry work through the logistics of hosting hybrid events. He cited a PCMA study showing that when organizations included a virtual element in their meeting, the next year’s event was more well attended because virtual attendees missed the connection of being there in person. But what’s happening now is on a different scale. “We’ve never tried to bring in half of the audience virtually before,” Loether said. “This is a huge leap in scale, so we’re going to be learning a lot.”
WHAT IS A HYBRID EVENT?
Virtual events involve attendees participating in a program completely online. A hybrid event combines the virtual part with the in-person part, allowing attendees to join in whether they are at the location or not. The simplest way of putting a meeting together is point-to-point topology, where one group is directly communicating to another, Loether said. The next would be a star topology, where multiple groups are all communicating with one another; however, when there are this many groups involved, it becomes more complex to host. Finally, Loether said, there is a hub-and-spoke model, which is becoming more popular. This is where there is a hub where the event is staged, featuring a main host, and other groups tune in to the main event.
When planning a hybrid event, hospitality professionals may have different roles than when hosting a traditional in-person meeting and will need to understand more about technology and health and safety protocols. “We’re selling differently because we’re focused on health and safety,” Glanzer said. “We have to make sure we have the right spaces to fit everyone with social distancing and provide the flexibility to offer a solution for a hybrid event.”
Loether added: “As hoteliers, we always want to say yes. As we work with architects and designers, we have to make sure that the spaces work with the technology and are friendly to whoever needs the space. We have to be able to say yes to any request the client has.”
HOW CAN HYBRIDS ENGAGE VIRTUAL ATTENDEES?
“We want [hybrid] attendees to feel like they are getting a similar experience,” Glanzer said. “We have had some groups that have mailed things ahead of time to attendees to make them feel like they are a part of the actual event. There has to be some creativity to make sure the virtual attendees get the same fun they would if they were in person.”
Gilbert stressed the importance of engaging with virtual attendees throughout the live event. “There are a number of unique platforms that you can use to do gamification and live polling,” he said. “It makes people get on another device and put in their point of view. People can play games and do breakout rooms. There are all sorts of platforms to engage with people. Otherwise, it’s too easy for people to say that they’re going to watch it later and then they never do.
“There are still a lot of unknowns out there,” Gilbert said. “What’s the impact going to be if you do a hybrid? What’s the mix going to be with virtual and face-to-face? There are a lot of unknowns on how people are going to respond to the technology.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE EVENTS INDUSTRY?
While things are trending in a positive direction, there are still a lot of unknowns about the future, Gilbert said. He shared a report from CRBE showing that the industry likely won’t recover to pre-COVID RevPAR levels for at least 15 to 24 quarters. “Based on all economic indicators at this point in time, we’re looking at a recovery zone somewhere from 2022 to 2024,” Gilbert said. “We will definitely recover and meet again, but the meetings segment will be the last to recover.”
Glanzer added that the ability for attendees to be tested for COVID onsite could have an impact on the ability for hotels to host meetings. “We have just launched the capability to test at events, and I think that is something we all should look at,” she said. “Is that going to make a difference for bringing face-to-face back sooner as we all get the capability to test within safe parameters?”
Loether mentioned that hosting hybrid events means is an increased cost to invest in the necessary technology, but that could be offset by future revenue streams made possible by that technology. “Technology is advancing like crazy,” Loether said. “We can see how they are rapidly scaling to meet demands. There is an opportunity to capture the information presented at a meeting, and then you have options as a meeting planner to post-produce it and have that as a future revenue stream.”