By Astrid Zeppenfeld
These last few months have been trying, to say the least. Early precautions related to a novel virus that made its way around the world in a matter of weeks led to statewide shutdowns of many businesses rather quickly. Everything from small barbershops to multi-million-dollar corporations took a hit, but perhaps no industry felt the absence of both employees as well as customers as much as the hospitality industry.
Under normal circumstances, people take off work to travel, especially during the summer months. Staying in hotels, alone or with family, is commonplace. So is eating at restaurants, and many hotels feature excellent cuisine as well as cute and creative bars. COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has been making its rounds, effectively shut this commonplace practice down for many people as we were all trying to comprehend how the virus transmits and what can be done to stay healthy.
Starting in May, places like bars and restaurants have been slowly reopening to the public. Hotel properties, even though most of them were able to stay in operation because essential travel never really stopped, are just now seeing an influx of travelers again. Corporations who canceled or postponed all their business meetings and conventions in the spring are now back to planning and scheduling new events. Given that travel advisories are still in effect for many areas, accessible venues are booking up faster than they used to. That, coupled with the fact that caution is still the word, many meeting planners are already looking into 2021 for upcoming events.
Meeting and event venues have spent the last few months studying best practices and implementing new and ever-changing CDC-guidelines in order to keep guests safe from contracting COVID-19. Social-distancing in the hospitality industry includes downsizing and/or having to move tables six feet apart, doing away with self-serve buffets in favor of to-go meals at large gatherings, instituting more frequent disinfecting and cleaning of both staff and guest areas, installing hand sanitizers throughout buildings, and, last but not least, adding requirements to wear or not to wear masks.
Some venues have also used this time to make improvements not mandated by the pandemic, but one would be hard-pressed to find a hotel who used this time more wisely than the Marriott St. Louis Airport. Todd Hotaling, Vice President of Revenue and Marketing at Lodging Hospitality Management, explains, “During this lower demand time where we haven’t seen quite as much activity as we normally would, we’ve taken the opportunity to do a full renovation on our East Tower rooms. The majority of our East Tower rooms are executive rooms with access to our Club Lounge there. We did a renovation for the West Tower and the meeting space a few years ago and this now completes a full renovation of the entire property.”
That recently renovated meeting space available to planners consists of 31,042 square-feet in total. The square footage includes 27 event rooms, or – if you prefer keeping everyone together, especially once the CDC-guidelines abandon social-distancing requirements – you can utilize the 29,000 square-feet Grand Ballroom for your Business Expo or big ceremony event.
In the meantime, Hotaling says, “All of our St. Louis area hotels have taken steps to keep people safe and allow them to meet responsibly, so we’ve posted some instructional videos on the no-contact check-in for rooms at our properties. The Marriott Airport, for example, has digital keys, so when a guest makes a reservation, there is no need to even go to the desk and interact to get a key – they can go right to their room.”
Being located right next to St. Louis Lambert International Airport, this Marriott property is ideal for meetings that include out-of-town participants who may need to catch a flight out right after the event ends. For in-person business functions, that is.
While we all cannot wait to get back to face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings have become so essential for businesses during this unusual time, that attending them has become second nature to us. Luckily, here too, the Marriott St. Louis Airport has been observing the needs of the market and taking their existing technology for meetings, upgrading and improving it to fit the needs of socially responsible gatherings. A lot of meetings have shifted into the fall or even 2021, and meeting planners are looking for options to meet their clients’ needs. Enter Marriott’s Hybrid option.
Hybrid meetings offer the option of satisfying every attendee’s needs – one can be onsite and physically present at the event, while another can attend the meeting virtually. Lodging Hospitality Management has an in-house A/V team, which allows them complete flexibility to accommodate every planner’s needs and budgets.
Hotaling explains, “We do have the capabilities to produce, manage, and stream virtual components to any in-house meetings that we are having. And this gives planners the opportunity to successfully promote and host these hybrid meetings at our properties.”
Hybrid meetings are very customizable, and planners can define whether they need a one-way communication or a two-way communication. Concretely, this means either having a presenter in a conference room with the onsite attendees and stream the meeting out to virtual attendees or allowing offsite attendees to chime into the meeting via two-way communication. Two-way communication in the hybrid meeting requires additional gear, such as microphones and speakers placed around the room, which obviously raises the price of holding the meeting. However, you need not fear that it will not fit into your budget.
Hybrid Meetings For Every Safety-conscious Planner And Budget
Philip Schrubb, Corporate Director of Audiovisual Services at Lodging Hospitality Management, can easily alleviate any fears of paying too much for hosting a socially distanced and safe, but very successful, business event.
“Previously, meaning before the pandemic, when you could fit 700 people into a ballroom and people wanted the event streamed or recorded, it was a production that I would call TV-level. It was professional grade and would get a little pricey. I think a lot of meeting planners and the market in general has this mindset that it is overly expensive to try to do that”, he clarifies. “Once the market understands that it is more of a basic web streamer with a basic camera setup, the process of hybrid meetings becomes much more streamlined. It is definitely a good option for now, but once the pandemic is over, I think the meeting industry is going to come back strong.
I could not agree more – the meeting and hospitality industry is partly such a fun industry because it draws people who enjoy being around other people. We want the face-to-face interaction! Having been forced to explore hybrid meetings will, however, work well in the future for corporations, such as Siemens AG, who have already announced they will continue to allow employees to work remotely.
Schrubb says, “They will see that it can be done cost-effectively, and you can get your message out, even in a pandemic.”
And if it can be done in a pandemic, why not keep it open as yet another option? The Marriott St. Louis Airport, as well as many other Lodging Hospitality Management properties, has your back – whichever kind of meeting it is!
Astrid Zeppenfeld is a writer and MM&E’s editor/business development manager from St. Louis.