The Meetings Revolution

By Joanna Fisher

About our Guest Blogger, Joanna Fisher

Joanna joined Kew Green Hotels in 2015, bringing with her a wealth of sales knowledge built up throughout her career with companies such as IHG, Starwood, Ramada Jarvis, GLH and The Ascott Group. At Kew Green, Joanna has pioneered a new sales structure as part of the creation of the Commercial Hub, Kew Green's central sales, revenue and reservation office. Kew Green Hotels was founded in 2001 with just one hotel, and is now one of the UK's leading hotel management companies with over 50 properties in its portfolio.

 

In a world of contactless travel where time is money and speed to market makes all the difference, the meetings revolution is coming.

Four years ago I joined Kew Green Hotels with, among other things, a remit to transform our meetings business and consequently drive more revenue into our hotels.  Back then, the hotels were suffering from a recession-induced hangover and the aftereffects of a large expansion programme, and it was clear that this segment had been neglected. As the market returned, the habitual reliance on the brand drivers of room revenue continued. This was partly due to the huge challenge revitalising meetings room revenue presented – transforming a segment that is multi-faceted, complex and reaches across Christmas, weddings, banqueting and corporate meetings.  An initial easy win for me was simply to look at the behaviours and needs of our customers, which led me to MeetingsBooker.

Ciaran Delaney from MeetingsBooker once told me, “Frankly, nobody wants to talk to sales people to book their meeting rooms. They just want to get them booked quickly.” Although this was an enormous generalisation (and went against my core sales beliefs), it struck me that this tool was an opportunity to solve our time-poor problem and embrace the contactless approach that customers want from travel. We’d be solving a problem for our customers at the same time as solving a problem for the sales offices.  The other brands were not there with the technology yet – they were still focused on room tools and traditional RFPS that, in my opinion, had too many boxes to fill in.  After all, we are all used to Amazon shopping and instant buying and re-buying at the touch of a button, so why overcomplicate a simple small meeting room transaction?  After some research and sample trialling of a listing fee business model over a commission model, I chose the commission model with all hotels in.  As an early adopter (with scale), I was able to get a march on the competitors, working with MeetingsBooker in partnership to really understand how we could make this work.

Our finance teams love it because booked meetings are prepaid direct into the bank with no refunds. Our sales teams love it because it automates the sale of empty meeting rooms and acts as an out of office tool to sell meeting rooms when both email and the front desk are out of hours. I love it because previously the teams could be spending as much time on a meeting room booking worth £100 as they were for one worth £10k, whereas they can now focus their time on the customers that need more attention and the bookings that bring more revenue. Our customers love it because they can shop, book and pay within a matter of minutes.

We haven’t had any significant problems with our control of the booking diary, either. There is always a risk of out of sync bookings, but meetings inventory is not like bedroom inventory.  There will generally be an alternative room available, and meeting room occupancies aren't as high as they used to be.  The teams and the revenue managers on the property can control the inventory they offer at the price they want, when they want, and in an instant.

Of course, implementation and adoption is key. Thankfully in Kew Green Hotels, when an initiative is agreed we all play our part to ensure the tool is utilised, imbedded and adopted into the business from the top down.  This is critical with any change, but particularly so in our relatively traditional industry. It helped that an instant booking tool was a no-brainer for everyone, especially as it was simple and easy to use.

One of my early concerns about using the tool was that I might be helping create the next OTA monster, and would ultimately lose control of our inventory and find the cost of sale increasing.  I am glad to say that this has not been the case – I have a fair proportion of business (about a 50/50 split) that comes to our website directly through the white label versus the Meeting Booker website.  This means we are still driving and securing customer loyalty to our websites and protecting our direct customers.  Of course, I keep a watchful eye on this and will always look at other competitor options in the market to spread the risk.

I think we as hoteliers need to think less about managing meetings rooms and more about how we can make it easier for our customers to shop and buy our space through the channels they want and in the way they want. Airbnb venturing into this market is a good indicator that the appetite from customers is there, and while this tool is generally limited to smaller meetings of 30 or fewer at present, I can see it working for larger meetings.  Imagine buying the space virtually and then planning all of your meeting options as if you were the hotel, having chat bots and AI integrations to provide options and the hotel planner available when needed. I would love to organise my annual conference this way, and I think some of our customers would too.

 

BVA BDRC Comment (by James Bland)

There are a number of reasons why the meetings sector lags so far behind the core hotel operation (selling bedrooms), but primarily it has been the supply-side dragging its heels rather than a lack of client demand.  One key factor has been the continued absence of integrated PMS software that allows inventory to be made available to anyone other than the team in the office, but a major reason that it has been slow to evolve is because it’s never really had to – until now.  Relinquishing control of the booking diary is an idea that can strike terror in the heart of a MICE sales manager – the thought that their largest room could be undersold online and cause them to miss a large booking is probably one that keeps them up at night.  While all this has (or, more accurately, hasn’t) been happening, a combination of static rates, increasing supply and inefficient processes has led to small meetings becoming particularly expensive transactions for hotels to process.  The end result has been increasing numbers of small, simple meetings moving away from hotels to other locations.  Part of it is seeking a different product, but part of it has likely been the ease of transaction – so allowing instant, online booking of small meetings has to now become the norm rather than the exception.  A few far-sighted groups have, as you’ll have just read, already made the switch, but I think we can expect to see more and more follow over the next two years.

We’re taking a lead in this area too.  In 2019 our mystery shopping assessment criteria will adapt so that enquiries for meetings of fewer than 30 delegates are assessed in a completely different (and more streamlined) manner, better reflecting the way planners want to buy.  If you’d like to know more about what we’re calling ‘Event Driven Criteria’, then drop us a line at meetings@bva-bdrc.com.

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