Waiting game Despite the glimmers of a
rebound, financial and insurance types are slower to commit to meetings
business, and that reluctance is expected to continue. "Our lead times
were much shorter this year," says Aon's Pearson. "People were waiting
to see if they really could do it, or if they should do it or if they
could afford to do it -- and then, bing, they would enter a meeting
request into our group booking platform, and we would have to work with
the managers who needed to approve the meeting to make sure we could
get this thing going. But we were fortunate in the fact that because of
the financial situation, there was availability and decent rates."
is far from alone in this trend. Pam Ferguson, Chicago-based director
of global accounts, insurance, for Ritz-Carlton, is seeing a pickup in
short-term bookings for 2010 -- with a lead time in the neighborhood of
just 60 to 90 days. "It's meetings that typically would have been
booked further out, but finally they're realizing they need to have
those meetings," says Ferguson.
Isabel Mahon, Chicago-based
director of global sales for Fairmont/Raffles/Swissôtels, sees a
similar pattern. She's accustomed to clients booking events 18 to 36
months in advance. "But in the fourth quarter I definitely picked up
some business for 2010 from some of those big customers who canceled in
'09 and initially didn't book anything ahead, because they didn't know
what was going to happen."
Mahon and Ferguson both say they're
now booking more meetings for 2011. Meanwhile, the industry's hesitancy
over booking for the coming year promises to be a challenge for
hoteliers and planners alike. Hennessey and her colleagues at FICP had
the sense at their annual conference that many companies, though
intending to hold meetings in 2010, were waiting for 2009 to end before
making plans. "Our hospitality partners are thinking there's going to
be a real scramble -- a lot of short-term bookings in 2010. But once
people start having meetings and a precedent has been set, people will
come back into the water. Companies tend to follow the leader a little
bit. When one insurance company starts doing a rewards program for its
brokers, then others likely will follow."
Some companies are
being persuaded by third-party planners they've hired to book 2010
events now, notes George Aguel, senior vice president for Walt Disney
Parks & Resorts in Orlando. "The planners would like to lock in
some of these value opportunities while they're still there," says
Aguel. "It's just a matter of time; a lot of those values and
promotions out there will be scaled back."
Pearson is doing what
he can to change the mind-set of the meeting owners at Aon. "What I'm
worried about," he admits, "is the short lead time is going to come
back to bite us." A similar problem occurred after 9/11, when people
believed they could find availability and a decent rate at the last
minute. Adds Pearson, "We're getting in touch with the people who might
have booked a meeting a year ago, and saying, ‘Are you thinking about
doing this meeting again? Because if you are, I recommend you start the
process now and strike while the iron is hot. We can negotiate some
great rates.' We're trying to be proactive in that respect."
Toning it down Clearly, lessons have
been learned from the media backlash that occurred a year ago.
Companies in these segments must get back to meeting, but they're doing
so quietly and practically. "We heard that people were being a little
more conservative, trying to be a little more low-key," reports FICP's
Jan Hennessey. "People are being more cautious about luxury; they tend
to be more prudent. ‘Low-key' seems to be the term. And we're not
saying ‘under the radar,' necessarily, but not overly lavish. It's not
the time for that, and I wonder if that will ever come back. This is
the new normal."
For this market segment and others, a number of trends have emerged that define the low-key approach:
Stay on the continent. Despite
the international intentions revealed by FICP members, many companies
are booking closer to home. "Most are staying in North America," says
Mahon of her customers. "I certainly have booked some Europe, but
nowhere near what I historically have." Mahon also has booked a large
number of Mexico meetings in the last quarter, primarily among
customers who have traveled farther in the past.
that were for 1,000 people are now for 500 people, with simulcasts and
webcasts added to extend the reach," says Hennessey. "That is common
and widespread right now. And if the meeting is successful at this size
and with those components, then it is unlikely that it will ever go
back to being a larger event."
Keep it quiet. "I've never
signed more confidentiality agreements than I have in the past few
months," says Fairmont's Mahon. Meetings are being carried out with
greater discretion and less publicity than ever before. According to
Pam Ferguson of Ritz-Carlton, that's just a necessary fact of doing
business now. "More than ever, we're being extremely cautious about our
pledge of confidentiality for our clients' programs," she says, "to
the point where if I'm in an airport on my cell phone, I will not say
the name of an insurance company that I might be talking to my office
Choose words carefully. "Just what you call the
event is important," advises Hennessey. "It's a ‘program' or a
‘conference'. The word incentive is not used as much. And luxury is a
word that people are very careful about using."
Go to town. Urban
destinations, particularly in secondary cities, raise fewer eyebrows
than resort locations. "I've never seen our city hotels so actively
involved in the insurance market as they are now," says Ritz-Carlton's
Ferguson. "Even some of the incentive programs have gone to city as
opposed to resort locations."
Streamline. Attendees are
coming home from meetings and events with fewer goodies. "People are
cutting giveaways, turndown gifts, things like that," says Hennessey.
She adds, "Once that kind of thing gets cut, it's not so likely that
it's going to come back. When a trend like this takes hold, then if
you're out of line with what others are doing, it will get noticed."
Give back to the community. Companies
are diverting attention from the luxurious aspect of a rewards or
incentive trip by doing the right thing while at the destination. "When
we can, we definitely tie a social responsibility factor into it," says
Ferguson. "We have a community assistance program that we can tie into
a charitable activity, and we're finding that more and more companies
are incorporating that into their agenda."