Small meetings are big business, according to Sherry Romello. "More than 70 percent of the meetings available to be booked fit into that under-25 sleeping-room category," says the senior director of Hilton Meetings and product management for McLean, Va.-based Hilton Worldwide. "It's also growing at a very fast pace, and it's the hardest category to track," she adds. "My guess is that percentage is even higher than we think it is."
Planners are faced with similar tracking challenges; the smaller the meeting, the greater the chance it won't be managed at all. And attempting to actually manage those gatherings is often considered a losing proposition in terms of value for the effort.
"If I have a planner who wants to book a one-day meeting at a hotel or a venue, that typically would take four to eight emails to process," says Laura Bell Way, global meetings manager at the engineering and entertainment software company Autodesk in San Rafael, Calif. "That would include a day contract, a booking agreement, what we call a nonstandard purchase agreement. The paper trail and email trail involved with a day meeting can be pretty tremendous, given that it's typically a very small spend."
Likewise, hoteliers often view small meetings as too much hassle for too little payoff, notes Romello. But the volume and potential significance of small meetings have caused some in the industry to reassess their value. By using different sales approaches as well as technology, hoteliers are looking at ways to streamline sales and booking -- and make life easier for buyer and seller alike.
Hilton launched its Meetings Simplified program in November 2013. The hotel chain set out to design a tool that would save time for customers as well as member properties. The result was a bundled-pricing program that aims to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to book a meeting for 25 sleeping rooms or less, with a maximum of 50 attendees. The program promises a simplified contract and quick, per-person pricing quotes.
The technology remains behind the scenes, from the buyer's perspective: A price calculator aids the hotel properties in establishing that per-person price, maintaining some consistency across Hilton's portfolio. The buyer must pick up the phone and call the hotel, but can expect an immediate answer from the property regarding availability and price.
While bundled pricing isn't new, Hilton's ambitious goal was to design a program that could work globally, across nine different brands (excluding the new Home2 Suites flag, which does little meetings business). To accomplish this, Hilton studied the common characteristics of its small-meetings business to determine a happy medium of amenities and pricing that would work across the board.
The program today, available at more than 4,000 properties globally, includes a meeting room, basic Wi-Fi, a flip chart and markers, all-day nonalcoholic beverage service and per-person pricing, with additional options for meals, breaks and projectors. Since beginning the pilot for the program last year, says Romello, planner surveys have revealed every category of satisfaction rising exponentially for planners who were offered a Meetings Simplified package. That includes ease of contracting, ease of dealing with audiovisual components, the likelihood of rebooking at that property and overall satisfaction.
Many hotels are seeking to better accommodate day meetings, too, by offering tech-outfitted workspaces, lobbies or restaurant nooks, or even private rooms that can be reserved in advance online. The spaces generally are inexpensive and charge by the hour; some are free. And many are being used for small gatherings that take place during larger conferences. Westin's Tangent rooms and Workspace on Demand by Marriott are designed for these purposes.
Marriott has grown the Workspace on Demand program relatively quickly and now offers it at more than 415 North American hotels. Customers are warming to the idea of booking hotel meeting space in that fashion, according to Crystal Christmas, general manager of the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Va. The property rents two spaces through the platform, a small meeting room that accommodates four people and a communal table that seats six.
"In a little over a year we've had approximately 200 users," Christmas says. The private room goes for $50 per hour, while the communal space is free. "It helps us drive incremental revenue," Christmas notes. "And more often than not, those booking the spaces book food and beverage as well." Before the Workspace on Demand program, she adds, both spaces were underused.
About 60 percent of the bookings are made in conjunction with a larger meeting on-site, Christmas points out. Previously, attendees were more likely to hold impromptu meetings in the lobby or in their guest rooms -- neither of which, she says, was particularly conducive to meetings.
Marriott is "wildly optimistic" about the potential uses of Workspace on Demand for planners, adds Geoff Heuchling, senior director of B2B eCommerce for Marriott International. "We've talked to some about the possibility of setting space aside for small pop-up meetings during their events, for which attendees could use the app to book and be done with it," he says. "We haven't worked out all the details yet, but we're looking now at how we can best deliver that."
The technology driving Workspace on Demand (and, previously, Westin's Tangent) is LiquidSpace, a software company and marketplace that employs the same shared-economy principle behind the success of sites such as Airbnb.com. Hotels and many other less conventional meeting venues can list their spaces on LiquidSpace for remote workspace or small meetings. Hotels do account for the majority of bookings, says LiquidSpace president and COO Doug Marinaro -- to the tune of 25,000 transactions per month. The typical meeting booked through the platform lasts 90 minutes, hosts two to four people and costs $150, Marinaro adds.
Meetings that small typically would not fall under a meeting manager's purview. But a new product from LiquidSpace called Travel Manager aims to change that. A corporate customer can add LiquidSpace's booking engine into its travel and meetings program and not only track employee usage, but also customize the site or app to favor venues with preferred suppliers.
"Those small day meetings represent a huge area of rogue meeting spend," says Autodesk's Laura Bell Way, an early adopter of Travel Manager. "By putting this platform in place, we are now able to gain visibility into that. Typically, these kinds of meetings would be done just by somebody picking up the phone, booking a room and signing an agreement. Now we have the ability to promote the program and show the benefits of using the tool, and I get the benefits of knowing what people are booking, when they're booking, what types of spaces and what they're spending, so that I can take those numbers and add them into our overall meeting spend volume. It's a nice addition to our strategic meetings management program." Just as significantly, it turns Way's four-to-eight-email process into a simple online transaction.
Interestingly, Autodesk employees often are using LiquidSpace for meetings well beyond the two- to four-attendee average cited by Marinaro, to book space for up to 20 people. "I look many times for conference spaces that can hold 12 to 15," says Way. "And there are plenty of spaces that accommodate that," she adds, in hotels as well as a variety of nontraditional venues.
Streamlining small-meetings booking requires a willingness to reevaluate long-accepted business practices, notes Sherry Romello, senior director of Hilton Meetings and product management for Hilton Worldwide. Many Hilton properties had never before offered bundled pricing, the cornerstone of the company's Meetings Simplified program. Hilton Worldwide had to educate the properties about realistic pricing for amenities, to coincide with current planner values.
"As a former planner, I will say this," says Romello. "Generally speaking, hotels tend to overprice things that customers don't want to pay for. They overprice rental and they overprice Wi-Fi. So taking the way we price things and just putting it in a package to camouflage that overinflated price isn't going to get us more customers. We've also taken a look at the way that price is packaged, to make it more authentic. As technology makes things more available, as Wi-Fi gets offered differently, we have to think differently about the way we price it. When we go to the table, let's just offer our best price, and really get the small stuff out of the negotiation and into the transaction. Let's just get it done."
While it's clear that technology can play an integral part in streamlining small-meetings management, it clearly has limits. Hilton's Meetings Simplified still requires a planner to contact the hotel; the company's e-Events booking tool, developed six years ago, allows online booking for the same size groups (25 sleeping rooms or less) but cannot handle the pricing structure developed for Meetings Simplified. Marrying the two tools would be "the ideal," says Sherry Romello, but would likely require rebuilding the e-Events platform.
"I think everybody's looking for that solution to book online," says Romello, "and I don't disagree that the industry will move that way when it comes to meeting space. But it's a lot more complicated than the sleeping-room side of things. It really takes a culture shift and a process shift at the hotel to even get in the right frame of mind to do it in the meeting space. Even if you could snap your fingers and have a technology solution, the behaviors at the hotel have to adjust and align with that commoditized or transactional-type business."
On that note, adds Romello, it required a culture shift at some hotels to embrace even the bundled pricing of the Meetings Simplified approach (see sidebar, "Changing Perceptions," on page 50). To streamline small-meetings booking requires the creation of a more transaction-based process, even if the booking and payment don't actually happen online. And many planners remain reluctant to book that way.
Marriott's QuickGroup tool can handle online bookings for 10 to 25 guest rooms and event space up to 50. "We get 3,000 shoppers a day checking rates and availability," says Marriott's Geoff Heuchling. "But there is still some hesitation about doing online booking. Many people just need to prove they shopped different brands; they usually call us to actually book."
Yet technology such as that offered by LiquidSpace might be slowly closing the gap between the transaction required to reserve an impromptu meeting space and the more nuanced planning of a slightly larger meeting. "Different hotel brands have different strategies," notes Doug Marinaro. "Some of them have put their breakfast nooks in LiquidSpace; others have put ballrooms. We're seeing larger rooms appear in LiquidSpace, and we're making it easier to find them. What we're moving to is being able to handle longer-duration meetings, for multiple days or a week." Eventually, he says, they will add the ability to book a hotel room too: "We see an opportunity to move deeper into this space, and we're being led there by our customers."