It’s been hard to watch the hospitality industry suffer through a global pandemic. As a hotelier myself, I’ve seen my friends and associates experience furloughs or become laid off as hotels were forced closed.
But despite the downturn that has affected hospitality for more than two years, the crisis has also accelerated technological innovation and adaption at an unprecedented rate. New technology has enabled us to do more with less – less time, fewer people, less money – and early adopters are already innovating to meet old challenges in new ways. Our industry is poised for ongoing growth as we emerge from the crisis.
In Knowland’s 2021 “State of the Meetings Industry” planner survey, we learn that event planners expect nearly 80 percent of events in 2022 to happen in-person rather than virtually. It’s clear that there is still strong demand for group travel accommodations.
Hoteliers and organizers alike are looking for ways to renew profits, productivity, and overall efficiency in the group events space. So, what’s the secret weapon that will propel us toward the future of the industry?
Instant booking is the future
The future of booking meetings, events and group stays isinstant and online—especially for smaller, less complicated requirements. We ask our hotelier and organizer clients what challenges they foresee in 2022, and the answers are the same on both sides: low bandwidth for team members, reduced response times from hotels working with limited resources, and a lack of transparency or access to specific hotel information such as pricing and availability. Everyone is craving more information and the ability to make faster decisions when booking groups. Instant booking would take this even further.
Hospitality leaders have been trying to solve this forever. At Groups360, we’re proud to have crossed that technological threshold before anyone else. The key? Prioritizing both group organizer and supplier needs in one platform instead of taking a position that favors one side over the other. Our instant booking function on the GroupSync marketplace allows hotels to sell rooms and meeting space without the RFP process—24/7, 365 days a year. It’s the quickest group booking option available today, and a win-win for hoteliers and organizers.
Just as consumers buy on Amazon and book direct for leisure travel, we also must consider how our customers want to consume room nights and space for meetings and events. We have technology that simplifies booking group room blocks and space for less complex meetings, easing the organizer’s workload and freeing up hotel resources. That’s the difference in our approach, which has successfully created technology that helps both sides of the marketplace.
Hotels need better technology
The pandemic and subsequent economic fallout have forced many hoteliers to streamline their operations and become more efficient. As a result, hotels and meeting organizers are increasingly looking to automate manual tasks and improve efficiency. But even before the pandemic, the industry sought ways to better serve organizers and reduce the cost of sales.
Groups360’s online marketplace for groups, GroupSync, makes the process of booking groups more straightforward and transparent for both planners and hotels. In fact, the platform is so valued by our industry that in 2019, we raised $50 million from four of the world’s leading hotel brands – Accor, IHG, Hilton and Marriott – to continue building technology focused on bringing the marketplace together.
Consumers want more control and are eager to take advantage of methods to solve these age-old issues. The hospitality industry would never be accused of being early adopters, but we do need better tech to move forward successfully. As we continue to recover from the pandemic, we can predict that technological adoption will increase as we are forced to change behaviors to confront current challenges.
Technology that serves the meetings industry must instill confidence that the user can trust the transaction outcome. That’s where Groups360 has been spending our time—because we believe this is the industry’s future.
Will all meetings and events be transacted instantly? It’s unlikely. Meetings of any size come with inherent logistical complexities. But can we make the process more efficient? Can we move the sales process further down the line? Absolutely. And we will because that’s what group travel organizers and planners have needed and requested for years.
A way forward
Before co-founding Groups360, I had a long career as a senior executive with Gaylord Entertainment Company, purveyor of some of the US’s largest conference hotels. There, I experienced firsthand the need for innovative new practices that would focus on building transparency and convenience.
As we endeavor to recover, my advice to other hoteliers is to take a more holistic approach to your goals. As you consider the best way to restore your business, you might feel tempted to pick just one side of the equation, focusing only on reducing commissions or generating more leads.
Instead, consider how to enable your hotel salespeople to have better interactions with the people planning meetings or transacting without any manual intervention. Groups360 will equip you with all the data you need to make a good decision. When you’re ready to buy, you will have all the data you need to make a purchase. When you’re ready to sell, you have the necessary information about your customers to personalize your approach and make customers feel special and heard. We are here to help you become highly efficient, drive revenue and create a great environment. Not only to sell the commodities of rooms and space, but the value that hotels provide, and to help meeting planners perform their work more efficiently.
We’re thrilled to share with you that meeting and event planners can now instantly book group rooms at over 6,500 participating hotel locations worldwide, with approximately 1,020,800 available rooms from brands including Hilton, IHG, and Omni. With a broader selection of properties available, GroupSync Marketplace is becoming the premier location for coordinators and planners to search, shop and book their rooms and meeting space – all from a single online solution.
GroupSync Marketplace is Groups360’s solution for booking meetings and events by providing instant online booking for group rooms and space, a simplified RFP process providing instant access to nearly 200,000 hotels, and housing solutions. GroupSync is the only place where event planners can evaluate real-time inventory availability for guest rooms and event space prior to booking room blocks online or sending an RFP.
“We are reshaping the hospitality industry with GroupSync Marketplace in a way that makes booking groups simple, transparent and efficient for both hotels and event planners,” said Kemp Gallineau, CEO, Groups360. “Planners and hoteliers alike see the value that pricing, inventory availability, and instant booking brings to the booking process. Given our rapid adoption, we now offer group planners availability and instant booking opportunities for over a million rooms on GroupSync.”
Compared to legacy sourcing systems and methods, planners now have easy access to hotel information enabling them to send more relevant RFPs to criteria-matching venues. With GroupSync, users have a higher acceptance rate and overall, a better booking experience.
Over the next few months, we expect to have approximately 45,000 of the nearly 200,000 RFP-connected properties in GroupSync equipped to be equipped to offer instant online group booking.
On average, hotel sourcing for an event can take an organizer 75 days to locate a venue and sign a contract. That seems like a long time, and it is. Between searching through multiple online sources, shopping for the perfect location and venue, communicating back and forth over the details, getting stakeholder reviews and approvals, and contract negotiations…those that have experienced this understand that it’s typically not a quick or smooth process.
We all know that the traditional hotel searching, shopping and booking process for groups has been long overdue for a simpler alternative. Many of the request for proposal (RFP) and venue sourcing methods continue to be inefficient and time consuming, but for decades this is how it’s been done. It’s no secret that planners are actively looking for an alternative method to make the hotel group booking process smoother.
“There is not a specific resource that I know of where I could go say, I need A, B and C, hit enter, and then I get suggestions.”
– Group Travel Planner Pain Points Research Study 2020
The searching, shopping, booking process – redefined
As an event organizer, having a quick and efficient hotel sourcing process is key to a successful event. But more often than not, significant time is spent using multiple sourcing options such as search engines, hotel websites, or picking up the phone. This usually provides varying, often incomplete, information that needs to be collected, clarified and organized centrally.
Our founders and executive team members have first-hand experience with these same struggles, and knew there had to be a better, easier way to source group rooms, meeting space or both. With their personal experiences, collaboration with hoteliers and planners, and extensive research, we created GroupSync. We found that the biggest issue with legacy RFP methods is the lack of marketplace transparency from hoteliers and event information from planners.
With GroupSync, as simplicity and efficiency being our main goal, we made it possible for planners to get search results generated from their unique criteria, such as budget, destination, distance from an airport, and even room or meeting space availability for your desired room block at over 200K hotels worldwide. GroupSync can show inventory availability and rate even before you submit an RFP based upon your event specifics. This way, you no longer have to sift through other resources’ list of irrelevant paid placements before getting to the results for which you’re seeking. Additionally, you can even skip this step, streamlining your process, if you know the exact venue and destination you would like to book. Both methods provide you instant insight into a hotels marketplace, with visibility into room and meeting space availability, amenities, restaurant menus and more.
We also know how important it is for you to include key stakeholders in on the process. So, we created a collaboration tool within GroupSync that gives you the ability to include stakeholders into the selection process before sending an RFP. Get comments and feedback on locations, hotel selections, meeting needs, costs and dates at all stages of searching, shopping and booking. This all helps organize and streamline who you send your RFP to and makes the process more efficient.
A comprehensive, quicker RFP process
When it comes time to create and send your RFP, constructing your own unstandardized format could be one of the factors that result in a denied request or delayed response time. After extensive research and collaboration with hoteliers to find out what would make the RFP process simpler, we took our findings and constructed a consistent format that results in higher RFP acceptance rates over other legacy sourcing methods. Communicate your event space needs, F&B budget, all the way down to the types of rooms and how many. It’s a solution that drastically cuts down communication time with the venue and shortens your sourcing time. GroupSync enables planners to send more relevant RFPs, resulting in a better booking experience.
A customer success team that fosters communication and timely RFP responses
Typically, after sending an RFP, planners are left wondering if or when they are going to receive a reply. Hotels receive stacks of RFPs to review, and personnel can be stretched. To alleviate this issue, we have a customer success team that tracks your submissions and ensures communication is happening between planners and hoteliers. They can also provide training and guidance to GroupSync users at any stage in the process. Between the customer success team and an easier RFP process, planners who route an RFP through GroupSync have a higher chance of receiving favorable responses. Groups360 is here to help speed up the process, and no one likes long wait times, especially when you have an event to solidify and other tasks to get to.
Make the switch to a simpler, quicker group booking solution
From recent studies, planners have spoken up and are tired of the drawn-out, complicated sourcing methods and have been waiting for a simpler alternative. Legacy sourcing methods don’t always consider your criteria first, showing you numerous paid placements before reaching results that matter, and take months to solidify a hotel for your event, big or small. There are several pain points to solve for, which is what we set out to do.
GroupSync is answering the call from both planners and hoteliers, and is providing a much-needed solution to the hospitality, group-travel industry. Event organizers can now easily get search results tailored specifically to your needs, insight to hotels marketplace, and the ability to instantly book group rooms and meeting space all in a single transaction.
When it comes to customer trust and loyalty, data security is an important building block. Depending on the size of your business, there are different levels of information security that are required to prevent breaches of sensitive information such as banking information, social security numbers, names and addresses.
In 2020 alone, there were over 100 data breaches affecting over 155 million people in the United States (Statista). The top two industry benchmarks for data security in the U.S. are the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) certification, and System and Organization Controls (SOC). In addition to the U.S. frameworks, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the most restrictive framework worldwide, protecting organizations in the European Union.
If you are wondering how PCI DSS, SOC and GDPR are connected, let us explain.
PCI: What it does and why it’s important
PCI DSS is a set of operational and technical requirements established by the Payment Card Industry to help secure payment data within organizations that accept or process card payment transactions (PCI security standards). PCI DSS is a contractual agreement between organizations, their merchant bank(s) and the issuing card brands. The framework and accompanying guidance documents assist organizations in becoming and re-attesting for compliance if they accept credit or debit card payments for goods/services. To achieve and maintain PCI compliance, organizations must implement and continuously validate their adherence to the framework’s requirements. Validations must be conducted annually on the anniversary of the last passing PCI DSS compliance audit.
The goals of PCI DSS compliance are as follows: build and maintain a secure network, protect cardholder data, maintain a vulnerability management program, implement strong access control measures, regularly monitor and test in scope networks, and maintain an information security policy. As part of meeting these goals, an organization’s annual validation may include an inspection and validation of compliance by an independent Quality Security Assessor. The validation of operational and technical requirements outlined in the PCI DSS framework is known as a Report of Compliance. This helps to ensure that an organization’s people, processes, and technology are aligned to protect customers’ payment data against potential exposures or card data breaches.
Components of SOC 2 and how it’s different than PCI DSS
System and Organization Controls, SOC, is an audit framework based on the Trust Services Criteria that are used to measure the effectiveness of organizations’ overall security controls. While similar control requirements exist as part of PCI DSS, the focus of a SOC 2 audit is overall security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy of an organization’s systems and data. PCI DSS is solely focused on payment card data.
For an organization to become SOC 2 certified, an extensive security audit is conducted by an independent firm of certified SOC auditors that is recognized by the American Institute of CPAs. A SOC 2 audit focuses on organizational security such as a safe operating environment and protecting the interests of an organization.
There are two types of SOC 2 audits. The first is a review of existing security controls and design (SOC 2 Type 1). The second (SOC 2 Type 2) is an evaluation and validation of controls over an extended period, typically between 6 to 12 months. Different from a SOC 1 audit, which is surrounding financial processes and controls, a SOC 2 audit is not required under a compliance framework, making it optional.
“As an organization grows, both organically and inorganically, its security and compliance responsibilities also grow,” said Bill Hanning, chief security officer at Groups360. “We continuously audit ourselves to ensure that what we are doing is what is expected, what is required, that we do it ethically and that we can we provide proof if requested.”
General Data Protection Regulation and how it works for U.S.-based organizations
If you are a United States-based organization that wants to conduct business in the European Union, you are required to adhere to GDPR. If you are unfamiliar with what GDPR is and why you must follow regulations established for countries in the EU, let’s get you up to speed.
GDPR stands for the General Data Protection Regulation and is an international law formally enacted by member states of the European Union. The framework contains some of the most restrictive compliance and security requirements to date. GDPR was designed to protect the data of organizations in the European Economic Area and its private citizens, but compliance with the law is not limited to those organizations or individuals.
As an American-based company, adherence to these regulations is required to work with EU-based organizations. GDPR enforces the required amount of protection that an organization must apply to safeguard against potential data breaches or unauthorized disclosures through security and privacy components. Some of the 10 key principles of GDPR that all organizations must comply with are data minimalization, accuracy and confidentiality. Failure to ensure compliance with any of the 10 principles can result in penalties or fines up to 20 million euros or 4 percent of the total global turnover of the preceding fiscal year, whichever is higher (GDPR-info).
What does this mean for you as a business?
Implementing and following established security and compliance frameworks fosters trust and loyalty with consumers, such as event planners and attendees. When a company or hotel presents strong boundaries and resistance to potential cyber threats, it shows commitment to its clients. As a hotelier, you don’t want to break the trust of your event or meeting planners. Instead, you want to give them more reasons to come back in the future!
Compliance with data security frameworks can reduce exposure risks for a hotel and guests, decrease potential penalties or fines for non-compliance and ensure the reputation of the organization is maintained. In today’s world, bank cards are more frequently used as a form of payment over cash – noncompliance could be detrimental to your hotel’s success.
The benefits of being PCI, SOC, and GDPR compliant
When an organization is compliant with PCI, SOC and GDPR, it stands apart from its competitors. To be successful and competitive as a business, data security is a must. Guests will become aware of the value placed on the protection of their personal information, which builds trust between a company, such as a hotel, and a consumer, like event planners. Without data security, you risk losing clients’ trust and the credibility of your organization – resulting in a loss of business.
Groups360 goes above and beyond to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the data it receives and maintains from its clients.
As Groups360 continues to engage with clients across the globe, benchmarking ourselves against the most stringent of security and compliance requirements shows our commitment to our client’s security. This sets us apart from other platforms, opening us up to greater relationships and a larger search base for clients. Groups360 is committed to doing all it can to ensure that our customers’ information, both during and after transactions are completed, remains safe and secure, no matter where they are in the world.
Make sure you consult a professional who is licensed or knowledgeable in PCI DSS, SOC or GDPR. Users should be aware that the information presented does not constitute legal advice and the creator will not be held accountable for any legal actions the reader may take.
Group business represents a significant portion of many hotels’ revenue, but smaller hotels and motels often lack the meeting space to go along with a room block. However, there still are numerous ways that hotel owners can attract group business and cash in on this lucrative sector of the industry.
Small Meetings on the Rise
As pandemic recovery picks up speed, smaller meetings are the first to return. According to a recent Global DMC Partners survey, 75% of planners expect to hold face-to-face meetings in 2021, but 67% of these meetings will host fewer than 250 attendees.
By capitalizing on the return of these smaller groups and meetings, small and independent hotels can increase occupancy, create consistent and predictable revenue, and speed their post-pandemic recovery.
5 ways to increase group business
Planners often source smaller hotels thanks to their lower rates, proximity to venues, complimentary breakfasts, happy hours, and free parking, which all add up to significant savings on their overall spend. Here are five ways to attract more of this group business to your property.
1. Consider groups that don’t need meeting space.
Groups that need room blocks but not meeting space include sports teams, wedding parties, religious organizations, fraternities or sororities, military, family reunions, parents and guests for graduations, and students and their families moving in and out of colleges and universities.If you have an on-site bar, restaurant, or café, these groups will drive ancillary revenue in addition to the room block.
2. Make the most of the space you have.
Hotels with a cafeteria or lounge area could transform the open space into an informal reception area. Given the ongoing pandemic, many planners have opted to set up events on lawns and other outdoor spaces.
3. Cultivate local business relationships.
Hotel managers can form ties to local event venues, meeting spaces, and convention centers for group referrals, as well as hotels that could refer any overflow. Join and advertise with a local CVB to boost your visibility to incoming groups. Hotel managers also can join the city council, mayor’s advisor board, and other professional groups that widen your referral network. Partner with transportation companies. Hotels can add value to their group packages by offering shuttle service to and from the event venue or convention center, as well as key points in the surrounding city.
4. Reach out to part-time planners.
Many executive assistants, office managers, and human resources personnel plan multiple smaller events and meetings each year, but planning is only one of their many tasks. The best way to reach them is through direct email campaigns and advertising in publications aimed at groups such as the American Society of Administrative Professionals, the Association of Executive and Administrative Professionals, and the Society for Human Resource Management.
5. Automate manual tasks.
Given the current lack of staff at hotels of all sizes, managers who implement technology can book more business, while freeing up time and energy. Consider platforms that streamline digital RFPs from prequalified planners and offer instant online booking for groups. Hotel staff can also implement room-block management software that allows group guests to book and manage their own reservations online. Any initial learning curve on these kinds of tools will reap a significant return in saved time, reduced labor costs, and increased income.
Implement Financial Protections
When a group represents a significant portion of the overall hotel room count, managers should ensure they have adequate contractual protections to shield them from the inherent financial risk.
Attrition clauses allow for a certain percentage of rooms in the room block to go unsold without financial penalty. This incentivizes the planner to fill the block and protects the hotel from lost revenue from unsold rooms withheld from inventory.
Cutoff dates for room blocks are usually 21 to 30 days before the group actualizes. Any rooms not sold by that date are returned to inventory and sold to transient travelers or other groups.
Cancellation policies ensure that any group that doesn’t actualize at all will lose their nonrefundable deposit.
If your hotel is integrated with an online group booking system, the booking process should include a standard terms-and-conditions clause that outline any consequences for cancellation.
At the same time, hotel managers should be as flexible as possible with planners who might need to make last-minute changes given the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic.
Be Mindful of COVID-19 Protocols
Even as the pandemic begins to recede, travelers still expect a much higher level of cleanliness. Meeting planners and group organizers have additional needs and concerns that go along with bringing people together in a public environment. If you haven’t done so already, implement stringent cleaning protocols and consider property improvement plans (PIP).
Current hotel practices include:
A clearly communicated cleaning regimen in rooms and public spaces
Masks on hotel staff to protect guests
Automated processes such as check-in and checkout when possible
Prepackaged food and beverage offerings
Clean filters in packaged terminal air conditioners (PTAC)
PIPs and renovations to remove room carpeting and improve ventilation by installing more robust HVAC systems, more modern PTACs, and commercial-grade air purifiers
The hospitality industry will continue to recover, so now is the best time to position your hotel and motel properties to make the most of group revenue as meetings and events get back to business.
After an agonizing year for event professionals, the industry is rapidly on the mend, and many in-person meetings and gatherings are in full swing.
According to a recent Northstar PULSE Survey, 90 percent of respondents are focused on live events, and 82 percent plan to hold in-person meetings in 2021. A third will include a virtual component to accommodate guests who may be reluctant or unable to travel.
As we do so, the attendee experience is more important than ever. The attendee experience is ultimately about how guests feel from start to finish — the ease of making reservations, travel safety, hotel reception, the quality of event content and the pleasure of social activities.
In our fourth and final installment of Full-time Insights for the Part-time Planner, we’ll discuss ways hotels and planners can help create a seamless and memorable event for guests and attendees.
1. Communicate early and often.
The attendee journey begins with communication ahead of the event, culminates with an on-property experience, and completes with post-event follow-up.
Each stage of the process requires ample communication between all the different parties — hotel and planner, and planner and attendees — so that everyone knows what is expected and needed and how that will be fulfilled.
It goes without saying that planners need to communicate logistics such as dates, agenda, destination and venues.
But ahead of the event, planners should also emphasize the importance of the gathering while building excitement for what attendees can expect. Are there fun activities ahead, such as cocktail receptions, awards dinners or outdoor adventures?
Anticipation of a rewarding trip or enjoyable gathering can be almost as fun as the event itself.
2. Reassure guests with health and safety protocols.
Since the potential impact of the delta variant remains unknown, some attendees may be hesitant to travel or attend large gatherings.
During warmer weather or in year-round warm climates, outdoor events are ideal, such as receptions in hotel courtyards or dinners on the beach. The hottest venues in our current era (no pun intended) are open-air spaces.
To fulfill hotel contracts and avoid attrition, planners need to make booking within the room block as easy as possible.
Online housing tools allow you to eliminate rooming lists so that guests can make and manage their own reservations within your room block. It’s especially important to share these resources early so that guests can book their hotel when they book their flights.
Housing tools are also essential from the hotel’s perspective, as it streamlines the group reservations process, allows for real-time monitoring of pickup, and saves staff considerable time better spent on taking care of your guests.
4. Mitigate possible friction.
Many of the current meetings on the rise are smaller meetings and regional gatherings within driving distance of attendees.
As confidence rises, incentive trips for executives or top sales performers, which simply cannot be replicated online, have also been among the first to return.
Incentive trips to foreign destinations come with their own set of possible complications. Potential points of friction include:
Navigating customs requirements
Adhering to union rules
Managing audio-visual needs and power costs
Protecting guests in possibly unsafe areas near the venue
The host hotel can offer guidance and coordination on many of these aspects. Once a planner has done their homework, both they and their attendees can rest assured that the details are covered and they will have a great time at the event.
5. Work closely with the hotel.
As the host to meetings and events, hotels are the primary hub for the attendee experience, including the environment, infrastructure and consumables (F&B). The hotel needs to make sure everyone is happy — planners and attendees — to maintain a positive brand reputation.
In terms of the property as product, is it secure? Is it close to outside venues, such as convention centers for citywide events? Is the environment welcoming? Does the hotel have adequate staff to attend to the needs of groups?
Hotels can capture additional revenue and enhance the guest experience through attendee engagement tools. Housing tools help planners manage room blocks, while also offering guests the opportunity to upgrade room types, book spa packages or make dinner reservations at on-site restaurants.
6. Maintain attendee engagement.
After a successful meeting or event, keep the momentum going by staying in touch with guests and attendees.
Ways to engage with employees, guests and attendees include:
Send follow-up emails with pictures of the event and people in attendance.
Post pictures and stories on social media with your event hashtag.
Ask attendees to fill out a post-event survey to evaluate their satisfaction.
Host smaller networking events in key markets where attendees live.
Offer exclusive discounts on products and services to event participants.
The goals for a meeting or event are numerous: Brand loyalty and increased sales. Better employee engagement. Repeat visits from guests. Positive ROI. A successful attendee experience reaps long-term dividends for meeting stakeholders, hotels and planners alike.
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