Mr. Punyapu

Group Meetings

How to Capture More Group Business Online

By Anil Punyapu, Vice President, Cvent

Over the past few decades, meeting and event planners' preferred methods of communication with venues have significantly evolved. From primarily placing phone calls in the 1980s to sending faxes in the 1990s and emails in the early 2000s, planners are pros at keeping up with the changing times. As a result, hoteliers have become master adapters when it comes to connecting with planners.

However, the past few years in particular have brought, arguably, the most significant shift of them all: the move to online channels. Planners are now using these outlets to conduct preliminary research, compare venues and send electronic Requests for Proposals (eRFPs), fundamentally changing the way the meetings industry conducts business. To keep their venues top-of-mind among planners looking to book a venue, hoteliers must-yet again-adapt.

Traditionally, hotels would market to planners through offline channels, such as print media, direct mail and industry events. While these still play an important role in the overall marketing mix, it's important to integrate online channels into the group business marketing equation. Online channels can be more cost-effective when it comes to bringing in qualified leads, and make it much easier to find and reach target audiences to influence their buying decisions. That said, effectively leveraging these tools requires an ongoing investment of time and resources. Before jumping in, hoteliers should be sure they take into consideration the commitment required to make the most of their online efforts.

With the help of the following best practices, hoteliers looking to take their marketing to the next level will have the insight they need to capture more group business through online channels.

Get in Front of the Right Audience with Search Engine Marketing

Research shows that the majority of people begin their hotel searches online, including meeting and event planners. As the adoption of online channels continues to increase rapidly, it's important to get in front of meeting planners during the first step of their venue search. Search engine marketing allows hoteliers to do just that.

By optimizing their venue's placement in natural, unpaid search results-also known as search engine optimization (SEO)-hoteliers can dramatically boost their property's visibility in front of planners seeking group space. Generally speaking, the higher the hotel's website appears in search results, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine's users.

Search engine marketing is both an art and a science, since hoteliers need to attract not just any customers, but the right customers-highly qualified meeting planners looking to book event space and room nights. At the very basic level, though, there are two ways that hoteliers can improve their property's placement in search engines. The first is by publishing unique content on their website that incorporates relevant keywords that meeting and event planners typically use to search for hotels. Search engines view unique content that is highly relevant to the search query as a good place to point people, and thus, include those sites higher in the results. The second way that hoteliers can increase their SEO is by generating inbound links to their website. Search engines recognize a website with more inbound links as being trustworthy and relevant-especially if other credible sites have linked back to it. More inbound links for a hotel mean that hotel's website will appear higher in natural search results. Hoteliers can build more inbound links by requesting that clients, third party planners or marketing organizations link to their hotel's website when they use the hotel's name or logo online.

Another search engine marketing tactic that compliments SEO is pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Here, the hotel's marketing team can bid on the keywords that their audience is using to search for meeting and event venues, so their website will show up as a "sponsored link" when those terms are searched for by planners. The hotel only pays the hosting service each time their link is clicked on. Below are a few tips for hoteliers looking to get the most bang for their buck during the implementation of a PPC program:

  • Research and bid on keywords that do not receive a high number of competing bids. With less competition, they'll walk away with lower costs per click. But, they should remember that the keywords must still be relevant to their target audience;
  • Advertise on the sites that planners are frequenting. Hoteliers should know and advertise on sites their target audiences often visit, or else they'll be paying a lot of money for irrelevant leads;
  • Develop compelling advertisement copy that links to a strong landing page;
  • Maintain synergy between their PPC keywords, advertisement copy and landing page text; and
  • Have strong call-to-actions on their website. Now that they've driven planners to their website, they need to make sure their visitors know what their next steps are.

Increase Visibility among Meeting Buyers with Online Display Advertising

Online display advertising, also commonly referred to as banner advertising, is a great way to establish a solid industry presence. It entails embedding an advertisement-often constructed from an image, sound or video-into a webpage, and is known for delivering high frequency brand exposure and engagement.

When targeting planners, hoteliers should be sure to book some real estate on the websites that their audience is frequenting. By advertising on relevant sites, such as eRFP and venue databases, they're getting in front of planners at the exact moment that they're researching and booking event venues for group business. This ensures that the hoteliers are reaching highly qualified planners that are in "buying mode," or in other words, in the process of sourcing venues for their next event. Online display advertising is generally much more targeted and effective than traditional methods, such as direct mail, because hoteliers can be sure that they are reaching event planner prospects at the right time.

Redefine Networking with Social Media

Event planners' high social media adoption rate, coupled with the relationship-driven nature of the business, makes social media a natural fit for venues looking to engage with event planners. Not only does social media give hoteliers the opportunity to network with planners when there are lulls between industry events, but social media channels are some of the most cost-effective mediums, since they are usually free. Below are a few ways that hoteliers can capitalize on social networks to garner more group business:

  • Build out profiles on popular social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube;
  • Engage in two-way conversation. Answer planners' questions on LinkedIn forums, retweet posts on Twitter that may spark planners' interest, and comment on meeting industry Facebook pages;
  • Publish compelling content. Intrigue meeting and event planners with thought-provoking content that discusses industry happenings and news about the venue's destination. Also, post multi-media content such as photos and video tours of the hotel on social media to make it easy for planners to experience the meeting space online;
  • Encourage interaction. Ask planners to "check-in" to the event venue on Foursquare or Facebook Places. It's a simple gesture that is likely to create a positive brand image with the planner's connections;
  • Give the sense of exclusivity. Share special group promotions, deals and discounts with event planners that follow or "Like" the hotel on social media. This makes the hotel's social media profiles more valuable to planners and will help to increase interest in the profiles on networks such as Facebook and Twitter; and
  • Reward public praise. Hoteliers can show event planners and attendees that they appreciate their loyalty by thanking them for positive comments, such as complimentary tweets about the venue on Twitter. Going beyond a simple thank you to comp an upgrade-such as free in-room Wi-Fi or mini-bar charges-is also a nice gesture to ensure attendees have a positive review of the hotel to report back to the planner, which will impact repeat business in subsequent years.

Better Leverage Electronic Request for Proposal (eRFP) Tools for Easier Lead Generation

As planners continue to move their sourcing online, it's increasingly important that hoteliers focus a portion of their group marketing efforts on online aggregators, such as eRFP and venue databases. These tools have quickly become the go-to for planners, as they provide a one-stop resource to search detailed and accurate venue profiles. That, coupled with their ability to filter search results by meeting-specific criteria and do side-by-side comparisons of venues, allows planners to find the site that is best-suited for their event. These tools provide hotels a wealth of highly qualified meeting and event leads from planners that are actively comparing venue bids and are ready to book business. If hoteliers want to capture this business, they'll need to showcase their property in the best light possible throughout the planner's search and bid-comparison process.

First, they should start off by increasing their visibility within these networks. Think SEO, but for eRFP tools. Oftentimes, the eRFP platform host will offer enhanced placement in the natural search results and premium display advertising options for a fee-both of which will increase the hotel's profile views and chance of being added to the planner's shortlist of venue options. Another way to boost visibility is through optimizing the hotel's profile with robust content, such as virtual tours, additional images, promotions and additional meetings-specific venue details. The more complete the profile is, the more opportunity the venue has to communicate with planners about its offerings and stand out from the competition.

Once the hoteliers have garnered the planner's interest in hosting an event at their venue, they'll have to master the art of responding to the eRFPs. One easy way to make a good impression is to respond to the planner's request in a timely manner. By responding on or before the due date, it shows the planner that the hotel is serious about their business and it gives them faith that the contract will be executed in a professional manner should they choose that venue.

Another best practice is to take the extra few minutes to read the entire eRFP. Oftentimes, planners will include individual questions in their request to make sure the hotel can accommodate their client or boss's requirements. If the hotelier were on the phone with the planner, they wouldn't ignore these questions; so, why would they leave them unanswered in the electronic response? Address every point in a clear and concise manner. This will show the planner that the hotel is ready and willing to attend to their specific needs and make their program work at the property.

Additionally, be thorough without being exhaustive. Include information that is pertinent to the planner. For example, there's no need to talk about all of the hotel amenities if the planner is only interested in the availability of a fitness center. Including irrelevant information just bogs down the response and inundates the planner with reading. That said, it's essential to give the planner the full picture of what the venue uniquely offers as it relates to what they're looking for.

Finally, perhaps the most important part of creating a winning proposal is to be flexible and offer planners multiple options to keep the hotel within their consideration set. For example, if the hotel can't offer the exact dates requested for the event, propose alternative dates instead. If the hotel does not have a fitness center-a specified interest to the planner-don't turn down the business; instead, suggest a nearby gym that guests could attend or an outdoor fitness activity. An eRFP is the starting point for further negotiation; so don't eliminate potential business opportunities by turning down business unnecessarily.

Stay Proactive with Email Marketing

While reactive marketing tactics such as search engine marketing, online display advertising, social media and enhanced listings on eRFP databases allow planners to more easily discover hotels online, it's also important to reinforce the hotel's branding and supplement online marketing with a proactive, outbound component-namely, email marketing. When done properly, email marketing has a high return on investment, enhances customer relationships and encourages repeat business. To launch a successful campaign, hoteliers must first create targeted email lists, which can be drilled down based on the hotel's target audiences for meeting and events, such as wedding planners, social events, corporate clients, etc. Other ways to segment email campaigns include by geography or by job function. Once they've identified these segments, they can then target their message to each list. This will increase the likelihood that the email will be read because the content has been modified to be relevant to the specific audience.

Hoteliers can also strategically plan their marketing to encourage buying when they need it the most-such as during off-seasons. To do this, they should develop outbound campaigns leading up to slow seasons that will help them to bring in business. Proactive group outreach, such as sending targeted promotions and seasonal deals, should be done a few months in advance of slow seasons. The advance notice will give planners enough time to source their event, plan travel, etc. so that the business will actualize and bring in revenue when it is needed the most.

Through the development, implementation and continued adaptation of integrated marketing campaigns, hoteliers can better leverage online channels to reach, engage and connect with meeting and event planners during the various stages of the buying process to, ultimately, secure their group business.

With nearly a decade of experience in the meetings industry, Anil Punyapu drives strategy for and leads sales of enterprise meetings solutions at Cvent, the world’s largest meetings management technology company. With more than 800 employees worldwide and over 90,000 users in 40 countries, Cvent offers web-based software for meeting site selection, online registration, meetings management and marketing, and web surveys. The company’s online site selection and Request for Proposal (RFP) tool, the Cvent Supplier Network, is expected to carry more than $4 billion in group business to hotels and special event venues in 2011. Mr. Punyapu can be contacted at 517-830-2466 or Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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