Mr. Fliess

Sales & Marketing

Winning Group Business in the Age of Millennial Event Planners

By Kevin Fliess, Vice President Supplier Network Product Marketing, Cvent

Hotels have spent the last decade trying to come to terms with a changing technology landscape that upended not only their sales and marketing strategies, but their operational processes, too. Now they face an even greater shift - one that will change their sales and marketing culture for years to come - the rise of the Millennial generation, and with that, the emergence of Millennial meeting and event planners.

In parallel with a rapid increase in Millennial leisure travelers, this new generation of young adults increasingly comprises the largest age group attending meetings and events, which are more often than not planned by a Millennial. The good news for hotels: many of the same marketing approaches and innovations for the leisure set carry over to group business, especially for this generation that blurs the lines between work and play more than any in the past.

Embracing technology, while difficult, is still a linear solution. You decide on the need, evaluate the standard options, and pick the best fit for your hotel. Fast Wi-Fi and lots of outlets are no-brainers. However, adapting to a generational shift involving the complexities of people is far more difficult.

This is the first generational shift we've witnessed in 25 years. While there were preferential differences between Baby Boomer and Generation X, they didn't fundamentally change the way hotels functioned to attract them. Millennials are different. Their technology-first inclinations, willingness to share everything online, and always connected lives are beginning to shift hoteliers' away from their comfort zone.

And this is only the beginning. Pew Research Center recently announced that "Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation's largest living generation."

What Defines Millennials?

Millennials are roughly defined by people born between 1981 and 1997. Forbes reported on the top five generational characteristics about them as customers:

  • Millennials expect technology to work
  • Millennials are social, and socialize while consuming products and services
  • They collaborate and cooperate with each other and brands
  • They are looking for adventure
  • They are passionate about values

But for sales and marketing teams focused on group business the biggest question isn't as much who Millennials are, but rather who Millennial planners are. Millennial planners' preferences are fundamentally different from their larger generational cohort due to the demands of their careers. A report from Cvent finally put this question to rest.

Millennial Planners in the Workforce

We regularly hear from hotels that there isn't a clear understanding of how impactful the Millennial planner is, so we created a study to understand if Millennial planners are actually in positions of authority at their companies. In polling 344 Millennial planners we found that 52% plan more than six events a year and that 78% of their events were for 21-500 attendees. Finally, of 842 planners surveyed from all generations, Millennials made up 41% of the audience, merely 2% lower than Generation X planners. Somewhat surprisingly, 71% worked within corporations, while 16% worked for associations and only 12% were employed by third party planning outfits.

These data points prove that not only are Millennial planners quickly emerging as the dominant group in the planning industry, but one that wields a significant level of authority today. They are no longer interns or low-level employees.

Millennial Planner Flexibility

A notable characteristic of Millennial planners is their sourcing flexibility. Sixty percent of polled planners said they are always open to exploring a number of venues while 39% said they have preferred venues from the start, but are willing to look at alternatives. Only 1% said they always know which venue they are picking at the beginning of the process.

Unsurprisingly, the top reason planners choose to switch venues is based on cost (28%). Customer service (22%) and size and adequacy of space (20%) came in second and third. Budget-conscious Millennial planners are to be expected due to the recession they lived through and due to the fact that while they have planning authority, they are young enough to still be mindful of the budget they're given.

Surprisingly, however, is the fact that 49% of Millennial planners said that it would only take a discount of 10% to convince them to go with their second-choice venue.

The key takeaway for the sales team: Hoteliers need to ensure that they are putting a very competitive price forward to begin with, and have to be willing to consider offering a discount if they discover they are not first-choice.

The Millennial Sourcing Journey

Regardless of their profession, Millennials are defined by their technology-first approach to life. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that they go directly to the internet to start their sourcing journey. Thirty-eight percent choose to go to an online sourcing tool while Thirty-one percent start with a search engine. For Millennial planners, not unlike their leisure travel peers, direct to venue sourcing came in relatively low at only Fourteen percent.

Millennial planners tend to be extremely certain (42%) or very certain (31%) of the destination at which they intend to host their event. For hotels and Destination Marketing Associations alike, it is important to keep in mind that Millennial planners are making the destination decision at the event's inception. That is the point in time to win, and competing later in the process is less likely to yield a return on the time invested.

Online venue directories (56%) and a hotel's corporate website (55%) are the two channels of influence that make the most substantial impact during the early phase of sourcing. Peer recommendations were also identified as highly influential when Millennial planners are making their final decision on a venue.

The biggest pain point of Millennial planners, according to the research, is negotiating (25%), which makes sense as Millennials are the first generation to grow up in a world where they shopped online for everything from cars to houses without negotiating themselves. Not far behind negotiating as a pain point is researching venues (22%) as even online it can be difficult to find all of the specifications to make comparisons and pricing is rarely available.

When it comes to sourcing, the main takeaways are that hotels need to ensure that their web presence is as polished as possible, and that they focus their efforts on every touch point they have available. That includes making sure their profiles on online sourcing tools are fully built out -- as for most planners, it's the first place they will interact with that hotel. As part of that effort hotels need to make sure that they are asking planners if they would provide a quote about their experience at the hotel that hoteliers can share on their web profiles. That will give Millennial planners the validation needed for the peer recommendation phase of their sourcing journey when making a decision.

Planners and Proposals

What do decision-makers at venues need to keep in mind when sending proposals to Millennial planners?

The research found that Millennial planners complained the most about a hotel's lack of thoroughness (41%) and speed (34%). Both make sense as Millennials are used to customized digital experiences and because they always have an internet-enabled device on them, they expect communication between them and hoteliers to be almost instantaneous.

What are the primary takeaways for hoteliers? Customize every proposal you send. Be sure to pay attention to everything being asked about and to at least recognize those questions the first time they are asked. To a Millennial planner, an incomplete proposal is a sign of not caring, or an indication of a negotiating challenge, which will likely drive them away.

Millennial planners are going to force hotels to invest more time and energy on maintaining relationships as a poor experience for one planner at a venue is equivalent to a poor experience at that venue for all of their connections at the critical decision making point - and because they're social by nature, those connections will be plentiful.

A digital-first mindset and willingness to turn to aggregator sourcing platforms before talking directly to a hotel means that hotels that choose to diversify their web presence will have a better shot of being an option in the earlier planning stage. While still incredibly important, a hotel's own corporate website is no longer the go-to destination for planners looking for more information. As such, hoteliers must ensure that every profile they have across any channel is optimized as much as their own website.

Finally, open, frequent communication is going to be critical moving forward. Group sales must embrace a customer services mindset more than a lead generation focus. They must always be available and always willing to help, being more engaged throughout the process than in the past.

Most hotels are already making these shifts in how they approach leisure travelers. Carrying over many of these same principles, and training group business sales and marketing teams on these shifting realities, can help hotels win more business from the rapidly emerging Millennial meeting and event planner.

Kevin Fliess has spent the past two decades in leadership positions across B2B and B2C technology companies. He’s led marketing, product management, and general management functions across a spectrum of ventures – from early stage start-ups, to growth companies, as well as established world-class brands. Mr. Fliess is currently VP of marketing at Cvent, where he leads product marketing, demand generation, and customer marketing for the Hospitality Cloud division. This includes Cvent’s Group Marketing Solutions which span three online marketplaces that support a variety of meeting planners – the Cvent Supplier Network, EliteMeetings.com, and SpeedRFP.com – that expose hoteliers to hundreds of thousands of planners. Mr. Fliess can be contacted at 866-318-4358 or kfliess@cvent.com Extended Bio...

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