Ms. Barnes

Group Meetings

How Today's Hotels Are Satisfying Corporate "Experience Seekers"

By Karyl Leigh Barnes, Executive Vice President & Partner, Development Counsellors International

Meetings are out. Experiences are in.

That's the message that emerges from research Development Counsellors International (DCI) conducted earlier this year, in partnership with the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), to determine what will be required in the meeting rooms of the future. In a detailed survey of more than 150 meeting planners from five continents -including those specializing in corporate, association, and government meetings - 75 percent of respondents said their job is increasingly about "experience creation."

Before mobile phones and Wi-Fi, meeting participants had no choice but to sit down and engage with what was being presented. Today meeting planners wage a nonstop battle for attention against all the content, entertainment and social media on the internet. To make it even more challenging, smart phone technology makes distractions easily accessible - in the palm of your hand. Today's meeting planners must deliver an "experience" to conference delegates - and they are turning to hotels to help them achieve this goal.

These experiences run the gamut from inspirational meeting environments, to creative team building activities, to breaks that go beyond coffee and cookies to merge refreshment with networking. If participants are not posting to Instagram at a conference in your hotel, then you are failing to deliver the kind of experience they have come to expect. And you are also missing an invaluable publicity opportunity in the process.

As in so many other aspects of travel and tourism, it's millennials who are driving the changes in the meetings industry. Born between the early 1980s and around 2000, millennials (also known as Generation Y) value meetings as a source of networking and career opportunities. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research found that 61 percent of millennials believe meetings are more important today than they were two years ago. It's worth noting that within 10 years this group will make up 70 percent of the workforce.

To attract this demographic, meeting venues such as hotels will need to provide more than cutting-edge technology, which for millenials is a given.

Of the many planners surveyed and other industry experts report that the traditional lecture model is gone, even in education-focused meetings and conferences. Jeu Bressers, of Kapellerput Conference Venue, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, offered this observation: "Meetings in the future will become even more about the creation of experiences. Delegates will remember that meeting, and it will have a bigger effect on them."

Terry Bickham, director of Federal, Global, and Industry Development for Deloitte Services LP, echoed that theme: "There is a shift away from presentation style. Our focus is less around the plenary and more around the breakouts - a more immersive experiential program versus just a smaller venue for a smaller presentation. Discovery of content is more important than dissemination of content - pull versus push."

Taking advantage of innovative or inspirational outdoor spaces is one way to create an experience for meeting delegates, especially when the venue can combine a distinctive setting with team-building activities that make the most of the surroundings.

A former "Rat Pack" haunt, the edgy retro Riviera Palm Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, California, reopened in 2008 following a $70 million makeover that retained its original spoke-wheel footprint. That's particularly appealing for planners, with the main pool's fire pits, cabanas, Bikini Bar, and lush landscaping creating a communal hub accented by intimate vignette areas.

"Groups can hold general sessions in outdoor gardens and courtyards or around the pool, and then use our AV-equipped cabanas for breakouts," says John Hansen, senior sales manager. Hansen recommends such novel approaches as team building via synchronized swimming, mixology breaks, air mattress networking, and swinging Sinatra-themed soirees with era libations and dancing to a 10-piece orchestra. These are just the types of engaging moments that will generate Snapchat-worthy content.

The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa in Huntington Beach, California - known as "Surf City USA" - has partnered with Toes on the Nose to bring meeting attendees the ultimate Southern California experience. Located on site, Toes on the Nose facilitates team-building activities from surfing lessons to yoga on the beach. While surfing selfies are perhaps only for the seasoned pros, many will strike a pose to showcase their yoga on the beach experience - especially if they are participating with their industry friends.

An area's unique history and culture also provide fertile ground for creating experiences. At the five-star Gleneagles Hotel in Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland, meeting delegates can participate in the ancient sport of kings through the internationally renowned British School of Falconry at Gleneagles. Group activities range from falconry d¬emonstrations featuring eagles, hawks, and falcons, to half- and full-day hunts, and quirky team challenges. Participants can also work with "gun dogs," beginning with a lively demonstration of the dogs in action, followed by hands-on experience with basic obedience instructions and full retrieves.

Who you gonna call? At the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, activities for meeting delegates include ghost hunting in a Scottish castle. "The best experiences combine a distinctive setting, a window into local culture, and a touch of the unexpected," says Richard Knight of Visit Scotland. "Haunted castles are an iconic element of Scottish folklore."

"With more than 800 castles, many of which have overnight accommodation and can be used by meeting groups, Scotland is ideally positioned to bring the "ghosting hunting" experience to "life," he concluded. Now that's something to post on Facebook!

With culinary programming taking over television, there's an increasing expectation for quality and innovative food and beverage offerings. Yet survey respondents and others who participated in the research stressed the importance of refreshment breaks and meals because of the ways they influence delegates to network and build relationships.

"I think that the 'break' experience of coffee and snacks is tired and overutilized," noted Valerie Hausman, associate dean of Global Executive Education at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "An interactive 'break' that merges refreshments with teambuilding will be a much more effective way to revive your attendees' senses and reconnect their engagement. I also think mealtimes can benefit similarly. Not every meal, every time, but certainly as a new option on the landscape" of food and beverage service.

The Four Seasons Chiang Mai in Thailand offers an alternative to the familiar breakfast buffet. "Breakfast in the rice field" gets meeting delegates outside the hotel and into a photo-worthy setting that also teaches them about the local culture. From there they can participate in a team-building "rice planting race." Wearing the "mor hom," the traditional Thai farmer's outfit and boots, delegates learn how to plant rice, then form teams to see who can plant the most rice shoots the fastest. "It's a crazy, muddy adventure," says Daniella Middleton, North America Account Director for the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau.

Another Four Seasons Chiang Mai experience that is popular with incentive groups is a cooking school. Participants learn Thai cuisine from the resort's world-class chefs in an activity that includes shopping in local markets, learning about equipment, and preparing authentic Thai dishes. As a bonus, this team-building process turns into a sit-down meal, where the participants enjoy the fruits of their labors - and, hopefully, share their reactions to the experience.

Experiences that offer opportunities for delegates to interact with people beyond their colleagues can be beneficial, said Deloitte's Bickham. "We used to organize break times at venues that provided areas exclusive to our group, and today it is the complete opposite. We recognize that there is a lot to be gained from the connections people make outside of the meeting room, both inside and outside of their immediate group."

One type of "experience" that is still in the future - but perhaps the not-too-distant future - is virtual reality. Only a small number of survey respondents said they expected virtual reality to play an increasing part in their meetings delivery in the next two to five years, but that may be because few people have experienced virtual reality first-hand. Once you have seen it, you can't help but believe that it will inevitably become part of our everyday lives, just as iPhones are today.

As Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball Associates noted, "This [result] is not surprising given this is only just emerging as an affordable addition to meetings. However, it is worth looking at again 12 months down the line, to see if this starts to become more commonplace." As the technology improves, the content will become more innovative and more engaging.

If venues are not responding to the demand for experiences, they run the risk of being left behind. Hotels need to create inspirational meeting spaces, consider how food and beverage service can foster relationship building and networking, and watch for opportunities to develop new experiences - such as virtual reality - as they become more commonplace and affordable.

Among the corporate adventures at Trump Turnberry Resort on the west coast of Scotland is a Highland Games experience, which promises that, against the backdrop of a stone castle or country house, "Kilts will swirl, pipes will skirl and haggis will be hurled." And really, who wouldn't Instagram that?

Karyl Leigh Barnes is the managing partner of the Tourism Practice at Development Counsellors International (DCI), leading destination marketing campaigns from offices in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, Canada. Founded in 1960, DCI has worked with more than 450 countries, regions, states and cities to drive investment and tourism leads. Since joining DCI in 1998 from a New York State destination marketing organization, Ms. Barnes has led destination strategy and campaign implementation for destinations on every continent except Antarctica. DCI’s Tourism Practice has been recognized recently for its campaign to introduce Namibia to North American travelers, which garnered a Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) Platinum Award in 2014, and its work to promote surf culture in Huntington Beach, California, through its “Guinness World Record Surf Board Activation” which was named a HSMAI Platinum Award winner and “Best In Show” in 2015. Ms. Barnes can be contacted at 212-444-7123 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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