Mr. Vandevender

Mobile Technology

Emerging Meeting Data Technology That Will Help Hotels be More Strategic

By Jim Vandevender, Chief Marketing Officer, Knowland

Meeting data and technology have evolved considerably since the days of the bulky,expensive mail ordered meeting planner guides and hotel catalogues. The ways in which hotels find and book groups is far different than the antiquated methods of not so long ago. As better technology surrounding meetings and events becomes available, hotels appetites for group business seems to also increase at a parallel pace making the need to keep the related technology evolving even more paramount. The companies that provide hotels with this meeting intelligence are continually developing new and more advanced methods of gathering this sought after data to keep up pace with the demand.

Ask any hotel sales manager who handles the group market about the value it brings, and you will likely hear a song of praise and frustration. Since hotels started including ballrooms and meeting space as standard must have inclusions n building plans most hotels have become dependent on meetings and events to varying degrees. The economy, hotel location, seasonality and competition can drive a hotel's appetite to be voracious or timid, but at some point most hotels have group needs that must be filled.

But is the volume of meetings really there to warrant the desire for more and more meeting data? It is indeed. "The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy Report" issued by PricewaterhouseCoopers in conjunction with the Convention Industry Council (CIC) noted in their 2014 update that more than 1.8 million meetings were estimated to have been held in the U.S. in 2012 . With an estimated 225 million participants this represents a significant opportunity for hotels with meeting space to fill. But where are they coming from? Who is booking these meetings? The same report noted that the lion's share of meetings -and meeting participants- in 2012 were hosted by corporations followed by Association/membership organizations, with SMERF and government coming in last. Companies like Knowland and HIS, globally recognized providers of meeting and group data, confirmed these findings with their own meeting data reflecting similar segment allocations and breakdowns offering very specific insight into the exact organizations and planners holding these meetings and events.

The gathering of data to reflect who is in fact holding meetings, coupled with where and when they are being held, has created a need for more and more data to be provided to hotels so that sales strategies can be leveraged. After decades of selling in a somewhat darkened vacuum due to lack of data, hotels now have the brilliant light of technology guiding them as to what organizations pose the best opportunity to meet their specific group needs and revenue parameters.

In the last several years modern technology and data tools have not only become more advanced but more attainable as well. The hotel industry's appetite for group business has grown more pointed and specific. For example, during booming economic times they are quite choosy about the market segments and the groups they book dictating arrival days, commanding higher rates and limiting meeting space usage to match guest room consumption so that rooms to space ratios are maximized. As hotel companies add new brands to their expanding portfolios they demand tools that can tell them the specific types of organizations that hold meetings in similar brands. All of these needs have created a technology and data culture.

But how is this data collected and queued up for access and consumption? For many years, it has been a very manual process. As the leader in data analysis and business intelligence surrounding group activity, a core part of Knowland's business is collecting group meeting data from venues around the world. Although a portion of this data is collected digitally from properties that share their "readerboard" information over a network, the vast majority of this data is still collected the old fashioned way: a human being walks through a hotel and snaps pictures of the boards. The picture is subsequently hand-transcribed by data entry personnel into a database, and is finally exposed as usable intelligence in the company's applications. Meeting Intelligence (formerly HIS) was acquired by Knowland in 2016 and collects its data in a similar fashion.

Although this data collection process is highly accurate, it is also costly to maintain and does not scale efficiently because it's highly manual. In addition, there's a limit to how close to real-time the system can operate, due not only to time-zone considerations involved with global operations, but also because it takes a non-trivial amount of time for a human being to transcribe an image.

To address this issue, Knowland has begun to investigate the idea of a cloud-enabled mobile application that data collectors around the world would use to streamline the process via automated image transcription.

Using the new application, the collector simply snaps a picture of the readerboard, after which the picture gets automatically uploaded to the cloud, transcribed, and checked for quality / accuracy. The process would take only a few seconds, with no human enabled transcription required. The entire cost of the system is reduced, and the time it takes to deliver group data back to hotel sales teams gets substantially closer to real-time.

Hotels not only want more data and better data, but they want it delivered faster as well.

How is it possible to create such a process? The underlying computer vision technology of extracting text from images (called "optical character recognition") has been around for decades; however, until recently the cost to develop a custom algorithm and platform for doing a specialized task like readerboard recognition would have been prohibitive, and operation of the system slow without purchasing substantial hardware. In the last few years, however, the era of cloud has brought elastically deployable computing resources (with faster processors) and cloud-based processing services that make developing such a solution achievable and affordable.

And this is welcomed news to the hotel industry . Now, not only are on property sales teams using group data like that provided by Knowland and HIS, but above property teams are now understanding the value of it as well. Global sales teams and sales operation teams that support and guide the on property sales efforts want to work more strategically. Good meeting data and cutting edge technology is key to that goal. Understanding , for example, the holistic view of all the meetings in a market with customizable views based on chain scale or brand allocation -then further broken down by market segment and subsets- allows these teams to know if the hotel they are supporting are fishing from the best ponds. Until recently many of these on property and above property teams relied on data based on eRFP traffic to help guide what group opportunities they either did or did not pursue.

When John Pino founded Starcite in 1999, the meetings industry and subsequently the meetings data industry were catapulted into an entirely new era. The ability to send more and more RFP's at lightning speed seemed, at first, to be an answer to hotel prayers. RFP's began to flow at rates never seen before. Meeting planners were unshackled from their antiquated sourcing chains that had bound them. Hotel sales teams were spending more and more time responding to more and more inquiries. All good. So it seemed at first. It soon became apparent that closing ratios were significantly lower. Follow up resolution from the planners was also hard to be found, and still is. The concept of cost acquisition began to emerge as hotels had more leads, and more data on inbound RFP's but not as much booking success in comparison to the amount of effort managing the flow of low quality leads. The challenge, also, is that inbound eRFP's are not reflective of actualized meeting intelligence. Using eRFP traffic as a guide for pursuing groups can lead to rabbit holes that are virtually impossible to get out of once fallen into. Seeing where planners are shopping for meetings is not at all the same as where meeting are actually taking place. Many planners intending to book Boston , for example, also include New York on the RFP distribution list so that lower rates in Boston look even better in comparison. In some cases there is no intention whatsoever of even considering booking a meeting in the cities also included on the eRFP. In order to move market share and maximize limited sales resources, precision selling to the correct target planners and timely delivery of group data is essential to the evolution of the hotel sales process.

Having reliable meeting intelligence on actualized events across all chain scales with year over year and quarter over quarter comparisons allows technology and the companies like Knowland who provide it to subjectively analyze market segments and the most lucrative possible opportunities. Mobile app technology is part and parcel of the next generation of data gathering processes that will get more information and better data into the hands of hotels faster than ever before.

Jim Vandevender is Chief Marketing Officer at Knowland. Mr. Vandevender joined Knowland in 2012. He has supported various departments, including data and research and has been actively involved in supporting the development team in the redevelopment of Knowland’s Insight tool and in the creation of the new Market Analytics tool. He works closely with the sales department in the areas of training and developing customer relationship skills. Currently, Mr. Vandevender manages Knowland’s marketing department, including all aspects of social media, new product launches, and supporting all processes for creating, communicating, and delivering Knowland products to customers. Mr. Vandevender can be contacted at 202-351-1552 or jvandevender@knowland.com Please visit http://www.knowland.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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