For months now, hotels and convention and visitors bureaus (CVB) have been scratching their heads over the increase in canceled meeting business and scrambling to find new ways to attract groups. At Florida Encounter, hotel and CVB representatives held a roundtable to discuss what they were doing to maintain or grow business.
“Our goal is to stay relatively strong — we don’t have high expectations of growth; staying flat is an acceptable level of growth to keep employment in properties and restaurants stable,” says Glenn Hastings, executive director of the Saint Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches.
Hastings says when meeting business declines, it disrupts the balance cities need to maintain quality in attractions, amenities and accommodations. “Leisure business is big on the weekends, but you’re not filled to capacity during the week — that’s what meetings business does,” he explains. “With the meetings or incentives participant, you will have a higher yield and a better return on the dollar [than with leisure travelers]. If the length of stay is five nights rather than two nights or a weekend, the deeper that money goes into the community, so it has a further reach for the destination than someone coming in on the leisure side.”
Debi DeBenedetto, sales and marketing manager of the Naples, Marco Island & the Everglades CVB, says the meetings slump has kicked her organization’s department into high gear. “We’ve taken emergency funds for marketing, and we’re looking hard for association groups, trying to build that.”
Association groups, because they book so far in advance, aren’t immediately affected by economic fluctuations the way corporate groups are. For the moment, association groups look like a sure thing compared to corporate business.
“We’ve issued contracts on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday they’re gone — there was a budget meeting and now they’re out of the budget,” says James M. Gelfand, vice president of sales, marketing and revenue development for the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. “There are some meetings that are not important anymore within a corporation, and those are the ones that are going to be eliminated; they are going to be cut back. But there are sales initiatives, training seminars, board of directors meetings. … The meetings industry will not go away. It’s getting reshaped. It’s getting reformatted a little bit. They’re going to get smaller, a little more regional, but there are too many people that rely upon them to deliver the company message.”
Gelfand says that his sales team is examining every opportunity, focusing on the meeting planner’s individual needs and working quickly to get deals signed because turnaround times have become very tight. “There’s no cookie cutter mold, there’s one group at a time, and we drill down quickly to see what we could do to make that planner sign,” Gelfand says. “Excuse my language, but there’s no time for foreplay. There are an awful lot of hotels that are feeling it — some destinations more than others — and a lot of it is beyond their control: airlift is down, or capacity is down, or the big boys are cutting their prices and we have to keep up.
“We’re relying on partnerships and creativity to get business signed,” he adds.
Some of those creative approaches include focusing marketing dollars more on digital and online marketing programs than on print, and putting more sales people on the street to talk with meeting planners face to face. Other strategies include bundling services and partnering with airlines or wholesalers to offer value-added packages.
“Creativity means creative problem solving as much as anything else,” Hastings says. His CVB, which acts as a liaison between meeting planners and the resources they need for their programs, has focused on creating unique experiences that can’t be found anywhere else as a way to attract group business. Its Tapestry program gives planners access to locals who give attendees insight into the region’s history and culture. For example, attendees may be joined at breakfast by a Minorcan woman who can tell them how her people came to Saint Augustine in the 1600s, enjoy a conversation with Henry Flagler — the founder of Florida tourism — at a cocktail party, or learn how to surf with local enthusiasts. The programs are customized to fit group needs, and are a creative way to distinguish the Saint Augustine area from other U.S. destinations.
“There’s still that thing out there called ‘time poverty,’ so you have to make each meeting more meaningful; you’ve got to cram an awful lot into it,” Hastings says. “We try to give people insight into the community; we’re working with groups looking at incorporating corporate social responsibility. It’s a whole different ballgame than it was 10 years ago, but it all comes back to making every hour a little more meaningful in terms of accomplishing the meeting’s or company’s or association’s goals.”
Eileen Forrow, Visit Florida’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, is confident the creative approaches Florida hotels and destinations are taking will help its meetings market rebound quickly. “Florida tourism is not immune to what is going on in the world, but we have to look back at what happened after Sept. 11,” Forrow says. “People were afraid to travel at that time. Now, people aren’t traveling because they don’t feel they can afford it. We bounced back then because we went to our in-state markets and our near drive markets and our key markets, which is what we’re planning on doing again. We were the first state to rebound after 9/11 and we’ll be the first state to bounce back from this, too.”