Dinners reimagined. Size matters. Road trip meetings. Those are just three of the top meeting trends that are transforming and impacting events in 2021, according to Benchmark.
Benchmark’s top 10 meeting trends—plus two bonus ones—were gathered by the hospitality company’s 80 meeting hotels, resorts and conference centers located coast to coast. Let’s kick it off…
1. Road to Recovery
The industry is expressing optimism for the first time since the pandemic began. Vaccines are being administered to increasing segments of the population, raising optimism for a meetings industry comeback during the third and fourth quarters of this year. According to a leading meetings, events and hospitality technology provider, to date in 2021 meeting RFPs have reached the highest levels since March 2020. As destinations begin to safely open back up, so are the size and quantity of group gatherings.
2. Road Trip Meetings
Corporate gatherings in 2021 are primarily regional drive-to at this point, though Benchmark is seeing fly-in meetings take hold during the latter part of the year. Hybrid meetings remain a key option for including entire teams within a meeting, with attendees nearby driving in and those further attending virtually due to travel apprehensions, or as some may need to remain home for family or health reasons. That said, the demand for hybrid meetings is not as strong as might have been expected. It seems the desire to gather in person surpasses hybrid meetings, and there may be fatigue setting in with remote connections.
3. Technology Driver
Technology can make—or break—a meeting experience, and planners know that better than any other. So, what is the most important technology request and concern among planners for a superb conference experience in 2021? Bandwidth. Bandwidth is technology priority number 1, 2 and 3. After that are a property’s virtual meeting capacity, and a dedicated tech support team available at a moment’s notice throughout the meeting.
4. Year of the SMERF
One would think that major pharma would dominate in 2021, or the tech industry, or the insurance or financial industry would reign as the most important industry segment delivering the majority of inquiries and meetings. But, in 2021, it’s all about S.M.E.R.F. business, with a heavy emphasis on social, educational and religious meetings.
5. Don’t Touch
Rapidly becoming the new standard in hospitality, contactless technology rallied during the past many months and will outlive the pandemic. It has become one of the top meeting trends, facilitated by smart phone capabilities at check-in and check-out. From arrival to entering the guest room to conference registration and meeting agendas to conference services to dining with virtual menus for ordering breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks or room service, contactless technology is here to stay.
6. F&B Meeting Trends
QR codes and contactless menus, attended buffets, individually packaged menu selections, the reinvention of the a la carte box meal featuring fresh gourmet salads, grilled shrimp with orzo, and which, in addition to sealed fresh food selections and snacks, may be accompanied by face masks, bottled water and hand sanitizers within the box. Some properties are even elevating the box meal to grazing boxes in lieu of grazing tables. A strong preference remains, though, for served meals, or modified buffets with individually packaged selections, and culinary staff-served hot and cold choices all behind safety plexiglass. Given the current environment, properties are accommodating meeting guests in any way they can—tailoring to individual customer preferences, which may also include bento box meals and boxed hors d’oeuvres, as well as drop-off catering in guest rooms. Eco sensitive as ever, individually packaged meals are presented in curated eco-friendly containers.
7. Creative, Local & Sustainable Trend
In 2021, creativity, taste and eco-appeal are important priorities to planners and guests—the pandemic hasn’t changed what makes dinner delicious, memorable, responsibly prepared and talked about six months later. Culinary teams remain exceptionally passionate about providing locally sourced and sustainable food items—not only for freshness but to support local farmers and purveyors during this challenging time. Farm to fork dining experiences are as important today as they ever have been. In all regions outdoor dining reigns, with chefs in Northern regions planning winter menus served in large outdoor spaces surrounded by fire pits and heaters, enabling safe, appealing and socially distanced dining experiences under the stars…often pairing with soul-warming signature drinks like Smoked Bourbon Manhattan’s and old fashioned cocktails.
8. Size Matters
In many destinations, state regulations are restricting the size of events to as little as 10-15 people, so understandably average group size in 2021 is smaller. With more destinations lessening their restrictions, however, we are seeing larger group requests of 50-100 guests, booking at larger properties that offer extensive space for social distancing, with some break out spaces offered outside for greater accommodation of social distancing with small group sessions, and with select break outs offered virtually so guests can easily transition into the break out of their choice. Meetings being booked in 2021 extend for two days on average, which is not too dissimilar to previous years. Meeting package rates are holding, on average, to those negotiated in 2019 to remain competitive and win business. Properties are preparing for many meetings to book very last minute throughout the year.
9. A Fresh Perspective
Meeting outdoors has been a fun trend over the past few years. In 2021, it’s a necessity. Outdoor spaces are being created where they don’t currently exist: ballroom courtyards, resort scenic lawns and sandy beaches are now meeting rooms for larger groups, as are restaurant terraces, pool decks, outdoor pavilions and newly installed tented rooms which reimagine the “traditional” meeting room this year. Adirondack chairs are stand-ins for ergonomic seating, portable heating elements bring warmth to outdoor rooms in northern climates. Where appropriate, plexiglass offers another line of safety.
10. Partners in Planning
Many planners are adamant about the need for flexibility around attrition clauses, cancellation clauses and fees, rebooking clauses, group rate clauses and commissions. Though moving along at a more rapid pace than previously, vaccinations have only recently become more broadly administered and planners remain cautious about rescheduling meetings in the shorter term. Many find comfort in Benchmark’s Meeting Accelerator Program launched early in the pandemic, which offered zero attrition or cancellation fees and zero risk in rebooking through March 31 of this year. Planners are keenly aware of what the industry has been through, and are eager to be a partner—particularly for those hotels that have been gracious with cancellation policies and have remained in active touch.
11. Importance of A Destination
The destination experience and destination programming are a top meeting trends this year, particularly drive-in destinations offering significant transportation accessibility. In fact, the destination experience has probably never been more important. Deep dives into the local cultural amenities of a destination are being requested by planners, as most destinations offer wide open spaces desirable for social distancing, peaceful, relaxing and safe down time activities/experiences that can be customized to the group’s needs. Resorts with wellness programs are offering meeting groups: experientialism, wellness & self-care, healing and immersions in nature, including resort outfitters activities.
12. Team Bonding Trend
There has very likely never been a greater need than in 2021 for teambuilding programming. After many months of working from home and connecting with colleagues and clients virtually, there is a yearning to come together, to reconnect, to rebuild the team and rekindle the team spirit. It’s a basic human need and one of the top meeting trends. The need to do so outside, given the times, is ideal for teambuilding and these programs are being actively requested. Fly fishing, land rover driving school, falconry, hiking, golf, scavenger hunts, margarita mixology courses, cardboard boat regattas, flip-flops & tie-dye kind of day, coconut bowling, ax throwing … anything that will offer the team a chance unwind, reconnect, share and dive into renewal experiences, gain courage, and maybe blow off some stream.