In 2020, Houston First Corp. (HFC) reported that the city was slated to host 252 meetings and 611,000 room nights. By March 14, the Bayou City had already hosted 115 conventions and 137,400 room nights. Then the pandemic hit, and meetings and events across the country came to a screeching halt.
We asked Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First Corp. (HFC) how the health crisis has influenced the organization’s business model moving forward.
M+E: How has your organization pivoted its work with meeting and event planners since the pandemic?
Houston First is a unique model in the destination management space. Like most other convention and visitors bureaus, we are responsible for sales, marketing and branding for our city. But, in addition, we own and manage more than 10 city-owned buildings and properties and also oversee a major parking management operation for more than 10,000 vehicles. Given the historic crisis that every destination is facing, our corporate model presents both challenges and opportunities. I want to focus on the opportunities.
I have challenged my team to develop innovative and creative ways that we can reimagine and redefine our business model, goals and strategies. Our sales team is working aggressively to stay connected with meeting planners and clients. We are rescheduling as many meetings and conferences as possible. As we look to the future, we are assisting meeting planners to adjust their space requirements given projected attendance and incorporating the new safety social distancing guidelines. In the long term, we have developed a Houston First Task Force to develop new ways to add value for meeting planners and our stakeholders.
Our strategy includes:
» Houston Clean: This city-wide initiative is a cooperative effort between Houston First and our hospitality partners. It provides guidelines which serve as a baseline commitment to practice recommended health safety protocols in alignment with orders issued by federal, state and local officials, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
» Avenida Houston Virtual Broadcast Studio: This new 5,250-square-foot, state-of-the-art permanent studio is designed to host virtual events and livestreaming conferences and is located inside the George R. Brown (GRB) Convention Center. Your digital or hybrid event can include any number of presenters or panel members, with or without an audience. Individual presenters can be integrated from any location. Small groups, panels and audiences can be included from a studio location or multiple live locations. We provide these services either independently or in coordination with internal IT teams, wherever they are located. Our capabilities are accessible to online, direct feed and satellite broadcast modalities. We can also include chat, polling and interactivity options on various platforms.
» Integrated Viral Protection: In early September, the GRB Convention Center was the first convention center in the country to deploy the Integrated Viral Protection (IVP) system, which includes three mobile units in the studio. This initiative is in partnership with Monzer Hourani, inventor and founder of IVP and CEO of Medistar Corporation. IVP introduced the world’s first biodefense filtration technology proven to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 (99.999%), anthrax spores (99.8 percent) and other airborne contaminants through a heated filter without impacting the temperature of the ambient air.
» Thermal Scanning: We have installed thermal scanners at all 15 entrances of the GRB Convention Center. An additional 15 devices will be installed at entrances across the remaining HFC-owned facilities. The NUCTECH infrared face temperature screening system FeverBlock provides a non-contact solution for large-scene temperature measurement and screening. The device can locate the face and avoid interference from unrelated high-temperature objects, using a combination of infrared thermal imaging and visible light imaging technologies. The system will automatically alert if abnormal body temperature is detected.
» Electrostatic Spraying: Electrostatic sprayers can clean up to 54,000 square feet of surface area per hour, reducing labor and chemical resources. The GRB now has 20 EMist 360 electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, which will be used at the end of each day to sanitize all common areas throughout the GRB, as well as meeting rooms used during events. An additional eight sprayers will be available for use in HFC-owned venues in the theater district.
M+E: What is your outlook for the future of the meetings and events industry?
Houston is resilient and we look forward to the return of business. We know that the landscape of our industry will change, and while in-person meetings will not go away, the needs of meeting planners will look differently. We are a city of innovators, and we are adapting to meet those needs quickly and fully.
Located in Dallas-Fort Worth, Ultimate Ventures assists clients with a full range of services, including special events, team-building, group excursions, dine-arounds, and transportation logistics and management. On average, the award-winning company manages approximately 160 client programs each year, with program attendance ranging from a few dozen to more than 8,000 participants. This year started out strong, with Ultimate Ventures’ President Laurie Sprouse, CITE, CMP, DMCP, noting that the first two months of 2020 were “perhaps the best in our 27 years of business.” She shares how her company has responded to these unprecedented times.
M+E: What was the immediate effect of the pandemic on your business? As we have seen throughout our company’s history, the hospitality industry is often the first to feel the effects of an economic downturn—usually before anyone is even talking about any significant concerns. We tend to feel it first because companies start pulling back or modifying their meeting and travel expenditures before they are overtly talking about economic challenges.
However, the impact of the pandemic was almost immediate for our company. In February, a few clients began reaching out to discuss the possibility of canceling their upcoming programs. By the middle of March, every program leading up to May had canceled or postponed. At that time, we had to make the tough decision to lay off or furlough nearly half of our staff. By the end of May, every program through the beginning of September had either canceled or postponed to 2021 or beyond. Once the virus began spiking in July, the rest of the year started to cancel. We are now largely looking to late February and March before we expect significant programs to return.
M+E: How has your organization pivoted its work with meeting and event planners since the pandemic?
Our team did not waste any time waiting to see how the pandemic would play out. By the middle of April, we were beta testing a new business plan with business colleagues. We’ve always created custom experiences, so we effectively decided to put those in a box for our clients to send to their employees, clients and prospects when their meetings went virtual. We officially launched our new company, Ultimate Kits, in May. We unveiled thoughtful and customized packages delivered to people’s doorsteps beginning with a Virtual Meeting Kit. Partnering with long-term local vendors, as well as some new resources, we have created a line of kits ranging from a State Fair Kit to a Texas Game Night Kit. Through Ultimate Kits we have been able to assist our clients pivoting to the virtual meeting world as well as partner with new clients looking for unique ways to make meaningful connections with their employees and clients.
M+E: What is your outlook for the future of the industry? We are realistic about the future outlook for our industry and know it is going to take a long time to get back to any semblance of “normal.” Even then, it likely will not look the same as it did before the pandemic. We believe that it is going to take not only time but some extra steps from Congress to provide additional assistance to our industry in order to sustain companies and their employees through this period.
I have joined forces with other industry leaders to launch the Texas Chapter of the Live Events Coalition. The national and state coalitions are bringing leaders in the industry together to advocate on behalf of the entire live events industry. The Texas Live Events Coalition was the first state coalition to stage a silent “Empty Event” installation to bring media and political attention to our industry. Set on the lawn of the Omni Dallas Hotel, the “Empty Event” was held to give a voice to the 12 million Americans who are employed in the live events industry and to ask Congress to take action to support our industry. Similar events have since been staged in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Diego and Colorado.
In Texas, the live events industry includes over 30,000 small businesses and over 1 million employees. Live events contribute over $1 trillion annually to the American economy and most live events businesses are down at least 80 percent with certain sectors, such as those dedicated to live corporate meetings and events, being completely disrupted.
Founded in 1978, Lagniappe Productions produces and provides live entertainment at approximately 250 corporate events annually, as well as at major amusement parks nationwide, including Six Flags, SeaWorld San Antonio and Stone Mountain. The company also owns two traveling stunt shows which provide entertainment for major fairs all across North America. What Lagniappe may be best known for, however, is its Texas Star Dinner Theater located on Main Street in historic downtown Grapevine. In total, with 94 actors on its roster and a full-time administrative staff, Lagniappe produces 1,000-1,600 performances each year. Over the years the company has received rave reviews on Tripadvisor and was also named “Best Entertainment Production Company” in Texas three years in a row by readers of Texas Meetings + Events. Owner and president Chris Whatley shared with us how his company is reimagining its offerings for today’s new “normal.”
M+E: What was the immediate effect of the pandemic on your company?
In March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a “shut down,” every single aspect of Lagniappe’s business came to a halt. We were forced to close the Texas Star Dinner Theater. Twelve hours prior to launching our traveling stunt show, “Tumbleweed Crossing,” to a well-known fair, we received a call informing us the fair would be forced to cancel. Since that time in March every fair contract, equaling more than 100 performance days, has canceled. Additionally, when the pandemic hit, Lagniappe was sitting on over 100 contracts for corporate entertainment booked into November. By mid-April all corporate contracts had canceled. By the end of April our amusement park partners informed us they were cancelling all live entertainment for 2020. Because Lagniappe is family-owned, our staff and talent are family as well. It was a difficult decision, but Lagniappe was forced to reduce our office staff by 50 percent. And all 94 of our performers were suddenly without work, as well. In the span of less than six weeks, Lagniappe Productions went from annual revenues measured in seven digits to zero. The end result of COVID-19 for Lagniappe is the loss of 90 percent of all revenue for the entire year.
M+E: Are you now open for business?
Lagniappe has been able to reopen the Texas Star Dinner Theater in Grapevine at 50 percent capacity. Additionally, 80 percent of our corporate entertainment options are available with COVID-19 safety measures in place to keep guests safe. With the help of venues maintaining social distancing, we can still safely offer services from line dance instruction to quick draw to live cowboy music. More information about our COVID-19 safe entertainment options are outlined on our website.
M+E: How have you pivoted since the pandemic? Thankfully, Lagniappe Productions is a debt-free company, and we own our office building; so Lagniappe is still in business. However, “in business” without any income and continuing to pay overhead is not sustainable. While brainstorming ways to “re-invent” ourselves, Paula Eyre (our theater manager) came up with the idea of a virtual murder mystery. We wanted to find a way to connect with our audiences and allow for interaction similar to the way we do during our live theater performances. It had to be more than just a movie or a game; it had to be both.
The solution? Derailed and Departed: A Virtual Murder Mystery: An online interactive comedy-murder mystery movie game that allows families and friends to gather at home or via a group conferencing platform such as Zoom, watch the scenes unfold, listen for clues, choose questions to ask suspects, and try to solve the mystery. Depending upon which paths a player chooses, there are a total of 28 different versions of the same game. The next step will be to create a live teambuilding version for companies to maintain a sense of teamwork and camaraderie while working remotely.
M+E: What is your outlook for the future of our industry?
It will take years to rebuild an industry that is based on social interaction. Some things will never be as they were before, but that’s not always a bad thing. Ingenuity comes when reinvention is necessary for survival. We hope that our virtual murder mystery is one step towards reconnecting people and bringing a sense of joy during a bleak time for our country.
Located in the Dallas Arts District, HALL Arts Hotel offers 6,000 square feet of meeting and event space. Opened in December 2019, mere months before the pandemic hit, the hotel was booking social and corporate events for groups sized 10 to 200. We spoke with Maxine Pigott, marketing manager for HALL Arts, about the health and safety precautions the hotel has implemented.
M+E: Describe your event space.
The space includes five multi-purpose indoor and outdoor spaces:
The 2,500-square-foot Grand HALL Ballroom is the largest venue on-site and is equipped with cutting-edge technology, eye-catching Lasvit chandeliers, commissioned artwork by Claire Woods and floor-to-ceiling windows. Connected to the ballroom is the Urban Garden, an outdoor extension allowing for an additional 1,250 square feet of space.
The 1,800-square-foot highly designed Flora HALL is ideal for smaller corporate or social gatherings, featuring breathtaking views of the Winspear Opera House and Meyerson Symphony Center and commissioned pieces from Lincoln Schatz and Lava Thomas.
The Sculpture HALL offers 780 square feet of meeting space with natural light and original artwork from Antonius-Tín Bui.
The HALL Arts Boardroom is a multi-use space for executive meetings and private dining. The 513-square-foot room features a hanging sculpture from Tomas Saraceno and incomparable views of the Texas Sculpture Walk.
M+E: How have you pivoted since the pandemic?
HALL Arts Hotel has been hosting events in socially distanced meeting spaces and with updated room diagrams. Additionally, we have implemented new COVID-19 sanitation procedures as recommended by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and we are limiting capacity based on mandates from local government.
M+E: What is your outlook for the future of the events industry?
We are excited for the future of hospitality, particularly given our location in the heart of the Arts District in Dallas. We are starting to see demand, as area museums and performance venues thoughtfully reopen around us. Our team was honored to have hosted several intimate weddings and events this summer. We look forward to continuing to host meetings and events where participants feel safe, attended to and inspired by our new property.
In 2019, Lakeway Resort and Spa hosted 212 group meetings and events which exceeded the prior year. The resort began 2020 ahead of 2019’s pace. It was expected to be an incredible year, with potentially record-breaking results. Blake Doran, area general manager for the venue, tells us how his resort has fared during the health crisis.
M+E: Describe your meeting space.
Lakeway Resort and Spa offers extensive meeting and event space, including over 24,000 square feet and 18 spaces for pre-functions, meetings, weddings and events, accommodating a range of gatherings from 10 to 300. Notable ballroom spaces include:
» Vistas Ballroom: A 5,150-square-foot space suspended 150 feet above Lake Travis with a wrap-around terrace, vaulted ceilings and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows. It is a great fit for general meetings, classroom-style training or elegant dining affairs.
» Rio Ballroom: A 5,800-square-foot general session room at the lobby level with easy access to guest room floors. It is fit for large presentations with classroom- or theater-style seating.
» Colorado Ballroom: A 4,000-square-foot space located just below TR Restaurant Bar and Lounge. Built to break down into three smaller rooms, the conference center is fit for any business event.
M+E: What was the immediate effect of the pandemic on your resort?
The beginning of the pandemic was extremely challenging, and Lakeway Resort and Spa lost 95 percent of all group meetings and events, as well as leisure business. It was devastating and an immediate eye opener that we must adapt and change the way we operate to survive. We did not close our operation, but unfortunately had to furlough 95 percent of our team and close various outlets and amenities. Our staff and our industry were extremely impacted and continue to be impacted by this pandemic.
M+E: Is business picking back up?
The beginning of May is when our leisure business bounced back, and Lakeway Resort and Spa began to exceed monthly occupancies of 70 percent. We have taken many steps and actions to ensure the safety and well-being of our associates and guests. We created the program UltraTouch by Remington Hotels that places extreme focus on retraining, safety, PPE, and sanitation/deep cleaning of all guest and associate high-touch points in all areas of the entire resort. We have implemented fun and structured social distancing measures in all meeting rooms to ensure meetings and events planners feel extremely safe while hosting their events. Food and beverage had the opportunity to be innovative and creative with their presentation. Safety was top priority, while at the same time delivering spectacular flavors. We have the option to deliver virtual meetings through our audio-visual company, JSAV, as well.
M+E: What is your outlook for the future of the hospitality industry?
I am optimistic and believe that our industry will continue to improve month by month. It will be a slow process, but signs of recovery are ahead of us. I believe that hospitality and the event industry will be impacted through the first quarter of 2021, and then we will begin to see the true signs of recovery in the second quarter of 2021. Our industry should see 2019 results by 2023, and I strongly believe that our industry will adapt and execute outstanding processes to ensure people feel safe to travel and conduct meetings and events once again.