The event industry is constantly evolving. And this year, there are a few trends we’re watching closely that will be important for meeting and event planners to consider when working with clients. As companies seek to accommodate new preferences, event planning is being expedited, and venues are making accommodations for the fast pace by rethinking the event team structure. Wellness activities and bleisure travel are even more popular than in previous years, and the size of events is changing. By incorporating these trends this year, planners can create a refreshing and engaging experience and leave a lasting impression on guests.
There is an expectation among the travel industry that bookings for in-person events will continue to grow. In fact, the numbers support that. The 2023 American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) State of the Industry forecasts the hotel industry will surpass pre-pandemic levels of demand, nominal room revenue, and state and local tax revenue.
Hotels are seeing the increase already, along with a surprising aspect: expedited planning. Meeting planners used to reach out to hotel event teams far ahead of a booking—sometimes years in advance—to discuss options, reserve room blocks, and plan logistics. Reserving space in a hotel for hundreds of guests is no small feat, and a gathering of that size requires out-front planning beyond the events team in all departments, including food and beverage, operations, and security.
However, hotels this year are already seeing short-term and even last-minute bookings for groups. “The short-term bookings are incredible, especially in the corporate area,” says Bridget Bear, director of sales and marketing for South Shore Harbour Resort and Conference Center in League City. “They are booking very short-term. In some cases, I’m asking them if they’re really booking for 2023.” Contacting hotels 90 or even 60 days out from a large event was almost unheard of in the last few years, but the trend is likely to continue throughout the year.
These short ramp-ups to events mean hotels are having to take different types of action to prepare thoroughly and make events successful for attendees and the companies hosting them. To meet this new need, some hotels are restructuring their events team and adding features to accommodate the last-minute requests without compromising on quality of service. The Marriott Marquis Houston introduced its Event Experience Team (EET) that gives meeting planners an assigned, personalized team dedicated to full coverage before, during, and after an event. The team members bridge the gap between planning and event operations, often sitting in on early meetings with planners to build trust and a working relationship prior to the team taking over at the preconvention meeting.
“Planners love the new format as they feel there is a seamless transition between planning and ops,” says Thomas Inasu, director of event management for Marriott Marquis Houston. “They mentioned that getting to know the EET prior to their arrival on-site has greatly helped achieve their meeting objective.” Since implementing the EET, Marriott Marquis Houston has seen its on-site event coordination service scores increase by 20%.
Inasu also says he sees nascent meeting planners at the forefront of events lately. “We see less-experienced planners—due to COVID-19—so this EET really aids and assists the newer planners, as many of them are navigating their first meeting. The partnership the EET provides to the new or old planners is priceless.”
Planners aren’t just organizing an event in less time, they’re also compressing event agendas into shorter blocks to make room for leisure activities on either side. This is a continuation of the business and leisure combination, or bleisure, travel trend that picked up steam before the pandemic and has returned to become a big trend this year. Maybe a company would have spent three days on a workshop a few years ago, but today it could spend a day and a half, scheduling free time for attendees around those workshop hours. Not only do shorter meetings help save time and energy, but they also can be more effective and efficient by keeping team members focused on the task at hand.
New national Hotel Booking Index survey research commissioned by the AHLA and conducted by Morning Consult shows that 84% of employees are interested in bleisure travel. This is good news for the travel industry because it indicates an increase in business travel overall. “With Americans planning for more hotel stays this year and business travel moving in the right direction, AHLA’s Hotel Booking Index is a cause for optimism among hoteliers,” says Chip Rogers, AHLA president and CEO, in a prepared statement.
Planning professionals are working with hotels and venues to create experiences that accommodate bleisure travel all in one space. Jennifer Soroka, director of events at Hilton Americas-Houston, says she sees more companies looking for ways to use the hotel for all their team needs rather than holding business events at the hotel and requiring attendees to make arrangements for their leisure travel elsewhere. “We involve the hotel planning experts early on to be a resource for the best ways to use the hotel. We provide an experience, starting from arrival through programming, events, and audiovisual, until departure, and a follow-up touch point,” she says.
This type of blended travel is becoming increasingly popular as companies look for ways to reintroduce live events and attract good attendance. Bleisure trips offer perks that the traditional conference does not because they give people flexibility in their schedules for nonwork activities and allow them to bring their loved ones along. Rather than providing an afternoon off in the middle of a multiday event, a bleisure agenda might give every afternoon off for personal or family time. Combined business and leisure trips also allow people to take advantage of discounted rates or promotional offers for travel and hotels. This type of travel has the potential to be a great way for businesses to increase team satisfaction while improving productivity.
In its fall 2022 Planner Pulse Report survey, Encore reports that 70% of planners were booking and actively sourcing new events, and 61% expected to have larger budgets this year. With the trends of outdoor venues and wellness aspects added to group business travel, one could perhaps find these numbers promising. A budget that includes room for added perks, such as health or mindfulness activities, will give planners more to work with to make an event appealing to guests.
In recent years, outdoor events have been on the rise. With an emphasis on increased engagement, this trend is not slowing down. Outdoor events create an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity between participants. Instead of traditional conference room-style tables and seating, participants can have face-to-face contact when sitting in a circle around a fire pit or mingling on a grassy lawn. The scenery and fresh air may lift the mood, and the increased networking potential can improve the effectiveness of the experience for participants.
The Sheraton Dallas Hotel in the city’s center made changes last year in anticipation of this trend. Partnering with Pacific Plaza Park, the hotel now offers outdoor events that span the park’s 3.7 acres. The park is just steps away from the hotel and allows guests to combine both indoor and outdoor events with ease. Whether they want to set up a stage, offer food trucks, or use the space for wellness breaks, planners can let their participants spread out in a way not possible if confined to a courtyard area.
Other outdoor venues feature multiple spaces to organize, break into groups, or enjoy downtime between programming. The Fort Worth Botanic Garden boasts 14 different outdoor spaces among a variety of garden styles and sizes, and River Legacy Park in nearby Arlington stretches over 1,300 acres and gives visitors a glimpse of native flora and fauna along with outdoor pavilions for gathering. In Texas, farms and ranches are popular options for outdoor events with scenic views and true Texas flair. Rough Creek Lodge & Resort creates guest experiences that take advantage of the sunny weather and 11,000 acres of rolling hills outside Glen Rose. Participants can enjoy horseback riding, zip lining, or a game of horseshoes, and planners can schedule events at the outdoor pavilion with optional air conditioning for hot Texas summers.
Embracing nature as a source of inspiration and relaxation also increases people’s wellness beyond physical health. Wellness encompasses physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. It is a holistic approach to living that focuses on the interconnection between these four aspects of life. With an expanded idea of wellness, employees and leaders can focus on nourishing their bodies with healthy food and exercise, maintaining strong relationships with family and friends, having meaningful work that brings joy, and cultivating spiritual growth through meditation or prayer.
Of course, bleisure travel makes wellness goals more achievable, but so do outdoor events and intentional wellness activities. Participants in a conference can become overwhelmed, or workshop guests can get emotionally drained. Building in wellness events or activities to help with these concerns could include yoga, meditation, hiking, or kayaking. Wellness activities at events are becoming increasingly important for making guests feel energized and refreshed—making spa venues ideal sites for events.
Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa offers guests a quiet respite in a beautiful setting along the Colorado River in the Texas Hill Country. Even without bleisure time, planners can give participants wellness activities as breaks or end-of-day relaxation options. Guests of Lost Pines can enjoy spa services, the natural landscape water park, or a sunset hike. In the past, meeting planners might give vouchers for these services and activities, but now they’re scheduling them in with the agenda to ensure participants take care of their overall well-being during an event.
Tending to relationships between team members is vital in keeping participants engaged and creating a long-term benefit from events, and that means going beyond the standard team-building activities to create authentic experiences between small groups and to interact with the community around the venue. Participants are looking for immersive experiences that are out of the ordinary. “Planners are asking for a lot more time for team-building activities,” Bear says. “Not just the standard golf. They want to mix it up. All activities aren’t necessarily sports-related anymore because they’re trying to accommodate the needs of a variety of people.”
Original experiences can be centered on food to bring in local flavors and flair. In Austin, participants can gather at food truck parks to enjoy a variety of cuisines and a truly Austin experience. Thicket Food Park not only boasts Tex-Mex favorites, Indian dishes, and several varieties of cheesecake, but it also has live music and is dog friendly. Like other food truck parks, it’s in a dirt parking lot and features picnic table seating. In the rustic event space, you’ll catch outdoor yoga classes, see what’s in season at the community garden, and maybe schedule an event since the space is rentable.
From cooking classes to nature treks, planners are booking varied add-ons that make the travel special. “We now offer more executive chef consultations,” says Soroka. “More groups are looking for community service projects for their attendees to do while at the hotel.” Event planners can capitalize on these trends by creating events that leave a lasting impression on attendees and give a deeper meaning to gatherings. The important part is considering not just what interesting activity or environment participants can enjoy, but also how they can converse and build genuine connections with one another, leading to greater collaboration that will carry back over into the office.
Smaller Event Sizes
While in-person events are on the radar for most companies this year, many hotels are seeing a trend toward midsize events with bookings of 250-500 rooms versus large 750-plus room bookings for conferences that were routine in 2019. This type of smaller-sized event leaves room for an even higher level of service. Small to midsize events provide the opportunity to make a bigger impression on attendees when it comes to brands and destinations. This is another area where hotel event staff have stepped it up and are offering more personalized service. Inasu says the EET program at Marriott Marquis Houston gives meeting planners a higher level of visibility among participants and hosts. “This in turn helps the customer feel more comfortable in our building—their home away from home for a week,” he says.
Additionally, the trend of smaller meetings is expected to continue through this year and beyond because technology is allowing for the success of low-attendance events. Remote meetings have become more efficient and cost-effective, letting more people join without worrying about traveling. With the help of advanced technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence-powered chatbots, the meeting experience can be further enhanced for all participants. This shift toward smaller meetings will ultimately benefit companies by providing them with a cost-effective and time-efficient way to engage with employees. If hospitality companies and event venues take advantage of the smaller bookings to provide service excellence in new ways using technology, this trend could also benefit the travel and planning industries.
Regardless of the trends, service is still king. “To ensure success, there needs to be a strong culture of service from the top down,” says Jason Monroe, director of sales at Hilton Americas-Houston. “When this is present, attendees will be able to feel it no matter who they encounter. Everyone is a VIP, and they should be treated like it.” This year, meeting and event professionals can expand their reach, diversify their offerings, and increase revenue. In addition, both planners and organizations can create tailored and memorable experiences that foster creativity, innovation, and productivity over the long run.