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Wyndham's Carol Lynch talks:
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts recently expanded its Count on Us cleanliness initiative, introduced in early May, to its meetings and events business. SVP of global sales Carol Lynch spoke with lodging and meetings editor Donna M. Airoldi about the program as well as how Wyndham is working with its meeting planner and corporate travel manager clients to help them prepare for when meetings and business travel pick up again.
BTN: How do the meeting and event enhancements differ from the general Count on Us initiative?
Carol Lynch: We're working with our operations teams at the hotel level to come up with those guidelines around cleaning, obviously, and everything's in place from the guest standpoint, but we're really carrying that over to the public space and the meeting space. Having those visual cues all around social distancing. Having different products easily available at the hotel as you're walking through the space. It's a partnership with planners on how to set up a successful meeting in this environment. As we're working through this, we were able to partner with planners and help them understand from city to city and state to state what some of those guidelines are. Because it's different from state to state. How do they prepare their attendees? We're working very closely with them to design a program that makes sense. Obviously, function space is a big part of that. They will need double if not more the amount of function space than they typically would have, just because of social distancing. We're able to work with our technology suppliers to provide schematics and layouts of those meeting and banquet spaces. We're trying to be creative around outdoor spaces … that are safe and provide that distancing and [still] fit into their programs. Food and beverage is a big piece of this. We're used to going to larger meetings and have buffets laid out, and that is not how things will be. We're working hand in hand with those planners and paying attention to what those local guidelines are and how we can present the food in a way that is safe and adds value to their programs.
BTN: Might a served buffet be an example?
Lynch: That is one aspect, but what we're seeing and planning for is to have specific individual meals that are wrapped that they pick up and take to a table—more grab-and-go—because [the food] needs to be covered. We don't want food that is sitting out. It is individually prepared and wrapped foods for the most part.
BTN: What are you seeing from corporate clients in terms of future group bookings and when things might start to pick up again?
Lynch: It really varies when talking from client to client. Things we've seen are, looking into maybe the fourth quarter, smaller meetings. [There's] nothing of substantial size for this year. We're really looking out to the future. It's unknown. From surveys, we've seen things change over the last few months [about] when people thought they would be ready to plan again and hold meetings. Frankly, we've seen that pushed out a bit longer. It's really uncertain right now. But I think that smaller programs will come back sooner; hybrid meetings certainly. Giving people the opportunity to attend either in person or virtually will be with us for months ahead.
BTN: What other general corporate meeting trends are you seeing?
Lynch: We're seeing drive-to very much.
BTN: What have your corporate meeting clients voiced as their biggest concerns when it comes to resuming bookings?
Lynch: It's a few things. It's really understanding when travelers are going to be ready to travel again. It's such an individual situation. Then it depends on if a meeting is an internal meeting versus a meeting that is maybe financially driven. They have to know how many attendees will actually attend to make sure it's worthwhile having financially. It's understanding how to even design their budgets. That is what we are working closely with them on—more flexible cancellation fees, more flexible attrition. We're working with them on reduced F&B minimums, anything we can do to add flexibility where they need it in order to just even plan. You really have to be flexible.
BTN: Do you have any examples? Are they able to cancel closer in?
Lynch: We're pretty much tiering it, depending on how far out the meeting is going to be scheduled. We're being as flexible as we can. As you would normally see, the closer in you get, the higher the cancellation fee could be or attrition fee could be. We're just trying to be more flexible there. One thing that will be a benefit is meetings will be planned closer in. You might be planning in December for February, so there is not going to be as much risk because of that. Even then, it's just being more flexible on those terms around when and the percentages.
BTN: You have about 9,300 hotels globally. Where are you with closed hotels or partially operational properties?
Lynch: We've been very fortunate. We closed about 10 percent of our hotels globally from the onset, [meaning] 90 percent remained open. We were able to do that because we have such a high concentration of hotels in midscale and economy, so we were able to keep them open and drive revenue through essential stays and essential travelers. Today, 97 percent are open worldwide, and we're opening up more every day.
BTN: How did the corporate furloughs and layoffs impact your overall sales team and those dedicated to meetings as well as corporate accounts?
Lynch: Again, we were very fortunate to have very little impact on our global sales team. We kept almost 100 percent of our team fully employed. We heard from our clients that has been a unique situation, because we have been available to our clients. Regardless of whether they are on the meeting side or the corporate travel side … we've been available, even to just stay in touch. We had different messaging going out from the beginning to let them know we were available and here to talk when ready. We're very fortunate to not have to have the impact that we've seen [elsewhere] in the industry. We also redeployed people. Knowing that the meetings side and the traditional core traveler pretty much stopped, we were able to look at what businesses are traveling today and how we can redeploy our teams to go after that business. We were able to put together plans focusing on essential travel businesses, whether it was government, or temporary agencies around healthcare, construction, project-type business that a seller may never have had any exposure to, but we were able to pivot and redeploy our team members to go after that business and still be available to their existing customers.
BTN: Are you seeing any certain types of industries that are coming back faster than others?
Lynch: We are seeing the sports business coming back. We have a high concentration of youth sports and collegiate sports. That continues to book very short-term, but we're seeing it into the second half of next year. And small social groups: Weddings are huge right now. Hotels are saying there's a high demand for that business. Then more around corporate travel, we are seeing more of the business-as-usual business pick-up around transportation, logistic-type companies, utility companies, infrastructure. They're getting out to projects that have been in place that might have been delayed the last few months. Now, that business is starting to pick up again.
BTN: What about brands? You mentioned midscale and economy performed better than the other segments. Any other trends?
Lynch: All of our midscale and economy brands have performed well over this time and outpaced the competition in many ways. I don't know that any one brand has outperformed another. I think too where we've seen even our full-service hotels business coming back is more [around] leisure. Colorado has been a big market for us around leisure; [so has] Florida, though we've seen what is happening there. We have seen an uptick more in the resort destinations where there are beaches, and that business has come back too even for our full-service brands.
BTN: What are the main concerns corporate travel managers have voiced about putting their travelers back on the road and into hotels?
Lynch: The No. 1 thing they want to know is that they are going to be in a safe environment. Launching Count on Us early on as we did and working with all of our clients and messaging that and constantly updating them on what we are doing—whether it's around sales calls that we are making, the Zoom calls, one day we'll be back to face-to-face calls—and assuring them that our hotels are taking all the right steps to provide a safe and clean and healthy environment. And working with some of the organization around Safe Stays and having certification. The Count on Us program is also something all of our hotels are going through training on, so [we're] able to talk about the training that is taking place. Those are the major questions we get more than anything else, and [whether hotels are open]. The fact that we have almost all of our properties open makes it easier for them as well to know what is available.
BTN: BTN held a series of Covid conversations with buyers this spring, and the biggest thing participants wanted to know was which hotels were closed.
Lynch: That's true. We see that question a lot. Every time you prepare a list and send it out, it changes the minute you send it out. We've worked closely with all the corporate travel managers in helping them identify what hotels are open. The fact that so many are, it has not been a concern for us.
BTN: What do you think the request-for-proposals season will look like this year? Are you starting to get requests from corporations? Or are you more looking to extend rates or move to dynamic?
Lynch: It's interesting, we've seen just about every scenario you can think of. Late July and August is normally when many companies launch RFPs for the next year. This would normally be a pretty busy time for us. But we've seen only a handful, though we expect to have more probably between August and September. But it does vary. We have some travel managers say, 'Yes, we will launch an RFP in September.' Others are still deciding. They say they may want to do negotiated rates blended with dynamic rates. We've had all these conversations. I do think it will vary and be very different from traditional RFPs, just from resources alone. Many companies don't have the resources to launch a full-blown RFP as they would typically do. We've been very open in talking to each one of them on what will be best for their programs, and flexibility comes into play. But I do think we'll see fewer markets with specific negotiated rates at properties and probably more around dynamic pricing.
BTN: Do you think that will last past this pandemic?
Lynch: I really think this could be the catalyst for change [from] the way RFP seasons have been executed in the past. And I think, more than ever, our industry is probably ready for it. Because we know the resources it takes to just facilitate the whole RFP process from a client standpoint, the buyer standpoint and the hoteliers' [standpoint]. It could change the way that corporate travel buyers buy in the future.
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