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Hyatt's Steve Enselein talks:
Meetings and events accounted for 30 percent of Hyatt Hotels Corp.'s room revenue in 2019. Covid-19 has all but obliterated that segment for now, but the company is seeing a slow return of face-to-face gatherings. Hyatt SVP of events Steve Enselein last week spoke with BTN senior editor Donna M. Airoldi about how the company is preparing for the return of in-person events, particularly hybrid ones. An edited transcript follows.
BTN: What trends are you seeing in terms of meeting bookings?
Steve Enselein: For 2020, it's small meetings that are coming up on an as-needed basis. The vast majority and larger events are being booked into 2021 at this point. The good news is that most of the events booked already into Q1 and Q2 are holding steady and not looking to move at this point.
BTN: Are there any locations coming back faster than others?
Enselein: It's the locations that have a little less restriction as it relates to gathering size, so I think about Florida and Texas. We're seeing more activity in China than in many other places. A lot is being driven by local restrictions on gathering sizes.
BTN: Hyatt announced that at the end of July, 87 percent of its hotels were now open. Does that still hold?
Enselein: We have opened a few more, so that 87 percent to 90 percent is about right. I'm not aware of any hotels that have closed since the earnings call, so hopefully that is behind us and we will continue to open these hotels as the impact of the pandemic begins to subside more.
BTN: As in-person meetings slowly return, many will be hybrid events. What is Hyatt doing to work with planners to meet their new needs?
Enselein: One of the good things about this pandemic is it has allowed us to stop for a period of time and spend some time talking to our customers and understanding what their needs are. We've also started to have communications with our technology partners that provide [audiovisual services] inside our hotels and other organizations that have been in the hybrid and virtual meeting space for a long period of time. For the short-term portion of hybrid, we think the primary need is how we educate our teams on what the potentials are and how we educate the customers on what the potentials are, and how we make it easy for them to execute their first events. I don't think any of us believe that as hybrid comes back, the first ones will be thousands of people in multiple locations.
BTN: What will the immediate future of in-person events look like?
Enselein: We think it will be small meetings being held on an as-needed basis. We have focused on identifying different types of hybrid experiences that groups might need. Is it eight small groups of people out in one hotel or connecting multiple hotels together? We've conducted education with our directors of sales, directors of events, event planning managers and sales managers to educate them on the different options, but we are relying on our A/V partners to get into the specifics. We've also been working with our hotels in many of our key cities to put together a network of hotels that can put up one of these hybrid events—Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Singapore. And in the Americas, we work with our hotels in the Hyatt Convention Alliance, which are our biggest hotels in key marketplaces and many of our resorts. We're helping our customers with a one-stop-shop approach to identify where they can have these events, and working with the hotels to consolidate their efforts to have a hybrid meeting.
BTN: What A/V partners are you working with? Are you increasing Wi-Fi bandwidth and other technology capabilities?
Enselein: We with work with our A/V partners that work in-house with us, the relationship with PSAV and Encore has been a great longstanding partnership, and we look to them to learn what their needs are. [Recently,] we had a meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago that used an outside company. We provided the set-up, labor, [food and beverage], and the organization used their own platform for broadcasting it. It was sent to Germany, China, Poland, France, Sweden and multiple U.S. locations. We're very well-versed in working with in-house partners and any production companies our customers bring to us. We see our role there to be the facilitator and partnering with not only the organizer, but also the production company, our in-house A/V, and then our teams to pull it all together.
BTN: But no technology changes just yet.
Enselein: At this point we've been relying on our in-house partners, but we are having those conversations right now. As we're setting these rooms, we're leaving space for camera angles and the correct number of cameras depending on the level of sophistication of the event. We see this as a case-by-case basis. Short-term, we're working with our partners to identify any new technology we need to build into rooms, be it wide-angle cameras and microphones that stand on tables that don't need to be touched. But we have not put in cameras in our hotels at this point. Long-term, we're working with [architecture and design firm] Gensler to help us identify how we can modify and look to change our meeting space, be that modifying existing hotels or how we change set-ups in the future. That is still a work in progress, and we'll have more to say on that later.
BTN: What might be some of the changes?
Enselein: We're talking about finding areas and ways we can build cameras in that would make it easier to have these meetings that might pop up short-term that need that broadcast capability. We're also in conversations with our partners to identify hotels in key cities where maybe we take one of our spaces and build it into a broadcast studio, where we have this equipment set up and ready. That allows for a little bit of labor savings and simplifying it from the organization's point of view.
BTN: So, in those cities where you might have more complex meeting needs and finding space that can be converted.
Enselein: Correct. Unfortunately, we have a lot of availability in our hotels. But from our perspective, the big thing we need to do is not have a broadcast studio where a couple people come in and broadcast it out virtually to 1,000 people in their offices and homes. What we need to do is really make sure everyone understands all the work done to make sure it's a safe experience when they come to a hotel, and get people to come to the hotel and experience the hybrid meeting as opposed to just a virtual experience. While we're getting used to Zoom calls, it's not the same as that face-to-face interaction people crave. That is what I'm excited for—to get them back into our hotels. Long-term, how do we use this technology to expand the reach of our meetings. where we have a meeting with 500 people before, and another 200 couldn't come due to budget issues or personal events that didn't allow them to travel. Now, being able to extend that meeting from 500 to 700 people has me really excited about the future of events.
BTN: What about F&B changes?
Enselein: We've worked collaboratively with our hotels, and we put together a task force of chefs and F&B directors and directors of events to look at F&B. As we worked with the team, we thought it was a two-pronged approach. For the first part, first adopters at meetings would be very focused on safety and simplicity and the need for pre-packed items probably would be really important. That is what we saw in the first groups that started to visit our hotels. Now that there are more groups, they're looking for an experience similar to what they were used to pre-Covid.
BTN: How are you able to provide that?
Enselein: Our teams have done a great job. You're seeing the plexiglass shield in front of buffets, attendants behind stations, on-site staff to help with the collection of the food. In the old days, you'd read a menu card to tell you what the items were. Now, [staff] are there to explain, 'this is the ramen station, which broth would you like, what kind of noodles, what protein, would you like the vegetarian option?' It's getting an enhanced level of service, while still getting an option for choice. At the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, they are setting up their buffets as food art. The display is under plexiglass that shows two to three plates, and guests can tell the server they'd like this plate or that, and it is constructed and brought out to them. We are still doing served meals in many of our hotels. The examples in creativity from our teams has been inspiring as they've been working to make the experience as similar as it was and as high-quality as it was, but now with the enhanced safety protocols put in place.
BTN: Anything else as it relates to F&B?
Enselein: We're starting to experiment with allowing guests from smaller groups to pick their lunch item and to personalize their break experience. So instead of having a buffet for 20 people, how can we electronically allow groups and individuals to pick what they want for their lunch and what they want for their break? We're [addressing] some of the concerns about safety, [but still] allow[ing] for choices. And we're addressing some of the food waste concerns that come along with buffets.
BTN: What are some of the new opportunities for hotels to work with their group clients?
Enselein: I feel Hyatt has had some great technology solutions that maybe didn't get used quite as much. We have a program called Virtual Hotel Tour that allows planners to really experience what hotels are like, see the meeting space, almost like they are there. They have the ability to zoom in and get statistics and capacities from that space. We have a tool called Meetings on Demand that allows planners to book, plan and understand their entire event. It will continue to be a great opportunity for us and the planners as we try and do more with less. We have a collaborative diagramming program that allows us to showcase social distancing requirements, and the planners can collaborate with us on it and show to their key stakeholders how we are going to keep the guests safe. Also, as we think about the individual attendees, a lot of these contactless experiences that are now available in hotels will really be viewed as positive. Their ability to check in remotely, to be able to use their phone as their digital key, is great. Also, this is not in the tech world, but the ability to keep your guest room as your sanctuary and decide if you want anyone to come in and clean, and if you do, what time you want that to happen. Those things will be really beneficial.
BTN: Any final thoughts?
Enselein: We have modified the communication that we send out to not only planners but also to attendees—Know Before You Go—to give them some insights on what might have changed and how their experience might be different. I think there are a lot of great opportunities, and the good part about the slowdown is it has forced us to reexamine virtually every part of our business. Events have been at the forefront of that. We've started to think of all the key touchpoints from how [attendees] register to blocks of rooms to what happens when they arrive to F&B experiences in restaurants, in banquets, to the meeting experience to the point where they leave. I think you'll see changes and different experiences across all the touchpoints of an event. And we're clearly focused on still delivering experiences that excite people to travel. That's part of the reason people attend meetings and events, is because of the excitement. We think we are in a position now where it's healthy and safe and will still inspire them and make them have some fun at same time. We're excited to get back to it and looking forward to having more groups in our hotels in the near future.
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