The latest workaround for hotels dealing with Covid is finding ways to offer a ‘meetings experience' while attendees are remote, and some – such as the in-person yet digital hybrid of ‘phygital' – are using the very latest tech. Caroline Baldwin reports.
Hotels up and down the country have been devastated by being unable to host guests in their normal capacity. Though some have been able to accommodate business travellers, the meeting rooms that they would typically use have been gathering dust.
But some operators have been using this downtime to reconsider their meeting and event offer to suit a post-pandemic world. As many of their typical delegates have switched busy exhibitions and conferences for watching Zoom webinars from home – so hotel meeting spaces are being reimagined to cater for a combination of in-person and virtual gatherings.
Katherine Doggrell, hotel expert and co-founder of NewDog PR, says this is an area of the hotel industry that was due to be shaken up before the pandemic hit.
"There have been plenty of opportunities to sit in a windowless basement and enjoy cookies at 10.30am, but a lot of hotels have been looking at ways of improving their meetings offering, and an acceleration of this trend has been online booking and doing things in a connected way. Most hotel meeting rooms are not terribly functional, but we're much more connected these days and any hotel who can facilitate that is onto a winner."
A trend of ‘hybrid' meeting rooms has sprung up in recent months, with Accor, Meliá Hotels International and Park Plaza all upping their technology game to meet the demands of virtual and potential in-person meetings in the coming months.
Doggrell defines a hybrid meeting as a space that can host guests both in-person and remotely, for anything from small meetings to large-scale events and conferences.
She says the pandemic has persuaded many hotels that they need to offer more technology in their meeting spaces in order to keep up with digitally savvy consumers and support guests who may be taking part in an event or meeting via their computer or smart device.
"Hotels had only just worked out how to use a projector before Covid – technology has not been the forte of most hotels," she adds.
Hotels had only just worked out how to use a projector before Covid – technology has not been the forte of most hotels
But many hotels are upping their tech game. The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, for instance, has created a permanent ‘Belfry Live' set-up, which allows businesses to come in under social distancing guidelines and remotely host events. Using professional video equipment, they can connect live with audiences across the globe for meetings, events, product launches and award ceremonies. The hotel argues that using one of its meeting rooms instead of live-streaming from a spare bedroom or kitchen table adds an "air of professionalism to any event".
Meanwhile, IHG Hotels & Resort's Kimpton Fitzroy London in Bloomsbury has launched a similar dedicated broadcasting space. Its green screen recording studio offers virtual events and meetings, from web conferences and webinars to live broadcasts.
Doggrell believes this trend will continue post-Covid, as the pandemic has proven that many businesses can operate remotely. "You don't have to be at every single meeting, and Covid-19 has allowed that to become more acceptable."
A flexible offering
Manuel Martínez Infante, director of groups, meetings and events at Park Plaza hotels in the UK and Netherlands, says it is important to offer clients flexibility in an uncertain world.
"At some point we'll get back to face-to-face meetings, but in between, the hybrid model will play an important part," he says. He describes how working with event planning and technology provider Encore provides clients with a choice of AV equipment and connectivity methods to create events which can be streamed to people off-site.
At some point we'll get back to face-to-face meetings, but in between, the hybrid model will play an important part
Clients can hire the meeting room as usual and use their own technology if they so wish, but the strategic partnership provides a vetted solution that is future-proofed, while being adaptable to many client needs.
"We're hospitality providers, so it's about providing the best service that we can and being customer-centric," adds Martínez Infante. "So we partner with suppliers that are also customer- centric and produce good-quality solutions."
Meanwhile, Accor has announced its collaboration with Microsoft Teams to create a new hybrid meetings concept called All Connect, which launches in April. Accor has partnered with the technology titan to offer corporate clients a combination of physical in-hotel meetings with virtual connections with people situated in their homes or offices, or even with other Accor meeting rooms around the globe.
Using Microsoft's Teams software solution alongside its Surface Hub 2S hardware, Accor meeting rooms will be able to connect people on-site to those joining remotely using 40mb minimum connectivity, 4K video and high-quality audio.
Markus Keller, senior vice-president, sales and distribution at Accor, told The Caterer that hybrid meetings and events were being discussed prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 accelerated the technology adoption by years.
He believes this approach will continue long after we return to normality. "There is a work-life benefit to spending part of your time virtually," he says. "And there's also the environmental impact – it's not just necessarily that we don't want to travel, but we're conscious of the impact on the planet."
Accor chose to work with Microsoft because of a pre-existing partnership, where the hotel uses its software and hardware internally, while Microsoft's French headquarters is also next door to Accor's in Paris. Out of the 5,000 or so properties on Accor's books, 1,800 hotels have the minimum requirement to host a hybrid meeting using Microsoft's technology – including the 40mb bandwidth and soundproofing. All the hotel needs to do is acquire the Teams software licensing – with hopes to soon increase this to 3,200 hotels. Keller says, depending on the individual hotel owners, some properties which host many events may decide it will make operational sense to invest fully in the tech and acquire all the hardware and integrated cameras.
A ‘phygital' experience
Keller says the future will most certainly be hybrid and that virtual won't completely replace physical events. "Typically at exhibitions, people want to touch things, hold the products and test them," he explains,
"We've been looking at this ‘phygital' experience, and some companies are looking to send ice-breaker packs to delegates' homes, or performance-booster packs of jelly beans that you'd normally have on the table at a conference. Recently, in lieu of hosting a breakfast at one of our properties, we actually sent the attendees breakfast to their homes – it's the bridging of the two which is a fun area that we can play with."
And while virtual meetings are efficient at sharing information and checking in with existing clients, it's networking where the technology has failed to make as much virtual progress. Keller says when it comes to new business, face-to-face is still incredibly important.
"It's that side conversation at the coffee machine that builds a certain level of relationship – you just can't get that from a slide presentation virtually."
Case study: Innside Manchester and Sterling Event Group
Innside Manchester, part of Meliá Hotels International, has partnered with a technical event production and AV hire company, Sterling Event Group, to launch Manchester's first virtual event production studio in a hotel.
The virtual event solution is part of the hotel's dedicated event space and offers clients a creative technical studio production, which can live-stream and facilitate a virtual or hybrid event – with audiences either physically attending within government restrictions, remotely watching a professional broadcast of content in real-time, or a mixture of the two.
The set features a central rear projection screen with HD laser projection, two 65-inch screens for custom logos and content, a brandable backdrop, stage floor, multiple cameras, a live-stream production suite and a professional audio and lighting system. Content can be streamed to Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms, while also offering the option for content to be pre-recorded ready for broadcast at a later date.
Innside Manchester's in-house events team are on-site to ensure the event runs smoothly, as well as the production crew at Sterling Event Group.
Innside UK North cluster director of sales Scott Brown says: "With this facility staying in place for the next six months, we have been able to offer a cost-effective solution that doesn't require the usual set-up and breakdown costs, meaning this is accessible for everything from an online conference or awards event to a company briefing or online training day."
"As and when events can return to what they were, on a larger scale, this studio offering will only add to the experience; allowing organisers to reach a larger delegate audience – both within the UK and globally."
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