No longer hamstrung by perception issues, more meetings for high-level executives are going forward this year. However, these meetings tend to be shorter, lower in profile and far less lavish than in the pre-recessionary era of executive excess.
"I think we’ve gotten through the worst of it," says Julie Walker, president of Walker Business Solutions, an independent meeting planning company based in Mechanicsburg, Pa. "I don’t think companies are as scared as they were a few years ago."
Companies that are still concerned with perception but want to meet at resorts anyway have learned to fly under the radar.
"Executive meetings are definitely being planned in resorts right now," says Wendy Burk, CEO of Travel Dynamics Group, a travel management and meeting company in La Jolla, Calif. "Companies just aren’t announcing their names when they meet."
What a difference 18 months makes. Back in late 2008 when the AIG scandal hit the press, executive meetings were the last thing on the minds of meeting planners and upper level management.
"Everything kind of died back then," Burk says. "Beginning in 2009, we saw a void in executive meetings. These types of gatherings and retreats were being done in boardrooms and offices."
These days, as perception issues lift, executive meetings are slowly coming back into the fold.
"I’ve seen executive meetings pick up since about the third quarter of 2010, which is a great sign," Burk says.
Suppliers report the same trend.
"Our business in 2010 was significantly up from 2009 and we anticipate continued growth in this sector," says Phil BeMiller, director of sales and marketing for The Westin Columbus in Columbus, Ohio.
At Seattle’s Grand Hyatt and Hyatt at Olive 8, Andy Bishop, area director of sales and marketing, is also optimistic.
"Things definitely slowed down in 2009, but we are seeing people get out more now and plan more meetings," he says.
In St. George, Utah, executive meetings and retreats are heating up at the Red Mountain Resort & Spa, a 55-acre property known for its outdoor adventure offerings.
"I’d say executive meetings are only about 5 percent of our business, but that segment is definitely growing right now," says Tracey Welsh, general manager at the property. "We are really starting to see an increase in companies inquiring to use our property for their next executive meeting or retreat."
Why the increased demand?
"I just think people are starting to feel a little more confident in the market," Welsh says. "After this period of economic downtown, I think people are looking to regroup again. They are looking at our resort specifically, I think, because they want to get back to nature. Companies and meeting attendees are looking to getting back to the basics of life again."
An increase in executive meetings may be good news for planners and attendees, but the uptick also means hotels are in a stronger bargaining position.
"Concessions are becoming a little tougher to come by as the meeting climate improves," says Christina Rutherford, operations specialist for DSW Inc., a footwear company based in Columbus, Ohio. "This year, for example, I thought it would be easy to plan a big meeting on a budget, but properties we spoke to weren’t as willing to negotiate as we thought."
BeMiller, at The Westin Columbus, sees the same trend.
"In 2010, planners thought the ball was in their court, and really, it was," he says. "They would actively negotiate value-adds, meeting space, Wi-Fi, discounts on food and beverage, and overall meeting packages.
"Now that we are starting to turn the corner in the economy, hotel properties are getting more aggressive with their pricing."
While BeMiller says The Westin Columbus is trying to stay competitive, surrounding properties are neglecting to follow suit.
"We are really pushing our rate, but some of our competitors are significantly undercutting what we are doing, which can make things very difficult," he says.
What are the current trends in meeting planning lead times? While some planners say that tighter availability at hotels is forcing them to book further ahead, some hoteliers report that meetings are being booked shorter-term than ever before.
"I see lead times extending quite a bit," DSW’s Rutherford says. "We’ve thought we were ahead of the game, but the more properties we call, the more we realize that there are much fewer openings than we thought. At this time last year, there wasn’t anything going on and we had the pick of several properties. Today, things are booking up and we are having to go back to traditional planning a year or more out to get the dates we need."
Anna Ryan, corporate meeting services for Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) in Dublin, Ohio, concurs with Rutherford on lead times, with one caveat.
"Most of our meetings are planned pretty far in advance—at least six months—and we pull those dates together at least a year in advance," she says. "We have board members located all over the world, so planning an ad hoc meeting just isn’t an option for us. That said, we are seeing short lead times on phone meetings, which can be pretty challenging."
At New York’s Crowne Plaza Times Square, Karen Thomson, director of sales and marketing, sees dramatically shrinking lead times.
"Since the crash—so in the last 18 to 24 months—the booking window has gotten incredibly short," she says. "In fact, ‘short term’ has taken on a whole new meaning. We are still booking meetings for [next month] and I’m talking about the movement of a few hundred people, airfare and speakers."
While views differ on lead times, there is general agreement that the length of executive meetings has been significantly abbreviated.
"I’m seeing executive meetings have shorter and busier agendas than ever before," Bishop says. "A meeting that a few years ago may have been four days is now two days."
Thomson sees the same trend.
"I’ve definitely seen the length of executive meetings shorten," she says. "People want to get in and out and back to their families. In addition, you hardly ever see meetings start on a Sunday night. Instead, they start on Tuesday or Wednesday and the attendees are back for the weekend. People want to be away from home as little as possible."
Executive meetings at OCLC have become much more intense over the past two years, according to Ryan.
"When I started several years ago, dinners never included business meetings—now they do," she says.
No Splashy Events
For years, executive meetings were known for lavish off-site receptions, brand-name entertainment, spa treatments and plenty of golf. Not anymore.
"These days, people are not clamoring for caviar," Hyatt’s Bishop says. "If groups are looking to do something after a meeting, the best they are going to get is holding dinner in a private dining room. People just don’t have the budgets for splashy events right now."
Thomason echoes Bishop’s sentiment.
"I’m not seeing a lot of limos going to baseball games anymore, which I think is a result of perception and budget issues," she says. Instead of planning a full American breakfast, executive meetings will opt for a continental breakfast buffet. Or instead of a cocktail reception, they will opt for a short break."
While Ryan says OCLC board meetings have never been extravagant, there have still been cutbacks.
"We used to offer an open bar at receptions," she says. "We don’t do that anymore. Instead, we offer only beer and wine."
The concerns of an executive meeting planner run the gamut from ROI to coordinating travel schedules, but budget constraints sit firmly at the top of the list.
"We are having to look for unique ways to provide over-the-top experiences at severely decreased budgets," Travel Dynamics’ Burk says. "Procurement is involved in everything. I think our biggest challenge is finding new and creative ways of doing things."
In addition to doing more with less, Ryan says executive meetings require a special level of customer service.
"I think one of the main concerns for any executive meeting planner is maintaining a high level of customer service," she says. "It is very important to cater to executives and make sure everything is taken care of."
Katie Morell (www.katiemorell.com) is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Meetings Focus editor.