Founder and chief executive of event management software specialist iVvy Lauren Hall and Rachael Grimsey, EMEA senior vice president, look at how venues must respond to the challenges of COVID-19
The recent removal of most legal COVID restrictions in England allowing pubs, restaurants and other indoor gathering places to operate at full capacity was a relief for hospitality venues.
Despite the tumultuous past 16 months, an unwavering passion within the industry as a whole and a desire for travellers to meet again continues to bring venues, meeting planners and suppliers together in a shared belief that recovery is achievable.
Based on work with dozens of venues since the pandemic broke, here are some observations on how the meetings and events industry should prepare for recovery over the coming months:
Doing more with less
Teams are smaller, and in many cases operations have been centralised. While venues are currently focused on ramping their staff levels, many ex-pats who worked in the UK before the pandemic took the downtime as an opportunity to go home, and whether they’ll return remains to be seen.
“Front-line service people, they’re in front of guests all day and might have some lingering concern over the virus,” says Heather Hart, an experienced consultant in the UK meetings and events revenue space. “We’ll fill those roles, but it will just take some time.”
In the meantime, smaller or centralised teams have an increased appetite for solutions that provide the ability to create efficiencies through automation.
We are seeing venues of all types looking to technology to provide any competitive edge as business returns and more venues are vying for the same business.
For example, a reduced staff at Twickenham Stadium is relying on technology to assist with tasks that previously took teams of people to accomplish, says Nils Braude, managing director of Twickenham Experience.
Sales, marketing and operations teams are working in a more coordinated manner than ever before, using web-based systems to communicate and track workflows while they continue to work mostly remote.
“Accounts are tracked in the cloud from the proposal stage through the contract stage, all the way through the time the attendees arrive at the stadium,” Braude says.
Balancing a bifurcated booking window
As venues prepare for a full reopening, the increase in enquiries and in customer engagement is ramping up.
However, it’s important to differentiate between conferences and meetings – smaller meetings will come back more quickly, led by companies where staff has been working from home up until this point.
In many cases, these companies are looking for more social interaction among colleagues but may no longer be renting office space as a result of the pandemic. They’ll look to hotels and smaller venues for meeting space.
That trend is playing out at Twickenham, where Braude says his team is seeing increased interest from both small, socially distanced meetings, which are coming in a short booking window, and larger groups that want to hold tentative dates for later in the year, starting in September.
Teams are relying heavily on technology to manage both short-term enquiries and longer-term hold dates while they regrow their teams.
Thinking outside the box
For most of 2020, all the rugby matches at Twickenham were held behind closed doors. A small number of fans attended a match in December, and then just over the past weeks the stadium opened to about 10,000 fans for a few weekend matches.
The venue stayed open throughout it all – it simply changed the style of events it was hosting, Braude says.
It hosted training events and private events for a small number of people that were then broadcast to larger groups throughout the region.
It also hosted an esports tournament in November and December where organisers bought out the entire stadium’s venue space that lasted nearly five weeks.
Perhaps most importantly, Twickenham staff turned its parking lot into a COVID vaccination center, which afforded it the ability to retain staff.
“We switched from being hospitality operators to COVID testing staff,” Braude says.
The venue did well by doing good, retaining key staff and keeping business flowing while also contributing to the recovery effort directly.
Re-evaluating the tech stack
While venues either closed their doors or coped with lower demand over the past year, one opportunity that presented itself was the ability to take the necessary time to re-assess systems and processes that will set them up for future success.
Hart says hotel leaders are finally starting to understand the value of the standalone meeting space separate from the rooms.
Until recently, filling rooms took priority as leaders were compensated on rooms revenue only, instead of measuring what she calls “delegate density,” or the number of meeting attendees on property as a percentage of meeting space capacity.
Today at Twickenham, the sales team is fielding requests from their website, email and phone. “You can send us a smoke signal if you want,” Braude joked.
All of the requests are routed directly into iVvy, which crunches the numbers and surfaces past-booking behavior to help prioritise responses.
This approach has enabled Twickenham to concentrate on responding to guests with timeliness and flexibility, and optimising the revenue that is now beginning to trickle in.
Twickenham deployed iVvy in 2017 after switching from a larger, legacy sales and catering system and Braude says it has improved performance across his entire team.
The most important aspect, he said, is iVvy’s support – instead of logging a ticket and receiving a case number, iVvy account managers will reply immediately and offer assistance to get issues resolved quickly.
“We don’t want to stand still, we want to be more technologically advanced than our competitors, and iVvy is a partner in that regard,” Braude said.
For the next few months, venues across Britain will remain agile to manage the dynamic post-COVID environment.
As the market moves through its recovery stage, there is now, more than ever, a critical need to implement technology solutions to help with efficiencies due to the limited resources available at properties.
Those who rely on a strategic use of technology will be well-prepared to capitalise on recovery and sustain healthy business well into the future.
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