Perhaps the biggest trend in travel preferences over the past couple of years has been the desire for authentic, hands-on experiences that bring encounters with local culture and opportunities for personal growth. While most often associated with leisure travel, these objectives are no less true for meetings, particularly in resort locations where cultural, wellness and adventurous diversions abound.
The meetings industry is clearly taking note. When compiling survey results for its 2016 Top Meeting Package Trends, the International Association of Conference Centers reported that 65 percent of planners said clients were asking for inclusions beyond the usual meeting space, food and beverage, and tech services. According to the survey, the top additional items requested were teambuilding, local cultural trips, coaching and facilitation.
“It’s becoming much more important to offer enriching experiences for groups—more of our customers are interested in local culture and local experiences,” said Andrew Finn, vice president of group sales for Benchmark Hospitality, which operates hotels, resorts and conference centers around the world. “This has intensified even during the past two or three years. People still want the nitty-gritty of space, rates and dates, but they also want experiences that fit in with what their meeting is trying to accomplish.”
At Benchmark properties, these experiences can take a variety of twists tied in with the various locations. At Chaminade Resort & Spa in Santa Cruz, Calif., a new offering called Mindful Meetings includes such amenities as meditation nooks in the newly renovated guest rooms, a guided meditation at the start and end of each day’s meeting led by a resident meditation expert and a yoga/Pilates therapist, guided hikes on the resort’s nature trails, discounts on spa treatments and special menu selections. At the Doral Arrowood Resort in Rye Brook, N.Y., a new offering is The Remarkable Race, a teambuilding activity focusing on risk versus reward challenges throughout the resort’s 114 wooded acres.
Among other hospitality companies aware of the need to provide engaging experiences for groups is Kindred Hotels & Resorts, which has a portfolio of 64 properties, primarily in resort locations around the U.S. Much like Finn, Kindred’s managing director, Bree Brostko, has seen demand intensify over the past few years.
“There has been a turnaround in attitude that arose after 2008 when the meeting industry retracted, and companies were not meeting as often and were focusing only on serious business sessions,” she said. “Teambuilding and other activities got put on the back burner. Now companies are seeing value in allowing their teams to have immersive experiences, to get out of the boardroom and let relationships develop.”
The varieties of meeting experiences at Kindred properties are as varied as the locations themselves, according to Brostko.
Examples are found at Sea Island Resort in Georgia, where a scavenger hunt takes participants through the salt marshes, beaches and other areas of the property’s coastal environment, and at Woodstock Inn & Resort in Vermont, where attendees can go on an orienteering course through the Green Mountains created by a former Navy Seal.
“A very fun new teambuilding activity is at the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas, where groups get on jumbo paddleboards that hold up to six people,” Brostko said. “It gets coworkers out onto the lake while instilling some physical challenge.”
Noble House Hotels & Resorts also takes a localized and immersive approach to meetings at its resort properties, according to Vice President of Sales and Marketing Elizabeth Grillos.
One of the most distinctive experiences can be found at Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa in Gateway, Colo., where the resident Curator of Curiosity Zebulon Miracle, a local naturalist, leads groups on hikes through dinosaur fossil beds and teaches workshops on making traditional tools used by Native Americans.
“If I’ve done my job, people will take a closer look at their own environment once they get back home,” Miracle said.