Benchmark Reveals 10 Meetings Trends as the Pandemic Wanes 

outside gatherings

While most everything has changed regarding in-person meetings and events since COVID-19 took the stage and decided not to leave, some elements of traditional in-person meetings, such as regionally focused cuisine and destination experiences, have strengthened, but with a keen eye on ensuring attendee and staff safety while the industry looks forward to recovery. 

“If there’s one thing we learned in 2020, it’s the true definition of what it means to pause and pivot, and just how resilient and creative the folks in the meetings industry are,” said Eric Gavin, chief sales officer of independent hospitality management company Benchmark, in a press release. “With the anticipation of widespread vaccinations in late spring, we are seeing early signs of pent-up demand for meetings and gatherings. In our view, 2021 is a turn-around year that will kick off a substantial recovery for the meetings industry.”

Eric Gavin, Chief Sales Officer, Benchmark
Eric Gavin, Chief Sales Officer, Benchmark

Following are 10 trends observations—and two bonus trends—offered by Benchmark, with feedback from its portfolio of 80 properties under the Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, Gemstone Collection and Benchmark Conference Centers brands. 

1. Road to Recovery  

The industry is expressing optimism for the first time since the pandemic began! Vaccines are being administered to increasing segments of the population, raising optimism for a meetings industry comeback during the third and fourth quarters of this year. According to a leading meetings, events and hospitality technology provider, to date in 2021, meeting RFPs have reached the highest levels since March 2020. As destinations begin to safely open back up, so are the size and quantity of group gatherings. 

2. Road Trip Meetings 

Corporate gatherings in 2021 are primarily regional drive-to at this point, though Benchmark is seeing fly-in meetings take hold during the latter part of the year. Hybrid meetings remain a key option for including entire teams within a meeting, with attendees nearby driving in and those further afield attending virtually due to travel apprehensions, or some needing to remain home for family or health reasons. That said, the demand for hybrid meetings is not as strong as might have been expected. It seems the desire to gather in person far surpasses hybrid meetings, and there may be fatigue setting in with remote connections. 

3. Technology Driver 

Technology can make—or break—a meeting experience, and planners know that better than any other. So, what is the most important technology request and concern among planners for a superb conference experience in 2021? Bandwidth! Bandwidth is technology priority No.number 1, 2 and 3! After that are a property’s virtual meeting capacity and a dedicated tech support team available at a moment's notice throughout the meeting. 

[Related: 2021 Meetings Today Trends Survey]

4. Year of the SMERF 

And not the little blue creatures we grew up watching on public television! One would think that major pharma would dominate in 2021, or the tech industry, or the insurance or financial industry would reign as the most important industry segment delivering the majority of inquiries and meetings. But not this year. In 2021, it’s all about S.M.E.R.F. (social, military, education, religious and fraternal) business, with a heavy emphasis on social, educational and religious meetings.! 

5. Don't Touch!  

Rapidly becoming the new standard in hospitality, contactless technology rallied during the past many months and will outlive the pandemic. It has become the expectation of planners and meeting guests, facilitated by smart phone capabilities at check in and check out. From arrival to entering the guest room to conference registration and meeting agendas to conference services to dining with virtual menus for ordering breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks or room service, contactless technology is here to stay.! 

6. Dinner Reimagined 

QR codes and contactless menus, attended buffets, individually packaged menu selections, the reinvention of the a la carte box meal featuring fresh gourmet salads, grilled shrimp with orzo—, meal service has changed dramatically. In addition to sealed fresh food selections and snacks, meals may also be accompanied by face masks, bottled water and hand sanitizers within the box. Some properties are even elevating the box meal to grazing boxes in lieu of grazing tables.  

A strong preference remains, though, for served meals, or modified buffets with individually packaged selections, along with culinary staff-served hot and cold choices all behind safety plexiglass. Given the current environment, properties are accommodating meeting guests in any way they can—tailoring to individual customer preferences, which may also include bento box meals and boxed hors d'oeuvres as well as drop-off catering in guest rooms.  

Eco-sensitive as ever, individually packaged meals are being presented in curated eco-friendly containers. 

7. Creative, Local & Sustainable—Some Things Never Change!  

In 2021, creativity, taste and eco-appeal are important priorities to planners and guests—the pandemic hasn't changed what makes dinner delicious, memorable, responsibly prepared and talked about a year later.  

Culinary teams remain exceptionally passionate about providing locally sourced and sustainable food items, not only for freshness but to support local farmers and purveyors during this challenging time. Farm- to- fork dining experiences are as important today as they ever have been.!  

In all regions, outdoor dining reigns, with chefs in northern regions planning hearty winter menus served in large outdoor spaces surrounded by fire pits and heaters, enabling safe, appealing and socially distanced dining experiences under the stars—often pairing with soul-warming signature drinks like smoked bourbon Manhattans and old-fashioned cocktails.   

8. Size Matters 

In many destinations, state regulations are restricting the size of events to as little as 10-15 people, so understandably the average group size in 2021 is smaller. With more destinations lessening their restrictions, however, we are seeing larger group requests of 50-100 guests booking at larger properties that offer extensive space for social distancing, with some breakout spaces offered outside for greater accommodation of social distancing with small group sessions, and with select breakouts offered virtually so guests can easily transition into the breakout of their choice.  

Meetings being booked in 2021 extend for two days on average, which is not too dissimilar to previous years. Meeting package rates are holding, on average, to those negotiated in 2019 to remain competitive and win business. Properties are preparing for many meetings to book very last-minute throughout the year. 

9. A Fresh Perspective 

Meeting outdoors has been a fun trend over the past few years. In 2021, it's a necessity.  

Outdoor spaces are being created where they don't currently exist: ballroom courtyards, resort lawns and sandy beaches are now meeting rooms for larger groups, as are restaurant terraces, pool decks, outdoor pavilions and newly installed tented rooms which reimagine the “traditional” meeting room this year. 

Adirondack chairs are stand-ins for ergonomic seating, and portable heating elements bring warmth to outdoor rooms in northern climates. Where appropriate, plexiglass offers another line of safety. And the meeting room views have never been better. 

10. Partners in Planning 

Meeting contract language is where the rubber hits the road in 2021. Many planners are adamant about the need for flexibility around attrition clauses, cancellation clauses and fees, rebooking clauses, group rate clauses and commissions.  

Though moving along at a more rapid pace than previously, vaccinations have only recently become more broadly administered, and planners remain cautious about rescheduling meetings in the shorter term. Many find comfort in Benchmark's Meeting Accelerator Program launched early in the pandemic, which offered zero attrition or cancellation fees and zero risk in rebooking through March 31 of this year.  

Planners are keenly aware of what the industry has been through and are eager to be a partner—particularly for those hotels that have been gracious with cancellation policies and have remained in touch actively. 

Bonus Trends 

1. The Importance of a Destination 

The destination experience and destination programming are a top priority this year, particularly in drive-in destinations offering significant transportation accessibility. In fact, the destination experience has probably never been more important.  

Deep dives into the local cultural amenities of a destination are being requested by planners, as most destinations offer wide open spaces desirable for social distancing and peaceful, relaxing and safe downtime activities/experiences that can be customized to the group's needs.  

Resorts with wellness programs are offering meeting groups activities centered on experientialism, wellness and self-care, healing and immersions in nature, including resort outfitters activities. And, like outdoor meeting rooms, you just can't beat the views.  

2. Spirit Through Team Bonding 

There has very likely never been a greater need than in 2021 for teambuilding programming. After many months of officing out of the home and connecting with colleagues and clients virtually, there is a yearning to come together, to reconnect, to rebuild the team and rekindle the team spirit. It’s a basic human need.

The need to do so outside, given the times, is ideal for teambuilding, and these programs are being actively requested. Orvis fly-fishing, Land Rover Driving School, falconry, hiking, golf, “Lost Shaker of Salt” scavenger hunts, margarita mixology courses, cardboard boat regattas, coconut bowling, ax throwing—anything that will offer the team a chance unwind, reconnect, share and delve into renewal experiences, gain courage and maybe blow off some stream. 

This story is based on a press release from Benchmark.

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Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.