With healthy advance bookings for meetings forecasted through 2018, the major hospitality brands are showing a sudden surge of creativity to engage meeting planners in more compelling ways similar to leisure travel audiences.

At the IMEX America meetings industry trade show in Las Vegas this month, we spoke with top group sales and marketing executives at Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels, Hilton Worldwide, and MGM Resorts International to learn how the global brands are developing strategy around their meeting platforms heading into 2017.

“I think we’re still in a healthy phase in the meetings business because occupancy levels are at an all-time high, and there’s a shift with corporate buyers doing more multi-years,” said Brian King, global brand and sales officer for Marriott International. “Typically, corporate is a couple years out and maybe one contract at a time, but because demand has been so strong, if you want the space, the smart planner is going to do a multi-year. So we’re seeing a longer horizon than we’ve seen before.”

At the same time, King told Skift that the days of planners booking hotel meetings solely on “rates, dates, and space are over.” Even though business is good and it’s still a seller’s market, planners are more demanding because their delegates are more demanding. Blame it on Millennials, social media, lifestyle hotels, whatever, but people are tired of boring banquets in big beige boxes.

“It’s not just 72-inch rounds and chicken breasts anymore,” King said. “These are experience-driven consumers, and planners are saying, ‘My attendee base is asking for things that they’ve never asked for before.’ That’s really where our Meetings Imagined platform came from a few years ago. It was an answer to planners who told us, ‘I’m getting demands from my attendees and I’m not sure what to do.'”

Post-Merger Marriott Meetings

Since the Marriott-Starwood merger, planners have been concerned that less competition would drive higher group rates. King dispensed with the idea, saying, “The reality is the hotels are usually owned by individual owners, and every hotel is a micro-market unto itself. I think some planners see that as a concern, and I understand that, but pricing is really driven based on the specific market around the individual property.”

Marriott recently partnered with LG Electronics to develop the LG Studio meeting space, which includes a full-service kitchen outfitted with LG appliances. This has been a long time in the making, and there’s a lot of demand because we’ve all had enough granola bars and bagels during meeting breaks.

The goal is to recreate a residential kitchen atmosphere in Marriott’s prefunction meeting space for chefs to prepare items in front of attendees. So far, the LG Studio prototype is only up and running at Marriott’s M Beta Hotel in Charlotte, but King says more will be launching in new-build properties, including Marriott Marquis Houston, Marriott Marquis Chicago, Marriott Irvine Spectrum, and others in Asia.

He added that Marriott will also begin retrofitting existing properties in 2017 where it’s economically viable.

“LG Studio is based on the idea of offering attendees what we call ‘bite-sized learnings,'” said King. “In Charlotte, our chef is out there in a fully built kitchen, and you kinda want to settle in and have a glass of wine and make dinner. And not only is the food on display, but the chef is telling the story about the local rubs and barbecue techniques that take place in Charlotte. That’s a very, very different meeting experience than coffee and donuts.”

Marriott, however, has been aggressively rolling out all kinds of initiatives the last few years but they don’t always stick. Remember the LinkedIn-connected lobby desk and 6 Degrees app in Boston? The LG Studio sounds like a great idea, but will it scale? These kitchens are not inexpensive to install or easy to operate in high-compression areas.

“Sometimes we’re not sure with new test initiatives what will scale, but we know LG Studio will scale,” King answered. “First, we want to get it out into the market and get feedback, and that’s the biggest shift you’re seeing with Marriott today. We never used to talk about these early innovations until they were so ready, and then we deployed them everywhere. But what we’re hearing from customers is, ‘We like to see that you’re trying new things, and maybe it doesn’t work out, but we know you’re innovating.’ It was actually to our detriment before that we had everything buttoned up, and frankly, that’s something we learned from Starwood.”

Hyatt Guest Experience Management

Hyatt Hotels has spent the last year rolling out its new Hyatt GEM (guest experience management) initiative throughout its full-service hotels worldwide. According to Gus Vonderheide, VP of global sales for the Americas at Hyatt, the GEM program gives all hotel associates access to a central database where they can enter information on guests’ personal preferences.

This is already happening at some of the luxury hotel brands, mostly with input from senior executives, butlers, and concierges. It’s notable, however, that Hyatt is attempting to scale this globally to personalize the guest experience, and it’s encouraging all staff to participate.

Vonderheide emphasized that the mass-personalization process is still in beta. Specific guest information is spelled out in a pre-arrival report communicated throughout the property. He told us that every Hyatt GM in the world is now up to speed on GEM, and, “It’s very much ingrained in our culture.”

It will be interesting to see how and if this works in a significant way, above and beyond the information collected in any average guest loyalty program. The training and implementation across hundreds of Hyatt-managed hotels, and eventually franchises, is ambitious.

“It’s really a reverse perspective about how we can make a difference in our customers’ lives by figuring out ways to pull in technology with a human touch and be more involved,” said Vonderheide. “We can now start collecting that information in a subtle manner, whether it’s that you like arts and culture, or a feather pillow, or a martini with two olives. So when you check into a hotel in Dallas or Sydney, you’re like, ‘Wow, Hyatt has figured me out. They know I like to hike, and there’s an outdoors magazine in my room.'”

We asked Vonderheide when Hyatt is going to promote GEM to the leisure and group markets as a brand-wide initiative. He said there hasn’t been a date scheduled for any roll-out yet due to the complexity of the program.

Hyatt launched another new initiative in North America. Meeting professionals with citywide groups don’t want to have to start over explaining their needs every time they move from city to city. So for Hyatt’s top customers, the brand developed a new National Event Planning manager position. These are people who fly in ahead of planners to educate hotel staff about a group’s specific needs.

“So if we’ve got a convention that’s going to be in Seattle, Dallas, and New Orleans, what if we had someone from the corporate level who could actually work with them on-property?” asked Vonderheide. “They get to know the staff, and know what the hot buttons are, so as soon as the planner arrives they’re up and running.”

Hilton Promotes Meeting ‘WowMakers’

Coming out of the recession, Hilton Worldwide launched its online Connect+ platform in 2013 to reinforce the business case for face-to-face meetings and events. Since then, Hilton has continued to roll out various meetings-themed content platforms, culminating this month with the launch of the newly revamped Meetings.Hilton.com portal and the introduction of the “WowMakers” initiative.

The WowMakers webpages and messaging strategy feature 10 voice recordings of meeting and incentive travel planners who’ve organized highly challenging, complex, and/or creative programs around the world. That’s supplemented with new content focusing on sector-specific meetings, and new tools to streamline the request-for-proposal process.

“When we took a look at the beginning of this year about where the industry was at, we came up with a few new things,” said Andrew Flack, VP marketing & eCommerce in the Americas for Hilton Worldwide. “One was this idea of meeting planners as ‘WowMakers.’ We began to see in the same way the travel experience was driving everything on the leisure side, it’s now really driving behavior on the business travel side as well. And when people are traveling for meetings, they’re using photo sharing to build their professional networks.”

However, Flack continued, after more than 400 interviews with people involved in creating hotel programs, “Meeting planners told us they’re feeling the burden of delivering that to their clients.”

So Hilton is now building on its messaging around the return on investment of meetings, and expanding that to focus on the return on experience. The strategy revolves around trumpeting the exploits of event professionals who have organized high-impact programs at Hilton properties to inspire other planners to think bigger and bolder.

Flack said the recordings are also designed to inform internal convention sales and services staff, as well, and to be used at sales presentations.

“We observed the role of meeting planners is often undervalued, so we felt it was time to recognize two things: The greater importance of the event experience, and the greater importance of the meeting professionals who bring it to life,” he explained. “So we coined this term ‘WowMaker’ to describe these people as a celebration of them, and a guide for ourselves in terms of how we engage with them. This will be our north star into next year as we develop new initiatives.”

The challenge here is recurring. Hilton comes out with some of the best ideas in the industry to develop real thought leadership around meeting design and business trends, but the online delivery and promotion always feels overly corporate. Hilton is not a banking company. The WowMakers campaign should have a lot more compelling imagery and grippy contextual content to support it. Furthermore, the WowMakers campaign video doesn’t nearly convey the possibilities in experiential event design today. Not even close.

The best thing Hilton could do is create its own brand studio to produce content that people will actually want to consume and share.

MGM Resorts: ‘I Am The Show’

MGM Resorts International shared with us its new brand video that’s scheduled to kick off the company’s new worldwide campaign at the end of the year. It’s actually pretty good. The kinetic imagery promotes the idea that MGM’s properties and associates are an intrinsic part of Las Vegas’ push as the “Entertainment Capital of the World.”

According to Michael Dominguez, senior VP & chief sales officer for MGM Resorts International, new associate training emphasizes that staff should consider themselves as part of the company’s overall entertainment value in terms of the guest experience, rather than just being service providers.

“Internally, we’ll have imagery that will show a bartender in front of a bar saying: ‘This is my stage. I am the show,'” said Dominguez. “More than 75 percent of all our revenue today is non-gaming, and that’s important because we’re a luxury hotel and entertainment company that has a casino element to it. Just like other resorts have golf courses and spas.”

MGM is building on its mission as an entertainment company with the new $100 million Park Theater opening this winter inside the Monte Carlo property, which will soon no longer be called Monte Carlo. The 5,000-seat theater is designed to host performers for long-term residencies, which MGM has never had the appropriate venue to do before.

In April this year, MGM opened the T-Mobile Arena and adjacent outdoor plaza called The Park next to Monte Carlo. With the new Park Theater opening, the 3,000-room Monte Carlo will undergo a full rehab and be rebranded as the The Park MGM. Within that hotel, New York’s Sydell Group is opening the 250-room NoMad Las Vegas with its own pool, dining and spa facilities.

“That property will jump from the number 10 average rate in the company to number four, so it puts it in a whole other category tier,” said Dominguez. “That’s important because Mandalay and Delano need more overflow for corporate customers. I now have a higher corporate clientele, now that we have hockey and all the sponsored suites in T-Mobile, so I need a product that’s going to match that.”

Chef Mario Batali is also contracted to launch one of his popular Eataly food experiences at the Las Vegas Boulevard entrance to The Park MGM redevelopment, which could evolve into an interesting partnership.

“It’s going to be a half-billion dollar project to remake Monte Carlo into The Park MGM,” said Dominguez. “When it’s done, it’s a brand that we hope to expand across the country.”

Photo Credit: Marriott's new LG Studio meeting space is rolling out in new-build properties in North America and Asia. Marriott International