Coronavirus cases may be on the rise, but Hilton is still looking to a future when people will once again meet in person — to some degree, anyway.
Hilton launched a hybrid meeting and events strategy Monday aimed at enabling event planners to book meetings at a hotel while also allowing people to tune in virtually from other locations. The program, called Hilton EventReady Hybrid Solutions, builds on its heightened health and safety protocols around events previously announced last summer.
It may seem like an odd time to launch any type of product tied to people meeting in person. New coronavirus case counts are soaring around the world, and an even more contagious strain of the virus has been reported in the UK and several U.S. states.
But Hilton leaders emphasize the hybrid meeting platform expansion is more about preparing clients for the future rather than signaling now is a safe time to fully return to hosting in-person gatherings.
“We’re moving forward with rolling it out because we think our customers need the information now,” said Kelly Knowlen, executive director of sales engagement and special events at Hilton. “They need the resources and the help now so, even while they’re planning, it might be for future events.”
Hybrid meetings were mentioned in Hilton’s EventReady launch last summer, but that rollout was focused more around the health and safety standards around meetings and events.
The Hybrid Solutions platform outlines more of the logistical measures for hosting a hybrid meeting, particularly around technology infrastructure. The plan arrives after Hilton researched how to best host a hybrid event through five case studies dating back as far as 2019.
Hilton included larger meetings in its study — including an internal company-wide meeting that had 400 people attending in-person across 25 hotels and 4,300 attendees tuning in virtually. But the plan launched this week focuses on smaller hybrid meetings of 20 people or less.
“We want those numbers to grow exponentially but when we can and it’s safe,” Knowlen said.
The biggest challenge to hybrid events, especially ones with a high number of virtual attendees, is making sure the host property’s IT and audiovisual systems are capable of handling the web traffic.
Hilton’s hybrid-ready hotels require higher bandwidth to handle seamless connectivity for the duration of the event. But there is no need for Hilton owners to get stressed about new IT systems becoming a new, costly brand standard to implement at a time when cash is sparse during the pandemic: The “vast majority” of Hilton’s hotels are already capable of hosting a hybrid event, Knowlen said.
“We’re not going back to owners and requiring them to make changes right now,” she added.
Hilton will also offer multi-site hybrid meetings, where event planners have the option of hosting in-person portions of their event at multiple hotels. Select hotels even have access to Presentation Stages production studios for broadcasting speakers or pre-recording event content.
Pricing for hybrid events is largely tied to how many people are attending in-person, Knowlen said. But costs could increase on the virtual side for clients looking for a more engaging experience with things like online polling or chat features. But those offerings and added cost would come from outside vendors rather than Hilton.
While multiple vaccines are in distribution around the world, the pandemic is far from over. But Hilton and other companies have plenty of financial motive to build out the infrastructure to revive the decimated meetings and events business. Group business travel pre-pandemic drove nearly a third of all room revenue in luxury and upper-upscale hotels in the U.S., according to McKinsey & Co.
But that is also tied to fully in-person events where attendees are staying at the host hotel. It is unclear what kind of impact a hybrid event will — or won’t — have on occupancy figures. It will likely be years before the group business and convention sector recovers, but smaller hybrid events at least set the foundation for building back revenue.
“We’re in it for the long haul. EventReady has a lot of long legs, but we’ll need to stay relevant to our customers,” Knowlen said. “We needed our customers to know we had a plan in place for them to have in-person meetings in a safe and socially responsible environment.”