5 Trends to Take Your Events From ‘Back to Normal’ to ‘Better Than Ever’

There are promising signs that the event industry is returning to pre-pandemic attendance numbers, and some small meetings are even exceeding 2019 levels. But there’s also plenty to indicate that nothing is going ‘back to normal.’ That’s because expectations have evolved, giving rise to the next generation of event trends. After a long pause, we are craving connection more than ever, but after evaluating what we’ve missed in purely virtual connections, we are bringing a new focus to face-to-face experiences.

The increasingly blurred boundaries between work and home life have redefined how we work, and that includes meetings and events outside of the day-to-day grind. Just as the event industry itself sees these moments of gathering as cause for celebration, so too do attendees — and they want it to feel that way.

To dig into what ‘better than ever’ can look like, we connected with four Marriott executives to uncover five emerging trends in event design, venue choice, technology use, and sustainability.

Event Trend 1: Incorporating Wellness and Play Into Business Meetings

Arguably, the ‘strictly business’ side of business meetings could be conducted remotely. But there’s industry-wide recognition that networking and connection are what people missed most about the in-person experience — and what’s most likely to drive attendee registration.

Make It Interactive and Multi-Sensory

Mike Wainwright, vice president of sales, convention & resort network at Marriott International, believes that event planners can fill that need by rethinking what meetings look like. “Companies have a big opportunity to boost employee morale, connectivity and engagement by integrating interactive and hands-on networking and breakout activities that foster team building and break the ice,” he says. “From corporate to property level, we’ve empowered our team members to leverage all their experiences and think creatively in this space.” Across Marriott Bonvoy properties, planners can stay on trend with creative opportunities to provide connection, including screen-printing workshops, cooking and mixology lessons, and paint-and-sip sessions. These memorable opportunities for shared experience “promote camaraderie, team building and evoke collaboration in a fun, fresh way.”

One strategy can be to partner with local businesses to create playful and multi-sensory experiences. For instance, the Marriott Marquis in Washington DC has implemented lobby activations that welcome attendees with food and beverage samples, including successfully partnering with Republic Restoratives to do tastings of their DC-made spirits.

Combine Entertainment With Inspiration

Inviting exceptional performers is another way to spark meaningful encounters at events. Last June, when Marriott Bonvoy Events presented a Meet with Momentum event in Chicago, former NFL champion Jon Dorenbos combined storytelling with his skill as a magician. By sharing his therapeutic journey mastering card tricks in the wake of family tragedy, Dorenbos inspired attendees to think of adversity as an opportunity for transformation. This combination of insight and intrigue made Dorenbos an ideal choice for Marriott’s Meet with Momentum program, a nation-wide series of events that allow planners to witness innovative event trends firsthand. Embodying the principle of “show, don’t tell,” this program showcases how planners can design events that draw on local talent and venue resources to raise the bar.

Foster Wellness With Space to Decompress

Of course, when event networking now requires attendees to be more present than ever, providing space to wind down is just as important as creating moments that dial up the excitement. Event professionals can help to meet this need by providing on-site amenities that enhance wellbeing. The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort offers the Zen Den, a pop-up, spa-like environment that can be curated throughout any of the resort’s unique meeting spaces. The Zen Den features a floor-to-ceiling video wall which plays mesmerizing scenes from nature, dim lighting, individual chaise lounges, immersion headphones with calming music, and hot tea and water service.

Event Trend 2: Offering Perks as an Added Incentive to Attend

Coordinating privileged access to nearby one-of-a-kind experiences is a definite value-add for attendees who want to make the most of their travel, and it translates to a more immersive, memorable, and restorative experience.

Julius Robinson, Marriott’s chief sales and marketing officer in the U.S. and Canada, emphasizes that exceptional customer experience delivers an expanded experience. It’s not just about what happens onsite, but beyond the walls of the venue itself. “For example,” he says, “hotel staff can help locate hard-to-get tickets to sporting events or concerts to make the experience more meaningful.”

Choosing a venue with proximity to major attractions is another opportunity to add an extra ‘wow’ factor. Planners can work with venues to coordinate visits to nearby hot spots for larger groups. For instance, the Sheraton Orlando Lake Buena Vista encourages groups with room blocks of 50 or more to make the most of their stay with perks like tickets to the Walt Disney World Resort.

Event Trend 3: Venturing Outside the Ballroom

After two years of having the freedom to work in their backyards, attendees are no longer content to go back to the conference rooms of the past. Robinson confirms, “With heightened demand for outdoor setups and reimagined meeting spaces, our property level teams are empowered to think creatively when suggesting venues and event spaces.” Unique spaces make for enhanced attendee delight and memorable networking events.

Marriott’s variety of outside-the-conference-room-box spaces — like the Private Floating Cabana Dinner at Wailea Beach Resort, a “Champagne Corner pop-up” at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live, and the dining domes at Delta Hotels Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort — create top-notch opportunities for more intimate breakout networking experiences during large-scale events. For larger groups, the Muir, Autograph Collection in Halifax, Canada, offers meeting spaces with 360-degree Atlantic Ocean views and a 36-foot private yacht available to rent.

Make Space for Play With Built-In Game Rooms

A venue that offers unusual opportunities for gamified interaction also allows attendees to gather together in unique combinations of work and play. At Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa Indian Wells, attendees can connect with each other through Desert Glow Entertainment’s virtual reality and classic arcade games, an escape room, duckpin bowling, and food and beverage offerings for the ultimate gaming experience. Desert Glow is available for event planners to book, with the top-tier buyout providing exclusive, private access and unlimited play for event attendees.

Even more traditional bleisure opportunities can be elevated to meet changing expectations. As of 2021, 93 percent of Marriott’s U.S. golf properties and 100 percent of Marriott’s U.K. managed golf properties were Audubon Certified, an initiative that speaks to attendees’ need to indulge in play while maintaining their commitment to sustainability.

Event Trend 4: Using Technology to Enhance the Attendee Experience

While we may no longer be as dependent on technology to connect with one another, there’s no denying that expectations around digital services have changed. Kathy Mouw, vice president of global sales for U.S. and Canada at Marriott International, has observed this trend both in the wider industry and in her own day-to-day work. “We’re embarking on a new era of technology innovation, which is one of the silver linings attributed to heightened remote work during the pandemic,” she says. “Not only are we using technology for more streamlined and personalized travel and group experiences, but there is a larger demographic at all age levels that is well acquainted with and welcoming of newly developed tech advancements.”

Contactless Convenience and Push-Button Delivery

Digital tools can, as Robinson says, present “an opportunity for the customer to take control over their travel experience.”

The convenience of contactless services and the advantages of personalization are as relevant as ever. Across Marriott Bonvoy’s portfolio of hotels, for example, attendees have the option to check in either online or through the Marriott Bonvoy app. Marriott Bonvoy members can request a mobile key at many North American and global venues, meaning their digital room key is sent to their smartphones. Where allowed by local laws, that means skipping the front desk and its associated lines altogether, and heading straight up to their room when they arrive. That’s the sort of frictionless experience that can really set the tone for an attendee’s next few days.

Within the Marriott Bonvoy app, attendees can also request service amenities to be delivered to their room and chat directly with hotel service providers via smartphone. They can also order — or pre-order — food from on-property restaurants with the option to have their food picked up or delivered to their chosen location. Having food brought to a room, a poolside get-together, or a cabana at the desired time has definite wellness and networking benefits.

Hybrid Connectivity as a Key Value-Add

Hybrid connectivity during events may have emerged under the constraints of Covid-19 health and safety requirements, but it looks to be here to stay. It’s a solution to a wide range of attendee health and wellness needs and provides onsite attendees more ways to engage with event content. Venues with expertise in WiFi and AV needs can help you provide this value-add. But negotiating tech requirements can complicate the event planning process — and budget expectations.

Marriott Bonvoy’s portfolio of venues can offer multi-year meeting agreements that allow planners to review expenditures to cut unnecessary expenses. Bought twice as much bandwidth as you ended up needing? You can account for that when reviewing next year’s plan. Plus, booking the same venue means that you’ll already have a relationship with your on-the-ground team — or you can build your relationship across properties to create variety and interest for annual meetings.

Digital Portfolios Mean Ongoing Customization

As yet another tech-related benefit, digital portfolios can help to track these year-over-year relationships so you and your hotel partner can develop an increasingly customized plan. Crissy Tallman, the Director of Conventions and Continuing Education at Florida Dental Association, has brought attendees to the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center for several years running. Developing a year-over-year partnership with the team at Gaylord Palms has allowed her to assess attendee survey results with the venue team, and draw from their institutional expertise to develop solutions to the pain points they identify. This method “has really created such a synergy and teamwork,” Tallman says. This value-add for planners can also capture personal preferences of repeat guests year over year.

Event Trend 5: Actually Living Up to the Industry’s Sustainability Goals

Skift Meetings recent State of Business Events survey confirms it: The industry is becoming more committed to sustainability goals. When asked if sustainability now plays a more important role in their job as compared to the pre-Covid period, 57.5 percent of respondents answered “Yes.”

Being able to tell your attendees that their event venue is meeting the most ambitious goals in the industry is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate that you share this commitment. It may not always be easy to follow this event trend, but your venue can be a key partner.

Be sure to ask about proactive environmental projects that go beyond carbon credits. This includes cleanup programs, carbon reduction commitments, innovations that minimize food waste, recycling and upcycling systems, and grassroots initiatives with a direct impact — like tree-planting programs.

Look for Measurable Sustainability Commitments and Awards

Ask for hard figures that will help you separate meaningful action from greenwashing. Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity at Marriott International, says that Marriott’s commitments extend throughout its operations and value chain. “As a company, we have a responsibility and vested interest in addressing some of the world’s most pressing social, environmental and economic issues. Our sustainability strategy is multifaceted, and we are proud of the accomplishments we’ve made that create impact throughout our hotels and in the communities where we operate as illustrated in our 2022 Serve 360 report. For example, in 2021 over 30% of our hotels were certified to a recognized sustainability standard, while over 200 cleanup projects were conducted by properties and Marriott Business Councils in the U.S., a testament to how our hotels continue to drive efforts in their operations and to support local programs to protect and enhance ecosystems.”

She adds, “We are working toward other goals such as cutting food waste in half at our hotels and having 100 percent of the portfolio sustainably certified by 2025, as well as reaching net-zero emissions across our portfolio by no later than 2050. Marriott has signed on to the Race to Zero pledge via the most ambitious standard, Business Ambition for 1.5°C, and has committed to reducing emissions across all three scopes in line with the Paris Agreement through transparent action plans and robust near-term targets.”

Environmental awards from well-known third-party institutions are another way to establish credibility on the sustainability front. Marriott’s climate leadership is garnering international recognition. The JW Marriott Washington DC received the 2021 Global Energy Management Leadership award for reducing more than 725 metric tons of carbon emissions.

Waste Reduction and Going Green — Literally

Marriott also reduces waste by composting, upcycling 100 percent of its waste oil for biofuel, providing water stations throughout the meeting levels, eschewing table linen, and using compostable packaging for boxed lunches.

Paper waste is a direct contributor to deforestation, and Marriott has responded by engaging the cloud-based My Digital Office platform. This has eliminated the use of paper for hotel reporting processes at over 1,200 Marriott associated properties in North America, preventing the harvesting of more than 8,000 trees for paper production last year alone. In addition, in 2021, Marriott reforested 34 acres by planting 20,000 trees through GreenTrees, the largest North American reforestation program. It focuses on restoring degraded agricultural lands back to a native forest ecosystem, improving the health of the watershed, and revitalizing habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife.

Marriott furthers its commitment to ecological and social responsibility by purchasing fish certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and eggs from cage-free farms.

Bringing It Home Away From Home

Attendees have experienced both what they loved and what they didn’t miss about in-person events, and while they want to connect in-person, they expect more if they’re traveling to meet. While event professionals are facing changing and enhanced expectations around the attendee experience, there are also many new tools to meet them. Choosing a venue with the capacity to hit all of the right notes can create an extraordinary experience — and help make sure that your attendees will be excited to come back next time around.

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