What will the future of convention hotels look like?

The arrival of COVID-19 forced many hotels to close their doors as travel came to a screeching halt last spring. Among those that have been some of the hardest hit are convention hotels, due to postponed or outright cancelled events and group gatherings that are at the core of the business. 

Since the spring, we have observed peaks and valleys of optimism that the industry will recover alongside creative innovations for new and improved hotel operations to get us there. With vaccinations now underway to protect against COVID-19, more hotels that were forced to close are preparing their plans for reopening and looking to others in the industry for a road map to recovery.

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Looking ahead to the future, we are hopeful to safely convene the convention hotel industry and aim to come out stronger on the other side. However, because we’re still at the mercy of changing guidelines and current uncertainties, the immediate future requires flexibility, creative solutions and forward contingency plans for a return to a “new normal.” 

Starting Somewhere

Large groups drive significant revenue across various hotel departments, from the spa and concierge services to the hotel bars and restaurants. Convention hotels in particular have multiple venues on property, designed to offer convenience and options to guests and cater to multiple groups simultaneously. It may not be feasible or sustainable to reopen all venues at once, but as restrictions surrounding COVID-19 continue to lift tier by tier, hotels may have an opportunity to follow suit by opening venues on property in strategic phases. For example, today’s traveler may not need to wine and dine at upscale restaurants, but a coffee shop and grab-and-go cafe may be more of a necessity and help you build toward the reopening of all venues. 

Maximize Assets 

Convention hotels are also designed with the space and audiovisual capabilities to host large events and multiple groups at one time. This space can be used to our advantage to host meetings and events that abide by social distancing requirements and remain flexible for changes in restrictions. 

More space offers more flexibility to spread out differently. While we are used to hosting large general sessions to deliver a message to an entire audience of thousands, those are being relooked at. By creating pods within larger meetings and throughout the hotel, guests can come together while also staying distanced. 

Following a surge in virtual meetings at the onset of the pandemic, we are now seeing more and more convention hotels offer hybrid meeting options, reworking existing spaces to cater to both guests staying at the hotel and those tuning in virtually. Existing furniture can be removed or reorganized to create productive hybrid events without a high fee. Hotels that go the extra mile in helping event organizers visualize these new options with high-quality imagery of new meeting room setups, 360-degree virtual tours and planning consultations will be primed for success as travel begins to recover.

Reinstill Confidence

Beyond room configurations, it will remain ever important to reinstill confidence for guests that safety and health protocols are at the forefront of hotel operations. While many travelers crave the human interaction and networking opportunities that group travel and events can provide, they also demand more out of hotels in consideration of their well-being. Major hospitality brands have recently rolled out brandwide initiatives to standardize a safe and clean environment, from sanitizer stations and temperature checks to sharing plans for staff training and offering COVID-19 testing to event organizers. 

Act Sustainably

The pandemic has shed light on our vulnerabilities and it is more important than ever to consider how each department and the community are impacted as we forge a more safe and sustainable path forward. As one example, the rise of prepackaged foods and to-go offerings has caused a resurgence in plastic waste. As a resilient industry, we have an opportunity to innovate more eco-friendly options that not only protect guests but help them to travel more sustainably. As a major driver of tourism dollars, convention hotels will play a key role in the recovery, with an opportunity to be at the forefront of sustainable solutions for a better tomorrow.

Convention hotels may have not experienced a global pandemic before now, but they have had their share of situations that require immediate action and solutions.  As plans, restrictions, safety measures and guidance are continually changing, convention hotels will continue to adapt to once again be a demand generator within the hearts of their city locations. 

Marcus Cornelious is director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton Grand Hotel Chicago.