How Has the Pandemic Changed Meeting RFPs?

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How Has the Pandemic Changed Meeting RFPs?

By Beth Buehler

Saying a lot has changed courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic is almost an understatement. It’s seeped into most facets of life, with the meetings and industry being no exception. Destination Colorado touched base with three Colorado-based certified meeting professionals (CMPs) to see how the pandemic has changed meeting RFPs (requests for proposals).

The CMPs represent three sectors of the industry: destination marketing organization (DMO), destination management company (DMC), and lodging. Here are valuable insights from Jason Lusk, associate vice president of convention sales for VISIT DENVER; Nicole Marsh, partner at Imprint Group; and Heidi Miersemann, director of sales, marketing and events for Park Hyatt Beaver Creek.

How has the pandemic changed meeting RFPs? 

Jason Lusk, CMP: Yes, in some ways. However, as uncertainly looms—and since some groups haven’t met since 2019—planners aren’t certain how to capture their future needs.

Nicole Marsh, DES, CMP, DMCP: I don’t believe the requests have changed drastically for DMCs as the clients still need all the information, details, creative concepts, etc. in order to make decisions and budget accordingly. However, we are trying as DMC professionals to retrain our clients to engage with us based on our capabilities and not the cost of a motorcoach, for example. Interview several companies and then decide who is the best fit and move forward with a letter of intent (LOI) for us to continue working on your behalf.

Heidi Miersemann, CMP: There is a little more uncertainty in the meeting RFPs. We are still running into initial date inflexibility and have some customers that haven’t met in one or two years that aren’t sure what their in-person attendance will be. This is reflected in RFPs with space requests that don’t always match up to the room-night patterns.

What are the three biggest ways meeting RFPs have changed?

JL: 1) Many planners are more cautious with their room blocks since they are uncertain of how they will perform in a post-pandemic setting. There are many factors affecting peoples’ travel (e.g., ability to gain education virtually, cost of travel, etc.). 2) At the same time, some planners are also still requesting additional space for flexibility with any social distancing. The green light/red light of the past few years has forced clients to consider every contingency when placing a future meeting. 3) The lead volume, which fortunately is approaching 2019 levels, is primarily opportunity for the next few years. As a result, some planners are more flexible with dates/pattern since they know availability is limited in near-future years.

HM: 1) Initial RFPs with more than 10 date options to check. 2) Frequent re-sourcing after initial dates are not available. 3) Last-minute sourcing (in the year for the year vs. one to three years out).

Are the changes more client or supplier driven or both?

JL: Really, both. We have seen an array of new force majeure clauses. Everyone is definitely working to protect their organizations from any future unexpected disruptions. Some cite specific positive case levels in the destination or how the source of messaging (e.g., CDC or local public health department) plays into the request for force majeure. On the supplier side, with food and beverage margins so narrow, we are seeing more future custom menus vs. percent discounts.

NM: The ways DMCs are engaging is driven by lower staff levels in many cases and not enough time to do all the work we used to for free. The goal is always to work smarter and not harder. If I have a LOI in hand, I know the work I am doing will come to fruition. It allows everyone from top to bottom to be more efficient.

HM: It’s more client driven as programs are approved to plan.

Have RFP changes been positive and needed for a while or something that is making the process of booking a meeting complicated as a supplier or planner?

JL: The changes have been primarily reactive to the ongoing pandemic rather than strategic or moving toward long-term changes. Some planners are uncertain of how their future meetings look so are sourcing based on existing RFPs.

NM: With time being even more precious than ever, this doesn’t have multiple DMCs spinning their wheels and spending countless hours chasing suppliers. It also gives the DMC more buying and negotiating power having a solid piece of business in hand to get our supplier partners to engage versus a tentative opportunity.

HM: Changes are making it a bit harder to know how best to bid and harder to find dates to bid.

Park Hyatt Beaver Creek

Has the RFP process itself changed? If so, how?

JL: We are getting more time actually talking to customers on the phone. Also, so much of a destination’s way of evaluating business is history (rooms, food and beverage, WiFi, etc.). History has been turned on its head, so we’re finding new ways to evaluate and make the best business decisions.

HM: It’s still very similar to pre-Covid, although easier to get in touch with meeting planners in person to talk through options when the meeting is important to the organization and its last-minute.

Is there more or less lead time than pre-pandemic? How about when compared to six months ago?

JL: Six months ago, we were in the Omicron era but today planners are sourcing with tight timelines.

NM: I don’t think the lead time for client requests has changed much at all, but the response time has been pushed out by suppliers, in some cases taking two or more weeks to turn around a detailed proposal. We are all giving priority to the business at hand and executing it with care and quality and getting to the future business, six months or a year down the road as soon as we can.

What also has changed is the amount of time clients have to make decisions.  Many suppliers are no longer holding space/vehicles/items or locking in rates for more than a week to 10 days. The times where a client could get a proposal and take a month or two to review it and decide are gone.

HM: Lead time has shrunk as the focus for planners is immediate rather than for two-plus years out.

Larimer Square in Denver, courtesy VISIT DENVER/Nikki A. Rae

What has the meetings and events industry learned as the RFP process has evolved during the pandemic?

JL: We need to be more flexible and more creative than ever.

NM: For DMCs, it is the value of our knowledge, expertise in our destinations and in our time. Clients are acknowledging more than ever that we need to get paid for our time, many offering to pay for proposals and the time it takes to develop them. Also, signing a LOI to lock in our team and services is becoming more and more common. Just like hotels, DMCs are “selling out” in peak times or implementing minimums to engage as a way to protect our teams from burnout and to give focus to the right clients and business versus trying to do it all. It’s a reinforcement to working smarter and not harder!

HM: A lot of time can be saved when the hotel and planner can connect verbally, even if for 5 minutes to clarify and produce best results.

Anything else regarding how has the pandemic changed meeting RFPs? 

JL: In addition to COVID impacts, planners are beginning to factor in inflation, the possibility of recession, and ongoing volatile social policies that vary from state to state.

HM: Lead volume for in the year/for the year is up more than 40% for Vail Valley vs pre-COVID. Savings will come for groups that plan at least a year out at this point.

 

Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 17 years and helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine in 2013. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.

Park Hyatt Beaver Creek

Top Photo: Downtown Denver skyline at sunrise, courtesy VISIT DENVER

Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 17 years and helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine in 2013. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.