Meeting and Event Pros Offer Booking and Rebooking Insights During COVID-19

By Beth Buehler

In Colorado, industry professionals are working closely with planners to come up with customized solutions in response to the recent outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) and remaining positive and impressively resourceful in these unprecedented times. Colorado looks forward to welcoming groups and attendees when the stay-at-home mandates around the United States and globe clear. We’re all in this together, and if you’re like me, I can’t wait to be with people in person again!

Destination Colorado reached out to Jason Lusk, CMP, associate vice president convention sales for VISIT DENVER, and Sonny Kerstiens, senior director of sales for Vail Resorts, Inc. to tap their insights regarding booking and rebooking, planners and suppliers working in tandem to craft the best options for groups, and best-guess predictions for 2020.

Both are encouraging groups to rebook in 2020 to give people the opportunity to gather in person again and to support the hospitality industry, which has been hard hit by COVID-19. They likened it to putting together a puzzle, Lusk viewing it from the perspective of having all sizes and types of groups to fill out a destination’s meetings and events calendar and Kerstiens providing an illustration of what it takes to strategically reschedule groups into the third and fourth quarters in particular.

“We are in this together and need one another’s trust and partnership to launch out of this,” Kerstiens emphasizes.

Sonny Kerstiens, Senior Director of Sales, Vail Resorts, Inc.

Lusk adds that it also is a chance for the industry to learn and adapt. “Anytime we experience something new, I think it impacts how we view the future. What did we learn from the experience and what changes do we need to make to better prepare for this situation in the future?” he says. “I think you’re going to see new contract clauses on both sides that work to protect both entities as it relates to pandemics. You can expect this to be the new hot topic at conferences!”

Jason Lusk, CMP, Associate Vice President Convention Sales, VISIT DENVER

What two or three tips do you have for booking/re-booking in this era of COVID-19? 

Jason Lusk (JL): Work really hard to rebook the meeting in 2020 and not a future year, if possible, but we are all realistic in that request. Our hotel partners and the Colorado Convention Center are experiencing devastating times, so whatever we can do to keep the group—and therefore the revenue—in 2020 that’s a win.

  1. Be flexible. These are always words to live by but never more important than they are today. Be willing to look at your pattern, move-in/move-out requirements, time of year, etc. and also understanding that if the meeting is being postponed there’s a good chance it may be a smaller meeting in 2020 than initially anticipated. Again, that’s where some additional flexibility can come into play.
  2. Be patient. Again, now more than ever, everything is taking more time. Most hotels are working with a skeleton crew right now so response times are not what any of us are used to, so patience will go a long way. And remember that unlike other times in our history where we have a buyer’s or a seller’s market, this is impacting everyone. There are no winners here so remember if a hotel is pushing back on rates, rental, etc., it’s literally in an effort to keep the lights on. No one is trying to take advantage of anyone.

    Blue Bear sculpture peaking into the Colorado Convention Center. Courtesy VISIT DENVER.

  3. Sonny Kerstiens (SK): If at all possible, do your best to rebook the meeting to a later date in 2020. We have all seen the campaigns urging folks to reschedule conferences rather than cancel, and it can’t be understated how important this is to the industry as a whole as we work with one another to recover as quickly as possible once this crisis is behind us. Great minds will need to work with one another to come up with solutions to the problems that this situation has created across all aspects of life, and we all know that conferences and events are the best place for that ideation to take place.
  4. The dynamics surrounding the overall climate are changing by the day, quite literally. It’s impossible to prognosticate what things will look like in four or five months. All we can do is make the best decisions we can, given the information that we have at our disposal in the present moment. That being said, if you are leaning toward canceling or moving a meeting or event that is scheduled for the back half of the year, what we can do together is to call a timeout and “take 10.” That is to say, if at all possible, let’s table the discussion on said event and revisit in 10 days to see how the landscape has changed. Yes, it’s possible that in 10 days the best course of action may be to take 10 again, but what we don’t want to do is make a decision today based solely on the fear of the unknown.

    Keystone Conference Center is only steps away from all sorts of mountain activities. Courtesy Vail Resorts.

How are destinations, lodging properties, venues and other suppliers in Colorado working in close partnership with planners? 

JL: Everyone is coming from a place of understanding and empathy. No one has ever been through anything like this, and there’s no playbook. We are all communicating as much as possible and trying to come up with creative solutions. Because we are still in a wait-and-see mode, it’s hard to field questions about meetings that are set to take place in June or later this year, so in those cases we are just asking for everyone to hold on making those decisions until we know more. That is hard, but if we can have the meeting we want to. We want to welcome those guests to Denver.

A beautiful summer day in Denver with snowcapped mountains as a backdrop. Courtesy VISIT DENVER.

SK: None of us is as smart as all of us. Needless to say, these times are truly unprecedented. I have been blown away at how all the great professionals in the meetings and events industry have come together to provide creative solutions and options with an understanding that there is daylight on the other side of this storm. We are stronger together, and that has never been more important than in this moment.

A horseback ride to Beano’s Cabin for dinner is an amazing Beaver Creek experience. Courtesy Vail Resorts.

What are some important things meeting and event planners should think about in regard to cancellation? 

JL: First read your cancellation clause and understand what it covers and what it does not. Then, talk to your partner (whether that’s VISIT DENVER, a hotel, a venue, etc.) and start having the conversations about what cancellation looks like. If you can cancel without penalty (as is often the case right now), consider rebooking the meeting for later this year or even a future year to help the venue.

And keep in mind, if your meeting is not currently covered by a mandate that clearly states the meeting cannot happen, you can anticipate cancellation fees. We have found that our partners are approaching these situations in a very fair manner. However, outright cancellation will likely be difficult if you do not expect to pay fees. Again, a wait-and-see approach is best if and when that is possible.

Are you seeing business being rescheduled or cancelled?

JL: Meetings outside the public health order mandate are in a wait-and-see mode for the most part. Because they are outside of the mandate, most do not have the coverage they would need to cancel without penalty. Groups within the mandate, whenever possible, are postponing the meeting in order to keep the meeting in 2020 or they are rescheduling for a later year. We see concern from groups through July at this time, but that is a moving target since no one knows when these mandates will be lifted and when we can start to get into a recovery mode and back to doing business.

Are bookings coming in for summer and fall and what does the business look like?

JL: Our sales team continues to receive and send leads. We are seeing leads for business later in the year (third and fourth quarters), and then we are also seeing leads for new business in future years. Typically, any short-term meeting demand is a smaller group as the large citywide groups book four to eight-plus years in advance. But the way you build a successful year is with large, small and mid-size groups; it’s like putting together a puzzle, each piece is a part of the success.

The world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre is sure to impress guests, especially in summer and fall. Courtesy VISIT DENVER.

SK: We continue to receive leads for later in the year (and future years). While the leads are somewhat small in nature (relatively speaking) for later this year, that is not uncommon for in-year, for-year opportunities. My advice to planners looking to secure dates later in the year or even early 2021 is to be as flexible as possible in terms of patterns, dates, meeting space, etc. In many cases, we are working with our partners on events that were booked for March to May in an effort to reschedule these events for later in the year. It is very much like a puzzle as we all attempt to map out conference space and room blocks in order to provide an outstanding experience for all involved.

Uley’s Cabin is a beautiful venue inside and out. Courtesy Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

Kerstiens’ “take 10” advice is solid wisdom as each week brings something different regarding COVID-19. Instead of rushing into decisions, take a deep breath (think of that fresh Rocky Mountain air Colorado is so well-known for), allow time to work some details out, and communicate. Crisis often has a way of sharpening the ways we do business as a meetings and events industry and strengthening relationships, and I have full confidence in Colorado’s ability to rise to the challenge.

Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 15 years and helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine in 2013. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.