The Future of Meetings and Events

Marriott International's Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of Asia Pacific - Bart Buiring shares insight from the past year and outlook on the future of meetings and events for 2021.

2020 is a year that the meeting and events industry will undoubtedly remember for a long time. With a global pandemic that swept the world, the industry, like many others experienced an unprecedented scale of disruption and turmoil. 

Meetings and events are all about bringing groups of people together to converse, network and do business. As this typically involves a lot of close contact within enclosed spaces and with many people who travel internationally, the MICE industry was one of the first hot spots that saw an immediate pause. Despite all these roadblocks, organizations have been forced to re-evaluate their event programs and quickly think of innovative ways to continue business as best as they can. 

We speak with Bart Buiring, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Asia Pacific at Marriott, International, who shares his respective insight from the past year and outlook on the future of meetings and events for 2021.

1. 2020 was a challenging year, can you please tell us about Marriott's current status and how the meetings and events industry is doing? 

Bart: COVID-19 has been the toughest crisis in Marriott's 93 years of history, but we believe the worst is behind us. Embracing change is one of our core values and I am incredibly proud of our associates over the past year. We have seen that the travel industry continues to show resilience, especially in Mainland China. Marriott's leisure bookings here have been particularly strong, seeing over 20 per cent year-on-year increase in the third quarter of 2020, demonstrating the strength of demand once consumers are comfortable that the virus is under control and restrictions can safely be lifted. 

The segment that we expect to recover last, is business travel and large events with the increased scrutiny of social distancing. However, in our recent survey, we were delighted to hear that 50% of meeting planners in Asia Pacific still plan to continue with offline events, with government regulations, venue safety and hygiene standards as strong considerations.

2. How has Marriott adapted to the new normal? What new ideas were introduced over the past year?

Bart: It is an opportune time to innovate and be entrepreneurial. Our teams have been flexible and continue to identify innovative ways to engage with consumers, creating new offers and experiences. 

For example, the Your Dream Destination Awaits campaign was introduced to provide domestic travelers with the opportunity to enjoy experiences from popular overseas destinations in their home cities. The hotel teams worked closely with sister properties to recreate signature iconic destination elements. In the last month, we also launched 'Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy', a program that offers meaningful travel across Asia Pacific. Our research has shown that travellers are looking for more purpose-driven experiences and the opportunity to connect with local communities more. Coupled with Marriott's core values to serve the world and put people first, this pilot program aims to meet those increasing travel demands at home or when international travel resumes. 

We continue to strengthen our brands – The Ritz Carlton, St Regis, JW Marriott, Sheraton, Marriott, W Hotel, and Westin, have focused on holistically reviewing their distinctive brand identity. The goal is to further enhance the leisure guests' experience at every step of their journey at every one of our resorts. We are thrilled to unveil hotels that showcase the Sheraton brand’s new vision, a transformation project since 2018. We have built on Sheraton’s legacy with a contemporary approach that we look forward to having our guests experience soon at our hotels – in particular, the Sheraton Guangzhou and the Sheraton Mianyang in China will be the first in our Asia Pacific portfolio showcasing Sheraton’s refreshed vision. 

We have also just launched our new group and catering offer called The Time Is Now, focusing on elevating the overall event experience by including more localized benefits that address the needs of local customers and events.

3. Can you share more about Marriott's hygiene standards and how this relates to meetings and events? 

Bart: In April 2020, Marriott launched the global Marriott Cleanliness Council to elevate our cleanliness standards to highlight our longstanding commitment to provide guests with a safe environment. We moved from 'high-touch' to touch-less' approaches, which meant a focus on digital. We have also added enhanced cleaning technologies to our cleaning regimen, such as electrostatic sprayers in public areas.

For meetings and events, we created a vast amount of digital content about our redefined processes and reimagined spaces. With input from cleanliness experts, the easily accessible information helps hosts, organizers and attendees plan and execute meetings to connect with confidence.

As consumers become more meticulous in their personal hygiene, we see safety and hygiene as the new amenity. We remain committed to providing a safe environment aligned with expert protocols as we welcome our guests back.  

4. How has the meetings and events industry evolved over the last year? 

Bart: There has been a rapid adoption of technology and digitalization across the MICE industry. We are seeing a transition from in-person to virtual events very quickly, including a hybrid of both. 

At the peak of the pandemic, virtual events have been the most used, but we are now seeing a wider adoption of the hybrid model – which strategically incorporates in-person and virtual elements for attendees.

While the hybrid model is more challenging to deliver – having to translate the power of a live stage experience to a digital audience – our teams continue to work in close collaboration with our customers, to ensure that their needs are met to have a successful event. In addition, to achieve the best "in-person presence" virtually, a trusted partner with the technological know-how and production is key.

5. What do you consider most essential for the meeting and events industry as we move forward into 2021? Are there any major trends to look out for?

Bart: With the current situation, it is more important than ever to have hyper-localized strategies as each market is at a different recovery stage. This means focusing on domestic sales and marketing strategies, including continuing to elevate food and beverage experiences. We should always talk to our customers, anticipate their needs – we need to maintain their trust and confidence. 

Our re-established hygiene and cleanliness protocols and associated operational procedures will remain a top priority for the foreseeable future.

Virtual and hybrid models are here to stay, and with these new event models come great opportunities. We should see technology as an enabler, but not get between our guests. 

As people begin traveling, trips will become more special. When designing event programs, take into consideration how you can help your guests get the most out of the trip and the destinations.

6. Do you have any last thoughts you'd like to share? 

Bart: We cannot predict when the global pandemic will end but we should remain agile and optimistic. Our guests, associates and owners continue to be top of mind at every step we take. Our founder's philosophy is to 'put people first' – we believe that if we take care of our associates, they will take care of the customers. And this philosophy will continue to guide us through, especially during tough times.  

A Strategic Outlook for 2021

The meeting and events industry has proven to be resilient and adaptable – the show must go on! While it may still take the next year to get back to pre-COVID times (at the earliest), we must continue to stay agile and be creative. It is paramount for the meeting and events industry to continue to evolve, communicate transparently and invest in technology internally - this will ultimately depict your event success. 

We aim to continue to grow our Marriott Bonvoy community and introduce fresh, innovative content and unique experiences for our valued members. Here's to a healthy, happy and collaborative year in 2021.