Every employee has left at least one work meeting or off-site conference feeling like it was a waste of time.
Common culprits: The network that won’t connect. The after-lunch meeting in a hot room. The boring venue. The vague purpose or irrelevant topics.
Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and GoTo meeting teleconferencing tools changed the workplace during COVID-19 and are here to stay. Many business leaders, though, are realizing that in-person gatherings have their own particular strengths.
“We have found that most groups still crave in-person interaction and have reverted back to meeting on site,” says Jonathan McKinney, director of sales and marketing for Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Birmingham.
“Networking and relationship-building are a significant focus of many events we host, and these activities are more successful when conducted face-to-face,” he says.
Whether planning a multi-day conference or simply looking for ways to structure a more effective staff meeting, managers can always use suggestions.
Because many events that were canceled during the height of COVID-19 had to be rebooked, the first months after restrictions eased were extremely busy for business-event venues in Alabama.
“Most, if not all, of our clients that discontinued face-to-face meetings during the pandemic are meeting again face-to-face and actually hosting more meetings than they did prior to 2020,” McKinney says.
That means planning ahead is more important than ever.
“People now are booking further in advance to ensure they get the dates they want,” says Selena Miller, director of sales and marketing for Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence.
“Flexibility is extremely important,” she says. “We are finding that we have some planners that are set on their dates. They call us and we don’t have the availability.”
Renaissance Ross Bridge hosted more than 600 events, groups and conferences in 2019, according to McKinney. Industry experts had predicted that hotels and resorts wouldn’t return to 2019 event numbers until 2024, he adds.
But because the resort learned to adapt to safety protocols in 2020 and 2021, “this experience gave us a firm foundation for 2022, where we actually surpassed our 2019 numbers,” McKinney says.
Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach is seeing the same resurgence in interest for in-person meetings.
“We currently host over 200 events per year,” says Caroline Thomas, Perdido sales manager.
“While the volume of events certainly decreased during COVID, we have seen a great increase in these events in 2022 with no signs of slowing down in 2023,” she adds.
To begin planning a successful business meeting or conference, first understand why — and even if — you need one at all, McKinney suggests.
“If the key stakeholders of a meeting are not clear on what they want their attendees to think, feel and do because of the meeting, then no amount of customer service, fairy-tale venue or culinary experience will compensate for this lack of clarity,”
At Marriott Shoals in Florence, meeting planning experts consult with clients early on to identify the goals and structure so the event will be successful, says Miller.
She says clients trust professional event planners’ expertise and experience. Hotel planners inquire about the needs and objectives of the gathering early in the process, she says. “Then we work with our team to make sure that we are delivering that.”
One repeat client from Memphis — where there is no shortage of event venues — has chosen to meet at the Shoals resort for 12 years. The business contact told Miller that the Marriott’s professional planners “think of things you don’t think about,” Miller says.
“If you’ve ever gone to a meeting and you walk in and you go, ‘Wow,’ and you can’t put your finger on what made it a ‘Wow,’ that’s what she’s talking about,” she adds.
Businesses certainly think about basics like audio-visual equipment needs or the amount of space required, she explains. “They don’t always think about how they want it set up,” she says.
Only experienced event planners will know the obscure specifics of conference room table and chair arrangements, such as theater style, classroom style, banquet rounds, U shapes, semi-circles, and even chevrons or hollow squares.
For example, if there’s a speaker giving a long visual presentation, the space really calls for “crescent rounds,” Miller says, instead of circular tables of eight or 10 people. That way everyone seated at those half-round crescent tables can face the speaker.
Groups sometimes plan to provide their own AV experts and can’t understand why the hotel charges a fee for that service.
“We charge because regardless of them bringing it in, we’re still going to have a staff person there,” Miller explains. “What if their equipment is not compatible with ours? What if they need extra passwords? All the what-ifs.”
Business-meeting planners should give some thought to the location of a multi-day, offsite event, professionals suggest. If it will be at an attractive destination, employees are more enthusiastic about going.
One of the most popular business meeting spots in Alabama is Perdido Beach Resort on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, with its sugary white sands, family activities and deep-sea fishing. Every year Perdido hosts conferences for groups ranging from attorneys to water-pollution control workers.
“Attendees are interested in participating in activities that showcase the destination in which the meeting is taking place and set the event apart from others that they have attended,” says Thomas, of Perdido.
“In our experience, many attendees bring their families to conferences and treat the event as a vacation, so a desirable location is definitely a draw,” she adds.
If people are considering attending a three-day conference out of town, they’re generally looking for something to do when the day’s meetings end.
The Shoals Marriott offers a spa and two restaurants, Miller notes. Activities could include tours of the Quad Cities’ recording studios or tickets to local events.
“If people are going to take that much time out of their lives, let’s show them what else there is” to do in Northwest Alabama, Miller says.
Their event planners at the 196-room resort like to get creative with teambuilding activities for work meetings. Scavenger hunts and golfing excursions on the resort property are two examples.
One unusual team-building exercise required employees to build a bicycle, then donate it to charity.
“We are full of cool ideas like that,” Miller says.
McKinney suggests there’s an intangible benefit from in-person business meetings, in addition to the economic boost to the Alabama economy and hospitality industry.
“I just believe it is so good for people to gather together,” he says.
Deborah Storey is a Huntsville-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of Business Alabama.