MeetingsNet’s 2022 Changemakers list recognizes outstanding meeting professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways. Find the full 2022 Changemakers list here.
President & CEO, Associated Luxury Hotels International
For creating and nurturing a popular pandemic-era industry Zoom community that builds dialogue between planners and suppliers
The early days of the Covid pandemic were fraught times, with ever-changing travel and health advisories, an endless barrage of media reports, and a crazy quilt of lockdowns across the U.S. Planners and hotel owners struggled to, well, plan, based on less-than-perfect and constantly evolving circumstances.
Enter Michael Dominguez, a hotel-industry veteran and president & CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International. In March 2020, he launched daily Zoom sessions, initially as a way to engage with his team, hotel owners, and meeting planner clients about pandemic-related issues. “There was so much noise when everything was shutting down—what was and what wasn’t,” Dominguez observes.
“What we found is that people needed comfort and needed to connect with others,” he recalls. Planners in particular were looking for reliable information about how hotels were handling pandemic-era bookings and protocols.
Over time, he invited 1,800 industry contacts to join the weekly Zoom sessions. Through word of mouth, that number had nearly doubled by spring of 2022. The weekly calls jumped to twice a week during the height of the pandemic, but recently reverted to weekly.
During early sessions, Dominguez focused on how hotels were adopting Covid protocols and how meetings could continue to happen. He also invited guest presenters to address subjects like cleaning procedures, indoor air quality, and on-site testing. Some were meeting planners who shared how they had handled recent events in terms of social distancing, food and beverage, and other factors.
Planners have driven much of the content, he says. Zoom participants can ask questions in the chat window, and sometimes peers chime in to provide answers. “It tells me it is a true community because they are sharing,” Dominguez notes. At its peak, 900 to 1,200 meeting planners logged into the calls each week, and about half as many downloaded the session recordings. Feedback has been encouraging. “One comment I’ve gotten from multiple clients is, ‘You kept me from jumping off the ledge during Covid,’” he says.
Opportunities for Change
As the effects of Covid on travel have waned, Dominguez sees a need for new conversation topics in the Zoom calls. Planner-hotel relationships, he says, have to reflect current realities. “We need to make sure both the planner and hotel communities understand what each of us is going through and what limitations we have.”
Response time, for example, is a common complaint. Planners are frustrated that hotels take too long to respond to RFPs. But hotels are still staffing up and some are swamped by pent-up demand. Dominguez suggests planners use a streamlined “rates, dates, and space” inquiry that can yield a quick answer.
For hotels, he says, it’s essential to touch base with groups that have booked beyond this year to discuss budgets, since inflation has impacted the cost of meeting services, especially food and beverage. “We need to change our behavior by understanding the mechanics—understanding that planners have a budgeting process just like we do,” he says. “If we can get to them early so they can ask for more money, it will take some of the friction out of the process.”