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We’ll Meet Again: Jan Freitag, Senior VP Lodging Insights, STR

Hotels will survive, events will go on, but will the pandemic take the cocktails out of cocktail receptions?

Hotel analyst Jan Freitag already sees some signs of recovery in the Chinese lodging industry and believes occupancy rates in the U.S. will rise again. But both leisure and business travelers will find the landscape a little different, and meeting planners will have to adjust to some new rules to make their attendees feel safe.

MeetingsNet: What changes do you see for face-to-face events due to the pandemic?
Freitag: In the past, the hospitality industry has prided itself on being very high touch. Now we have to move rapidly into being more high tech. Things like registration will probably be handled on phone apps or mobile. Attendees won’t go to a desk to pick up a swag bag, it will be delivered to the room; they won’t stand in line to pick up badges, they will get access to the event through their phones.

The smaller the face-to-face group is, the more comfortable some guests will feel. We are all used to seeing the fire marshal maximum occupancy number on the door [at conferences], now we could be seeing a COVID number for the maximum attendance with a 6-foot distance between guests. What that means for meeting planners is that a lot of conferences will be partially virtual—even when attendees are on the property. Attendees will still register, but attendance packages could mean they can attend certain sessions in person and have others livestreamed to the hotel room or to another conference room. There will be lots of ways for organizers to make decisions on who participates in person or virtually. Maybe there will be an extra costs for in person, or it will be based on an attendees’ background for educational events.

Now that everything will have a remote component, hotels without the best Wi-Fi will be at a competitive disadvantage. It’s no longer an add-on if your conference is inaccessible.

Buffet breakfasts are dead. It will all be grab-and-go or some other safe system. A colleague of mine mentioned that meals might be served classroom style with every other seat open.

I’m not an operations guy but I just don’t see how bars for receptions will work; people standing in line to get a specific drink may be a thing of the past for a while. Perhaps there will be servers with a tray of beer or a tray of wine and no line for mixed drinks.

MeetingsNet: What is your biggest concern for after the pandemic?
Freitag: We have all become very productive at home. We’ve found our groove and we are on Zoom or Webex all the time. People will ask, “Do we need a global team meeting?” I think companies might see a need  for one company-wide meeting, but there may be a severe drop in smaller team meetings. When I started at Cornell (Freitag went to Cornell University School of Hotel Administration for his BA) there was a fear that videoconferencing would kill meetings, but it wasn’t good enough to really have an impact. After 9/11 there were concerns that business travel would end, but it didn’t. Now the technology is so good that we can replace some meetings.  

It is now clear that meetings have to happen with ROI attached. Face-to-face interaction was valued before but now people are going to require a hard ROI calculation with supervisors given the costs and difficulties of travel.

The good news is that meetings that do happen will be really focused and beneficial.

MeetingsNet: What opportunities do you think this pause may present to the industry?
Freitag: This is an opportunity for properties to implement new training and hygiene strategies, and begin rethinking what guests will be comfortable with in the future. What should the lobby look like? Where are the touch points that can be removed? What technologies need to be adopted right now? Keyless entry was well underway in the industry before but now owners will find it more necessary than ever. From a user perspective, I think the check-in process will change drastically to avoid long lines. I am from Germany and family there are standing two meters apart in lines outside; we will have to find ways to avoid standing in line, or do it safely.

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