By Graeme Kemlo

Meetings and Events Australia (MEA) held a leaders’ lunch in Melbourne in July to talk about the future of event accommodation bookings in the era of global online travel agents (OTAs).  Graeme Kemlo went along for micenet.

Seen as digital disruptors in the events industry – at least as far as PCOs and event managers are concerned – the threat of online travel agents (OTSs) to the traditional business models of the meetings industry was the elephant in the room.

MEA CEO Robyn Johnson facilitated a panel of experts on both sides of the debate: hoteliers, who gain significant bookings for events from OTAs and members from the meetings industry. In the first camp were Anne Gill, chair of the Accor MICE Advisory Board, Alexander Gorman, IHG’s Australasian director of national sales and Greg Moore, general manager Crown Promenade and past Victorian chair of Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA). From the meetings industry were Tamara Kavales, CEO of Arinex and Kate Smith, MD of WALDRONSMITH Management.  Around 100 MEA members attended the event, one of the first to be held in the newly expanded Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre.

Ms Johnson said MEA had spent time discussing with its hotel members what those in the organising sector of the industry should be doing differently and what challenges hotels faced from the rise of OTAs. Ultimately she said there was a shared responsibility and both sides needed to “Bring about the best outcomes for our shared customers, while continuing to grow and strengthen our business events sector.”

She said rapid and strategic growth in the hotel sector would see hotel chains bring new inventory on board across the country in the coming years, “So the competition is growing with a further 8300 rooms in the pipeline for completion by 2024 in Melbourne alone.”

Commenting on this, Greg Moore said he believed the room supply coming in Melbourne over the next five years would be completely absorbed, however analysis by Deloitte suggested that by 2030, Melbourne could again face a hotel shortage.

“As long as you keep holding big beautiful business events, we will keep building,” Greg Moore told members.

Asked how organisers worked with hotels, Tamara Kavales said Arinex predominantly worked with room blocks and had done so for decades.

“It is an important part of our business… the competition that’s coming in from OTAs has meant that we have to shift the way that we’re thinking slightly, and we have also found that because the buyers are so much more informed and they’ve got so many more options now, we are having to look at different ways.”

Tamara said Arinex made decisions based on the conference and the destination, but did use an OTA for regional events and also used direct booking links to hotels on certain conferences.

“It depends on the demographic of the buyer as well as our relationship with the hotel,” she said.

“For us it is about using the data we have collected over many years to analyse each event and determine what’s going to work for that delegate… and that’s really important…it is important for the hotels as well.”

Responding, Anne Gill said, “Accor has a responsibility to be a good partner with our clients and part of that is understanding the customer and [that] the customer is actually driving a lot of these changes about how they want to buy.

“It is not just happening in this segment, it is happening across all our different market segments.”

She said that where rooming lists and blocks may have worked in the past, a lot of customers were not ready to make attendance decisions far in advance.

Kate Smith said her organisation had worked on room blocks for a number of years.

“For us, it brings surety of rooms and clients will sell registrations knowing that the infrastructure is there.

“But it is not ‘one size fits all’ and we as organisers have an obligation to educate the hotel partners we are going out to about our client.

“We have their history and know their room take-up over previous years,” she said, and this information was shared with hotels from the outset.

The change affecting hotels was staff retention and many faced skills shortages of staff experienced in meetings and events. Alexander Gorman said IHG would add 80 hotels by 2020 in Australasia and was now focusing on brands when attracting talent because each brand differs.

“It is not just about the suit and tie and 20 years’ experience…it is now someone who knows the customer who is attached to that brand,” he said, adding that a job description for one of IHG’s new brands requires the hotel GM to lead customers in a yoga session every morning.

Meanwhile, Greg Moore said he had never been in an industry where tattoos were not only permitted, “but having them on display is actively encouraged.”