A shift away from cities to suburban and even rural markets, bookings at mid- or lower-star levels and a growth spurt from Hilton over Marriott are trends in corporate travel in a post-pandemic COVID-19 recovery that emerged from a new quarterly marketing report from Tripbam.

The findings were collected from an analysis of Tripbam’s new COVID-19 data dashboard, a product that lets corporate travel executives see and interact with data on a dynamic platform that shows brands, markets and regions all moving towards “recovery” in real time at the speed of light.

Steve Reynolds, founder and CEO of Tripbam, believes that these findings are a call to action for corporate travel. "Action is needed now,” he says “Waiting for 'travel to pick back up again' within your organization will mean paying more than you should. Make sure you are consistently auditing your hotel spend and negotiating rates where they are needed (preferably dynamic ones with LRA and no blackout dates), so you’re not caught without a plan in place as travelers hit the road."

How do hotel sales professionals and travel planners see these changes on a granular level, and how will things in the lodging industry look to corporate travel buyers moving through a stop-and-start global COVID-19 recovery?

In a nod to some of Tripbam’s findings, Derek DeCross, senior vice president of global sales, IHG Hotels & Resorts, sees IHG’s “broad portfolio” across the company’s family of brands responding to post COVID-19 changes by offering greater flexibility to meet the needs of corporate travel partners, especially in cost saving targets in the short-term.

“We have seen certain industries starting to travel again, including pharmaceuticals, construction, manufacturing, big box retail, and film and television,” he says. “This involves travel to keep essential services and infrastructure projects running.” IHG’s “Meet with Confidence Program” has introduced new enhancements to add robust tech solutions, sales incentives and meetings protocols to the offerings.

Hip & Hybrid
Two changes in the lodging industry that are here to stay are low contact experiences and hybrid meeting options, according to Carol Lynch, SVP of sales, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “Wyndham’s new mobile app launched last fall prioritizes low contact in-stay features like mobile check-in and checkout,” Lynch says. “In the case of hybrid meetings – which we think will be around for at least the next several years – many of our hotels already had the right audio visual partners in place pre-pandemic to be able accommodate such requests.”

The ways in which the meetings space evolves over the next several years will be interesting to watch, Lynch says. “We believe people are hungry to have that face-to-face connection again and that, long-term, face-to-face events will start to come back. At the same time, as they do, we expect planners will now to look at how they can leverage the hybrid technology that hotels have added to continue make their events more effective and more broadly accessible.”

Lynch says one factor that’s very likely to go back to pre-COVID days is food and beverage. “Hotels and guests alike value the many offerings that hotels have traditionally been able to offer and there’s an eagerness to get back to that, once it’s safe to do so. As the virus continues to come under control, we expect to see F&B offerings gradually return to normal.”

Blair McSheffrey, Sonesta’s vice president of global and hotel sales sees “pent up demand” and hotel consolidation creating new opportunities for the newly expanded brand. “Hotel consolidation is creating a demand for diversity,” McSheffrey says. “People want an individual look and feel at a property but they also want consistency. We’re going to have to have diversity among our portfolio and create exciting experiences, but we also don’t want to be too much about the brand and less about the experience,” Blair adds.

“You have to find the right balance,” he explains. “You want cool and hip but when I’m in my meeting room, I want vanilla. I want function. I don’t want annoying.” Sonesta is also seeing a need for hybrid meetings as being a key to corporate travel recovery. “It’s going to be hybrid, hybrid all the time,” he says.

Written in the Stars

Eric Gavin, chief sales officer for Benchmark Hospitality says, “We are just in the beginning of hospitality’s recovery period.” Although Gavin says that 2021 is “still in a COVID state,” Benchmark’s sales for 2022 are already ahead of projected figures for where they are historically.

Gavin sees demand picking up in warmer, less urban areas, a trend reflected in the Tripbam research. “Benchmark is not heavily weighted on an urban market,” he explains. “We have unique resort locations with event spaces that can be used year-round in places like Florida and Texas.”

Although those locations are the focus of meeting planners and corporate travel right now, Gavin sees that preference “leveling out as recovery progresses,” although the choice of hotels and resorts with outdoor spaces will continue.

Andy Menkes, founder and CEO of Partnership Travel Consulting agrees with Tripbam’s report statistics that show Hilton pulling ahead of Marriott in terms of corporate travel. “Marriott has 30 different brands, but Hilton has quite a variety of products and people are moving in that direction. It could also be that their rate is better.”

Menkes points out that Hilton’s advantage is in growth which may eventually level out. Hilton’s growth may also be due to the fact that businesses are increasingly choosing mid- starred properties and the brand offers a wide portfolio of properties such as Hilton Garden Inn in areas outside of city centers.

“My own business travel used to encompass over 100 trips a year. Last year I barely made 30. I have changed the hotel category I use. Now if I’m traveling during COVID-19 restrictions I’m going to stay in a hotel that allows me to cook and serve food,” Menkes notes. “I would say that there is a renewed interest in looking at the hotels in program and trying to downgrade by a point or star to the less ostentatious. Because of economic impact of COVID as travel resumes there will also be more of a focus on a less expensive property. “

Menkes also sees a new preference for corporate travel using float instead of fixed rates.

Hilton’s edge over Marriott is not likely to maintain strength, says Tripbam’s Reynolds. "We don't predict that this trend will continue long term,” Reynolds told Business Travel Executive. “Marriott has maintained its market share among higher chain scale properties so we predict guest volumes at upper scale properties will bounce back once non-essential travel resumes.”

Stronger & Stronger
Teneo Hospitality Group president Mike Shugt says that as vaccinations advance, recovery – especially in meetings – will move forward at a stronger pace. “In the last two weeks our company has received more RFPs from group planners than any other time since early March 2020, which is extremely significant,” he says.

“Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Naples, Florida – those places have big meeting spaces and an outdoor component,” Shugt explains. “Meeting attendees can come there and experience great weather. We’re seeing that in other places like South Carolina and in Arizona for sure. We’re also starting to see future meetings looking at Vegas.” And looking down the road, Shugt adds, the third quarter is stronger.

“Some of these events are slightly smaller in nature,” he says. “These are events like regional and local rollouts so people can still meet but they don’t have to bring everyone together. It’s organized differently.”

Shugt predicts corporate travel to hotels in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, Nashville and other cities will take longer to recover. “That in my mind will continue in future years,” he says. “I don’t believe forecasts that say for instance that 60 percent of New York’s hotels will remain closed.”

Shugt also doesn’t believe that a trend toward lower starred properties will stick. “The rates are going to be good for some time going forward. People are going to say, ‘Hey, we can stay in a five-starred property for the price of a four or three-star. Let’s go.”

In the end, Shugt says, the “normal” demand for corporate and leisure travel is not far off. “There’s such a pent-up demand,” he says. “Americans feel it is their birthright to travel. They’re not going to be stopped.”