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Re-inventive Thinking

David Sacco, director of event management for Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center near Denver, explains how Marriott’s Gaylord Hotels are creating meetings for changing times

BT:  COVID-19 brought the meetings and conventions industry to a halt for a while. Are Gaylord’s five convention-sized hotels seeing current interest for meetings?

SACCO:  Yes, there’s pent-up demand, and Gaylord properties have already hosted several events from two dozen to 2,000 attendees safely and with great success. We’re built to manage social distancing protocols thanks to more than 400,000 square feet of meeting space at each property. We never reduced our sales teams, and they’ve been busy with new and rescheduled business. An emerging trend we’re seeing are events booked with less lead time than before. Positive meeting planner feedback from events this summer is helping fuel further business.

BT:  Both Marriott and Gaylord have impressive brand-wide cleaning protocols in place. Tell us specifically about meeting rooms.

SACCO:  Seats are spaced to address social distancing and local protocols, and everything is sanitized after each use. At the end of the day, electrostatic sprayers clean the facilities again. Meeting planners can customize their ideal layout whether that’s putting groups in separate rooms and using live feed from a central ballroom or spacing out chairs in a larger room. We can help reduce attendee movement by organizing breakout sessions so that instead of conferees swapping rooms, only the presenters do, which works well for certain groups. We even sanitize the podium after each speaker. For groups with multiple back-to-back presenters, we’ll set up two stages in the same room so one is being cleaned while the other is used so there’s no break in-between. Also, groups can opt to exit ballrooms by row rather than all at once.

BT:  Meetings are about social interaction. How can that be done safely?

SACCO:  Mobile check-in via the Marriott Bonvoy app provides a digital room key via Bluetooth, meaning guests can bypass reception. Despite significantly reducing touchpoints, sanitizing stations are everywhere, and guest rooms come with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Dressed in white, our cleaning teams are visible and key to boosting comfort levels. Meeting planners tell us they appreciate that our staff gently enforces social distancing and mask requirements imposed by both Marriott and local authorities. We have teams focused to minimize crowds in key areas like around and in elevators. In exhibit halls, curtains divide booths for an added barrier, and we’re encouraging exhibitors to swap smaller giveaway items with more potential for interaction (reaching into a bowl for something, for instance) for larger items that require less interaction.

BT:  You’ve really thought through the details. What else will people notice?

SACCO:   It’s the little things that boost confidence. We purchased touchless devices for coffee urns so there’s no need to pull a lever to fill your cup. Pre-packaged condiment boxes with stir sticks, sugar and cream prevent people from reaching into communal baskets. We can do any size or style of event from boxed meals to a gala dinner with a few tweaks (like six seats instead of ten per table). Nothing is pre-set. Silverware comes rolled up in a napkin and single-use condiments are delivered by servers. Another idea is that planners can opt for logoed pouches to keep their phone and mask from touching any surface (like the table, a pocket or handbag to prevent cross-contamination). For buffets, where servers plate food for guests, Plexiglas shields allow for touchless service while attendees can still appreciate the elaborate presentation.

BT:  Do you think business will continue to rebound?

SACCO:   We work directly with meeting planners to learn the purpose of their event and plan it in detail to deliver upon that promise with all the things we can do rather than what we can’t. They tell us the resulting energy and productivity is exactly what groups want right now. Virtual meetings cannot replace the hallway networking and social interaction that make group functions so popular. We are proving it can be done safely, and groups of all sizes are returning as a result.