Traverse City Business News | ‘A Drastic Difference’: Group business bounces back at local resorts

‘A Drastic Difference’: Group business bounces back at local resorts

2021 was supposed to be the rebound – the year that local resorts and conference centers saw their meeting and event business recover from the 2020 slump and shoot back up toward pre-pandemic numbers. In a perfect world, group business in 2022 would have looked a whole lot like it did in 2019, if not better.

COVID-19 had other plans. Between new variants, big winter surges, and declining levels of vaccine efficacy, the pandemic is proving a more permanent guest than most would have hoped or predicted. That’s bad news for local resorts that rely on group bookings from big events to fill their rooms and drive their revenues, especially during the off season. Luckily, the common refrain from those resorts is that, even with the pandemic lingering, things are still looking much, much better than they were even a year ago.

At this time last year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) still had restrictions in place that limited indoor non-residential gatherings to 25 people or fewer, with masks and social distancing required. Those restrictions effectively precluded any major group events from happening for the first five months of 2021. But those restrictions lifted in late spring of last year, and despite delta, omicron, and their associated surges, MDHHS has yet to reinstitute similar limits.

That lack of state-mandated health restrictions, it seems, is making all the difference for local resorts. Judy Booth, who serves as vice president of sales for Boyne Resorts, said the general feeling in the world of meetings and events is that these gatherings can happen safely if they are carefully planned. So, as long as there are no restrictions that tie the hands of venues or event planners, those gatherings are likely to continue.

Boyne Mountain Beach House

“I really think the planners are just saying to themselves that this is going to be the new normal,” Booth said of the ongoing COVID-19 situation. “We’ve learned that we can host these meetings in a very secure environment. We can do the social distancing; everybody can mask; you can require a negative test beforehand. So, you can actually have meetings safely; there’s no reason why you cannot.”

That’s not to say things are completely back to normal just yet. Booth noted that, while Boyne’s association business largely bounced back in 2022, business and corporate groups have been slower to rebound – in part because many companies downstate and in other parts of the country still haven’t reinstated pre-COVID business travel policies. Even with other group business (including weddings) roaring back in 2021 and 2022, Booth expects the slow return of business travel will still mean a longer road back to full recovery.

“You’re looking at a drastic difference when you look at what we had at the end of 2019, versus what we had in 2020 or even in 2021,” Booth said. “We’re starting to see it come close in 2022. But I’m guessing we probably have still another year or two of recovery, to be able to get back to the numbers, pre-COVID. I would think, maybe in 2023 or 2024, we’ll start to get back to those numbers.”

The Beach Club at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa

Katie Leonard, director of sales for Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, echoed Booth’s observations. For the 2021 calendar year, the Resort actualized more than 26,000 room nights from group bookings – nearly twice the 13,500 group room nights the hotel ended up with in 2020. On the one hand, the 2021 figure was still less than half the 60,000 to 65,000 room nights the Resort would get from groups in a typical year. On the other hand, Leonard is quick to note that progress is progress.

“We doubled our group room nights between 2020 and 2021,” Leonard said. “And the majority of that happened in six or seven months. The calendar-year room night number for 2021 really did happen between June and December (because of the MDDHS restrictions). So, it was a very, very busy time, whereas that’s normally spread over all 12 months.”

One factor that’s helping the rebound is the same thing that’s kept northern Michigan a hot destination for leisure travel since the start of the pandemic: the great outdoors.

“I’ve asked my team to go after a lot of new groups, in part because we know that people want that open space,” Booth said. “They want the ability to get on the mountains, or get on the golf course, or tent the tennis courts and do something cool outside. Especially from the corporate side, we’re starting to see some new planners come into this market for the first time. There was one group that just booked with us out of Virginia, and they’re going to end up doing a ski meeting. Out of Virginia! That does not happen. So, it’s causing us to branch out and look at different markets as well.”

Booth’s feeling is that event planners who used to plot events in the heart of major cities are now looking to go farther afield– a trend that is benefiting northern Michigan hotels significantly.

It’s a trend that Brittney Buti, manager of public relations for Crystal Mountain, has witnessed as well. The resort’s “outdoor playground,” as she called it, is no longer just where guests spend their off hours during conferences and events; it’s where they often spend their meeting hours as well.

“Groups can convene on the ski slopes, hiking on a trail, on a fat tire bike, in the Michigan Legacy Art Park, or on the golf course,” she said.

Whether because of the outdoor attractions or because everyone is tired of Zoom, local hotels are seeing even higher attendance numbers for group events than they anticipated.

“People have not lost their appetite to meet in person,” Booth said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed. We had thought, ‘Oh, OK, this virtual world has taken off. Now we’re really in trouble, because we’re not going to see the face-to-face meetings anymore, or the size of them is going to be much smaller.’ That is not the case. If anything, we see the attendance at these different events increasing.”

According to Leonard, that demand for the in-person event experience even has some organizations questioning the need to offer hybrid options for their conferences. Previously, the expectation in the conference industry was that every event would have an option for guests to attend virtually. And while Booth noted that most of the meetings Boyne has hosted have indeed offered that option, Leonard has seen a different trend.

“Meeting organizations, I would say in 2021, have realized that offering a hybrid option has proven to be a little expensive,” Leonard explained. “It was definitely a good solution over the last year, but I think moving forward, you will see people moving either more to completely virtual, if that makes sense for that event, or to completely in-person.

“And the majority of our event clients did choose in-person in 2021.”



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