Top of mind with most meeting and event planners is what will in-person gatherings look like when they return in larger numbers.

What will room sets look like? What considerations will be made for F&B? How about sanitization protocols, temperature checks and social distancing? Will my attendees and stakeholders feel comfortable in this new normal environment?

Seeing is believing, so Michael Dominguez, CEO of ALHI (Associated Luxury Hotels International), brought meeting planners to the Omni Dallas Hotel for a one-day showcase of what their events may look like.

Meetings Today’s Tyler Davidson traveled to Dallas for the event and sat down with Dominguez to talk about the experience and get his take on where we’re at in regard to the trendlines of the pandemic and its impact on the industry.

Listen now.

Read the transcript below:

[Start transcript]

Tyler Davidson: We’re here with Michael Dominguez (pictured), CEO of ALHI. Hi. Thanks for joining us, Mike.

Michael DominguezMichael Dominguez: Thank you for having me. And I’m glad you made it, Tyler.

Tyler: Oh, pleasure to be here, and we’re at the Omni Dallas Hotel for the Back to Business Experiential Forum. And why don’t you tell people, as I’m wearing this mask here, what this whole thing is about and why you did it.

Michael: You know what, we found a real need, and we started something with ALHI over the last 60-90 days where we’re doing weekly calls and updates with our clients about what’s happening, what’s the environment, what are the protocols? And we found a real need for people to know what a path forward looks like to be able to hold a meeting face-to-face right now in new protocols, and protocols that are being required. And this was an opportunity for us.

We called it an Experiential Forum. I said for lack of a better term, it was our show-and-tell. How do you come and really understand what this looks and feels like, and you and I were just talking about it—people need to see it. We’re a very visual industry, and it’s different than reading it. They wanted to be able to see and experience what it’s going to look like.

Tyler: And in this whole process—and you’re a hotel guy from a long time back—but what are you noticing that’s new and different right now than has ever been, and that maybe surprised you?

Michael: I’m not sure surprised, only because I’ve been traveling for the last eight weeks, visiting our hotels and looking at protocols, but the attention to protocol detail and what we need to follow, because it’s an important enough environment to make sure that we’re keeping people safe.

That’s probably the biggest change, but for an industry, I think the thing that is probably flipped on its head—our cleaning protocols have actually been really good in the hotel industry. But what you’re seeing today, is much of our cleaning has always been behind the scenes.

We’re now flipped on its head, because we’re now having to say, "Let’s do that in front of you." You want to see people cleaning. You want to see the housekeepers in the public areas cleaning and wiping often. That was never the case because it didn’t feel like a great experience, necessarily. That’s probably one of the biggest shifts.

We’ve had a shift, when we clean and how we clean, but I think it’s important to note that our cleaning has always been good. We’re now cleaning for an airborne pathogen. That’s a little bit different than just our normal cleaning protocols.

Tyler: And where are we at right now? I guess it’s August 19. You track this whole virus--you have from the start—and you did impart some great information to the audience. Where are we at right now? And what do people—planners, attendees and stakeholders—need to know?

Michael: Right now, the U.S. is on a decline, and not only total cases, but hospitalizations. We’ve gone through the peak of this wave, and I think it’s important...California, Texas, Florida—Texas and Florida specifically—cases are plummeting, hospitalizations are decreasing quickly.

Florida is at 50% of the hospitalizations they had just three weeks ago. It’s moving and moving fast in the right direction, and look, part of it is those three states—three of the most populous states in the country. It’s telling me, if those states are able to control it, and continue to control it moving forward, we’re not going to be talking about other big surges because of the populations of those states. Those states were critical to it.

I also think when you look at it, Tyler, it’s interesting; this was not a second wave. This was the wave for the South and the West. California never got it. Texas and Florida never really got it. There were parts of California that did, but as a state, it never came full force. It dipped.

And this was, when you look at the actual graph line, it looks the same everywhere around the world. And you’re either going to—and this is the thing—what we did by sheltering in place, is you had that line gradually go up, and then hit its peak and then come back down. What happened in New York and New Jersey? It went straight up. There was no gradual, and that’s what we saw that overran a health system.

I remind everybody, you’ve never once heard Dr. Fauci or Dr. Birx ever say that we’re getting rid of the curve. They said we’re trying to flatten the curve, which means cases are going to come, they’re going to be here. The point is, can we make sure it’s at a point that we’re not over-flooding a hospital system?

Tyler: And one thing that really stood out to me, and you sort of made this point a couple times, is that the networking function-—and it’s such an important part of a live meeting; it’s really those connections you make. For right now, though, that’s kind of been impacted greatly, huh?

Michael: It really is, and you heard me say today, we just have to rethink it. We’ve always thought about networking functions revolving around food and beverage. That’s a challenge in today’s environment, because that removes the mass that will be necessary if we’re conversing and being in some type of tighter environment.

If that’s the case, then we have to rethink those. The food and beverage [functions] all end up with the dinner portion of it. Are you seated at a table after you’ve had some time to network, but now we’re seated at a table and that’s when the food and beverage—even reception-style food and beverage—starts to come to the table?

I just think we have to rethink some of those because the environment is completely different.

[Read more about this event: Back in the Face-to-Face Meetings Saddle With ALHI]

Tyler: And tell me what went into the decision process of selecting this hotel, the Omni Dallas Hotel, for this event.

Michael: Actually, it was partly timing and then partly location. So, knowing that Dallas was central to the country, for those that needed to fly in, it would be easier to not have to connect. And we know, look, for a lot of people it’s the first time on a plane. So, the fewer contact points that we could give them would make a difference.

So, when we picked Dallas, it’s like, okay, let’s go Dallas. And then when we looked at the Omni here, it was really looking at the spaces; it is very large, high ceilings, nobody would feel uncomfortable. And we thought that was very important.

You heard me say today, people really have to think about the psychology of all of this. We have to do everything that we can do to make sure that people feel comfortable in these environments. And we know we set it up to protocol but being in a room that feels very spacious doesn’t make you feel like you’re crammed.

Tyler: And have you got any feedback from some of the meeting planners in attendance, and what are some of the things that stood out to them?

Michael: Actually, my phone has been blowing up while I was up doing most of this. And then afterwards, we just had some conversations. What I loved more than anything is when I had some of the most senior planners that I have dealt with that said you gave me some real things to think about. And that was the important part, is how do we arm them to talk to their stakeholders, that meetings are happening?

You heard [Omni Chief Sales Officer] Dan Surette say today, there’s 130 meetings that happened at his hotels. And I think that surprised most people because they didn’t know that. That is what we have to start to communicate—you’re not the first one to have a meeting if you decide to have one right now.

And that was the important takeaway that I’ve heard planners say—you’ve given me confidence that we can do this. And I think that’s going to be important moving forward.

Tyler: Well, great. Thanks for joining us, and before we end it, why don’t you tell people about what ALHI is about and what they bring to the marketplace and planners, and what you guys are doing in this whole fight against the pandemic?

Michael: Well, look, I appreciate that, Tyler. Associated Luxury Hotels; we’re a global sales organization for independent hotels and independent brands. Omni is one of our largest independent brand partners.

And when I say independent brands, Omni owns and manages their hotels, as same as Loews and MGM that are bigger brands in there. But being an independent in this regard, we’ve been able to really try—and we’ve stepped up—to try to be a resource to our hotel members, because they don’t have a large machine as some of the larger corporations would be having.

And during this pandemic, candidly, we have been a connection point to the meeting planning audience because many GSOs were impacted, as far as the major corporations, where there was furloughs and layoffs, while we had the ability to kind of fill a gap there to make sure that people knew, we’re just trying to be a resource for you.

I think we’ve been able to solidify ourselves in that place, and it’ll be something we’re going to continue. How do we continue to educate? How do we continue to try to move the industry forward? You’ve known me long enough—it’s a passion of mine. I love this industry. Anything we can do we’re going to, but we have an ability with ALHI to actually take this—because we built a community.

We have about 3,000 planners, and most of it grew organically, that have now signed up for these weekly updates we have. Now, they know they get the recordings by signing up, but we still have anywhere from eight to 900 that participate actively weekly. And that community, I know we’re going to be able to continue to evolve even as we get past this COVID stage, and maybe that helps other initiatives.

I’m passionate about how do we start to, really as an industry, combat trafficking. And we started that conversation, but we you know, it’s kind of been put to the wayside, and I’ve been talking to the people with ECPAT right now, and what’s interesting is, this has become problematic for them because everything they’ve ever taught on how to identify it has changed because our protocols have changed.

If you’re going to keyless entry to hotel rooms, that took away one of the major points on us training a front desk and training a staff on what to be looking for. I want to be able to contribute to that cause and I think ALHI can continue to do that moving out of here.  

Tyler: Do you like my pandemic hair?

Michael: I do. It’s kind of the rocker hair, I was gonna say. I thought you were just going California on me.

Tyler: I might add a beard to the whole deal. So, alright, thank you, Mike. I appreciate it.  

Michael: Tyler, thank you for joining us and we really appreciate your support as always.

[End transcript]

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