Hotels & Conference Centers Recovering

After three extremely difficult years, it appears that New Jersey’s meetings industry is slowly continuing to make strides toward recovery. While progress is being made, some industry sources have projected that it may take until 2025 to surpass the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

Nationally, leisure travel has been on the rise, returning more closely to pre-pandemic levels. However, business travel, which includes corporate, group, government and commercial categories – the hotel industry’s largest source of revenue – appears to be taking significantly longer to recover.

Hotels and conference centers in urban markets, particularly those in major cities or areas in close proximity to them, have been most affected. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, New Jersey properties were projected to be down by 36.3% for the end of 2022, a significant loss of revenue because the state relies heavily on business from group meetings, events, and business travel. Other headwinds facing the industry include a tight labor market, budget cuts, and the continuation of virtual meetings.

There is good news, however, in that many American corporations and workers have begun to realize the unrivaled worth of face-to-face meetings, networking, and team building; critical components leading to successful employee productivity and talent retention.

“There is a pent-up demand by corporations and organizations for more in-person conferences and meetings, with the lack of day-to-day interaction in this era of remote work,” according to Chris Mulvihill, owner and chief marketing officer at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg.

While locations to host Zoom meetings are still in demand, Mulvihill and the sales team at Crystal Springs find that businesses are seeking venues with more than just a place to meet and sleep. Meeting planners are looking to make time together all the more special by seeking out properties with unique spaces and amenities in natural settings. Innovative team-building activities to inspire creativity and facilitate interpersonal connections are also very important.

“To that end, we developed a collection of teambuilding activities with shared themes of sustainability, wellness, nature, local agriculture and culinary excellence,” comments Mulvihill. “We call it our ‘Inspiration Series,’ and it really plays to the strengths of our property. As New York City’s closest resort, our unique combination of quality amenities, desirable spaces and innovative programming have put us in high demand with new and repeat business already booked a year out.”

Many of the resort’s activities align with the its Environmental, Sustainability, and Governance (ESG) mission. In addition to being the northeast’s largest solar powered resort, the resort’s menus incorporate dozens of locally sourced ingredients, and the facility runs a number of programs that encourage guests to patronize local growers and producers.

The array of offerings is both creative and intriguing: Hiking with goats, touring local farms and gathering produce (which becomes incorporated into the evening’s dinner prepared by the chef), foraging with the resort’s botanist, culinary classes, and workshops with beekeepers to make honey, are just some examples.

In South Jersey, tourism and event bookings are up substantially particularly in the Wildwoods, according to Ben Rose, director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement Authority.

“While we do not host corporate meetings or conferences, there is a strong demand for bookings of youth sporting events, and fraternal, religious groups and regional associations at the Wildwood Convention Center,” Rose comments. “Those bookings also bring in a large number of families who reserve rooms at the hotels, frequent area attractions, and eat at restaurants, which is a major ‘win-win’ for the local economy as well.”

In 2020, the Convention Center was shut down for an entire year due to the pandemic. Once it reopened, COVID-19 policies only allowed for an audience of 150 people at a time, a far cry from the 3,000 usual attendees at events. Since then, the numbers have continued to swell to pre-pandemic levels, and bookings from every client organization have come back, with the center booked out for a year.

“We receive inquiries and requests from many major corporations to host their conference or meetings here because of the size of the convention center and the amenities the Wildwoods have to offer, and they often ask, ‘What else can you give us?’,” because we do not have a flagship hotel in close proximity, we have not been able to capture that business,” Rose notes. “As a result, we are moving forward and working to develop such a property next to the center, which could be a major game changer.”

As for tourism, the Wildwoods continue to draw visitors and enjoyed a major increase of 12% growth in 2022 over the previous year, which is particularly significant since the average increase for tourism traditionally is 3% to 4% per year.

“While inflation and the economy present some concerns, we’ve not seen much cutting back,” Rose says. “People’s balance sheets seem to still be in positive territory, although that can change at any time. Our experience and observations are that most seem to want to put their money towards experiences and are willing to cut back on goods in order to afford those experiences.”

“Resiliency and creativity are the watchwords in this post-pandemic climate,” Mulvihill concludes. “While the past few years have been difficult, we looked at the challenges and relied on our areas of expertise to survive what we were facing. The pandemic didn’t decimate us – it only made us stronger.”

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