As the meetings industry continues to confront the profound changes and challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Benchmark, a global hospitality company, is launching a new educational initiative to help meeting planning professionals. The Meeting the Moment Program is a strategic initiative designed to address today’s issues while laying the foundation for safer, healthier and more productive meetings in 2021.

The program provides customized information and solutions to help planners deal with the complexities of creating and preparing in-person meetings in 2021 and going forward. Meeting the Moment channels the expertise of Benchmark’s leaders in technology, food and beverage, team-building and meeting design. Working as a team, this panel of experts meets virtually with individual planners, whether they have an immediate need to schedule a meeting or event or not. The program is designed to be an educational and consultative resource to the industry — a personal and individualized think tank for planning professionals.

Last May, Benchmark created the Meetings Accelerator Program aimed at mitigating the immediate effects of the crisis with zero-risk clauses and safety initiatives, according to Eric Gavin, Benchmark’s chief sales officer. “These many months later, we have a much better idea of what works, what is needed, and what we must do to help create a very different kind of safe and productive meeting experience for the long-term.”

“Though devastated by the pandemic, the meetings industry and its hospitality partners have shown incredible courage, creativity and resilience,” Gavin notes. “And while many see a bright light at the end of the tunnel, more challenges and questions lie ahead. The Meeting the Moment initiative addresses many of those questions and seeks to create long-term solutions that will permanently impact how meetings are conducted safely, constructively and with successful results.”

The Meeting the Moment panel consists of experts in key aspects of conference planning, including:

  • Patrick Berwald, Benchmark’s vice president of food and beverage
  • Brian Wells, Benchmark’s general manager at The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center
  • Kama Carter, director of conference services at Deloitte University
  • Janene Varden, director of sales and marketing at Willows Lodge

What kind of advice can meeting planners expect? The Meeting the Moment team can address planners’ specific goals, budgets, safety concerns, and the physical and psychological needs of attendees following a year of quarantines, isolation and demanding work conditions. The initiative focuses on four components of contemporary meetings: group dining reimagined, meeting technology solutions, the evolution of teambuilding and wellness, and innovative meeting design.

1. Group Dining Reimagined

“Food and beverage experiences are an essential aspect of group gatherings,” says Berwald. “However, getting together for a meal is not as simple as it used to be.” He highlights suggestions for organizers working to reimagine dining plans, while going into depth in each area in panel discussions with planners:

  • Think about privacy. Limit or stagger access to dining areas to manage traffic while offering unique spaces to congregate and dine.
  • Focus on wellness. More than ever, food and beverage offerings focus on wellness and sustainability. Look for menu items that are indigenously sourced and clean-label foods that promote natural energy. Support the experience with nutritionists to curate menus tailored to meet any group dietary needs.
  • Limit time spent. To reduce the amount of time guests are seated together, order ahead from customized menus to help minimize exposure and increase efficiency.
  • Change up the old-school buffet. Flip self-serve to full-service food stations that are operated by dedicated service teams. Newly positioned stations can be set at appropriate distances to minimize crowding, while being conducive to traffic flow and social distancing.
  • Grab and go. Individually portioned snacks and beverages allow for expedient guest flow during breaks while maintaining low-touch protocols.
  • Boxed Lunch 2.0. No longer a just a sandwich, a cookie and an apple — custom bento boxes can come complete with three-courses, elevated packaging and convenience for guests on the go.

2. Meeting Technology Solutions

“Keeping up with technology has always been an issue for planners and COVID-19 presents new problems that we have not had to address pre-pandemic,” says Wells. “Technology is key to keeping us safe, and to designing meetings that are productive and inclusive.” Wells goes on to discuss:

  • Hybrid meetings. When guests are unable to attend a meeting because of health, distance, family or budget concerns, technology enables them to easily participate in all or part of a meeting from home.
  • Multi-pod meetings. This is a different take on hybrid meetings. Host smaller, in-person groups at two or more hotels. Link these groups together with sophisticated technology that allows them to participate in the same meeting, but enjoy a different destination experience.
  • The air that we breathe. When the weather outside is challenging, seek out facilities that offer state-of-the-art air control systems that can improve indoor air quality.
  • Pre-conference communication. Technology can help planners communicate with attendees prior to the meeting with information on safety protocols, concierge services and the local destination. Virtual attendees can receive information on connecting to the meeting and participation.
  • Tech support. Meeting planners can opt for full-service in-room tech support if needed.

3. The Evolution of Teambuilding and Wellness

“Teambuilding and wellness initiatives are a terrific way to help teams reconnect and reenergize after a stressful year of working alone, too many Zoom calls, lack of social contact and dealing with other challenges brought on by the pandemic,” according to Varden. He suggests meeting planners:

  • Take it outside. Research today confirms nature’s profoundly healing and restorative effect on our minds and bodies. After the trauma and isolation of COVID-19, wide open spaces and outdoor venues beckon.
  • Get moving. Reenergize with local outings and sports, such as golf, boating and hiking.
  • Give back. Help the local community with a project that brings attendees together and serves the greater good. Assist at a food bank, build bikes for kids in need or help clean the shoreline for a healthier environment.
  • Chill out. Plan activities that slow down the tempo, teach new skills, inspire creativity, and promote relaxation and focus. Choose activities such as yoga meditation, breathing sessions, culinary competitions, wine tastings and art classes.
  • Take to the spa.

4. Innovative Meeting Design

“Planners today have a dual challenge in designing impactful, successful meetings in a safe, productive and, increasingly today, outdoor setting,” according to Carter. “Now, more than ever, each meeting must excite and inspire attendees, while providing learning and personal connections safely, doing so in an environment where attendees can feel secure, so they are free to focus on the meeting’s content, goals and objectives.”

Creative meeting space setups optimize healthy hygiene practices, while providing a setting that stimulates collaboration and innovation, according to Carter. She highlights the following recommendations for planners:

  • Keep it flowing. Consider implementing entry and exit flows to ensure social distancing to preempts bottlenecks and unintended face-to-face run-ins. Stagger breaks and event timing.
  • Make it clear. Color-coded systems and property signage, including floor decals and freestanding signs, can help alleviate guesswork for attendees.
  • Keep it clean. Position hygiene and sanitizer stations at all entries and exits.
  • Create a customized floorplan. Collaborate with the hotel conference team to ensure that you have a customized plan that meets your needs, and complies with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local guidelines.

Planners can access Meeting the Moment resources, view video presentations by Benchmark’s team members and schedule personalized sessions by visiting