Members of the State Bar of Texas had a little “before and after” experience at one of their traditional meeting hotels, the AAA Four Diamond Hyatt Regency Dallas, a property that underwent a $50 million guest room makeover that began in May of last year, and prior to that completed a meeting space renovation. The Bar held a four-day family law conference with 1,500 attendees at the 1,120-room hotel in 2009, which effectively was the “before” experience. The guest room renovation was “pretty much completed” by the time the group returned for another meeting, according to Julie Marshall, meetings and sponsorships manager with the Bar, and “the difference was really stunning because we felt very comfortable before, but now it was that much better.” The project, which celebrated the Hyatt’s 35th anniversary, replaced the dark gray carpet in the meeting areas and “really lightened everything up; made it look very sleek and modern,” Marshall says. “We had a couple of attendees say they weren’t even sure it was the same hotel.”
Renovations generally mean improved experiences for delegates, in terms of comfort, convenience and aesthetics. As such, they continue to be a selling point toward planners. “I love seeing soft goods upgrades and renovations that keep the property fresh and new,” remarks Windy Christner, senior director, meetings and expositions for the Washington, DC-based American Pharmacists Association. “I love seeing the fact that there is that kind of investment in an existing property.” Many hotels make that investment regularly, promising something for returning attendees to look forward to: a chic, redone lobby, plush new carpeting, or perhaps a new spa or restaurant. One example is The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, “one of my favorite hotels down in Florida,” says Daniel J. Lough, CMP, director of meeting management, education and training for the North Olmsted, OH-based Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Union. “They renovate every few years, and it seems like we are never there during the renovation, but when we get there, it always looks fresh.”
Renovations that overlap with a group’s meeting — or those that could potentially overlap — have always concerned planners. That scenario, which risks the disruption of meeting activities, is usually the only downside to renovations. While the Hyatt’s guest room refurbishment was only fully completed after the State Bar of Texas’ most recent meeting at the hotel, Marshall says she didn’t have any reservations about booking. “The room renovations that were close to the meeting space had already been completed, so we were not really worried about noise issues. And because we have such a long-term relationship with the folks at the Hyatt Regency, we felt very assured by their comments that the project would go in a timely manner and that it wouldn’t adversely affect our group. We work with Hyatts in cities all over Texas, so I definitely do think it gives us that extra level of confidence.”
In cases where there is less confidence, Marshall says the Bar does instate a contract clause to the effect that any renovations or other construction projects will not adversely affect the meeting, which is fairly common in meeting groups’ addenda.
Vanessa Kane, CMP, CMM, manager meetings & events/exhibits for the Kansas City, MO-based Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, says the organization’s contract also specifies that the hotel is to “notify us of any kind of renovation, especially if it might affect us. They need to provide us with information on what the project is going to entail, when it is going to be completed, if it is going to impact any of the areas that our group is going to use and so on.” She cites one hotel that was conducting an exterior renovation that disrupted the main entrance and “they had to move the registration reservation desk to a temporary location. Sometimes that can affect the meeting, and as a planner you want to know that.” Given the demographics of her attendees, logistical inconveniences can be especially undesirable. “Primarily they are older folks and even now, in this day and age, many younger veterans could be limited in their mobility.”
The goal at the contracting stage is to avoid surprises and ensure that a planner is in a position to decide, if a renovation is in store during meeting dates, whether to go through with the meeting or rebook it for a later date. Some planners in fact prefer that their group not be the first to experience a major renovation that has been completed. Christner, for example, holds that it’s best to meet at the property “after they’ve had an opportunity to do a trial run, possibly with another group. I don’t particularly love being the first group in a renovated place because the kinks haven’t always been worked out yet.”
The delay allows the opportunity to confer with colleagues who have experienced the results of the project, prior to booking. “We have a very tight network of meeting planning relationships, and it’s easy to find out who has been into any facility ahead of you over the prior year, make a couple of calls and ask those planners what went well, what didn’t go well, so you can have a heads-up to focus on those issues,” Christner explains.
Sometimes a discount can be negotiated for groups willing to meet while a renovation is in progress. However, this approach is not always advisable, if the project will likely entail a disturbance for the attendees. “It’s your members who are going through the pain, and those are the people you need to come back year after year,” Christner says. “So even if you might be getting a little bit of a discount from being at that property, your members may have to go through an adverse experience. You need to make sure you weigh that.” Now, there can always be unexpected disturbances during the course of the meeting, which neither the planner nor hotel could have reasonably predicted. In that case, a discount can sometimes be negotiated if the disturbance cannot be removed. “During a large meeting we had last summer, there was hammering, and the hotel didn’t technically have any control over it because it was taking place in the garage and that was owned by somebody else,” Marshall relates. “As soon as the hammering began we went to our contact at the hotel and said, ‘OK, what can we do to make it stop?’ And they immediately went to the folks at the parking garage and within 20 minutes, they were able to get all of the hammering to stop, have it postponed it until after our meeting had ended. If that had not happened, I’m sure they would have worked with us to come up with a financial (compensation), but we didn’t get to that point.”
While it’s important to address the possibility of renovation in a contract, planners with strong relationships with hoteliers tend to see them proactively communicating upcoming renovations that may coincide with clients’ meetings. “Hotels are pretty good about letting clients know that they are undergoing a renovation that can affect our convention,” says Kane, who has been involved in planning since 1978.
They also have promotional reasons for doing so, of course, as many renovations will be especially attractive to meeting groups. Kane notes a trend in creating more inviting, high-tech lobbies that feature both natural lighting and kiosks. “They renovated the lobby at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City, which we use every year for our legislative conferences. I don’t think people are staying in their rooms as much; they come down and socialize more, and so the Hyatt has opened up the space a little more and made it more comfortable to be down in the lobby, including little areas where people can sit and visit or they can hook up their laptops.”
Technological improvements are especially welcome in the older, classic properties, Lough adds. “Some of the older hotels don’t have wireless Internet capabilities, and it is nice when they do get around to bringing the property up to date.”
Lough in fact generally prefers newer hotels for his meetings, since they are quite “up to date.” “I love the historic hotels. …They are beautiful, and the history is beautiful, but sometimes I think that conferences were an afterthought (in their design). In the really old hotels, the hallways are a little narrow and the shipping docks are kind of a nightmare. I enjoy the newer hotels in regards to flexibility and being able to handle large shipments and large groups of people.”
Christner observes, “The new properties have all the new bells and whistles. Overall, they are building in the wireless technology, easy-charge stations and all of the things people expect now.” But while newer properties do have their virtues, a newly opened hotel does call for a careful site inspection, she notes: “You really do want to take your time and look at things you might normally not take a long look at, such as whether they have loading docks and storage.”
In addition, there is the typical concern about staff competence at new properties. One factor, Christner notes, is the often high volume of turnover in the early stages. Another is simply the cohesiveness of the initially hired staff, which may not yet be optimal even if they are experienced hires. Oftentimes, however, staff will not be entirely new, but include transfers from other properties in the chain. “Sometimes, when you have a brand new opening, if folks come over from another property that you already know and have a relationship with, that makes it easier,” says Marshall. A site inspection is an opportunity to meet the new staff members, but its value as a predictor of staff performance at the meeting is limited. “The people that I work with that make my meetings a success once it is sold are the back-of-the-house people, the convention services staff,” says Kane. “Meeting them face to face is important, but it’s not going to tell me that my meeting is going to be a success. Still, I ask them about their experience level and background, because I have been partnered before with somebody whose job I had to do in addition to mine, and that’s frustrating.”
When a new hotel does prove itself, however, it adds to the memorable quality of the convention. Delegates are experiencing much more than a new ballroom or refurbished guest rooms. It’s a new lodging experience, coupled with a newly assembled staff that’s eager to show they have what it takes to facilitate a successful convention and encourage the group’s return. AC&F