In 2014, the Super Bowl will be played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, just five miles from New York City; and the Miss America Pageant will return to its long-time home in Atlantic City. These events and thousands of others demonstrate that the New Jersey-New York market is a natural for significant events — including meetings. Both destinations are making significant investments to improve their meeting products as the economy recovers.
And meeting planners are responding, seeing the destination as a networking natural. Elite Meetings International selected Revel (1,898 guest rooms; 160,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting and event space), the new multibillion-dollar resort in Atlantic City, to host the Elite Meetings Alliance last August. Among the attendees were more than 100 meeting planners there to network with suppliers.
“The key thing about where we hold these events,” says Kelly Foy, Elite Meetings International CEO, “is that they need to be hot properties because of the high planner attendance. Revel is the first of its kind in Atlantic City and really helped with our attendance. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for attendees, and they really understood our needs.”
Margaret Holsinger, events manager, noted, “We worked on this meeting for more than a year — even before the resort opened, which is sometimes a little risky. But they delivered on everything they said they would. They went along with our desire to make creative use of spaces — for instance, a Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp event incorporating the floor and stage of their big Ovation Hall. Even though there were only about 200 of us, they made the space feel just right for the event. Our guests had a ball going up on stage and performing with the rock ’n’ roll legends.
“We also did a circus-themed reception in a prefunction area,” Holsinger continues, “which the staff encouraged us to use in a very creative way. They have a great way of blocking out unused space with air walls. We did all of our F&B through their catering, and it was phenomenal.
“It’s a beautiful property,” she says, “and so well placed on the Boardwalk. I was very impressed that it was a nonsmoking facility, and that you don’t have to walk through the casino to get to the meeting space.”
Marilyn Kleinberg, executive director, eWomenNetwork of Southern New Jersey, says her organization is built around relationships. And so is her choice of meeting venue: Bally’s Atlantic City (1,760 guest rooms; 80,000 sf of meeting space). Says Kleinberg, “We have had our last four annual events at Bally’s. I worked with them for many years when I was vice president of special events and marketing for the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey. I truly believe that the staff is as important as anybody else at an event, and the banquet manager Dennis Vrba has been my go-to guy for the meetings. I believe that he will take care of me, and that’s why I go there. They have been so supportive in many ways.”
Most of her attendees, says Kleinberg, are business owners intent on networking. The meetings feature speakers who can educate and inspire women. There is also something called ”accelerated networking” — a trademarked event that, says Kleinberg, “is like speed dating, an accelerated opportunity to connect and learn about somebody and whether you can do business with them.”
At their upcoming Bally’s event, says Kleinberg, “we expect a couple of hundred women. Day one will be an authors’ workshop. That night we will have a networking event at Harry’s Oyster Bar, where the manager is a woman. Day two is the summit itself where the theme is “succeeding in spite of everything.”
Like other planners who conduct meetings in the New York-New Jersey region, Kleinberg says the nearby population and its impact on attendance is an important factor. “We will be drawing from Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Maryland and Delaware.”
Despite the periodic pressure of rate and availability, says Monique Pujol, an events manager for By Invitation Only, which specializes in corporate events, “hotels that you have worked with for a long time will aim to accommodate you. That’s why I’m thrilled the New York Palace is undergoing its big renovation (see details on page 36). I went with a law-firm client a few days ago; they were very impressed.”
The perception issues of meeting in a five-star New York hotel, says Pujol, have eased “and a lot more clients are doing events for their own clients.”
Booking windows continue to shorten, says Pujol, who adds, “Our groups range from 30 to about 500, and you don’t have the lead time that you used to. They are always waiting for the last minute to commit.”
Denise Newman, president of New York Hotel Reservations, a meeting planning firm that specializes in New York and New Jersey, says, “Business is really picking up including, to my surprise, some groups that have not been in years. We are getting a lot of medical and pharmaceutical events because with all the top hospitals in New York they are there to do training.”
Newman is a fan of The Roosevelt Hotel (1,015 guest rooms; 30,000 sf of meeting space), a 90-year-old hotel on Madison Avenue, because of its “Old World feel combined with modern technology. Also they have an extensive selection of suites, which is really important when you have a group that wants a VIP room.
“The location is terrific,” she says. “It’s two blocks to the theater district so you don’t need a bus or taxi.”
Newman says The Roosevelt is very flexible when it comes to rates, and as for availability, “In New York, it’s always best to book well in advance for spring and fall; in January and July you can really get a great deal. I’m a connoisseur of New York hotels,” she says, “and my main job is to fit the meeting with the venue. I have a large group coming into The Roosevelt, a pharmaceutical group. They really wanted all their space on one floor, which The Roosevelt can offer. “
Before Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic City, according to Gary Musich, vice president of sales for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, was on track to enjoy its fourth consecutive year of growth in meetings. Even with losses due to the storm, the year turned out flat with the prospects for 2013 and beyond very positive. “We are projecting 12 percent growth in meetings for 2013.”
Behind that growth, says Musich, “is that we are evolving from a gaming destination to a balanced, mature destination appealing to all business segments. Our room inventory grew by over 20 percent in 2008 as the recession hit, but we have been able to absorb that. We have seen an evolution of the city as a tourism district that has been carved out in collaboration with the Atlantic City Alliance. We are aiming to lengthen the stay with attractions that are also important to planners. There has been a massive investment in retail like The Walk, a 10-square-block dining and retail center that connects the convention center and Boardwalk. And we recently got a commitment from Bass Pro Shops to build a 90,000-sf facility.”
Also big news, says Musich, “is that Margaritaville has partnered with Resorts (Casino Hotel) to develop a huge Margaritaville facility within Resorts with construction underway later this year. We’re getting our message out to planners with a massive ‘Do AC’ campaign,” says Musich. “And it has paid off. Attendance at meetings and conventions were up 65 percent and spend was up 43 percent in January so the rebound from the storm has been quick.”
To maintain that momentum, Atlantic City has launched a $1 million incentive program for groups that book at least 1,000 nights during the 2013 calendar year. The incentive, says Musich, can be used for transportation, marketing or anything else.
And the pitch for Atlantic City, according to Musich, remains:
Convenience to major cities such as New York and Philadelphia;
One-stop shopping because the CVB owns and operates the convention center; and Cost effectiveness.
Atlantic City’s resorts are investing along with the destination itself. Of course the biggest investment has been Revel, which cost more than $2.4 billion and opened almost a year ago. While the hotel did announce a prepackaged bankruptcy earlier this year, Jim Ziereis, vice president of resort sales, says, “We are moving full-speed ahead. The bankruptcy means that our creditors have taken an equity in the property. We are opening a new restaurant and a day spa so we continue to add amenities to the 14 restaurants and many other features that we offer.”
Revel’s 160,000 sf of meeting space includes an eye-opening 90,000 sf of outdoor space, which can be used year-round. The resort’s accommodations include oceanview rooms and residential-style meeting rooms with couches. These rooms can accommodate three groups of up to 500 each.
About 70 percent of Revel’s meetings come from corporate sources, says Ziereis. He adds, “We sometimes have to deal with a perception problem because people who haven’t been to Atlantic City in a while would not recognize the place today. We find that if we can get them onsite our close rate is fantastic. The way we have captured the sunlight and views stops them in their tracks, and you can enjoy all that as you walk from your general session to your breakout room. We are truly a full resort, and that’s why we see a lot of meeting attendees stay a day or two before or after their events.”
Caesars offers several resorts in Atlantic City under different brand names, each appealing to a specific market (Bally’s, Harrah’s, Caesars and Showboat). While it has not been officially announced, news reports have detailed a plan by Caesars to build a $134 million conference center at its Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. The project would involve a two-floor, 200,000-sf addition, half of which would constitute meeting space. The center would focus on corporate meetings and special events.
In a news release, the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority said the new center “will spur additional development throughout the city and bring with it increases in revenue and ratables at a time when casino gaming revenues have been steadily declining and new non-gaming attractions and businesses are sought to energize the market.”
A spokesperson for Caesars in Atlantic City, says, “The Do AC campaign is spending $30 million over five years and that has been very helpful. They help to offset some costs in bringing planners to our properties. For Atlantic City, show is better than tell. Planners are always surprised at what Atlantic City has to offer as far as shopping restaurants, etc.”
At The Tropicana Casino & Resort (2,078 guest rooms; 122,000 sf of meeting space), “The market is very promising,” says Eric Fiocco, corporate vice president of marketing for Tropicana Entertainment. “We are redoing the ballroom and adding six new food and beverage venues that will have mass appeal for the convention-goers. We have a new nightclub, Boogie Nights, which appeals to an older demographic. We are extremely happy with the outlook, which is why we are investing so much in the property. …Do AC has been really helpful. It concentrates almost 100 percent on non-gaming activity, as well as rates and deals.” The Tropicana, which boasts the largest showroom in Atlantic City with 2,000 seats, will renovate the 18,000-sf Royal Swan Ballroom this summer.
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa (2,000 guest rooms; 70,000 sf of meeting space) has completed a $50 million room redesign project, and recently introduced in-room gaming, a first for the hotel industry. “The outlook for meetings at The Borgata and The Water Club (a separate luxury product) looks fantastic,” says Bernard Sefcik, director of hotel sales. The Water Club offers an additional 18,000 sf with state-of the-art technology. The Borgata features innovative and world-class dining experiences with a wide array of restaurants and world-renowned chefs under one roof, including legendary chefs such as Wolfgang Puck (Wolfgang Puck American Grille) Bobby Flay (Bobby Flay Steak) Michael Geoffrey Zakarian (the Water Club) and others.
Atlantic City is not the only meeting destination in New Jersey. The Hilton Short Hills, not far from New York City, has committed to the meetings market by converting a former dining room into two meeting rooms and a private dining room. According to David Keys, regional vice president-sales and marketing Eastern North America for Hilton, “Short Hills is one of the properties where Hilton is testing a new Small Meeting Package where planners can book function space only on short advance notice. It’s aimed at planners whose hardest task is frequently booking space without guest rooms. It will be a simple, one-price package with some options.”
And Jersey City is emerging as a meetings hub as well. The 10-year-old Hyatt Regency Jersey City on the Hudson (351 guest rooms; 20,000 sf of meeting space) has just completed a full renovation of its meeting space. A big selling point for the hotel, which has a 35 percent group mix, is its unmatched views of Manhattan. The hotel is connected to the PATH rail station, for a five-minute ride into Manhattan.
Keys, a member of the NYC & Company board, said that the city has enjoyed a 3 percent jump in bookings for the first quarter of 2013, usually the quietest time of year and another sign of recovery.
At The New York Hilton, says Keys, “We are upgrading our restaurant experience with the Herb n’ Kitchen, which is targeted at meeting attendees who want to eat healthily but want to eat in their rooms without calling room service. We also have new directional meeting signage in the hotels that is interactive, and we can now do meeting messaging in the elevators. Those are small things but all add to the experience.”
New York has enjoyed an unprecedented hotel boom and what that means, according to Chris Heywood, a spokesman for NYC & Company, the city’s visitor and marketing agency, are “more short-term bookings, and interest in (outer) borough hotel properties for smaller meetings. New hotels all around the city offer a wide variety of styles and budgets.”
But the perennial selling points prevail. Says Heywood, “New York is a capital of business and commerce, a place where business gets done. You do more in a few days here than you can in a week anywhere else. And meetings that convene in New York usually generate record attendance.”
Heywood tells planners that NYC & Company is a great resource for meetings of all kinds. They will help with venue selection and navigating the city on the planner’s behalf through their destination services departments. Planners should go to www.nycandcompany.org/meetingplanners.
And Heywood’s advice: “Plan ahead for better value. Consider planning meetings in January and February; and consider a Sunday stay for lower rates. And don’t forget that New York is a great incentive destination; that should not be overlooked.”
Meanwhile, New York’s convention hotels have spent many millions to enhance their product:
The Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers near Times Square (1,781 guest rooms; 60,000 sf of meeting space) has just completed a $20 million renovation of its meeting space, the final phase of the hotel’s overall $180 million renovation. The project includes a complete renovation of the ballroom, meeting rooms and prefunction areas. This renovation will offer a clean, fresh design scheme with an emphasis on light, warm tones and geometric patterns. Kai Fischer, director of sales and marketing, noted that the renovation will allow the hotel to “appeal to higher end events for executives and customers of large Fortune 500 companies,” adding, “The overall New York market continues to strengthen, because of greater confidence in the economy and the need to put people on the road to connect with their customers. New York remains the No. 1 attendance driver and the No. 1 destination people want to come to. However, there is still a considerable amount of affordability by New York standards as we continue to recover.”
Also in Times Square, the InterContinental New York Times Square (607 guest rooms; 10,000 sf of meeting space) has introduced Insider Collections as an additional offering for meetings. The programs aims to create truly memorable meetings and events that are infused with authentic local flavor, according to Ryan O’ Byrne, director of sales. “This insider local knowledge,” he says, “is achieved through one of the following options: insider locations, insider breaks, insider interactions, insider speakers and insider community.” The property, says O’Byrne, “focuses on more intimate corporate meetings along with high-end incentive trips. With our largest ballroom being 4,000 sf and adjacent smaller breakout rooms, it allows the client to be creative in their setup while not feeling the impact of other groups impeding in their space.”
He says the hotel continues to see an increase in short-term meeting requests — 30–60 days out. “Although there are steady requests, we are noting companies scaling back on their initial contractual commitment — contracting fewer room nights and lower food and beverage minimums.”
The area near Grand Central station has emerged as a meeting center with several major properties undergoing significant improvements. The Westin New York Grand Central (774 guest rooms; 12,000 sf of meeting space), formerly the New York Helmsley Hotel, boasts a renamed and renovated Madison Ballroom, a 2,500-sf space for up to 350 guests. It features an 18-foot ceiling, access to a private terrace and a number of unique design elements such as color-changing LED lighting.
There has been an $80 million overall renovation that changed the entire look of the hotel. “Everything was gutted including the infrastructure; there is new bandwidth using fiber optics,” says Kristin Hankins, director of sales and marketing. “The meeting space was gutted as well. This hotel as the Helmsley did nowhere its potential meeting business, especially corporate,” she says. “We still love our association business but have repositioned to appeal to corporate clients who like our location and the fact that our space offers natural light and is above ground. We’re looking to triple our group room business.
“We have already tripled our banquet and catering revenue and added corporate business,” says Hankins. “We have the easiest hotels to get to if you land at JFK or LaGuardia, and we have the 7 subway line at our doorstep, which will be expanded to Javits Center in 2014.”
The nearby Grand Hyatt New York (1,306 guest rooms; 60,000 sf of meeting space), right above Grand Central Station, redid its meeting space in 2011, including the addition of the Gallery, an innovative meeting space ideal for brainstorming.
Also in the Grand Central area is the historic Roosevelt Hotel, which offers grand vintage spaces but a modern approach in its 30,000 sf of meeting space. “We are seeing large programs approach us on a short-term basis, says Susan Richardson, director of sales. “Last June, a pharmaceutical company came to us and asked for all of our meeting space in September. We were able to move stuff around and accommodate them. We sell the intimacy of small spaces in a large hotel. I used to call The Roosevelt the largest boutique hotel in New York. Planners like us because we offer the perception of value. And we find that even the younger planners like the vintage feel of our ballrooms and other vintage spaces.”
And Newman agrees that younger planners like the property “especially since they added a rooftop bar, which is very popular with younger attendees.”
Another classic property in the heart of midtown , The New York Palace (813 guest rooms; 22,000 sf of meeting space), has transformed its fourth- and fifth-floor meeting space, creating an atmosphere that matches the style and grandeur of the function rooms on the upper floors of the hotel’s Villard Mansion. As part of the redesign, The Palace introduced a corridor art program on the fourth- and fifth-floor meeting spaces. All of the paintings are original pieces that have been curated from antique and vintage sources.
And The Palace just launched the first phase of a $120 million overhaul including a $25 million makeover of its Towers Rooms and Suites, scheduled for completion in June. The Towers is a separate and distinct part of The Palace, occupying the hotel’s top 14 floors. It offers a private reception area and a dedicated concierge team. “We’re embracing meetings more than in the past,” says General Manager David Chase. We have the most significant suite inventory in the city with eight suites that are probably bigger than most presidential suites. We have 40 other very large suites that are available for small meetings. They have dining tables and either wetbars or full kitchens.”
In an entirely different neighborhood, but one which is also coming into its own as extensive meeting inventory has been added in the last few years is The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park (298 guest rooms; 13,000 sf of meeting space). According to Jessica Solomon, director of meetings and special events, “We recently updated our meeting space with refinished banquet chairs, new carpets, wall coverings and curtains in our foyer space to keep the property in new condition. This is important especially for our repeat groups so our clients see that we are staying relevant. Groups are once again moving toward more offsite meetings,” says Solomon. “Companies seem to be bringing back strategic and board of director meetings, which decreased in the past few years due to many companies keeping these meetings onsite at their home offices.”
While they differ in a lot of ways, what both Atlantic City and New York have in common are unlimited diversions. As Kleinberg says, “We don’t have a lot of down time, so it’s great having all those shopping outlets right there. In warm weather it’s great to walk around and shop, and there is a lot of female-friendly activity going on in Atlantic City. Nobody wants to stay in the hotel the whole time,” says Kleinberg, “if you can give them something within walking or jitney distance, that works out really well.”
And Pujol agrees that attendees “like to use all that New York has to offer and all that is around them.” C&IT