The Omni Fort Worth Hotel hosted a GameStop event in 2019. GameStop’s meeting planner likes Omni’s ample space. Credit: GameStop
One of the most personalized ways that a hotel chain caters to its group clients is via its national sales representatives. They effectively become the face of the brand, and when they demonstrate attentiveness to the planner’s needs, the brand looks good. Samantha Vogel, CMP, senior manager, meetings and travel with Grapevine, TX-based GameStop, has strong relationships with both Marriott International and Hilton Hotels & Resorts sales reps, and enjoys having them reach out to her with opportunities because they understand “the nuances of what we do.”
”For our annual meeting, we’re so large we only go to certain cities. So if they’re reaching out telling us ‘We have a new Marriott coming online near the convention center in Indianapolis, we know you’re going to go there.’ Yes, we absolutely want to know about that.”
Carrie Huffhines, CMP, senior events and logistics manager with Austin, TX-based Keller Williams Realty, also enjoys having an open line of communication with the national reps at the chains with which she frequently works, including Hilton, Marriott and Omni Hotels & Resorts. “We do ask them to reach out to us, usually quarterly, to give us an update on what the brand is doing and what they’re seeing in the industry. But then we want to have the same ability to reach out to them if we have questions or if we’re having a difficult time with a specific client services manager (CSM). The ability to reach out and have that immediate response is priceless.”
While a brand extends personalized service to group clients via its representatives, it also pursues numerous initiatives catering to group clientele as a whole, ranging from meeting technology to onsite wellness activities to property upgrades that will benefit meetings. Following is an overview of some of the latest developments that showcase the commitment to the meetings group market among the world’s largest hoteliers.
“We also think Omni has that one-on-one service feel and it tends to feel like a boutique property because of private management.”
Huffhines points to a welcome trend among renovating hoteliers, including Hilton. “Our attendees like the fact that many of the hotels are upgrading their lobby areas to be more social areas. Networking is huge for our events,” she says. For example, “the Hilton Austin within the last two years has finished renovating their lobby and now they have the long tables for several people to share and network. The atmosphere has changed so it’s more communal.”
Far beyond meetings-friendly lobby renovations, Hilton is upping the ante in the group market with the launch of a global meetings-focused brand, Signia Hilton. Properties such as the Signia Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, Signia Hilton Atlanta and Signia Hilton Indianapolis are under development, and will boast a minimum of 500 guest rooms and 75 sf per room of flexible function space. Other features include signature restaurants, destination bars, wellness experiences and, most importantly, a variety of high-tech meeting spaces, from large ballrooms and pre-function areas to small and midsize meeting rooms.
Hilton has been making significant strides in meetings technology by introducing a variety of meeting room elements. Examples include Steelcase Thread, which conveniently situates power outlets in different parts of the meeting room as needed; CoeLux artificial skylights, which brings the appearance and feeling of natural skylights to the room with nanotechnology; Nanoleaf customizable lighting; and Panasonic’s BF1 Series LCD touchscreens, which can connect and display content from any operating system or USB and enables meeting facilitators to switch between a PowerPoint presentation and a collaborative whiteboarding session. Complementing these tech tools are atmospheric elements such as Nordgröna’s unique moss wall, which brings a taste of the outdoors to meeting rooms and acts as an air purifier and sound absorber. Locally themed elements are also being introduced to meeting spaces — the Hilton Austin’s music-inspired meeting room, The Reverbery, is a prime example.
The latest Wyndham property developments favor both incentive meetings and training conferences. Incentive planners are constantly looking for upscale resorts in intriguing destinations that will likely be new to well-traveled potential qualifiers. Wyndham’s “upper upscale” brand, Wyndham Grand, is debuting in six new destinations this year: California; Cam Ranh, Vietnam; Mexico City, Mexico; Kayseri, Turkey; Tblisi, Georgia; and Crete, Greece. Wyndham Grand resorts, featuring a distinctive architectural design and premium amenities, restaurants and spas, are an ideal home base for incentive travelers to explore these destinations.
On the business meetings front, few brands deliver a conference experience on par with Dolce Hotels and Resorts by Wyndham. The historic Seaview, a Dolce Hotel, in Galloway, NJ, reopened in March after a $17 million project that updated all 296 guest rooms and suites; refreshed the 27,000 sf of meeting space, lobby and public areas; renovated the outdoor pool; and added new dining options, including an eatery within the hotel’s famed Oval Room. Groups in intense sessions benefit from Dolce’s signature Nourishment Hubs and the brand’s Thoughtful Foods for Thoughtful Minds program.
Planners partnering with the Seaview as well as other Wyndham properties can take advantage of the chain’s go meet rewards program, enabling them to earn one point for every dollar spent on qualifying revenue, regardless of billing method, with no minimum spending requirement and no maximum point limit.
The combination of local character and ample meeting facilities is what attracts GameStop’s Samantha Vogel and her participants to the Omni brand. “Our attendees feel Omnis tend to be a little more upscale and have more local flair,” she says. “We also think Omni has that one-on-one service feel and it tends to feel like a boutique property because of private management.” GameStop recently held its 2019 Field Leadership Meeting at the 614-room Omni Fort Worth Hotel, bringing in about 500 attendees and utilizing all of the hotel’s 68,000 sf of meeting space.
Novartis utilized the same property for its National Sales Meeting in January. “We have found the staff at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel to be creative and resourceful in enabling us to execute our objectives,” notes Laura Healy, director of meetings and events management. She relates an example of that creativity. “We decided to hold both the Opening Theme Party and the Awards Gala at Omni Fort Worth Hotel; however, we did not want the two events to look and feel the same, as they had just one major ballroom. The hotel worked with us to design an interactive event by just mapping out the foyer areas, creating staging for the band/karaoke contest, and integrating food and beverage stations with gaming activities. They also worked with use to create ‘reveal’ experiences throughout the night of the Awards Gala, which was optically effective and minimized costs.”
Omni also excels on the F&B front, offering “creative menus” according to Healy. A case in point is Omni Originals, a brand-wide food and beverage series offering guests a unique culinary experience each quarter such as “Season of Smoke” and “Morel Mushrooms.” Along with that creativity, Omni brings social responsibility. In recent years, the brand launched its Say Goodnight to Hunger program, which makes a donation to Feeding America for every booking made through OmniHotels.com. In addition, Omni hotels support their local food banks and pantries, and enable their group clients to donate meals. “We really like the program because it gives you the specific number of meals that they’ve donated, and you can turn that around and let your attendees know we donated 562 meals to the local homeless community,” Vogel says.
IHG made a strong commitment to its group clientele at IMEX America last year when it introduced Crowne Plaza Meeting Mentors: Christy Lamagna, founder of strategic meetings and events; Tahira Endean, event-technology and design expert; Michaela Alexis, personal-branding coach; and Julian Lwin, owner and creative director of Lwin Design studio. These globally recognized industry experts are collaborating with Crowne Plaza to develop a robust meetings website with videos, blog posts and other content, and assisting clients in the areas of event strategy, design, technology and social media.
IHG also has meeting attendees’ needs in mind. Traveling professionals want to be both well rested and fueled for a long day of meetings, and new IHG offerings assist on both counts. The brand has piloted the use of the JOURNI Mobile Task Light, first installed at Crowne Plaza Atlanta-Airport. Developed by Healthe by Lighting Science, this portable LED task light is designed to help regulate sleep when traveling, and is effectively a response to a new IHG study revealing that 80 percent of travelers struggle to sleep when away from home. On the sustenance side, attendees staying at Holiday Inn properties can begin their day with a breakfast that is both expedient and energizing with the new Express Start Breakfast, included in every stay. More than 30 hot and fresh items are available, including healthy options, dishes localized by country, and grab-and-go meals.
Given her long-standing relationship with Marriott, Vogel was among the planners who were advantaged by the Marriott-Starwood merger. “Our Marriott national sales reps are fantastic. They are talking to us all the time, making sure we’re up to date on which properties they’ve invested in from a remodel standpoint. When Marriott and Starwood merged, it extended the available properties” under the existing relationship, she says. Moreover, Marriott is very proactive in maintaining and improving its hotels, she adds. “We’ve been at properties where we feel the service has been great but the property hasn’t been updated in some time. We don’t tend to go back to those kinds of properties. And I really feel that Marriott overall has done a good job reinvesting in their properties and keeping them up to date.”
The brand is also heavily investing in expanding its portfolio, with a three-year growth plan that includes opening more than 1,700 hotels worldwide and adding between 275,000 and 295,000 rooms by 2021. The development pipeline includes an increasing number of Legacy-Starwood branded hotels. With regard to Sheraton, the company’s most geographically diverse brand, more than 1/4 of the properties are already under renovation or committed to a renovation.
Two recent Marriott openings are especially of note for the meetings industry. Located just 10 minutes from the Denver International Airport, the 1,501-room Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center debuted in December, offering groups 485,000 sf of function space that includes the 174,000-sf Aurora Exhibition Hall and 22,000-sf Aurora Patio. Other property highlights include eight F&B outlets, the Relâche Spa and Salon, 22,000 sf of aquatic recreation and an eight-story atrium window affording a panoramic view of the Denver skyline and Rocky Mountains. And in January, the Delta Hotels by Marriott Dallas Allen & Watters Creek Convention Center opened as the first of the Delta Hotels brand in the Dallas-Forth Worth area and the brand’s first new build in North America. The Benchmark-managed property features 90,000 sf of convention, ballroom and meeting space, 300 guest rooms and suites and a restaurant by celebrity Chef Stephan Pyles.
Also of note, Marriott rebranded its loyalty program, which combines Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards and SPG, as Marriott Bonvoy this year.
Last fall, Hyatt made life easier for its meeting planner clients with the introduction of the Hyatt Planner Portal. Available across Hyatt’s global portfolio, the invitation-only, comprehensive tool allows planners to manage contracts, attendee information and costs through all stages of planning. It can also generate reports on current, upcoming and past meetings. “Created with feedback directly from meeting planners, this solution aims to alleviate pain points planners face and it captures information in one place so they can spend more time focusing on what is most important for their attendees,” explained Steve Enselein, senior vice president of events at Hyatt, in a statement.
The Hyatt Planner Portal also includes a customized reservation link for attendees, banquet menus, event space floor plans and access to diagramming software. It is integrated with Hyatt’s Event Concierge App, which allows planners to make requests directly to the hotel team, and Group Bill, which organizes all costs into a single invoice for easy payment.
MGM is engaging its meetings clientele on multiple fronts, from major meeting space expansions to wellness to technology to team building. MGM Grand completed a $130 million, 250,000 sf expansion of its Conference Center in December. As part of the project, Stay Well Meetings, which launched at MGM Grand in 2014, expanded its footprint by 22,000 sf and now encompasses the Conference Center’s entire second floor of both the new and existing space. Stay Well Meetings has also been implemented at The Mirage’s Calypso Court, which includes seven meeting rooms ranging from 900 sf to 4,680 sf.
Stay Well Meetings features are also in place at MGM Resorts’ new centerpiece for high-tech meetings, Park MGM. The hotel’s Madison Meeting Center (MMC) and Ideation Studio both became IACC members in November. The 10,000-sf MMC offers 10 flexible rooms, two self-service lounges, ergonomic moveable furniture with integrated power, built-in A/V and rolling whiteboards, as well as the Las Vegas Strip’s first Daily Meeting Package. The Ideation Studio has numerous high-tech features, including Cisco Webex Boards allowing for full HD video teleconferencing, audio conferencing and collaboration annotative capabilities; built-in whiteboard wall surfaces; audio/video conferencing at the touch of a button; and wall-mounted speakers for presentations and background music.
Groups that want to enjoy a bonding experience before they head into the conference room might consider the ARIA Hike. Participants are guided through ARIA Resort & Casino’s $40 million fine art collection, gaining an appreciation for leading contemporary artists while benefitting from a cardio workout.
Caesars’ most significant new meetings offering, and one of the most significant in Las Vegas, is Caesars FORUM, a $375 million conference facility scheduled to open in 2020. As of February 2019, Caesars had booked $150 million in meetings business at the venue, and its immediate popularity is not surprising. One of the FORUM’s main virtues is, as they say in real estate, “location, location, location.” There are more than 20,000 Caesars Entertainment hotel rooms within walking distance, and 5,000 Caesars Entertainment hotel rooms connected to the facility, which is accessible via skybridge from Harrah’s Las Vegas and The LINQ Hotel & Casino. In addition, the FORUM is adjacent to The LINQ Promenade retail district, giving attendees a convenient way to spend their free time.
In terms of meeting space, the FORUM boasts ample square footage, variety and flexibility.
Its 300,000 sf of meeting space includes two 110,000-sf pillar-less ballrooms, two 40,000-sf ballrooms and six state-of-the-art boardrooms. More than 2 miles of airwalls can create more than 100 breakout rooms. The LEED Silver certified facility is also being built on one floor for convenient move-in, supported by nine loading docks. Groups looking for an outdoor experience are accommodated by FORUM Plaza, a 100,000-sf outdoor space.
Caesars is complementing this major new business offering with new entertainment options this year. Of particular note is the Vanderpump Cocktail Garden, which opened at Caesars Palace in April. TV star and restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump’s stylish garden oasis can be rented for events of up to 150 guests, and its two venues can be individually rented: an interior back lounge that accommodates 50 seated guests or up to 70 standing, as well as the patio for 50 seated guests.
From this compelling venue for recreational gatherings to a new state-of-the-art conference facility, Caesars Entertainment is more prepared than ever to host groups at all levels of hospitality. C&IT