A small meeting or executive retreat is usually defined as a group requiring between 10–100 rooms, which may seem much easier to organize and book than the mega-meetings that fill giant Las Vegas or New York hotels. However, small meetings often may be harder to book because of their shorter booking window, which reduces opportunities for prime space and preferred dates.
“The beauty of booking smaller groups is you have leeway to become more creative.”
— Nancy Caine
It also may be more difficult to secure the much desired comps and discounts that often come with booking more room nights and larger F&B events. However, small groups also make up the bulk of corporate business for most hotels because sales managers can confirm small room blocks within the shorter lead time, and will try and fit smaller groups in between and around other large meetings and conventions. In fact, the revenue from small groups has become so important to most hotels that venues are now hiring sales managers especially trained in the art of working with planners with small corporate group business.
Small group meetings and executive retreats have their own special challenges for meeting planners. When does a group become so small that it flies under the radar at a large venue with bigger groups in-house? Are venues reluctant to offer smaller groups the nice discounts and freebies that larger groups are getting? What venues not only desire to host smaller groups, but go out of their way to make the attendees feel special and cater to their every need?
“The staff of Partners in Planning Inc. try to offer small groups between 50 and 100 attendees VIP service at the hotels and resorts we use,” says Nancy Caine, president, Partners in Planning Inc., an Ohio-based meeting planning company that works with many corporate clients.
“If you are responsible for booking a smaller meeting, here are some of our recommendations. When possible look for a smaller hotel option, but there are also several full-service resorts and hotels that can give your group an unforgettable experience,” says Caine, addressing the question of what types of properties are best suited to handle the smaller corporate group meetings and/or executive retreats. “We used Willows Lodge in Washington state, the Waldorf Astoria, other small luxury properties and some overseas boutique hotels to make that happen. Should you not be able to use a smaller hotel, make sure the meeting space for your group in a large venue is self-contained and separate from other groups.”
Some hotel sales managers will look at your initial RFP that mentions 10 room nights and decide it isn’t even worth a return phone call. Caine offers some advice most meeting planners know but perhaps forget to mention in the initial RFP. “Since hotels are looking at the number of room nights booked, when your room night number is not as large as other groups, it is important to demonstrate the value of your group revenue. We do this by outlining food and beverage functions, restaurant usage, the use of the spa and golf course. As a rule, we request a satellite check-in so our guests do not have to wait in line.
“Some other things to be careful of when booking smaller groups is to make sure the meeting room is not too large,” Caine continues. “Buffets sometimes have a fee attached if you do not meet the number. I try to waive that if at all possible. The beauty of booking smaller groups is you have leeway to become more creative. We tend to use smaller vehicles, and you can offer unique offsite experiences that would not be available to a larger group. With that in mind, when you are looking at offsite tours, you have to be mindful of minimums associated with each. You can always ask that the venue drop the minimum. Finally, while you are negotiating with vendors, you will probably be able to tell who welcomes the small groups. Stick with those suppliers to assure that special experience.”
As we’ve been noticing for several years now, meeting planners with smaller groups have been turning away from the larger, urban properties downtown for the suburban or rural venue that caters to small, corporate groups with more affordability, ease of access and parking, larger guest rooms and the feeling of not being lost in the crowd.
For the small corporate group that wants to mix business with excellent golf, Streamsong Resort, situated in rural Central Florida, south of Orlando, is a luxury meeting and incentive destination designed in harmony with its natural surroundings. Opened in 2013, the 228-room resort property offers one of Florida’s most unusual golf experiences on courses designed around a rolling landscape with elevation changes, natural bunkers, lakes and open savannahs. The Streamsong Red and Streamsong Blue courses were both awarded numerous “Best Course” awards from all the major golf publications. The resort will open a third course, Streamsong Black, this fall.
With 25,000 sf of meeting space, the 13 meeting rooms can accommodate groups of 10–500 in comfort and privacy, within a dedicated area attached to the hotel. Groups are free to explore the property’s 16,000 acres, which include five dining venues, the AcquaPietra Spa, a bass fishing lake, an infinity-edge pool, sporting clays range and hiking trails.
Located in the heart of Vail Village, Colorado, 95 miles west of Denver, the 84-room boutique property, The Sebastian – Vail, offers comprehensive meeting and event facilities complete with luxury resort lodging, including the fine-dining Leonora restaurant. The property is designed to accommodate small corporate meetings and events, offering four flexible meeting rooms, the largest at 3,795 sf for banquet and event space, and the Magellan Boardroom.
“We have 8,500 sf of meeting space. We love groups of about 100 attendees, the perfect size for our corporate meeting and executive retreat spaces,” says Julie Goraj, senior marketing manager, The Sebastian – Vail.
For small corporate groups the property offers a three-night, four-day package beginning with a personalized arrival, transportation from the nearby Vail/Eagle airport if needed and a welcome amenity. Attendees are treated to a dinner reception onsite in a space completely transformed into a cozy, upscale mountain log cabin. Breakfast, meeting time and a gourmet lunch are included, and in the afternoons and evenings, attendees are treated to true Colorado adventures including a guided downhill bike tour down Vail Pass, white-water rafting with a riverside, gourmet candlelit dinner.
Located in Middleburg, Virginia, in beautiful horse and wine country just outside of Washington, DC, the Salamander Resort & Spa is just 22 miles from Dulles International Airport, yet feels like it is a world away. All 168 rooms and suites are extraordinarily spacious, minimum room size is 545 sf, and all guest rooms include a separate relaxation corner, dining table, full-size desk, and outdoor patio or balcony.
Event spaces range from the 4,500-sf Middleburg Ballroom to the intimate Marshall Boardroom, with a total of 19,950 sf of indoor and outdoor space throughout the property, with 13 meeting rooms. Some unique indoor venues include the equestrian center (this is horse country after all), the stallion barn (a 100+ year-old, restored stone building) and a cooking studio.
The property also is the largest destination spa in the Washington, DC, area, and group participants will enjoy the 23,000-sf spa and wellness center with 14 treatment rooms, and an infinity-edge spa pool with cabanas.
“My company’s October annual retreat at Salamander Resort was a mix of a two-day, 12-person executive retreat and then a full-company, one-day, 50-person retreat on the third day,” says Ryan Hayes, director of strategic partnerships and event management at RedPeg Marketing.
“The first two days were pretty typical, with a mix of meetings, brainstorming sessions, meals and some form of a teambuilding activity, which included a ropes course, clay shooting and other activities. Day three was similar, with a series of presentations, meals, one large teambuilding activity, a series of smaller teambuilding activities throughout the resort, and then a happy hour, group dinner and fire-pit gathering. We booked about 30 room nights over three days.
“This event was planned in a very small booking window of about 10 days, so we truly utilized every available space we could,” says Hayes. “I was very happy with the number of spaces that were available at Salamander. No matter what I needed, there seemed to still be a space that fit our group. Overall we used the property’s Plains Suite, the Waterford Room, Bluemont I & II for day three teambuilding, the cooking studio, stallion barn and Delaplane Terrace for dinners, the library for cocktails, Grand Lawn for the fire-pit lunch, Harrimans each day for breakfast and the Gold Cup public space for another lunch.
“I cannot emphasize how well this all fit our needs. We didn’t have a large group, but we needed a wide diversity of space for a number of functions, and in addition to the meal functions, we also used resort venues for the recreation/teambuilding events (ropes courses, zip lining, biking trails), and for the cidery tours,” says Hayes.
Hayes was careful to explain how planning an annual corporate retreat for a small group of high energy individuals needs a venue that is as dynamic and energetic as the group participants. “We are a young, experiential marketing agency, so our expectations and demands are high when it comes to site selection,” says Hayes. “Since we are in the business of creating experiences for our clients, we desire the same in our corporate outings.
“Salamander provided a true, all-inclusive package of unique experiences. Yes, there’s the basics of meeting and dining space, audio-visual, and quality food and beverage, but we look for that extra touch. We went an hour away from DC for a reason. We could have found the same basic requirements in a dozen other properties in the area, but we wanted something more dynamic, upscale and a property that could create an experience for our employees.”
Another deluxe venue in a non-urban area that welcomes small corporate groups is Willows Lodge, located on five beautifully landscaped acres in the heart of Woodinville wine country, just 25 minutes northeast of Seattle.
The 77-room, seven-suite property is surrounded by more than 90 wineries and tasting rooms, including two of Washington’s largest, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Wineries. Willows Lodge sits adjacent to the Redhook Brewery and the Sammamish River Trail, which provides access to plenty of outdoor activities, including biking, kayaking and hiking for small groups. It is also within easy access of several area golf courses, Marymoor Park, shopping centers in nearby Redmond and Bellevue, as well as Eastside businesses, such as Microsoft, Nintendo and Google.
Standard room amenities include 40-inch flat-screen HDTVs (50-inch in suites), four-fixture bathrooms featuring an oversized soaking tub with clear sight line to window, TV and fireplace, complimentary wired and dual 100MB high-speed internet access, and personally stocked private bar,
The Barking Frog, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the Northwest, as well as the world-renowned Herbfarm, Washington state’s only five-star restaurant, are both located adjacent to the main lodge. The Willows Lodge lobby bar Fireside is open daily. The 2,500-sf Spa at Willows Lodge features a steam room, outdoor hydro-therapy pool, relaxation room and six treatment rooms.
The 45-foot-high ropes course and zip-line park is available and run by Adventura Consulting, with teambuilding skills that encourage improved communications for individuals and organizations. The property offers 5,153 sf of meeting space accommodating groups from 6–180, including the Sammamish Ballroom and the outdoor garden gazebo.
“Last August we chose Willows Lodge to host a gathering of our board of directors,” says Dana Graham, associate director, corporate events for Sage Publishing, a California-based publisher of academic journals, texts and library products for the educational, scholarly and professional markets. “Together with invited guests, our group consisted of approximately 30 attendees. Prior to our arrival, we worked closely with the team at Willows Lodge to ensure that we maximized all the available space specific to our needs and requirements. In general, our board and senior executives prefer an informal ‘living room’ setting. We have found that this approach consistently yields lively interactive exchanges generally and, in particular, with our guest speakers.”
Willows Lodge seemed to have the right atmosphere for this small corporate group with very specific needs. “We used the Gilman Room for a board dinner, and that same room also served as our ‘living room’ for casual meetings and guest speaker events,” says Graham. “For formal lunches we utilized the Cascade and Cedar rooms, but also frequented the hotel’s Barking Frog restaurant for more informal meals.
“Offsite, several of our guests visited the Chateau St. Michelle Winery, which included a private tour followed by lunch and an offsite visit to MoltenWorks, a locally renowned glass-fusing workshop. Because the property was intimate and cozy, with plenty of places for chatting and networking, it really worked perfectly for our size group, and their onsite chef provided excellent cuisine throughout our stay.
“Generally speaking, we prefer locations located less than two hours from a major airport. Additionally, with smaller groups, in order to achieve our desired relaxed ambience, the site must not exceed 100 rooms, and all meeting rooms should be sufficiently large enough to accommodate our group and feature windows providing natural light,” says Graham.
“Beyond a nice guest room product and varied meeting space, I look to the team that I will be working with. Are they personable, knowledgeable, experienced, thoughtful and anticipatory? Will they hold true to their service promise and work alongside of me toward the success of the event? The hotel and staff must be upscale and able to meet or exceed our needs.”
Graham says that in addition to Willows Lodge, the following domestic and international properties, all located outside of big cities, were also outstanding in handling the small, deluxe groups from their U.S. and international offices: Four Seasons Biltmore, Santa Barbara, California; Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire, U.K.; Laguna Montage, Laguna, California; and Four Seasons Hampshire, U.K.
Many meeting planners prefer an urban destination for their smaller meetings and incentive groups, choosing hotel venues within larger cities that offer more offsite options or closer international air connections. Often it is the larger, urban property that can provide an all-day food and beverage package, and catering all meals on the property will give planners more power to negotiate and the ability to avoid meeting room rental charges. If planners do not have a large amount of F&B built into the program, using a larger city property will enable attendees to leave the premises and find various food options outside the hotel. You also have to know your group’s preferences, and whether or not the smaller event you are planning will diminish the group’s importance in the minds of the sales staff.
A good choice for a smaller corporate meeting is the 132-room Hotel Sorella Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. Six private meeting rooms provide 5,700 sf of event space, with a circular flow and a high-ceiling design. Large projector screens offer the opportunity for interesting and informative audio-visual displays, and the prefunction space is situated just off the lobby, under the impressive, three-tiered Murano glass chandeliers.
There is an additional 4,000 sf of event space available in Rosso, the rooftop restaurant, and at the nearby pool terrace and Bar Rosso. Offering a combination of classic Mediterranean and rustic Midwest dining, Rosso provides great views of the city, and the large poolside terrace is perfect for al fresco occasions. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the property.
“I have organized many corporate events at the Hotel Sorella Country Club Plaza,” says Wlaa, a meeting planner and event planner at the Midwest-based Wlaa Style. Wlaa, who uses just his first name, is also a nationally known fashion consultant for modeling agencies and corporate fashion shoots, involved in the travel arrangements for location shoots, and booking accommodations and venues for small meetings and receptions. Some of his recent corporate events have taken place at the Kentucky Derby, TMC Collective Mid-Coast Event, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and at NY Fashion Week.
“The Sorella has been perfect for my Midwest clients,” Wlaa says. “We make use of the property’s Francesa’s Greenouse Lounge, as well as their private dining facilities, including the Nichols & McCoy Ballrooms, the Artist Foyer and the outdoor garden area.”
For small, corporate board meetings, or the colorful and extravagant events that Wlaa organizes for his fashion clients, the Hotel Sorella Country Club Plaza offers flexible meeting space and an extensive food and beverage program.
During multiday events at the Sorella, Wlaa coordinates museum and shopping visits in the Kansas City area, and feels that the venue is well-suited to his fashion-conscious clients. “The Sorella is absolutely a perfect fit for us,” Wlaa says. “The amazingly helpful and friendly staff created a unique experience through attention to detail, as well as going above and beyond to enable all of the guests to be able to fully enjoy every aspect of the event.”
In Orlando, the 146-room Villas of Grand Cypress has made a concerted effort to target corporate groups of 240 or fewer. Attendees like the fact that the property is within walking distance of their Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and that the resort’s standard room, at 650 sf, is one of the largest in central Florida.
Offering 10,000 sf of total meeting space, this includes 3,128 sf in the largest room, with a cap of 220 theater style; 240 banquet style; and 160 for classroom setup. One of big attractions at the property is the Executive Meeting Center, a newly renovated 7,200-sf, Mediterranean-style facility, with meeting rooms surrounding an open atrium and overlooking a scenic garden terrace. The four separate meeting rooms can be divided into eight self-contained, soundproof meeting and banquet rooms.
“We use the property once or twice a year for annual conferences; one is a leadership meeting and the other is normally a corporate department meeting, such as human resources or another department,” says Cheryl Benjamin, manager, travel and meeting services for Dart Container Corporation. “The attendance for these meetings averages about 60–85 per meeting, and the Villas of Grand Cypress has done a good job with these smaller corporate events — this is our fourth year using the Villas.
“Our meeting schedule is normally fall, September through November, however I have two scheduled for late spring in 2017 and 2018,” explains Benjamin. “We utilize the EMC for our meetings and an occasional social function. The layout of the EMC is great for meetings with breakout sessions; there is lots of natural light but still private, and with just the right amount and right type of space. The pool area is our go-to location for opening receptions. There is enough space there that allows for entertainment and activities during the reception.
“Normally our groups will have a free afternoon, and we work with a DMC in the area to assist with transportation and tickets to the parks or other attractions. The team in the meeting center is experienced and helpful. From sales to billing, I never worry about something falling through the cracks. I don’t know how she does it but my conference services and catering manager often seems to know what I need before I do,” says Benjamin.
Using a smaller property within a vibrant and busy metropolitan area (like Orlando) can be challenging for meeting planners. Benjamin often prefers to be the only group in-house, which means they get the full attention of the property’s group managers. “From the minute you pull through the gates, each guest is treated like a returning friend. I feel the longevity of the staff has a lot to do with this. You never pass a person without them waving or saying hello. They do whatever it takes to make us comfortable. This attention helps drive a positive attendee attitude,” Benjamin notes.
“The accommodations are what I like to call quiet luxury. Everything is of quality without feeling stuffy or sterile. It doesn’t matter if you are in a club suite or a villa, there isn’t a bad room at the resort. The setup of the one- to two-bedroom villas can accommodate a small meeting or breakout session (up to eight people) around the dining room table without invading the personal bedroom space. I’ve had the AV team deliver equipment to a villa to accommodate a pop-up meeting during our leadership conference, and the clubhouse restaurant (Nine18) is the ideal location for smaller intimate meetings and luncheons.” Nine18 is equipped with blackout screens along with audio-visual capabilities. Benjamin says that her groups generally have an afternoon golf outing, and the services of the golf tournament coordinator at the Villas is invaluable to her.
Benjamin relates a story about how a mistake on her part actually solidified the relationship between the planner and the venue. “One year there was a miscommunication, on Dart’s side, to the attendees about lunch on the first day. We planned on lunch for 25 but more people started drifting towards the dining venue and before we knew it, almost 70 attendees were waiting for lunch,” Benjamin says. “I was a little stressed, to say the least, but the hotel’s response was ‘we will handle it, don’t worry, just relax,’ and within minutes everyone on the banquet team and in the business office were setting tables and buffet lines. With only a short delay they managed to feed everyone who showed up! Our group still talks about how well they worked under pressure and made us feel like it was just another day. Of course, it’s now a standing joke with the resort — they still tease me about the look on my face that day as people kept filing in.” C&IT