These days, serving the corporate meetings market means much more than opening new meeting space and renovating existing meeting space. The best minds in hotel brands recognize that, and seek to improve their offerings to groups on numerous fronts, including wellness features, meetings-related apps, online planner tools, CSR opportunities and the development of unique event spaces.
One of those minds is Michael Dominguez, senior vice president and chief sales officer at MGM Resorts International. Dominguez is the catalyst behind a company that has consistently brought innovations to the Las Vegas meetings industry. “We are the largest convention player in the market, so for us to consistently create offerings that fit that model is really important,” says Dominguez. “We have so much space and so many opportunities that I think it’s easy for us to create unique meeting niches within our hotel portfolio.”
“We are the largest convention player in the market, so for us to consistently create offerings that fit that model is really important.”
— Michael Dominguez
By way of example are the dramatic changes taking place on The Strip that will enhance meeting offerings. “We’re going to spend a half billion dollars to reinvent Monte Carlo, which will become Park MGM,” says Dominguez. The project will reflect the fact that the new Park (a scenic outdoor space) and T-Mobile Arena are MGM Resorts’ centerpiece in the city. Within Park MGM, we are developing unique meeting concepts for groups, particularly smaller ones.
“Eighty percent of the groups we host at MGM Resorts are 100 people or less, and we host over 3,000 meetings that are 50 people or less with an average size of 22 people. We are looking to create experiences and appropriate spaces to suit this demographic well,” says Dominguez, adding that, “Complete meeting packages and day meeting packages for our customers also will be available to provide options to fit their needs.”
Of course, the ideal facility for intense meeting sessions works best when attendees are in the right mindset for those sessions. Dominguez also emphasizes the psychological component to productivity in his goals for MGM Resorts’ wellness offerings. “We have the only StayWell meetings program in the U.S. currently, at the MGM Grand, and we are looking to be able to carry that experience to other meeting complexes within our portfolio,” he explains. “We have partnered with Delos, which is one of the leaders in research around the human body and the mind, and how we interact during long periods of time. We’ve been creating spaces that are geared toward mental acuity and engagement, including everything from circadian lighting to air purification. Delos also partners with the Cleveland Clinic, which has created nutritionally certified menus for our meetings.”
According to Dominguez, Delos had incorporated its wellness technologies in hotel rooms “but they had never thought about the meeting space, and we challenged them to it. There seems to be more demand for these features, and my goal is to get them into more of our properties and convert our traditional meeting space.”
Another progressive player in the Las Vegas meetings market and beyond is Caesars Entertainment, a company that has recently made strides in the area of CSR opportunities for group clients. Michael Massari, senior vice president of national meetings and events at Caesars Entertainment, cites the company’s Meetings for Good program, part of its Responsible Meetings initiative, as one of the most significant recent initiatives.
“The Meetings for Good menu allows groups to choose from preselected nonprofit organizations that Caesars already has a relationship with to be able to easily incorporate a corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity into their program,” Massari says. “All of our 130 sales managers and our 60 catering/convention services managers have successfully completed responsible-meetings training and are committed to making a difference.”
Caesars is responding to the heightened interest expressed by meeting planners to integrate community service activities into their meetings — a popular option especially among millennial attendees. A study by Meeting Professionals International cites that 60 percent of meeting planners are more likely to book a venue with social impact benefits. The Meetings for Good menu, which includes organizations dedicated to seniors, environmental sustainability, education, health and wellness, deployed soldiers and veterans, has been rolled out at select properties in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Atlantic City, and will be available in all other markets nationally later this year.
Massari describes the Caesars sales organization’s overall strategy. “What truly distinguishes our sales process is that our sales managers are located throughout the country, right in our clients’ backyard,” Massari continues. “This really allows us to build a more personalized approach and have face-to-face meetings, which ultimately builds stronger partnerships and relationships. This way, we get to know and fully understand our customers, and their needs and goals. Our sales managers are able to check availability right there on the spot, quote rates and finalize contracts with the customers. This means we can react faster and give the customer an easier and smoother experience.”
Regarding major property developments, Caesars Entertainment has greatly enhanced the Northeast meetings industry with the debut of Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center in Atlantic City. “This has made a huge impact on our company’s meetings business,” Massari asserts. “The Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center sits within a tank of gas of one-third of the U.S. population, and is the largest hotel-conference center complex from Baltimore to Boston. The conference center has given clients who would not have considered Atlantic City in the past a venue suited and equipped to hold their events close to home. It has without a doubt grown the meetings market for us in Atlantic City, and we have so far received very positive feedback from clients and attendees. Two weeks ago, the Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center hosted MPI-WEC 2016 (Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Conference), and we have gotten back amazing feedback about the conference center and Atlantic City.”
While Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center has understandably been in the meetings industry spotlight, Caesars also continues to invest in its Las Vegas product.
“We’ve recently completed a renovation of the Bally’s Jubilee Room, and early last year, we opened The Vortex, a unique venue that overlooks the Las Vegas Strip,” Massari notes. “We are also investing in a major project to renovate more than 5,700 guest rooms nationwide. By the end of this year we’ll have upgraded more than 4,800 rooms at four of our Las Vegas properties, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the rooms in Las Vegas. These renovations began with the Julius Tower at Caesars Palace and will take place at Planet Hollywood, Paris Las Vegas and Harrah’s Las Vegas,” he continues. “We’ve also completed renovations at Caesars Atlantic City, Bally’s Atlantic City and Harrah’s Gulf Coast. Later this year, Harrah’s Atlantic City will also be undergoing guest room renovations in the Bayview Tower.”
Wyndham Hotels & Resorts made a major foray into the conference center world with its acquisition of Dolce Hotels and Resorts in 2015. “I think it improved our perception within the market as being a meeting-focused company,” notes Carol Lynch, senior director, global sales at Wyndham Hotel Group. “The Dolce brand is the best example of a true meeting hotel company, the pioneers of the CMP program. They’re all about meetings and the standards around meetings, (including) community, connectivity and nourishment, because people go there for training and really intensive meetings.”
Currently, the Dolce Hotels and Resorts brand portfolio consists of 24 upscale hotels, resorts, conference centers and day meeting centers in seven countries throughout Europe and North America. Dolce recently announced a new 217-room property in Cincinnati that will open next year. It will become the centerpiece of a $124 million mixed-use development project known as Madison Center, home to the headquarters of Medpace, a global clinical research organization. The new hotel will house 22,000 sf of function space, including 16 individual meeting areas.
The Wyndham Grand brand also is expanding, with a 450-room property in Clearwater, Florida, opening next year (24,000 sf of meeting space) and the 450-room Sam Lord’s Castle Barbados, a Wyndham Grand Resort, opening in 2018 (20,000 sf of meeting space). Perhaps especially enticing to the incentive market is the Wyndham Grand Athens debuting in early 2017. The first Wyndham Hotel Group hotel in Greece, the property is located in the city center in a building that formerly housed the Hotel Athens Imperial. When renovations are complete, the Wyndham Grand Athens will offer 273 rooms, 27,000 sf of function space, a restaurant, bar, spa and rooftop garden with a pool.
“Our biggest initiative around meetings was our launch of Go Meet, which is our Wyndham Rewards plan for meeting planners, last year,” says Lynch. “We’re also going to launch a new Meeting Standards program for our full-service hotels later this year, (focused on) F&B, meeting services, presentation, equipment, setup and other aspects.”
Last but not least, planners will more conveniently navigate Wyndham’s portfolio with a revamped website. “Our website will be refreshed throughout the remaining part of the year, and that also will carry over into the meeting and event website,” she adds. “Standardization will be prevalent in each of those websites, making it easy for planners to get at-a-glance information and be able to tell right away whether a particular hotel can fit the needs of their meeting.”
The brand’s sales representatives are more personalized resources for site selection on a national and international level. “Our focus is account management,” says Lynch. “We want to be more of a consultant with our meeting planner clients around their business, so they can come to us and ask, ‘Here is my meeting, what would you recommend?’ And not only about one meeting, but their business overall, so that we have a true understanding about what their goals are (and can determine) the best destinations for those meetings.”
The finalization of the merger between Marriott International and Starwood Hotels will mean robust collective offerings for meeting groups. “Assuming receipt of required regulatory approvals and our anticipated closing of the Starwood transaction…Marriott will have nearly 40,000 meeting rooms available to host events of all sizes,” says Brian King, global brand officer, Marriott International. “We expect the combined company to offer guests and meeting planners the broadest portfolio of brands, combining Starwood’s leading lifestyle brands and international footprint with Marriott’s strong presence in the luxury and select-service tiers, as well as the convention and resort segment.”
Not to be overlooked is Starwood’s Four Points brand, whose properties are located worldwide, typically near business hubs and conference centers. Four Points recently launched “In The Year For The Year,” which waives cancellation fees and charges for unused rooms in the block. The offer extends to groups that stay at Four Points before January 1, 2017.
Starwood’s higher-tier brands, such as Sheraton, Westin, W and St. Regis, will complement Marriott’s well-positioned brands in the meetings market, such as The Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, Renaissance and Gaylord Hotels. The latter is introducing what will surely be a major player in that market, the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center, which will be completed in late 2018. Located in Aurora, Colorado, less than 10 minutes from Denver International Airport, the property is billed as the largest combined hotel and convention center in the state. The resort will feature 1,507 luxurious guest rooms, including 114 suites; more than 485,000 sf of exhibition, meeting, prefunction and outdoor space; a Grand Lodge with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain Front Range; eight dining outlets; an indoor/outdoor pool complex with waterslides and lazy river; basketball and tennis courts; the Relâche Spa and Salon; and a state-of-the-art fitness center.
According to Marriott International, the team led by Michael Kofsky, the property’s director of sales and marketing, has the goal of pre-booking more than 1.25 million room nights prior to opening. “Through the power of both the Marriott and Gaylord Hotels brands, we’re excited to funnel first-time group business into the state of Colorado by adding to our portfolio a Western region resort and convention hotel of this magnitude,” said David Marriott, chief operating officer, Americas Eastern Region, at a recent ceremony to mark the commencement of vertical construction.
The Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center will be the latest addition to a brand that promises to deliver “everything in one place,” including the resources to handle both large-scale meetings and the kind of dining, spa and entertainment amenities that please resort-goers. The brand’s existing properties are the 2,882-room Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee, with 600,000 sf of meeting space; the 1,406-room Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Florida, with 400,000 sf of meeting space; the 1,511-room Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, with 400,000 sf of meeting space; and the 2,000-room Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington, DC, with 470,000 sf of meeting space.
The investments being made by companies such as Marriott, Caesars and MGM Resorts are justified by demand from the corporate meetings sector. From the perspective of Destination Hotels, that sector is quite healthy. André Fournier, executive vice president of sales and marketing, observes that “Corporate business is up across our portfolio about 5 percent. And average rate is up by 5 percent, so revenue is up by 10 percent.” One qualification to that positive trend: “What we have noticed in the second quarter is a pullback in ‘in the year, for the year’ bookings in the corporate segment, the smaller short-term bookings. Typically these are corporate regional meetings. But it’s nothing alarming.”
Today, Destination Hotels has even more product to offer the corporate market. In January of this year, the company merged with Commune Hotels & Resorts to create a formidable operator of independent and lifestyle hotels and resorts. “It took us from 43 hotels to 92 hotels from Asia to Mexico to the U.K. and the U.S.,” Fournier says.
Apart from that major step forward, Destination Hotels has been focusing on what it does best: delivering meetings that are infused with the character and culture of their location. “Let’s say it’s San Antonio, with the Alamo, King Ranch all those really cool West Texas traditions. Our conference services team builds a program around La Cantera Resort, which incidentally is being renovated through September. We immerse the attendees in the local community,” Fournier explains. “So for example our conference services team would set up breaks with local fresh ingredients such as honey from the King Ranch area, and tell a story while we’re there about what the local commerce was. And they take it one step further: They make sure they’re not just meeting in the hotel, but also outside in the community. When you leave San Antonio you take a part of the culture and history with you.”
The company’s Destination Event Producers program trains CSMs to be ambassadors for their local community. “We were at 33 percent turnover in that department, and we’re now down to 20 percent. I believe by the end of the year, it will be down to 10-15 percent,” he adds. “They get more career development opportunities by achieving a minimum of 10 raving reviews from their planner clients, not from their internal associates: ‘This conference service director was outstanding and this is why.’ ”
Hilton’s primary new offering to the meetings market is undoubtedly the 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which opened on June 1. Connected via underground walkway to the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, the property offers more than 50,000 sf of meeting space, including a 20,778-sf Grand Ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows. Complementing these facilities is a signature restaurant, The Burnham, whose consultant is James Beard award nominee Zack Bruell. Among its many creative menu items is Bruell’s Cleveland-inspired fried confit of chicken with Swiss cheese dumplings, stewed cabbage and paprika sauce.
Hilton’s partnership with Uber has helped to further connect guests with the local culture with Local Scene, a digital tool that allows meeting attendees to search for popular neighborhood restaurants and nightlife destinations when searching for venues for offsite dinners.
Meeting planners can get ideas from Hilton’s Meet with Purpose, launched last year. The program includes health, wellness and sustainability elements that planners can incorporate into their events. One example is “cut and create,” a seasonally inspired salad bar designed by Capital Hilton executive chef Phillip Thompson. Attendees prepare and customize their meal from a custom-made display of local ingredients.
Planners concerned with sustainability also can take advantage of Hilton’s LightStay to help reduce the carbon footprint of their meetings. LightStay is Hilton’s state-of-the-art, in-house corporate responsibility measurement platform used across the company’s properties.
In June, Hyatt announced a partnership with Be Well by Dr. Frank Lipman, a leader in the field of integrative and functional medicine. The program will be implemented across all Hyatt brands globally, beginning with Park Hyatt hotels in New York, Chicago and Washington, DC. Elements include healthful refreshments upon arrival, curated in-room amenities, increased fitness offerings, expanded menu options and nutritious to-go alternatives. Hyatt and Be Well also will partner on “Chef Workshops” where Hyatt chefs and Be Well team members collaborate on new F&B offerings. Wellness retreats for guests also are being designed.
For planners, Hyatt is facilitating the process of working with more than one of its properties for a meeting program. Following the success of the Hyatt Convention Alliance, the new Hyatt Resort Alliance is a cohesive unit that negotiates group contracts, provides customized proposals to planners who are interested in multiple destinations, and shares information about group clients among the members of the alliance in order to create a consistent experience for clients. The alliance is the result of interviews with customer interviews and advisory boards. Hyatt also is having its national events manager travel to organizations’ meetings in order to better understand customers’ goals.
Part of the Resort Alliance will be the company’s first Park Hyatt in the Caribbean. Opening later this year, Park Hyatt St. Kitts has 48 rooms and 78 suites, complemented by 7,000 sf of function space. Nestled in a secluded area overlooking The Narrows, a strait separating St. Kitts and the volcanic island of Nevis, the property will be an attractive choice for incentive groups.
Andaz Hotels, Hyatt’s boutique brand, also fits this market: both the Andaz Mayakoba (Mexico) and Andaz Scottsdale (Arizona) will open this year.
The Hyatt Regency brand has recently completed two significant renovations: the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa refreshed its more than 25,000 sf of indoor meeting space, and the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation that includes massive upgrades to its more than 69,000 sf of meeting space.
Making a creative addition to Orlando’s rich hotel infrastructure isn’t easy, but Loews Hotels has done just that with the recent introduction of the Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando. The 1,000-room property welcomed its first guests on July 14 with a Caribbean-themed arrival that included cheering team members, a steel drum band, stilt walkers and a colorful burst of streamers. The resort offers 115,000 sf of meeting space, including a 41,000-sf ballroom divisible into 12 sections, a 31,000-sf hall, 16 breakout rooms and 27,000 sf of pre-function space. The surrounding tropical grounds include 11,000 sf of function space and a 16,000-sf resort-style pool with a white sand beach, a water slide, cabanas and a fire pit. Fitting the theme on the dining side is the Amatista Cookhouse, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant with an open exhibition kitchen and outdoor dining.
Sapphire Falls Resort connects to Loews Royal Pacific Resort to create the Loews Meeting Complex with a total of 2,000 rooms and more than 247,000 sf of meeting space. For large groups that want to experience Orlando and particularly Universal Resort, the complex is arguably the best choice in the area.
IHG promises small and midsized meeting groups more targeted service with its new IHG Meeting Point, a part of the IHG Small Meetings Solution. The program features a training portal for IHG hotel convention staff that is segmented by industry — pharmaceutical, automotive, energy, technology, medical healthcare and manufacturing. The idea is to equip employees with knowledge of the regulations that impact meetings in these sectors so they can deliver a higher level of service. IHG also has launched IHG Assist, a suite of initiatives to address corporate clients’ concerns with traveler safety and security. IHG Assist includes the IHG Assist Groups & Meetings Service, a 24/7 phone line to answer client concerns in this area.
On the wellness front, IHG’s most avant-garde brand is Even Hotels, launched in 2012 with the idea of providing wellness-minded travelers with an affordable lodging choice. Features include in-room fitness options, an athletic studio located off the lobby and healthful F&B options made to order from the Cork & Kale Restaurant. Three new Even hotels (with meeting space) are scheduled to open next year: a 100-room property in Eugene, Oregon; a 155-room hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and a 13-room property in Houston, Texas.
In June, InterContinental Hotels Group announced the “Crowne Plaza Accelerate” plan, which will invest $200 million over three years into enhancing the Crowne Plaza brand’s offerings and appeal to business travelers. A new sales and marketing campaign focused on meeting the “holistic needs” of the business traveler will be rolled out in early 2017. Guest rooms will be reconfigured into WorkLife Rooms, which create more space to work, socialize and rest. And public spaces will be technology enabled to provide an alternative solo working space and small meeting space.
In the coming years, Omni will be introducing three new properties into the meetings market: Set to open in summer 2017 is the Omni Frisco Hotel in North Texas. The 300-room property will be part of The Star development that includes Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters and The Ford Center. Groups will have 24,000 sf of meeting space, including a 13,000-sf ballroom, at their disposal.
The Omni Louisville Hotel, which broke ground in January of this year, is scheduled to open in 2018 with 612 guest rooms, 70,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space, and an additional 300,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
And in Georgia, planners can look forward to the fall 2017 debut of the 260-room Omni Hotel at The Battery Atlanta, housing 12,500 sf of meeting space.
Omni is certainly attuned to the wellness trend, a prime example being the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort. Here, groups can experience innovative fitness programs such as Aqua Zumba, which blends the Zumba philosophy with water resistance, as well as a 30-minute Meeting Break Refresh Session, offering yoga and Zumba classes.
Like other major hoteliers, the company also has been facilitating the meeting experience with proprietary mobile apps. For example, OmniLink, powered by Encore, conveys event information to attendees via their tablets and smartphones, including facility information and maps, event agendas and schedules, speaker and attendee bios, local transportation details, downloadable content, event announcements and more.
Each of the aforementioned hoteliers is well-established in the meetings industry, and each is making significant progress in catering to that market. Thus, a planner can certainly find reasons for loyalty to any one of those companies. One rather controversial reason, however, is a hotelier’s offer of personal reward points to the planner for booking. While these offers continue, some hoteliers find that clients prefer alternatives, such as transferring all those points to a corporate account. “We definitely see a trend in the corporate market for consolidating meeting reward points into one account,” says Wyndham’s Carol Lynch. “So we’re investigating developing ways to facilitate that process with the corporations.” Another alternative is to forgo the points in favor of concessions in negotiating the contract.
“We’ve seen that instead of planner rewards they would rather add something different to their program,” says Destination Hotels’ Andre Fournier, “such as a unique meeting setup or conference break, perhaps with a sommelier from the local winery.”
To stay away from ethical controversy, it may behoove planners to explore such alternatives to reward points, and open a dialogue to that effect with their hotel partners. C&IT