Data management software company OSIsoft has held its annual OSIsoft Users Conference at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square for 12 years, most recently bringing in about 2,200 attendees in April 2016. That number has been increasing year-over-year, and the group has yet to outgrow the 1,919-room property, which houses 130,000 sf of meeting space. “The amount of meeting space and guest rooms as well as the location make it an ideal venue for us,” says Stefanie Ordoveza, global events manager. “And with our headquarters nearby in San Leandro, it is extremely convenient for us to have a venue so close to our home base in terms of both planning and execution.”
“What we value most is our relationship with the Hilton staff. They truly go above and beyond to make every event a success and adapt to our attendee needs as the event continues to grow.”
— Stefanie Ordoveza
But the reasons for the long partnership have as much to do with the advantages of the particular hotel as with the Hilton brand itself. “In general, Hilton properties bring a wide range of offerings, from technology to F&B options, that make our attendees’ stay and experience high class,” Ordoveza explains. “However, what we value most is our relationship with the Hilton staff. They truly go above and beyond to make every event a success and adapt to our attendee needs as the event continues to grow.” Even when OSIsoft met at the faraway Hilton Prague, the experience was a familiar one, she adds. “The staff was great to work with and very service-oriented, just what you would expect from a Hilton property.”
While an individual property will always have its idiosyncrasies, a hotel will generally express its brand’s approach to group service, F&B, amenities, property design and so on. And it’s those recurring features that make planners brand loyalists. Dates, rates, space and location usually take precedence over brand in the process of site selection, but when two or more properties of different flags stack up similarly in those respects, brand preferences tend to weigh in. Eventually, such preferences lead to a history of usage with particular chains and more leverage in negotiations, lending further reason to continue partnering with that hotelier.
With the recent merger of Marriott and Starwood, planners who have a history with either company can now look forward to leveraging that business with a much broader scope of properties. “When we look at the overall (meetings) spend of our company, we’ll have an even stronger total annual spend (with one company) after the merger, which sometimes helps when booking future programs,” notes Kim Baker, CMP, CPCE, senior manager, events with Clearwater, Florida-based Tech Data Corporation.
“I do more with Marriott, says Beth Becker, global meeting services manager with Downers Grove, Illinois-based MicroTek, “but (the merger) gives me status with Starwood that I didn’t have before, because of my status with Marriott.”
Additionally, Marriott’s acquisition will afford planners a “centralized resource when it comes to sales and sourcing,” Baker says, and one that ranges over 5,700 properties representing 30 brands in more than 110 countries. A planner’s experience with great service, beginning at the sourcing stage, is indeed one of the main reasons a hotelier becomes preferred.
Tech Data’s top hotel partner in terms of usage is Marriott, with most of its nearly 300 annual offsite events being held at Marriott properties, from JW Marriotts to Autograph Collection hotels. “We’ve found that Marriott does a really nice job of everything customer service related. They’re great with follow-up. And I never feel like I’m inconveniencing them with questions,” Baker explains. “I have a corporate sales rep assigned to my company and then I also know my sales rep at each individual property. And I feel like they all work together. There is never an issue of going to one person over another to talk, whereas at other companies it can be a little confusing or almost like a little competition between (sales reps) to be the primary contact. So Marriott does an especially nice job of ensuring we’re covered from a sales/customer service perspective.”
Ideal sales reps also are knowledgeable and proactive with regard to the client’s meetings business. Jane Belli, director, meetings and events with Fort Worth, Texas-based Alcon, an eye care products developer, has found that Omni Hotels & Resorts’ sales reps exhibit this quality. “They have taken the time to understand our business,” says Belli. “We do national sales meetings every January, so if you’re a good partner you’re going to approach us and say, ‘I know in 2018, 2019 and 2020 you’re going to need to do these meetings, so how can we bundle and do a multiyear deal?’”
All of the top brands excel in onsite group service, but there are those cases of “going the extra mile” that truly impress planners and lead them to become brand devotees. Rebecca Byrne, CMP, HMCC, senior manager events and trade shows with Pleasanton, California-based Zeltiq, cites Westin as among her preferred chains, and the service and flexibility of The Westin San Francisco Airport reaffirmed that choice. “We did one of our sales meetings at the hotel and it was phenomenal. They let us put a tent on an employee parking lot for a teambuilding with 60 of our sales directors, helping to get permits from the city so it was a quick turnaround. We had a graffiti artist come in and show them how to create graffiti. It was pouring rain and freezing, but the hotel staff made it really nice for us, providing heaters and making us hot chocolate and churros,” Byrne relates. That kind of special event coordination may be unsurprising at a resort, but for an airport hotel it’s rather remarkable and exemplifies The Westin brand’s commitment to group service.
On a much larger scale, MGM Resorts International offers groups a wealth of resources for special events at its Las Vegas properties, and IBM is among the major clients who have capitalized on that infrastructure. Colleen Bisconti, IBM vice president, global conferences and events, plans the company’s two largest client and business partner-facing events in Las Vegas, one in the spring and one in the fall. Each brings in a worldwide audience of well over 20,000. Next March, IBM InterConnect 2017 and IBM Amplify 2017 will utilize 100 percent of the meeting space at both the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, and hold activities at the new T-Mobile Arena, which opened in April.
“They are willing to be very flexible with us in terms of what our needs are, and creative for us when we hit a challenge,” Bisconti relates. “We have a very elaborate expo hall where we bring together business partners showcasing their solutions built on IBM, and then IBM itself coming in and showcasing our capabilities. In order to build this expo experience, because it’s not just about a bunch of booths anymore, we often need more move-in time than we had planned for, and MGM is very good about working with us.” She has one contact for MGM International and individual contacts at the properties. “On any given day I can call any one of them, and this (company unity) is something that (MGM Senior Vice President and Chief Sales Officer) Mike Dominguez has really driven. So as the client I have an expectation that if I’m doing something across two properties, we’re all going to work together. We’re one company, you’re one company.”
The opportunity to use T-Mobile Arena for a general session and concert was one of the motivations for partnering with MGM Resorts, Bisconti adds. “We’ve done many programs at the Grand Garden Arena and Events Center at Mandalay Bay. They’re big arenas and definitely impressive, but to walk into T-Mobile was a completely different experience. We turned the outdoor plaza area (The Park) into a festival with food trucks and some of our tech products, so it didn’t just feel like you were walking into an arena, but into an experience.”
Caesars Entertainment’s Las Vegas properties also are supplemented by an outdoor district, The Linq. A multitude of venues are available for group functions, from the Brooklyn Bowl live music venue to the 550-foot High Roller’s glass enclosed cabins. In November, Caesars reached a new height in another area that many planners look to when determining their preferred suppliers: sustainability. Ninety-seven percent of the company’s owned or managed North American hotel properties have achieved a 4 Key rating or higher, a metric established by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Green Key. The program inspects hotels’ operations and ranks them from 1-5 Keys based on their commitment to sustainability. Reportedly, Caesars Entertainment now has more properties rated 4 Keys or higher than any other casino-entertainment company in the world.
Part of sustainability is a hotelier’s practice of using organic, locally sourced ingredients in its food service. Some properties even use ingredients sourced at their own gardens, and Baker has found the JW Marriott to be ahead of the curve in this regard. “I’ve always thought that JW Marriott has a heavier emphasis on culinary. Every one of their properties I’ve ever been to has a specialty such as making honey from their own beehive or curing their own meats to make their own jerky,” she relates. “They bring in guest chefs and go above and beyond with their menus.” Similarly, Byrne cites Westin’s menus as “very unique.” “I’ve taken some of those ideas from the Westin and request them when I’m working on menus at other properties,” she says. “For example, a green menu for breaks with broccoli, edamame, green shooters, etc. Using a different color scheme, you can do a yellow break or a red break. It makes the event memorable for attendees.”
Both Byrne and Baker highlight Westin as among the industry leaders in not only healthful cuisine, but also guest wellness in general. The brand is known for its programs dubbed “Eat Well,” “Sleep Well,” “Move Well” and the like. Features include the Heavenly Bed, sleep balms with essential oils (introduced January 2017), RunWestin running routes with Run Concierge, Westin Gear Lending (workout gear delivered to guest rooms) and Westin Wellness Escapes (including fitness classes, healthy cooking courses, panel discussions), etc.
Omni Hotels & Resorts’ Stay Well program for Select Guest members also includes a variety of amenities, given that wellness is a multifaceted initiative: Get Fit Kits, healthy morning menu selections, specialty pillows, sleep kits, noise machines and fitness options such as yoga and spin classes. “Wellness is a huge part of our culture,” says Belli. “Omni properties have state-of-the-art fitness facilities, and weights, exercise bands, etc. in your room. We also do 5K runs and group yoga, and they will absolutely facilitate those kinds of things. For example, they send somebody with your group to go for a jog if it’s a city property.”
Sufficient bandwidth onsite is an ongoing concern for highly connected groups such as MicroTek’s. “The ability to dedicate bandwidth is very important to us,” says Becker. “It seems to vary property to property, but we have had some success with the DoubleTrees in that their bandwidth usually comes to be what they tell us it is; we have our tech people test it. But it really has more to do with the management company than the flag they’re flying.”
Nonetheless, many brands are ramping up bandwidth across their properties. Examples include IHG, whose cloud-based IHG Connect program has recently expanded to 1,500 hotels in the Americas; Wyndham, which is offering free expanded premium Wi-Fi at Wingate by Wyndham properties by next summer (100 mbps minimum); and Hyatt Hotels, which has reportedly made investments in Wi-Fi across nearly 90 percent of its properties in the past three years.
The look and feel of a brand’s properties can be important to a planner, as it can fit with a certain group demographic, corporate culture or event theme. For example, Kimpton hotels tend to have a “very boutique feeling, very hip and unusual,” says Becker. “So if you have clients who like that, usually younger companies, they may work for you.” On the other hand, some groups will prefer a more standardized, traditional atmosphere. According to Byrne, a Marriott devotee, “I know that across the board in the brand if I look at a Marriott hotel in Chicago or in New Orleans it’s going to have the same look and feel: the same coffee pot, same bedding, etc. And I think (that makes attendees) feel comfortable who are on the road. I’ve seen that consistency with Starwood as well.”
Some brands are less standardized across properties in an effort to express their locale, a common theme at Destination Hotels. “Diverse by Design,” the brand’s more than 40 properties each strives to incorporate the cuisine and cultural elements of its surroundings. Perhaps less recognized in this effort is Omni: “All their hotels take on the local flavor of the city they’re in,” says Belli. “These days, experiential engagement is such a focus, and the great thing about Omni is that a lot of that is naturally built in. So the Omni Fort Worth when you walk in has that kind of upscale Western feel. They really research the city; for example, their new property in Louisville, Kentucky, will have a bourbon bar. The built-in experience takes some work off of me as a planner because I don’t have to create that experience.”
Similarly, Marriott’s Autograph Collection hotels are thematically “tied to the area,” Baker notes. For instance, the Epicurean Hotel, located in the Hyde Park historic district of South Tampa, Florida, “focuses on local bakers and wines and it’s all integrated into their menus. Even the look of the hotel ties into Tampa’s culture and history.”
Most planners agree that gathering points and perks via hotel reward programs is fairly low on the list of motivations for choosing a brand or individual property over another. But it can make a difference when other criteria are relatively comparable. “If two properties are perfectly similar sometimes the decision is based on points,” says Becker. “I do have one client that’s very much Marriott focused, and so if we have a Hilton and a Marriott that are head to head we certainly would take Marriott because of their points. But for the most part the points are not swaying the decision.” And in this market of escalating room rates, perks such as a complimentary reception or discounted AV when booking a certain amount of business do mean something. “You may have two properties with availability and you want to be able to talk to your executives and say this is where we’re getting the best value,” says Belli.
For example, Wyndham’s first formal rewards program catering to the meetings market — go meet — launched just over a year ago. The loyalty program allows members to earn one point for every dollar spent on qualifying revenue at participating hotels, regardless of billing method, with no minimum spend requirement and no maximum point limit.
Regarding the seller’s market, it is worth noting that PwC’s November 2016 Hospitality Directions U.S. report predicts that in 2017, supply growth will accelerate at a long-term average of 1.9 percent and, coupled with weakened demand, will result in the U.S. lodging industry’s first occupancy decline in eight years. This may improve negotiating conditions for planners, and what’s more, the new supply will include new options within their preferred brands.
Wyndham loyalists, for instance, can look forward to notable openings this year, including the 450-room Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach in Florida (24,000 sf of meeting space) in January. Also this year, Dolce Hotels & Resorts, recently acquired by Wyndham, will open a 217-room Dolce hotel and conference center less than 10 miles from Cincinnati (offering 22,000 sf of function space). The Dolce Washington Dulles, a property ideal for training programs and executive retreats, will open in late 2018 with 243 guest rooms and more than 13,000 sf of meeting space.
Belli is anticipating the 612-room Omni Louisville’s opening in spring 2018. Located just one block from the Kentucky International Convention Center, the LEED Silver-certified hotel will offer 70,000 sf of meeting and event space, two full-service restaurants and a 20,000-sf fresh market and grocery.
And Bisconti hopes to utilize Maryland’s new MGM National Harbor for a future event. The 308-room resort includes 50,000 sf of meeting space, 3,000-seat Theater and open-air Potomac Plaza. “They already understand our brand,” she says, “so we’re not starting all over in terms of building a relationship.” C&IT