Since the Great Recession and a return of the proverbial pendulum to a seller’s market, the selection of hotel partners has become a critical element in the meeting planning process. While virtually every hotel company touts value and a commitment to relationships, the sad truth is that not all deliver.
One that does is Destination Hotels & Resorts, which is the largest operator of independent hotels and resorts in the country. The company operates a unique portfolio of 41 properties, five of them IACC-certified conference centers such as The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Englewood, Colorado, and Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Virginia. The Destination Hotels & Resorts portfolio also includes landmark resort properties, such as the fabled Eden Roc Miami Beach, The Gant in Aspen, Colorado, and Vail Cascade in Vail, Colorado.
Across such a diverse range of brands and price points, Destination Hotels & Resorts delivers a consistent standard of innovation and service that is drawing more and more attention — and loyalty — from planners.
“When it comes to talking about the Destination brand, I’d say one thing is the fact that their properties are very unique,” says Cari “Cas” Strouse, CMP, CMM, meetings, events and tradeshows director at Englewood, Colorado-based global engineering firm CH2M Hill. Over last 10 years, Strouse has used several of the company’s properties, including The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center and The Royal Palms Resort & Spa in Phoenix. She is also a current member of the company’s advisory council.
“But what is consistent,” Strouse says, “is the commitment from the national sales office, as well as the individual properties, to ensure that you’re having a really good experience, regardless of the property you’re at. They are very consistent in delivering the level of service you expect from them.”
“But what is consistent is the commitment from the national sales office, as well as the individual properties, to ensure that you’re having a really good experience, regardless of the property you’re at.” — Cari “Cas” Strouse
A.J. Hiester, corporate events planner at running shoe and athletic gear company Brooks Sports Inc. in Seattle, has used three Destination properties since 2009 — Motif Seattle (formerly Red Lion), Suncadia Resort outside Roslyn, Washington, and The Woodmark in Kirkland, Washington.
“They have a really great product,” Hiester says. “For our meetings, and especially our sales meetings, we need premium hotel products and the kind of service that premium hotels provide. And Destination Hotels & Resorts delivers those things. Once you sign a contract as a planner, you’re stuck with the hotel you selected. And doing business with Destination gives me the confidence going into the meeting that I’ve made a good choice. And when I’m onsite, I also have the confidence that I’m going to get the kind of service I need.”
Rebecca Barbier, CMP, meeting and event specialist at Irvine, California-based cycling and accessory manufacturer Shimano American Corporation, has used two Destination properties — Vail Cascade and Paradise Point in San Diego — for national sales meetings over the last three years.
“Destination Hotels & Resorts hotels provide really good service,” she says. “Compared to other hotel companies I’ve worked with, they are really on top of things. Their salespeople are very well organized, and they get right back to me on things. If something changes or something comes up, their people are right there to help. They’re also willing to work with you based on whatever your needs are.”
Strouse notes that the spirit of cooperation that she finds at Destination is of particular importance today.
“We’re now very much into a seller’s market,” she says. Strouse says Destination is one of the companies that doesn’t forget about their relationships with their customers in a seller’s market. She really appreciates that Destination “doesn’t poke the bear in the cage” as hard as some of the other chains do especially
“when they say, ‘We gave away the farm during the recession. Now you’re going to pay for the farm — and then some.’ Destination Hotels & Resorts never loses sight of the relationship,” says Strouse.
She adds that because a number of their premier properties are IACC-certified conference centers, planners can have a high level of confidence in creating serious business meetings and conferences. “For example, it’s much easier for planners because of the complete meeting packages,” Strouse says. “So you know there are a variety of breaks that are already designed and planned for the time you’re there, as well as the lunches and buffets. So the process is easier on the planner in the sense that when you’re working on a lot of different programs, you don’t have to spend as much time planning for the food and beverage arena, because it’s laid out for you with a consistent feel and quality.”
The same kind of relatively standardized execution and efficient planning process also applies to the use of meeting rooms and audio-visual capabilities, Strouse says.
For Ginny Snook Scott, vice president of sales and marketing at California Closets in Berkeley, California, the resort atmosphere at Destination’s Paradise Point property in San Diego was a key factor in why she selected it for the company’s international sales meeting for 400 salespeople and franchisees.
“We know that many of our attendees don’t take the time to enjoy a vacation during the year,” Scott says. “So we look for hotels that offer a conference-style environment that is very professional, but also provides a luxury resort-style atmosphere so they can enjoy some R&R time in a beautiful location that makes people feel like they’re getting away from work a little bit.
And Paradise Point gave us that.”
Budget was also a factor, Scott says, as was driving distance from the airport. After a site visit that included assessments of five local hotels, she chose Paradise Point. “I really like the resort atmosphere,” she says. “The property is very outdoorsy so you can get out of the meeting rooms during the conference and enjoy yourself. You can also have breakfast and lunch outdoors, which is very nice. At Paradise Point, you feel like you’re at an island retreat. It’s an exquisite property. You feel like you’re on a private island in Polynesia.” A good room rate and excellent F&B also helped cinch the deal, Scott says.
“At Paradise Point, you feel like you’re at an island retreat. It’s an exquisite property. You feel like you’re on a private island in Polynesia.” — Ginny Snook Scott
Despite Destination Hotels & Resorts’ long track record of excellence, there are several factors that make the company’s properties especially popular in 2014.
One is its innovation in lighter, more healthful food and beverage fare.
“People aren’t eating or drinking like they used to,” says André Fournier, Destination Hotels & Resorts’ senior vice president of sales and marketing. “There is much more interest in good nutrition now. It’s about being active in the afternoon versus overeating at lunch and being comatose during the meeting in the afternoon. We believe it’s now a form of social responsibility, a change of our culture for the good. People are more health conscious.”
As a result, Destination Hotels & Resorts has made a clear commitment to more healthful food that enhances a meeting.
Strouse agrees that the effort is important and that, in fact, it is an iteration of corporate social responsibility. “We’ve been paying attention to that for more than 10 years,” she says.
Hiester says that because Brooks Sports is an athletic company with active meeting attendees, Destination Hotels & Resorts’ more healthful F&B options also have great value for her and her attendees. “It makes a big difference to our attendees to be able to enjoy healthier food and still be awake in the middle of the afternoon during a meeting,” she says. “Everybody likes a cookie at a meeting. But you have to balance that with something that is healthy. And Destination does a great job of finding that balance.”
Scott also finds more healthful F&B trends to be a brand differentiator. “That’s something I’ve kept an eye on for some time now,” she says. “And that was another thing about Paradise Point that really impressed me.”
Yet another important issue is Destination Hotels & Resorts’ commitment to greening as an element of its brand equity. It now boasts a formal Destination Earth sustainable meetings initiative.
“I think such a program is the minimum entry level standard in the meetings world today,” Fournier says. “You have to have some type of sustainable product to be able to deliver. It’s our social responsibility. Our program is very well received, and over the past few years, we have received awards and recognition for sustainable green practices, including from National Geographic Traveler and TripAdvisor’s GreenLeaders. Meeting planners definitely consider it important. The question is are you morally responsible? And do your company goals and guiding principles align with the companies you are doing business with?”
A clear commitment to greening is vitally important to CH2M. “As a company, we are extremely committed to the environment and taking care of the planet,” Strouse says. “That’s one of our core values as a company. So a commitment to greening is something we expect when we look at a hotel. In fact, there are sustainability questions in our RFP.”
Another issue that Fournier thinks is important in the success of Destination Hotels & Resorts is its focus on what he calls customization, which means tailoring a meeting experience to address a client’s specific needs.
“We do that in a couple of different areas,” he says. “We try to bring in the local community. For example, the Wild Dunes Resort outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is built next to a reef that sits on the Outer Banks, and meeting planners have the opportunity to book a meeting package that includes a recreational event that is also a teambuilding event. They get to go to the reef and partner with a local conservatory to learn how they are rebuilding the reef to make it ecologically sound.”
Vail Cascade offers mountain orienteering and navigating instruction. “So if you have a group meeting at Vail Cascade, we show them how to do mountain orienteering and navigation finding as part of a teambuilding program to work on better communication skills and things of that sort,” Fournier says.
Depending on what opportunities it identifies in the marketplace, Destination Hotels & Resorts also makes acquisitions or renovates its existing hotels based on demand and other market trends.
“We tend to expand our existing assets and take over existing properties and improve their current amenities,” Fournier says. “We recently acquired Town & Country in San Diego and have a project in the Phoenix market coming on board this summer. They are both repositions to the next level of class with extensive meeting space. As for new builds, we won’t see that for a little while. We have land, and we are working on a couple of new deals that are smaller in size and scope to complement the trend that leisure/corporate makes up 50 percent of our mix and group business represents 50 percent. That has changed in the last five years, and we will build to suit.”
Because of its close relationships with meeting clients and the role of its advisory council, Destination Hotels & Resorts also solicits input from planners.
“We are always asking for input from our advisory council,” Fournier says. “Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, was designed by the advisory council and Estancia La Jolla in Southern California and Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont were also designed from the input of our meeting professional executive advisory council.”
“We are always asking for input from our advisory council. Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, was designed by the advisory council and Estancia La Jolla in Southern California and Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont were also designed from the input of our meeting professional executive advisory council.” — André Fournier
When selling a recently acquired and renovated property, Destination Hotels & Resorts leverages its longstanding brand equity with planners who might otherwise be concerned about a hotel’s current or near-term status.
“Our credibility is built on a planner’s past experiences with our properties and the Destination brand,” Fournier says. “Most planners today understand that when we take over a property, there are three things that happen: We build strong client relationships. We promise a capital investment with the ownership group that is going to meet or exceed clients’ expectations. Then we get the right associates to deliver on our brand promise of operational excellence, for a distinctive meeting experience in a unique location. Terranea Resort is a perfect example of that kind of meeting excellence. Then we will offer incentives in pricing as well as in such areas as audio-visual or additional amenities such as F&B — wherever we can help them out financially to induce trial of those new assets.”
In the end, despite its impressive array of highly individual properties, the Destination Hotels & Resorts brand is built on consistently excellent service.
“The folks at Destination really care,” says Hiester. “The staff at Suncadia, in particular, was just amazing. They are top notch. All of the Destination hotels I’ve used give you that. But Suncadia really went above and beyond the call of duty many times, so much so that I would say to someone, ‘You won’t believe what just happened.’ ”
And that kind of exemplary service, she says, is very rare. “I’ve been planning meetings for Brooks for more than 10 years, and there have only been a handful of times that I’ve gotten the kind of service I got at Suncadia. I was just flabbergasted. And as a company, I can say that Destination consistently goes above and beyond what you normally expect.”
Since the recession, every hotel touts its service, Hiester says. But only a relative few really walk the walk. And Destination is one of those that truly delivers.
For Barbier, the most important consideration is flexibility. “Things change constantly during a meeting,” she says. “So the most valuable thing from a hotel to me as a planner is flexibility. And Destination is very good that way, when it comes to things like attrition clauses. I don’t want to be hassled by things like that. I also don’t want to be penny pinched on every little thing. And in those kinds of ways, Destination is really an excellent company to work with.”
Strouse likes the fact that the company’s roster of distinctly different and one-of-a-kind hotels adds to the meeting experience for a particular kind of event. “With independent properties like the ones Destination offers, you have the creative, cultural flair of each property, in addition to knowing that you’re going to get consistency from the company. And you’re not going into the same kind of standard box that you often get with chain hotels. And that’s one of the beautiful things about a company like Destination Hotels & Resorts.” C&IT