What corporate meeting planner wouldn’t like to organize a corporate meeting in a brand new hotel property? Or bring their group into a venue that has just finished major renovations?
Actually, going into contract with new builds or recently renovated properties can provide great opportunities, but stressful challenges as well.
“Last year we were working with a client who had chosen a Chicago property for their three-day corporate meeting for 400 participants. They knew that part of the property was being renovated, however, the specific meeting space within the property that suited their needs was not scheduled for renovations,” says Colette Givens, program manager at Total Event Resources, in Schaumburg, Illinois. “However, as we got closer to the meeting dates, the property asked us if we could move the group to another location within the hotel, as winter weather had slowed the renovation process, and it would now impact our clients’ meeting space, with the possibility of knocking and drilling noise above the meeting room.”
Givens was able to move the group into one of the newly renovated meeting spaces on the property, but the meeting room’s temperature control system was still being adjusted, and trim work along the floor and baseboards was not quite finished, all of which are somewhat minor details that might not concern the average hotel guest, but as a meeting manager, these are the kinds of details that are noticeable.
“In the end the client was happy, but with some frustrations about having to move the meeting space at the last minute. The property was very understanding and provided us with some nice concessions, so everything worked out OK,” Givens says. “Typically, when we do an RFP, we ask specifically, ‘Is construction planned before or during our planned event?’ Whatever the answer is, yes or no, we always put this into the contract, making sure we include details as to the extent of the renovation, the dates, and which areas of the property will be affected. We also will insert language regarding monetary concessions if the meeting space and/or guest rooms are affected by unplanned renovation work.”
Givens had worked with a client who had wanted to meet at the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa in Las Vegas, which was still under construction at the time. Her firm wasn’t sure if a meeting for 200 persons in a new Las Vegas property could go off without any hitches, but because the property was brand new, the venue provided the group with extra support staff to make sure the group had a great experience, without any disruptions or logistical problems during the three-day event.
“My advice to new planners is that even when you book a property several years out, always make it a practice to ask, ‘Are there any renovations planned?’ You never want to be in a situation where you pull up to the hotel a few days before the meeting and you see a crane in front of the property with major renovations taking place. That’s a real disaster for your guests,” Givens says.
“When you are using a new or newly renovated place and you do your research about the property, it can pay off in dividends, but if you don’t, it can come back to bite you,” says Mark Benson, CMP, president and managing partner of Applied Meetings & Hospitality Solutions in Orlando. “Knowing what’s fresh in the pipeline is one of the first things people want to do on a regular basis, just not when the need arises. Be current and know what’s happening in all the big cities regarding major renovations and new builds, so when you need to book a property you will already know if you should have any concerns.”
“When you are using a new or newly renovated place and you do your research about the property, it can pay off in dividends, but if you don’t, it can come back to bite you.” — Mark Benson, CMP
“During a 40-room, four-night meeting last fall at the Sheraton Nashville we knew there was going to be major renovations, and our group was booked at the end of the renovations,” says Benson. “To minimize risk we went forward with the meeting, but with a contingency plan, something you should always try and plan for. Fortunately, the renovations were actually completed on time, a great experience was had by the group, and we had a great financial deal.”
Benson likes to ask himself the question: What is it going to look like if things are not going to be ready before going into contract with a venue that is just opening or in renovations? He checks with the project manager to find out what the construction time line looks like so he isn’t surprised if bad news comes out. Benson says it makes a big difference if a group is meeting for a training session, where participants are coming from various parts of the country and would be hard-pressed to reschedule if it had to be cancelled, or a corporate group that could more easily be postponed or relocated.
Of course, when Benson is dealing with a chain property, with its large support staff and space inventory within the chain, the process of scheduling a meeting in a new or under-renovations property becomes a lot less risky.
“We have a group that is in discussions right now with the new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando, expected to open in summer 2016. It will be one of five resorts in the Universal Orlando theme park area, all managed by Loews,” Benson says, explaining that the same construction group was involved with all the neighboring hotels; the ownership is the same for each property; and all the properties have historically opened on time, so, “if you do run into a problem at the venue you booked, the nearby properties have the inventory and are more than willing to help out.”
One of the difficulties that sometimes crops up with new properties is the lack of training for hotel group sales managers and support staff. LoriAnn K. Harnish, CMP, CMM, CTA, manager of meetings and events for US Foods, does about 150 meetings a year and every once in a while contacts a new property where new staffers do not seem to recognize an opportunity when it comes knocking. Just this past April, Harnish attempted in vain to do business with a new hotel in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. “It is very close to our office and my first impression has not been the best,” she says. “It is a franchised property and their customer service and interest in my call was zero.”
In most cases, however, new sales staff at just opened properties, or those at venues undergoing major renovations, will do whatever it takes to give the meeting planner a sense of confidence that the property is ready and able to provide the space and staff to make the meeting a success.
“Earlier this year I worked to organize a marketing training event for one of our pharma clients at Parc 55 San Francisco, a Hilton Hotel, which became part of the Hilton family shortly before our meeting dates,” says Teresa Nelson-Buescher, account manager for Creative Group Inc., a large meeting planning and incentive management firm. The Parc 55 venue is a large property with 1,024 rooms and 30,000 sf of meeting space. “We had signed the contract prior to Hilton’s planned renovations, and I was initially concerned about that along with the recent change of ownership, but our confidence grew when we started receiving the on-property updates from the staff, and by the end of the event I was happy with the result.
“All the attendees were pleased with the overall experience. They raved about the new guest room accommodations and the level of hospitality provided by the staff. Attendees also enjoyed the creativity of the chef’s menu, and they even noted that the food quality exceeded their expectations,” says Nelson-Buescher, who credits the Hilton staff for making the difference for this two-night, 327-participant training event. “When searching for the perfect property to host a meeting, ensure you find a staff that has a can-do attitude, and really cares about the success of your meeting. The hotel staff was very detail-oriented, which enabled them to deliver a level of service that truly impacted the overall success of the event.”
“We use new and newly renovated properties all the time,” says Christine Plitt, CMP, director of event logistics at Pragmatic Marketing, a Scottsdale firm that specializes in corporate training events. “Whenever we hear that a property has just opened or finished renovations, we always put it on our list to see it. It seems like whenever there’s a property refresh, there’s also a reset among the staff, where the staff thinks hard about their priorities and levels of service. Also, we often get really great financial deals, like for our event at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort & Villas, which wanted to get their name out again after a long renovation.”
Although meeting planners often dread the word “renovations,” the fact that a hotel undertakes an expensive upgrade to spur business tells some meeting planners that a property with formerly outdated public spaces and/or fraying room furnishings, is worth another site inspection. Mindy Gunn, CMP, CMM, vice president and meeting and event planning manager for Enterprise Meeting and Event Services, which handles meetings and events for Wells Fargo NA, says that for a recent employee recognition event at a large conference/convention hotel she did a repeat site inspection after learning that the property had undergone a major renovation.
“I had been to the property years before, and likely would not have considered it as a potential venue,” says Gunn. “They actually did a great job, installing new carpeting, new walls and updated meeting spaces. Of course, one lesson I learned, and the property learned as well, was that the new carpeting, in an area where we were to have a red-carpet arrival, was spotlessly clean because it was Teflon-coated. Apparently, however, no one thought about the fact that Teflon doesn’t stick to anything, including the tape holding down our own red carpet walkway, and within minutes our red carpet walkway began to buckle after the first few people came across. In the end, the hotel staff managed to keep it down and safe, and our participants were very impressed with the hotel’s new space and improvements, as well as by the staff’s ingenuity and humor dealing with the carpeting snafu.”
From both the meeting planner’s perspective, as well as hotel sales personnel, the most important element when meeting groups are booked into brand new or newly renovated properties is communication.
“We do about 60 percent corporate business and use our 10,000 sf of meeting space mostly for corporate meetings, but our property is under renovations presently,” says Michael Sanford, director of sales at the Embassy Suites Seattle North/Lynwood, a Hilton property located near Puget Sound, 12 miles north of downtown Seattle. “We are finishing up with our guest rooms now, and then will finish with the atrium space and meeting rooms by the end of the year. We really believe in honesty when dealing with our meeting planners who have booked groups at the property during this period. We talk to them well in advance about the renovation schedule, and keep them updated as their meeting dates get closer. We post our guest room renovation dates on the property website, and have nicely designed signs placed in our public areas, showing guests what the finished product is going to look like.”
Another perspective from the hotel side comes from David Jacob, CMP, assistant director of sales at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in California, a 378-room property overlooking the Pacific with a 14,000-sf spa and 50,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space. Jacob understands that knowing when to renovate is as helpful to the property as it is to potential group business. “While we were going through a $55 million full-property renovation a few years ago we continued to accept small meetings. We had less room inventory, of course, and our ballroom was unavailable, but since the renovations were done during the economic downturn around 2011, when meetings tended to be smaller and more subdued, the hotel was not affected to any great extent,” says Jacob.
“During that period of time the overall meeting volume and space demand around the country was lower than it is today, especially for corporate meetings at high-end coastal resorts. During major renovations it is really important for both parties to be transparent and forthcoming, and start the communications and contract process early, figuring out ways to minimize any potential impact. In our case, we’re a pretty big resort, so when one wing is closed, it does not affect the rest of the property if you do it right.
“When you sell a property that is being renovated, you have to pedal a little faster and harder,” Jacob continues. “During our renovations we had to move our restaurant services to another part of the resort, but the quality of the food stayed the same. As long as you take care of the details, it will work out pretty well, and any hard dollars the client can save, in terms of food and beverage, or rebates to the master bill, or perhaps (in the case of Marriott) with points which they can use for their own organization or for charity, will make the contractual process that much easier.”
When planning corporate events, the relationship between meeting planners and the host venues is as important as the signed contract itself. “You know, relationships between venues and meeting planners are often long-term, and it is important to be honest about ongoing or upcoming renovations,” says Jacob. “Clients should know what they’re buying, and if a hotel sales manager sells someone a bad deal once, it will certainly not be forgotten. This is really a small industry, people are always moving around, and you end up bumping into the same people wherever you go. So, it’s not only the property’s reputation you want to preserve, but your professional reputation as well.” C&IT