One of the many advantages to being an FICP member is getting the “inside scoop” on new hotel renovations and openings from planners who have experienced the projects firsthand. Nearly every project looks good on paper, and of course every national account manager will rave about the new hotel or renovation, so it helps to get an impartial perspective from a colleague in order to inform one’s site choice. And FICP is teeming with opportunities for colleague interaction. “We are a very close-knit family,” says FICP member Lisa Ramsay, CMP, assistant vice president, event and meeting management with Protective Life Insurance Co. “We email each other a lot, and we see each other at the FICP annual conference in November.”
New on the FICP board since January is Jennifer C. Squeglia, CMP, owner of Warwick, RI-based RLC Events, Inc., whose clientele is largely insurance and financial companies. She also values the insights from FICP colleagues on these projects, especially given the sheer number of renovations in first- and second-tier markets. “Almost every hotel I’m involved with these days is doing some renovation, huge or minor,” she says. “I think that’s definitely the upside of the market we’re in right now. Hotels are making money and they are all renovating, which I think is a win-win for everyone.”
“Hotels are making money and they are all renovating, which I think is a win-win for everyone.”
Jennifer C. Squeglia, CMP
One hotelier’s renovations tend to perpetuate upgrades among competitors, as no hotelier wants to be perceived as offering a subpar product. “Nowadays to stay competitive in the market you really have to stay on top of renovations, especially soft goods,” Ramsay says.
In addition, guest room technology is an area of continual development. For example, “the bedside tables all have USB ports built right into the side, unlike the old days when you had to plug in at the desk,” she observes. Some tech upgrades, while not visible, are still key to the attendee experience. “Many hotels are making significant improvements to their infrastructure with Wi-Fi,” Squeglia notes, “which is critical because nothing is worse than going to a meeting and not being able to connect. It’s not even an option not to have good Wi-Fi.”
Speaking of connecting, lobbies are becoming more communal as part of many projects, affording groups spaces for informal networking. “I think that’s been happening across brands, and I’ve particularly seen it with the Marriott brand,” Squeglia says. “You walk into a lobby and there is a beautiful fireplace with couches. And I see a lot more people coming downstairs to work at a community table.” Outdoor gathering spaces are also becoming more prevalent. “I’ve seen the rise of the fire pit, as well as more pool cabanas,” she adds. “Obviously, cabanas are a great revenue source for the hotel, but I also think they’re a great benefit for attendees. People are so over programmed in their everyday lives that it’s great to offer an activity they don’t need to sign up for in advance and can come and go as they please.”
Whichever features planners value in a property — from high-tech guest rooms to naturally lit meeting rooms to trendy restaurants — they are sure to find those features among the current crop of new and renovated hotels. Following is a sampling of these projects from the United States and Caribbean.
In the context of Atlantic City’s long-running meetings industry, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, which opened last year, is definitely a newcomer. And it is a major addition to the market from a meetings perspective. The 2,000-room property houses over 150,000 sf of function space, including boardrooms ideal for many insurance and financial groups. The 29,000-sf Seminole Ballroom is divisible into six sections. All meeting spaces offer Wi-Fi access and are convenient to the guest rooms, many of which offer ocean views.
Groups who prefer mountain views have an enticing new option in Colorado with the opening late last year of the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. The 1,501-room property includes 14 presidential suites ranging from 1,500 to 2,200 sf. The amount of meeting space is more than proportionate to the guest room total: 512,987 sf of function space includes a 175,000-sf Exhibit Hall, 69 event rooms with a maximum of 78 breakout rooms and the 20,000-sf Aurora Patio. Other property highlights include eight F&B outlets, the Relâche Spa & Salon, and a variety of onsite aquatic diversions, from waterslides to a lazy river.
The Colorado Rockies are an iconic American experience, but so is the nation’s capital. A new offering by Hilton is a great option for groups in the highly competitive Washington, DC hospitality market. The 360-room Conrad Washington, DC, is located on New York Avenue, is adjacent to CityCenterDC shopping and dining. Meeting space is plentiful at 32,000 sf, including two boardrooms, three meeting rooms and two pillar-less ballrooms. Attendees can also gather informally at a rooftop bar with views of the city’s monuments.
Ideally, a hotel will combine its meeting space with some onsite points of interest to spark conversation among attendees. Such is the case at the new The Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston. Opened last year, the luxury property features 35,000 sf of conference space, including Uptown Houston’s largest ballroom at 16,000 sf. Conversation starters include a two-level Rolls Royce dealership. museum-quality American artworks throughout the hotel and a wine cellar with over 2,000 labels and rare vintages dating back to the 1800s.
A large-scale painting entitled “Everlasting Hope,” by artist Amy Donaldson, adorns the lobby of the new DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Rochester – Mayo Clinic Area, located two blocks from the Mayo Civic Convention Center in Rochester, MN. The 264-room property has its own 20,000 sf of function space. The Dr. John H. Noseworthy Hall and Doctors Mayo Hall offer panoramic views, state-of-the-art A/V equipment and a variety of room configuration options.
Booking a meeting on a date soon after a new hotel opens presents attendees with the intriguing chance to be among the first to experience the property. But there are risks involved from a planner’s perspective. The primary risk is that the property won’t open in time for the meeting. Kim Sky, CMP, manager, strategic corporate meetings and events for CNA Insurance, describes such an experience: “We booked our annual conference at a new-build hotel that was to be opened a few months prior to our arrival, but it did not open until six months after our anticipated arrival. Two months prior to our contracted arrival, I had to scramble working with my sourcing partner and the city to find another location.” CNA’s law team advised there was no legal recourse, but more importantly, “the hospitality industry is based upon partnerships, so pushing a hotel partner to the point of destroying the relationship would not have been beneficial,” Sky says. In hindsight, “It was a risk that we were aware of and took just to be one of the first few groups to enjoy a newly opened property. Moving forward, we will not take that timing risk, but rather book new-build properties one year after they say they are scheduled to open.”
Another familiar risk involved in booking a new property close to the opening date is that the staff will not be fully coordinated yet. For these reasons, Ramsay notes that she will not schedule a meeting at a new property “until they have opened or been open three to five months. I just will not put myself under the stress of being that first customer and having the possibility that the hotel does not open on time and then they have to move you to another property. Or you get there and maybe service levels are not what they should be at that point, because they’re still kind of working out the kinks,” she says. “I’m sure you can probably get really good pricing during that time, but I am not willing to do that. And my bosses expect of me that I make that call. I’m in this business, and I know what can happen and what I’ve seen happen before.”
There are a variety of new hotels on the horizon that will give planners the opportunity to try out their booking strategy. Hilton recently introduced an entirely new brand geared toward the meetings market. Signia Hiltons will offer a minimum of 500 guest rooms and 75 sf per key of flexible meetings and events space. Other features include communal lobbies and wellness experiences. One example is the Signia Indianapolis, slated to open in 2023. The more than-800 room hotel will be connected to the expanded Indiana Convention Center and include a 50,000-sf ballroom.
Another convention center hotel is debuting in Salt Lake City, UT, near the Salt Palace Convention Center. Scheduled to break ground later this year and open in 2022, the hotel will feature more than 700 guest rooms and about 62,000 sf of meeting space. The 28-story property will also include a pool deck with an event terrace, ideal for groups that want to gather in the city’s warm climate.
Sunny meetings also await at the new Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos, opening this year. Located on the shores of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the all-inclusive resort offers 639 guest rooms and 56,000 sf of meeting space. All of the traditional Hard Rock hotels recreational amenities are onsite, from multiple pools to the Rock Spa. And with eight restaurants showcasing culinary cultures such as Asiatic, Italian and Brazilian, groups never need to leave the property for a diverse dining experience.
The possibility of having one’s meeting disrupted also arises when booking close to the completion date of a renovation, or during the project. However, renovations are often carried out with no disruption to ongoing meetings, so a planner can usually have confidence — especially with a contract clause stipulating that the project will be completed before the meeting, or that no disruptions will occur. Ramsay recalls a meeting she staged last year in Georgia at The Lodge at Sea Island Resort when the hotel was installing a pool and adding guest houses. “They were so discreet in the way they positioned the construction,” she says. “They had a barrier where you did not see the construction. If they had not told me they were putting in the pool and guest houses, I never would have known.”
Squeglia has also had a positive experience with a renovated hotel when she booked a group near the completion date. “We did a program last year at Hotel Viking in Newport, RI, for a financial institution. They were renovating every single guest room. Our program was in June and they were scheduled to be done by mid April,” she explains. “But there was a guarantee they would be done. It wasn’t much of a risk because they had huge groups coming in before us, so we knew they would get it done.” Nonetheless it’s important to discuss renovations at the contract stage. “At the end of the day it’s about communicating with your hotel partner; full transparency on both sides,” Squeglia says. “As a meeting professional, I want the hotel to renovate, it’s only going to help me and be a better experience for my guests. But let’s keep the communication lines open, because if there’s a jackhammer outside my meeting room door I’m not going to be happy.”
Squeglia is quite happy with the major renovations at the Cliff House Maine, where she is taking a 70-attendee financial group this year. “They did a significant renovation and it’s really spectacular. Three or four years ago I would never have considered it, but now it’s a luxury property,” she remarks. The Cliff House, a historic property that opened in 1872, completed a property-wide renovation and expansion over the last two years that redesigned its guest rooms, increased the guest room count to 225, and added a 4,300-sf ballroom, new pool, spa and fitness center.
Further down the east coast, groups will find a historic property in Washington, DC that recently completed a $12 million rooms renovation. Completed in February, the redesign of the Omni Shoreham Hotel’s 834 guest rooms was inspired by the Art Deco era of the 1930s hotel and incorporates local elements such as visuals of Washington, DC monuments. Larger windows and upgraded Wi-Fi are also featured in the renovated rooms at the Omni Shoreham, which offers groups 100,000 sf of meeting space.
In the Sunshine State, the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld introduced 30,000 sf of new meeting space this year. The expansion offers groups more options and flexibility in the flow of their programs, according to hotel representatives. The space is close to the rest of the hotel but without flow-through traffic from other hotel guests, which can help with security for meetings that include sensitive or proprietary information. The hotel now has over 215,000 sf of function space, including the new 16,500-sf Peninsula Ballroom, six new breakout rooms and a new 1,000-sf boardroom. The expansion also features the latest event technology, such as a multiuse LED Media Wall that spans 50 sf.
In Miami, the The Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, Miami debuted a yearlong renovation in February. The hotel now features 115 redesigned guest rooms and a lobby with an avant-garde aesthetic, as well as pool and restaurant upgrades. The Ritz-Carlton’s 13,000 sf of meeting space includes the 5,200-sf Ritz-Carlton Ballroom and an Executive Boardroom, complemented by outdoor terraces.
Significant renovations have been completed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria. Last December, El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton celebrated its grand reopening after a full restoration of the 388-room property. Blending Old World and modern design, the renovation included the guest rooms, poolside and oceanfront villas, public spaces, pools, cabanas and landscaping. The property offers 40,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including a newly redesigned Grand Ballroom and supplemented by 19,000 sf of lush outdoor event spaces.
Recently reopened following a $100 million restoration and renovation program, San Juan’s Caribe Hilton celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Incoming groups will experience renovations to the hotel’s 652 guest rooms and suites, eight food and beverage outlets, fitness center, spa, tennis center and more. With 65,000 sf of meeting space, including four ballrooms, an auditorium and 24 meeting rooms, the new Caribe Hilton is well prepared to welcome groups to its reestablished grandeur.
The new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City property is not the only major hotel development in Atlantic City. Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City Hotel & Casino also made headlines when it announced a $56 million guest room and suite renovation in its 507-room Coastal Tower. Scheduled to be completed this year, the new Coastal rooms will feature about 450 sf of space with a design similar to the resort’s Bayview rooms. All Coastal rooms will include high-speed internet access, accessible charging stations and 55-inch LG LED televisions.
Ritz-Carlton has invested in its Coconut Grove property as well as its South Beach hotel, giving planners who are fans of the brand new reasons to consider Miami. In late 2019, the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach reopens after a multiyear, property-wide renovation that included its 375 guest rooms and suites, spa, Club Lounge, restaurants and bars, lobby, 20,000-plus sf of function space, and pool. The guest room color palette and motifs were inspired by Miami’s origins as a vast botanical garden.
As Squeglia notes, a new property or a transformed one such as the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach is a novel experience that can entice attendees, particularly potential incentive qualifiers. “We have attendees who are very well traveled, insurance agents and brokers who have been at all these beautiful properties, and when you can offer them a first-time experience at a brand-new property, it definitely gives you an edge,” she says. “So there is a risk with a new property, but a lot of reward there too.”
As exciting as a new or renovated hotel may be, clients should bear in mind that quality service is just as important as quality facilities, if not more so. “The property can be gorgeous, but if the staff isn’t well trained, it doesn’t matter,” Squeglia adds. “You can tell right away if they’re trained to be kind, warm and welcoming, and to get you through a tough situation. That’s huge, and that’s really what participants remember. So it’s not only about investing in making your hotel beautiful, but in making your staff the best they can be.” I&FMM.