Small MeetingsAugust 23, 2016

Planners Add More R&R to the Agenda for Higher ROI By
August 23, 2016

Small Meetings

Planners Add More R&R to the Agenda for Higher ROI
Participants in TD Ameritrade's June 2016 Elite LINC conference enjoy the ambience at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

Participants in TD Ameritrade’s June 2016 Elite LINC conference enjoy the ambience at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

When any number of employees gather for a meeting, be it 10, 100 or 1,000, it’s a chance for more than learning, training and discussing business matters. These are surely the key reasons to meet, but to maximize ROI, the host company also can take the opportunity to stage teambuilding activities and even reward their reps with diversion at the destination. So there is no reason to stereotype the small meeting, typically defined as convening under 100 attendees, as being “strictly business.”

Louisiana Farm Bureau Insurance certainly takes full advantage of the opportunities that small gatherings present. Jennifer N. Meyer, director of agency services, plans an annual agency managers conference of 75–90 attendees, as well as district meetings every three months that bring in about 90 participants. Each type of meeting allows time for recreational activities outside the conference room.

“Sometimes, it’s the larger property that has the flexibility to better accommodate a smaller, short-term booking.”
— Katrina Kent

“For our agency managers, it’s a half-day meeting and then the rest is free time so they can golf, shop, visit the spa, etc.,” Meyer says. “So it’s kind of a retreat for them. For the district meetings, I try to do more of an incentive location; many times we use casino hotels because you’ve got all your restaurants and gaming, pool and spa on-property. It’s kind of a little end of the summer celebration.” That’s a far cry from the small meeting that takes place over a day at an airport hotel, but Louisiana Farm Bureau Insurance has clearly found that the camaraderie that develops justifies the “extras.”

Finding the Right Hotel

An indispensable partner in executing a small meeting with those recreational add-ons is the right hotel, one with both logistically ideal meeting space and memorable character and amenities. Meyer recently found such a property in New Orleans, the Windsor Court Hotel, which hosted the company’s two-day managers meeting, bringing in about 75 attendees.

In proximity to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, the 316-room Windsor Court Hotel showcases European antiques and period reproductions from the 17th and 18th centuries, a collection valued at more than $8 million. The hotel combines that distinction with a 4,500-sf spa and 10,000-sf rooftop pool and deck. The hotel’s 10,000 sf of function space includes two chinoiserie ballrooms with 23rd-floor views, and various rooms that can accommodate meetings for up to 250 people and banquets for up to 240, including the library and the boardroom for small meetings.

Meyer relates that a recent Presidents Weekend was a similar success at the 405-room Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Point Clear, Alabama. The hotel offers 37,000 sf of meeting space, including two meeting suites for smaller groups, the Bayside Executive Suite and the Hospitality Parlor. The historic property combines those resources with a 550-acre Mobile Bay location, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and a 20,000-sf spa.

One of Meyer’s sources for placing her events is Marriott’s national sales representative. “Marriott is the only national hotel contact that I have, and there is a great benefit to using their national rep because it’s a one-stop shop for (hotels) anywhere in the U.S.,” she says. “Marriott is a preferred vendor for us; they’re the first place that I look just because of the ease of use. And Marriott owns Ritz-Carlton, which is a really good location for my VIP groups.”

Finding Negotiating Room

As a preferred supplier, Marriott properties receive a good deal of the company’s meetings business, Meyer indicates. And while small meetings individually may mean a relatively modest amount of revenue for a hotel, collectively they can increase the client’s leverage in negotiations.

Katrina Kent, director of The Event Group at TD Ameritrade, finds this strategy useful as well. “If we have a series of smaller programs that are located in, say, six or eight cities, we will try to bundle all of that business under one preferred hotel group and realize the benefits at a global relationship level,” she explains.

Kent indicates that about 65 percent of TD Ameritrade’s meetings bring in 10–100 attendees, including board of directors programs, sales team events and incentives, and client events. “We find that when a hotel partner or property considers the big picture of all of our business and has the ability to work with us accordingly, we both benefit,” she says. “Some of the best property-level relationships we have are repeat properties where we have had success with a smaller meeting and that leads to more or repeat business. It all adds up.”

Catering to Small Meetings

What’s more, Kent appreciates the attention hoteliers have been paying to the small meetings market in general: “Hyatt and several others have carved out programs to cater to the smaller meetings market, and it’s been great,” she says. Hyatt’s small meetings services, including an online RFP tool for fast booking, can be found at

But even if a hotelier does not profess its small meetings proficiency at the brand level, many of its individual properties can surely be ideal for these meetings — not only in terms of function space, but also the kinds of activities and amenities that optimize the ROI for these meetings.

For example, while the Hilton Chicago is a massive property with 1,544 guest rooms and more than 234,000 sf of meeting space, many intimate meeting experiences are available with more than 50 meeting rooms and suites convertible into breakout rooms. In addition, the iconic Conrad Suite allows VIPs to gather in a library with a pool table and bar, a grand salon and dining room that seats 14. Small to midsized groups also can bond over a harvest experience by buying out the Hilton Chicago’s rooftop garden and urban farm. Uniquely, Hilton Chicago boasts a team exclusively focused on the finance market, with membership in FICP, and who provide enhanced security and privacy for this segment.

Florida Favorites

Sunny Florida is replete with examples of upscale properties ranging from about 100–300 guest rooms that are ideal for small but high-level meetings. A true retreat can be found down in Key West at The Reach, a Waldorf Astoria Resort. The 150-room resort is set on Key West’s only natural sand beach and offers a total of 22,600 sf of flexible indoor-outdoor event space. A private dining room for up to 40 guests features plasma screens, PC connections and wireless internet. Attendees can participate in a variety of memorable activities such as sandsculpting workshops, historic bike/jet ski tours, dinner at the Hemingway House, dolphin snorkel tours, Mallory Square sunset celebrations, scavenger hunts, offshore fishing and day trips to Dry Tortugas National Park.

Farther up the state lies The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, Miami Beach, where Charlotte, North Carolina-based LPL Financial held its Bank Executive Retreat last fall. The 60-person group consisted of the company’s top 30 bank executive program leaders, product partners and home office staff.

“We’ve always held the Bank Executive Retreats at luxury properties and want our attendees to feel special; this property definitely makes you feel that. It’s perfect for a group of 150 or less,” remarks Allison Cooper, assistant vice president, conference experiences. A recipient of the Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond awards for 2015, The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort houses 227 guest rooms and 11,200 sf of meeting space (10,200 sf indoor). As such, it was not oversized for the LPL group, which was served by a “courteous and attentive staff checking on me and my staff at least every 30 minutes or so,” says Cooper.

The “retreat” qualities of the resort also were evident to Cooper. “It isn’t in all of the loud, chaotic hustle and bustle of South Beach — but still only a short drive away for those that enjoy the South Beach nightlife,” she describes. “Everyone loves South Beach, but it can get distracting at times for meetings. Having the beach, the pool, the cabanas and daybeds at St. Regis, our guests didn’t miss out on anything that they’d find at any of the other South Beach luxury properties. If anything, they appreciated the fact that it was more low-key and relaxing, which is what a group like this needs.”

A getaway for groups also can be found in Palm Beach, home to the five-diamond and five-star Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, a 309-room property set on a secluded private beach. More than 30,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space is at a planner’s disposal, and the flexibility is ideal for small groups: The 9,680-sf ballroom is divisible into three equal salons, and there are 10 breakout rooms, including two boardrooms. Outdoor event space includes a pool terrace, resort lawn and 3,000-sf oceanfront terrace with a fire pit.

Attendees can literally mix business with pleasure in Poolside Business Cabanas wired for connectivity and outfitted with oversized and stocked work desk, flat-screen television, printer and more.

Resort amenities include the award-winning, 42,000-sf Eau Spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, three Har-Tru clay tennis courts, two oceanfront swimming pools, four restaurants including the fine-dining Angle, which features fresh local seafood and locally sourced seasonal ingredients, and Breeze Ocean Kitchen, which opened in March. With seating for up to 120 guests, Breeze Ocean Kitchen features striking design details such as a runway fire feature that lights up evening lounge areas. A “lookout” bar top floats above the resort’s beach to offer extraordinary views of the sea and sunsets.

Small groups can combine a touch of Florida history with their event at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a bastion among North Florida resorts since 1928. This five-diamond property on Ponte Vedra Beach lies just 20 miles southeast of Jacksonville, making it accessible for groups to fly into. With 250 guest rooms and 25,000 sf of indoor function space, the resort is well suited to small to midsized groups, but again the flexibility and variety in small meeting spaces is important.

There are 17 meeting rooms including a cherry-paneled executive boardroom with flex-back conference chairs, all supported by a high-tech business center, hospitality suites and an in-house audio-visual team. During free time, attendees can enjoy a slew of recreational amenities, including two 18-hole golf courses, 15 Har-Tru HydroCourt tennis courts, three oceanfront pools, the region’s largest spa, and a variety of shops and boutiques. Especially active guests can bike, sail, kayak or paddleboard, while the wellness-minded can take advantage of an 8,000-sf oceanfront gym.

Pop-Up Meetings

Properties like these find favor with planners looking to spruce up the small meeting experience with “extracurricular” activities and memorable surroundings. But in practice there will always be small meetings that have to be planned expediently, and there may not be an opportunity to find a property that is attractive from both a business and recreational standpoint; the first property with the right dates, rates and space will typically fit the bill.

“Our August district meeting I usually book a couple months out, and the managers meeting I would book a year out. But there will be other little meetings that will pop up, like training sessions,” Meyer notes. Fortunately, she has “contacts pretty much everywhere in Louisiana, and when I’m shopping for those pop-up meetings, I usually don’t need much out of the property — I just need something functional.”

Alternatively, these “no frills” meetings might be held at corporate offices, but there are advantages to using offsite venues. These “offer a more consistent participant experience and allow for an environment free from the distraction of everyday business that we encounter when hosting at our offices,” according to Kent.

Offsite booking can mean a short-term challenge at times, but “we try to work with properties as flexibly as we can to fit into a slot that is mutually beneficial,” she adds. The company’s flexibility on contract terms also is increased, given that a small group on a short-term booking schedule doesn’t have much leverage. “Our expectations are in line accordingly, and we understand when a hotelier is unable to offer a rebook clause or other generous cancellation terms.”

Large vs. Small Hotels

And while a small group is ideally housed in a small to midsized property, “sometimes, it’s the larger property that has the flexibility to better accommodate a smaller, short-term booking,” Kent points out. So in that situation, a planner must really be open to booking opportunities across the spectrum of hotel sizes.

However, all other things being roughly equal between the large and small hotel, the latter is preferable, according to Meyer. “When I was a younger planner I used a bigger property a couple of times and you end up being a small fish in a very large pond. So it’s really good to try as much as possible to utilize all the space the hotel has to offer, so that you’re the only group in the hotel. You don’t want to be competing for the (attention of the) sales and event staff with other groups; it never works out well in my experience.”

Attendees of small meetings and VIP retreats not only want their due attention from hotel staff, they also want personal attention from the meeting host and their peers. After all, these forums are more suited to interactivity than large meetings, and planners do well to create a platform where each attendee can have his or her voice heard.

Regarding LPL Financial’s Bank Executive Retreat, Cooper relates that “the meeting objective from a business perspective is to listen and engage our top bank clients/executives in best business practices and find ways that LPL can help (or continue to) improve their businesses.” And to ensure that help is targeted to the individual client/executive, “we set up the room roundtable or crescent style instead of classroom or theater, so that the attendees could truly interact with each other and share ideas,” she says. “We tried to focus less on AV (although we did have it one day) and ‘presentation style,’ and (instead) have more of a true workshop-style general session. We find on our surveys that our attendees really appreciate that format much more and feel heard that way.

“We also send out a ‘save the date’ about three to four months out and have a call about two months out from the event to engage the attendees from the start, so we are sure to touch on topics that are important to them.”

That kind of approach undoubtedly increases the ROI for a small meeting. And when the ideal session structure is combined with the recreational riches of a property like The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, the experience becomes more memorable, and the ROI is increased even more. I&FMM

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