Great customer service in the hospitality industry is not just the province of the staff, whether a friendly concierge or a resourceful convention services manager. Hoteliers themselves practice customer service, in a broad sense, when they invest in their meeting hotels to render them more appealing and functional for incoming guests.
Serving longtime clients in this way is also important: Their longevity does not necessarily mean they think the hotel is ideal in every respect, and they may well have in mind certain renovations or expansions that should be undertaken. If more years go by and the hotelier does not make the property investments those reliable clients are looking for, they might start looking for other meeting hotels. Smart hoteliers will not take that risk.
When a hotel in a first-tier city expands, planners take note. Lodging space is always at a premium in towns such as Chicago, so more rooms create more opportunities for groups. Last summer, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place completed a $110 million improvement project that made it Hyatt’s fourth-largest hotel in the world with the addition of a new 460-guest room tower, along with a complete renovation of the existing 800-room tower.
Denise A. Diaz, director of communications for Pepsico, provides the perfect example of how renovation investment helps to create loyalty and repeat business, in her case, at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.
“The reason the new tower is an advantage is because in the summer in Chicago there are so many citywides that I have a really hard time getting all my people in one place.” — Denise A. Diaz
“The reason the new tower is an advantage is because in the summer in Chicago there are so many citywides that I have a really hard time getting all my people in one place,” Diaz notes. She plans a national sales meeting every July for 600 participants coming in nationally. The program was held at the Hyatt last year, and “we’re in RFP stage right now for July, and since the Hyatt has the capacity they will definitely be at the top of our short list,” she says. The hotel houses 50,000 sf of function space, and the recent investment also redesigned the 4,000-sf Prairie Room and renovated the 25,000-sf Hyatt Conference Center. “A couple of years ago I used the conference center for training, and I really liked that space,” Diaz comments. “One of the things that’s really important to me, even for a very simple meeting, is a high ceiling, and their conference center has that.”
The Windy City is also home to the world’s largest Hyatt, the 2,019-room Hyatt Regency Chicago, with 228,000 sf of function space, and five restaurants and lounges. Last April the hotel completed a $168 million renovation that included all the guest rooms in both West and East Towers and featured plenty of creative accents, such as black-and-white images of Chicago by local photographer Anthony Tahlier. The final phase of the project renovated the East Tower lobby, in addition to the hotel’s meeting and event spaces, and added four new dining concepts: Stetsons Modern Steak+Sushi, American Craft Kitchen & Bar, Market Chicago and Big Bar. And in keeping with the creative emphasis, the hotel enlisted photographer and abstract artist Christopher Kennedy to produce unique Photo Luminism artwork for display in the Grand Ballroom lobby.
Ongoing upgrades are just as vital for customer loyalty even in more out of the way locales, such as Snow King Hotel at Snow King Resort, a Benchmark Resort in Jackson Hole, WY, which completed a $17 million renovation of its 203 guest rooms in December. The funds also went toward improving the exterior, public space, spa and salon, and additions such as a new restaurant and activity center. The interiors of all function rooms now have new carpet, wall and window treatments, and artwork.
But it was the revitalized guest rooms that were most significant to Dublin, CA-based Contemporary Forums, a company that stages national continuing education conferences for health care professionals. Two or three of those meetings are held every summer at the Snow King, according to Pam Jenkins-Wallace, MS, NP, vice president, program development with Contemporary Forums. The relationship has lasted for more than 25 of the property’s 36-year history, and a major reason is the family activity options at the resort and the Jackson Hole, WY, area. “It’s big draw for families,” says Jenkins-Wallace. “We work with the concierge at the Snow King to organize groups for whitewater rafting or horseback riding, or daytrips to Grand Teton National Park or Yellowstone.”
Despite these attractions, many of Contemporary Forum’s roughly 300 attendees had felt the resort’s guest rooms were in need of a makeover, Jenkins-Wallace says. “They were very dated and the bathrooms in the guest rooms were difficult to manage. So when the resort finally went into the big renovation, we were tremendously relieved. We were there last July, and in June they had pretty much finished up everything that was essential to us. They delivered on what they promised, so everything was functioning when we were there. Our repeat guests were very impressed and very pleased; they felt it was good value for their money.”
“When the resort finally went into the big renovation, we were tremendously relieved. We were there last July, and in June they had pretty much finished up everything that was essential to us. They delivered on what they promised.” — Pam Jenkins-Wallace, MS, NP
Guest rooms now feature new beds and soft goods, new furniture, carpet, wall décor and updated bathrooms. Flat-screen televisions, modern refrigerators and a state-of-the-art phone system also have been installed.
Renovations are often dubbed “transformations” when they involve sweeping physical changes that create a very different experience for guests. According to Lesley Kinney, communications manager for Madison, MS-based Hood Packaging Corporation, attendees of the company’s annual HR meeting are looking forward to such an experience at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort & Spa, which just completed a $12.5 million transformation. The four-month project completely refurbished all 202 Spa Tower rooms, redesigned the indoor pool and recreated the main lobby experience so that arriving guests enjoy a panoramic view of Florida’s Emerald Coast. Sandcastles Restaurant and Lounge, Hadashi Sushi Bar and Serenity by the Sea Spa also were redesigned.
The Hood Packaging group of about 15 participants has been meeting at the Hilton Sandestin for the past five years. “We had our meeting last year just a few weeks after they completed their ($5.5 million) renovation, and it was astounding,” Kinney says. Finalized in February 2013, the project covered the resort’s 32,000 sf of indoor meeting space, the AAA Four Diamond Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, and the common space of the 400-room Emerald Tower.
“They had updated the carpet in the common areas in the conference areas, and one thing that stands out in my mind are the air plants they used, which are just very striking. And they tied the décor into the theme of the area, the ocean. The meeting rooms also seem more open and brighter, perhaps (due to) the combination of the new carpeting and the wall treatments.”
Since then, Kinney has done a site visit to the resort in November. “One of the things my salesperson mentioned to me that I’m really excited about seeing (with the latest renovation) is the redesigned lobby area with a direct visual to the Gulf. They’ve really tied the whole theme of the area together.”
A strong relationship with a hotelier, built on many successful past programs, often means greater trust in a renovation project. Having experienced a property’s professionalism and competence firsthand, a planner naturally feels more assured that the project will be completed on time, and that he or she will like the results. For example, Will Brown, director of marketing with Houston, TX-based energy company Kinder Morgan, has organized many meetings at the venerable Colorado Springs resort The Broadmoor in the past, and even though the last one was a few years ago and the hotel is currently doing extensive work on Broadmoor West, he had no “reservations” about booking the hotel, sans a site visit, for the company’s upcoming customer meeting in September.
“I have nothing but confidence that (the results) will be just fine,” he says. “The Broadmoor assured us they were going to be finished (in May), and I’ve seen other improvement projects completed in a timely fashion.”
Kinder Morgan’s 150 attendees will meet in the main building, but will stay in the West building, so this second and final phase of the hotel’s $100 million renovation and expansion is certainly of interest to them, Brown notes. The project will renovate and expand guest rooms by an additional 85 to 200 sf per room, and create an extra 31 guest rooms and suites, bringing The Broadmoor’s total guest room count to 775. A new Italian restaurant and health-inspired restaurant will also debut in Broadmoor West, as will a redesigned lobby with stained glass skylights, marble floors with custom stone insets, finely detailed millwork on the walls and ceilings, and other accents.
Some major metropolises are replete with new hotel openings. New York City is a prime example, adding 74 hotels since 2006, according to NYC & Company. That averages to about 10 new properties per year, which can seem like a boon for planners looking for lodging space in the Big Apple. But it must be borne in mind that most of these newcomers are small boutique hotels with minimal meeting space, which will not be usable for many groups. Thus, it’s the larger openings that tend to make it onto a planner’s radar, such as the December debut of the 487-room Hyatt Times Square New York. Located on 45th Street in the heart of the theater district, the property offers 8,000 sf of meeting space, including a 2,000-sf ballroom and 1,400-sf outdoor terrace event space overlooking the city. Attendees can revitalize in the 4,200-sf spa, and enjoy river-to-river views and indoor-outdoor fireplaces at a 54th-floor rooftop lounge set to open this spring. Guest rooms are spacious, averaging 364 sf.
“Summer in the City” will bring the opening of the Park Hyatt New York on West 57th Street, two blocks from Central Park. All 210 guest rooms are at least 475 sf, and more than 8,000 sf of “residential style” function space will be available, including a ballroom, 1,050-sf outdoor terrace, three breakout rooms and a boardroom. A 20-meter indoor swimming pool will be located on the 20th floor.
In Southern California, The Hotel Irvine Jamboree Center in downtown Irvine is undergoing both a brand and building makeover. Formerly the Hyatt Regency Irvine, the 536-room hotel is now owned and operated by Irvine Company Resort Properties, which also owns and operates The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, CA, and the Island Hotel Newport Beach. The Hotel Irvine Jamboree Center, which was recently accepted into the Associated Luxury Hotels International portfolio, is beginning a comprehensive “reinvestment” project scheduled for completion in 2014. The work will focus first on redesigning the 536 guest rooms, and the meeting and event space; followed by the outdoor areas, first-floor restaurant and lounges. A spokesperson notes, “Each floor of the 14-story property will be targeted individually in phases, allowing day-to-day business to operate as usual. Each guest room will be outfitted with vibrant new color palettes and contemporary designs, and our social spaces will reflect the same chic style. We’re eager to welcome business, social and leisure guests to this new, stylish escape.” Hotel Irvine has 36,000 sf of meeting space, including a 14,700-sf ballroom.
Marriott seems to be running on all cylinders when it comes to new property development. This May, the company will make a very significant contribution to the East Coast meetings market with the debut of the 1,175-room Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, housing 105,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting space, five dining outlets and a state-of-the-art, bi-level health club. Attendees will be able to walk via underground concourse to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, as well as to the National Mall and all the surrounding tourist attractions. Designed to be LEED Silver accredited, the hotel will feature a glass atrium lobby filled with natural light and an appropriately patriotic 56-foot sculpture, “The Birth of the American Flag,” by sculptor Rodney Carroll.
And in the spring of 2015, the JW Marriott Austin (currently under construction) will bring more than 1,000 guest rooms to the “Live Entertainment Capital of the World,” not to mention 110,000 sf of banquet space and 35 meeting rooms.
As if these sizable developments aren’t enough, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority in Chicago recently announced the selection of Marriott as operator of the 1,200-room headquarters hotel that is scheduled to open in late 2016 next door to McCormick Place. The new hotel will have the distinction of being the only Marriott Marquis in Metropolitan Chicago.
Another major opening complementing a convention center is the Omni Nashville Hotel, which opened its doors in September a few months after the debut of the adjacent Music City Center, which houses more than 1.2 million sf of function space. A LEED Silver Certification for New Construction, the 800-room hotel offers a formidable 80,000 sf of meeting space, as well as a physical connection to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which presents intriguing special event options.
Next door to a very different kind of museum — the Mob Museum in Las Vegas — is the new Downtown Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, which opened in November. The 634-room hotel offers stylish restaurants (including a San Francisco-style steak house) and event spaces such as the “industrial chic” 3,000-sf Grand Parlor, which can accommodate up to 200 attendees. Open this spring is Picnic, the property’s signature rooftop venue, where groups of up to 1,500 can gather and enjoy a restaurant-bar, infinity pool, entertainment area and cabanas overlooking downtown Las Vegas.
Debuting this July at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, NV, will be a new indoor pool and a new 25,000-sf reception area, which will accommodate up to 2,000 attendees. This on the heels of a recently completed $25 million project that remodeled all 2,000 guest rooms and added a spa. The resort’s 200,000 sf of flexible meeting and convention space allows any size meeting — with up to 4,000 attendees.
An East Coast gaming destination has recently announced proposed major renovations: Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City, NJ, is awaiting approval on a $35 million plan that would completely renovate the casino’s boardwalk facade and feature a new, fully choreographed, interactive light and sound show via 20-foot high light bollards and nine LED screens. Also in the proposed plan, all 434 guest rooms in the North Tower would be renovated; three new retailers and a fitness club would be added; and the Fin’s dining room expanded.
Tucson’s The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, a Southwestern desert gem with a Santa Catalina Mountain setting, is looking shiny and new following an 18-month, $35 million, resort-wide renovation that was completed late last summer — the first since 1986. All 487 guest rooms underwent a top-to-bottom remodeling, which included the addition of 42-inch HDTVs, work desks with charging stations, expanded walk-in showers and more. The 60,000-sf conference space was updated as was the grand lobby, from which guests are treated to dramatic views of the mountains. The five pool areas were refreshed with new cabanas, fire pits with fountains and travertine stonework. The greens and bunkers at La Paloma Country Club’s Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses also were refreshed and resurfaced. The club’s tennis courts also received new surfaces. The resort is partnering with the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum to create a Sonoran Desert Walkway, showcasing indigenous flora and fauna, set for completion in mid to late spring.
Golf-loving attendees have a new option in Central Florida with the recent opening of Streamsong Resort’s 216-room main Lodge, which includes a 14,000-sf conference center, bringing the property’s total meeting space to 24,600 sf, as well as 40,000 sf of distinctive outdoor venues. Streamsong is home to two nationally ranked golf courses, Streamsong Red and Streamsong Blue, which are “the best new courses you can play” according to Golf magazine. Golfers pressed for time can take advantage of the “partial loop” option and play just six or 12 holes. Other venues of interest include a 7,000-sf grotto-style spa, lakeside pool and a stargazing terrace. Free-time options include guided bass fishing excursions, a sporting clay shooting range, trails for hiking and bird watching, tennis, and more.
Also of note in the Sunshine State is the new 444-room Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, opening this summer. Groups will have at their disposal not only the world’s most famous theme park, but also 37,750 sf of function space (including a 14,000-sf ballroom), a Tom Fazio-designed championship golf course and a rooftop steak house.
Longtime group clients of a hotel, such as Contemporary Forum’s patronage of the Snow King Hotel, enjoy many advantages: For example, the planner and attendees know they can count on quality service and amenities based on prior experience; negotiating leverage often can be obtained based on volume of business; planning time is reduced due to familiarity with the property and local area; and many attendees are often on a first-name basis with staff, who have become acquainted with their individual preferences.
At the same time, there can be that “same old, same old” feeling among attendees that planners want to avoid, and a renovation — particularly a “transformation” — effectively makes the experience more engaging for repeat participants.
The crop of new meeting hotels that opened last year or will in the near future, given that they are all top-tier lodging products in key destinations, will no doubt have their own longtime group clients in the future. C&IT