Meeting Expectations Have Changed for Hotels

It was only May, but the limousine driver apologized to his out-of-town passengers for the June Gloom that had arrived early. The cool, overcast and almost foggy weather dimmed the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean as the airport shuttle brought meeting planners and luxury hoteliers to the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Seventy-six planners and 73 hoteliers converged on the stunning new luxury resort to talk, and in many cases book, business. They arrived for a three-day, invitation-only event hosted by Elite Meetings International.

Although the California weather was gloomy, attendees clearly felt brighter days were ahead. It was a stark contrast to the mood of the past 22 months since the ill-fated corporate retreat by American International Group doomed both the meetings industry and most high-end hotels. The AIG Effect was born just 54 miles away, at the St. Regis Monarch Bay in Dana Point. AIG’s retreat came days after a federal bailout as the Great Recession was in full bloom, and the outcry from the government and frothing media made “luxury” and “resort” bad words. Corporations followed suit by canceling meetings for fear of public backlash and the luxury and upper-upscale segments became the biggest losers.

If AIG’s retreat was the end of the meetings industry, the Elite Meetings Alliance could be seen as a sign of a new beginning. “Hotels are listening to the needs of planners, trying to provide as much value without softening service,” says Kelly Foy, CEO of Elite Meetings, a company aiming to be the comprehensive resource for corporate, association and incentive planners through its magazine, website and these in-person meetings (see sidebar here). “It’s more of a partnership than ever.”

But Foy doesn’t think hotels won’t eventually return to the boom times of 2007 and before. “Waiving attrition, Internet and resort fees; locking into longer-term business with great rates….that’s shorter term,” he says. “What I’m hearing is 2010 looks all right, 2011 is good and 2012 will be awesome. Once we get to awesome, then a lot of those concessions will drop off. Maybe even in 2011 as hotels get more confident.”

COMING TOGETHER
At the Elite Meetings Alliance at Terranea, both planners and sales representatives from top luxury meetings properties exuded the same hopes. More than 1,200 prescheduled one-on-one meetings took place between the two sides and several hotels left confident they’d soon have signed contracts. Every hotelier surveyed said they left with at least one strong lead, and in most cases more than a handful, and the planners were thrilled to get the chance to shop so many properties in one setting.

“This is a really good marriage,” said Paul Cookley, the director of sales and marketing for the Ritz-Carlton South Beach (FL). “I’ve seen lots of formats, but this is the most intriguing and efficient use of my time. This will yield good leads.”

A large meeting room was lined with 10 rows of tables and each hotel was assigned a location. The 73 hoteliers were mostly directors of sales, from well-known properties like the Venetian in Las Vegas, the Arizona Biltmore, several St. Regis hotels (including the infamous Monarch Beach property), Four Seasons, Fairmonts and Ritz-Carltons. The 76 planners were invited and pre-qualified and came with legitimate and specific business needs, from companies and organizations like the American Board of Internal Medicine, Charles Schwab, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America and Nike.

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