Hospitality on Steroids?

The hospitality industry is more hospitable than usual, but a delicate economy isn’t the only reason for all of this people pleasing.

If you’re a business traveler, you might have noticed a delightful game of customer service one-upsmanship among hotels, but don’t get the impression that there is anything terribly unusual going on, especially when it comes to pleasing those who attend corporate events.

This is, after all, the hospitality sector. The ubiquity of webinars and teleconferences and wireless Internet in hotel rooms has not eliminated the desire for “face time,” so the challenge for event planners is still to operate effectively in a flat economy.

“While the economy is improving locally, concerns about global economic conditions have risen by 7% this past year,” noted Cindy Foley, a certified meeting planner and director of sales and marketing for the Madison Marriott West Hotel and Conference Center. “The largest trend we are still experiencing in the hospitality industry today is a reluctance to commit to holding future programs, due to the lack of confidence in future economic conditions and the need for greater risk management.

“This has led to much shorter booking windows and the challenge of substantially less lead time to plan and forecast.” 

While the Wisconsin economy is perceived to be stronger than the national economy, what are hotels doing to book business? How innovative are they willing to be to land corporate event business and, more importantly, what opportunities does that create for meeting planners?

The hotel “experience”

While those who direct convention and visitors bureaus talk about their communities as “destinations,” hotel managers speak of the “experience” they offer, both inside the facility and increasingly with community partners. Janet Sperstad, program director of the meeting and event management degree program for Madison College, said hoteliers are working in tandem with other hotels, restaurants, and even nonprofits to provide things that add to the hotel experience.

“Whether it’s a nonprofit like a food bank or the humane society or even local farms, people can have more of an experience while they stay at a hotel,” she noted. “We’re really seeing hotels positioning themselves as a destination and working with local partners to create a richer experience for the traveler – business travel or personal travel.”

That means different things to different hotels, but flexibility is the common denominator in a facility’s ability to build relationships and trust with corporate meeting planners, Foley indicated. From culinary teams (not just chefs) that are capable of customizing menus to the staff’s ability to solve problems on the fly, a hotel’s adaptability is key to its ability to produce unique experiences.

Among the examples at the Marriott include its willingness to set up a full-sized basketball court for an athletic team’s practice session, and locating and showcasing a DeLorean in its conference center, which was the determining factor in being selected to host a Back to the Future-themed reception.

Partnerships have been a boon to the Marriott, and those partnerships include the Middleton Tourism Commission, which invests room tax dollars in bringing group business to local hotels. Through a simple grant process, groups have the opportunity to apply for funds to help offset some of their event marketing or facility expenses, or defray costs involved in experiencing some of the destinations Middleton has to offer. 

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism, a partner of all hotels, offers certification in sustainable hospitality practices through the Travel Green Wisconsin program, which can make a difference in securing meetings and corporate events because a growing number of organizations require it.

Greenway Station is another Marriott partner, offering special discounts and promotions to the Marriott’s guests, and the hotel has gotten some experiential mileage out of its proximity to Capital Brewery and the National Mustard Museum. Foley said the hotel also has partnered with local businesses to organize networking events, and looks for opportunities to help guests make philanthropic contributions.

Incorporating unique program concepts is appreciated, but raising the hospitality bar still is mainly about the fundamentals. “While hotels are getting more creative in their approach to securing meetings and corporate events, it remains crucial that sales professionals start with the basics of learning the goals and objectives of the meeting or event professional so they can exceed their expectations, while providing a defined ROI to the organization,” Foley said.

Carmen Smalley, a certified meeting planner for The North Central Group, said outreach is aligned with the primary goal of every hotel staff – to understand the goal of corporate meetings and help the meeting planner achieve that goal. The best way for a hotel to secure repeat business, she noted, is to deliver on that objective. 

That’s why hotel chefs are creating special menus for people with allergies, or accommodating others looking for more organic options by introducing local produce from farmers markets. “We also see budgetary concerns, which is an opportunity to serve,” Smalley noted. “They might say, ‘I have this much to spend on lunch or dinner, what can you do?’ You can react to that instead of having a client just picking something off the menu. 

“Just try to help them be creative in what they do with the space.”

Part of that space is the hotel lobby, which has evolved into something more than a place to check in. With wireless Internet and the arrangement of furniture in a collaboration-encouraging semi-circle, the lobby has become the focal point of the modern hotel’s networking environment. 

Ann Becker, owner-corporate sales specialist with Holiday Inn Madison at the American Center, said hotels are more conscious of the opportunities for social interaction within their facilities. The Holiday Inn’s “Stay Social” program, featuring guest get-togethers every Wednesday evening, is a reflection of that.

This particular Holiday Inn might go as far as establishing “martini stations” to complement the food station concept. The martini station, in which the hotel gathered recipes for four different kinds of martinis to create something interactive and fun, went over well at a recent wedding. “We’re trying to get people to be loyal to the brand,” Becker explained.

Another driving force for the hospitality churn is the unpleasant prospect of being ripped on an Internet travel site, and bad reviews require an immediate response so consumers know the hotel doesn’t simply dismiss such concerns. 

“It’s nice when guests go to Trip Advisor and write that this or that person made their hotel experience great,” Becker noted. “I tell my staff, ‘Remember that when a guest checks in, they might have had a very challenging day. Things may not have gone right. There might have been weather delays.’ If a person at the hotel can take care of their concerns, that’s a huge plus.”

With competition for corporate events, Alicia Olson, an event planner with the Holiday Inn Madison at the American Center, said it’s imperative to stay in touch, through surveys and other means, with customers. “With the economy struggling, people will shop around a lot more,” she noted. “You have to keep it all about experience and having that personal relationship with everybody.”

Playing small ball

Larger hotels typically are able to attract business via benefits offered through reward points and other guest incentives, but smaller hotels have to be even more creative with their selling practices. Jason Ilstrup, general manager of HotelRED, said while group business is “still off” overall, especially the larger conferences that are the mainstays of big hotels, he’s starting to see an uptick from smaller groups such as executive committees or departments within larger organizations. 

At the moment, the small-group trend plays into the strength of the 48-room HotelRED, but only if the hotel does creative things to secure those smaller meetings. “We really are focusing on that smaller group and looking to grab multiple smaller groups and really personalizing that service,” Ilstrup stated. “Whether it’s small business doing a think tank on innovation in their company, or they want their marketing team coming through, the industry is seeing less of the large conference where all the employees from San Francisco or New York come in.”

As an independent hotel with a favorable employee-to-guest ratio, HotelRED can act quickly to drop rental fees, make its outdoor patios or lobby or breakout rooms available for networking, or otherwise take advantage of its location across from Camp Randall Stadium. He acknowledges that HotelRED is playing “small ball,” but allowing pets, offering a complementary weekend cocktail, or partnering with a chocolatier to treat guests is part of the tailored experience a boutique hotel can provide.

“The experience is still very big; it’s not passé,” Ilstrup stated. “We’re all trying to create a great experience, whether it’s for a banquet, a corporate event, a wedding, or a just a single night’s stay.”

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