Special Events

EVENTFUL HOTELS AND RESORTS

HOW TOP EVENT PROPERTIES WORK THEIR MAGIC SOME OFFER NATURE'S SPLENDOR. OTHERS PROMISE BIG-CITY BUSTLE. STILL OTHERS ARE TOPS WITH PROPS AND DECOR. TO LEARN WHICH HOTELS AND RESORTS ARE TOP CHOICES FOR STAGING SPECIAL EVENTS, SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE SPOKE WITH CORPORATE SPECIAL EVENT PROFESSIONALS NATIONWIDE. FOR AN OVERVIEW OF POWERHOUSE PROPERTIES, READ ON.

BETTING ON BOCA

Tina L. Hamlin, vice president of meetings for the Washington-based Independent Petroleum Association of America, praises the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Boca Raton, Fla.

With a conference center just 2 1/2 years old - complete with a 26,000-square-foot main ballroom and 15,000 square-foot junior ballroom - the 963-guestroom resort offers attractive venues for special events. But what sets the resort apart for event professionals is Boca By Design, its in-house decor service.

"We were one of the first in the nation to have on-site special event expertise," says Cindy Christman, director of decor and services. With Boca By Design's full-time crew of 35 plus scenery and props, "a client can come to Boca Resort and pick and choose whatever they need, and it's all on site." Boca By Design also fabricates items for clients. "We do a lot of custom work; everybody is different," Christman says. Boca Raton Resort hosts about 25 parties a week, she adds.

The in-house service saves work for special event clients, she adds. "All billing goes on the master bill. And because we own so many things, we don't have to charge a higher rate."

Boca Raton Resort staff is also proud of its catering services. "Although we spend all year working on our printed book [of menus], most people don't like to read, so we customize 80 percent of all our catering," says Nancy Sergio, director of catering and convention operations.

Susan P. Ingraham, CMP, vice president of event planning and community affairs for Equifax in Atlanta, puts another Florida resort - Ponte Vedra Beach Resorts in Ponte Vedra Beach - high on her list of special event venues.

The resort consists of two facilities: The Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and The Lodge & Club. The Inn & Club, built in 1928, offers 200 guestrooms. The Lodge & Club offers 66 guest-rooms. Also available is a conference center, which includes the Surf Club Patio overlooking the ocean. "We can use it pretty much year-round," says Cordel Crowley, director of special events for Ponte Vedra Beach Resorts.

Crowley's department works as "a DMC on the property," he says. "If a group wants to leave [the property], I handle deep-sea charters and kayaking on the marsh."

But Ponte Vedra Beach Resorts offers plenty of inducements to stick around.

"I work closely with sales and catering," Crowley says. "I offer special event themes from sports bars, awards programs and casino themes to the basic Dinner 101." He estimates that his department works with about 125 corporate groups a year, handling 400 to 500 meetings annually at the resort's two properties.

"We've probably had a 30 percent increase in revenue this year versus last year," Crowley says.

SERVICES ON SITE

Ingraham also gives high marks to The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz. The property, located on 250 acres at the base of Camelback Mountain, hosts three corporate special events each week, says public relations director Marguarite Clark.

Destination Services of Scottsdale, located at The Phoenician, is the resort's on-site DMC. Also located within the 581-guestroom resort are floral designers, entertainment specialists, a transportation service and a photographer.

Not every property needs an elaborate prop department to serve special events. Chonita Vaughn, marketing assistant for PG&E National Energy Group in Bethesda, Md., praises the atmospheric Cranwell Resort & Golf Club in Lenox, Mass., for its "nice facility, great golfing and excellent food."

As Cranwell director of marketing and sales Norma Probst explains, the Tudor-style Cranwell Mansion on the property creates "an ambiance that preexists. So planners are saving money on [the decor] end."

IT'S GREAT OUTDOORS

A beautiful building in a beautiful setting is a powerful combination. Ingrid Kuo, corporate event planner with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York, puts The St. Regis Aspen in Aspen, Colo., high on her list.

"Here we take advantage of the great outdoors," explains John Curnow, the St. Regis director of sales and marketing. "The physical facility of the hotel is world-class. It's elegant Western decor - very Colorado, very Aspen - from the lobby to the guestrooms to the banquet catering space. Then we're right at the base of Aspen Mountain. That's our backdrop."

He estimates that the 257-guestroom property hosts 50 meetings a month and 600 special events a year, primarily for "Fortune" 100 companies.

The St. Regis team is adept at moving events out of the confines of the property. About 20 percent of the catering department's jobs take place off site, often near a ghost town an hour's drive away. Also, "We do a lot of tenting," Curnow says. "We have a great space at the base of Aspen Mountain - we can be out there with a clear-top tent in the middle of January."

Katherine Findling, director of meetings and special events for TIAA-CREF in New York, singles out another mountain resort: the Resort at Squaw Creek in Olympic Valley, Calif.

Director of sales Dan Dolan says the property "can match a world-class full-service resort with a great destination in Lake Tahoe." The 403-guestroom property completed a $3 million spa facility in April.

"We offer catering both on and off site," Dolan notes, with off-site catering accounting for a quarter of business. For multiday events, "we can match great themed events on the property with great off-site venues - mansions, private locales."

Popular event venues include the Pavilion, which overlooks the swimming pools and Olympic Valley. "We can seat up to 660 outdoors and more than 900 indoors," Dolan says.

SETS AND THE CITY

For some events, only the bustle of a big-city hotel will do. For Lisa Hutchison, supervisor of executive events and user conference at BMC Software in Houston, that means W New York in New York.

The "contemporary boutique" hotel, as catering director Giselle Bavaro describes it, offers 722 guestrooms and 10,000 square feet of event and meeting space, including a 3,700-square-foot ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows. The Plateau, the hotel's "balcony living room," overlooks Oasis, the lobby bar. "All of our event space flows together or can be used separately," Bavaro says.

Guests at events often linger afterward to visit Whiskey Blue, the hotel bar under the direction of Rande Gerber, the mastermind behind such hot spots as the Sky Bar in Los Angeles, Bavaro says. Catering runs out of the W's restaurant Heartbeat, developed by famed restaurateur Drew Nieporent.

For BMC events in the Midwest, Hutchison names The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, as a top choice. Public relations director Beth Doughty credits the 301-guestroom hotel's flexibility in accommodating special events.

"We have the capabilities to move a large portion of our ballroom wall to accommodate anything from trees to water fountains to cars to large production sets," she says. "The ballroom can take on many forms, from a traditional elegant affair to a Route 66 party."

The hotel hosts about 185 special events a year not including weddings, she estimates.

Corporate event professionals rank "quality of service" as the most important factor when choosing a property for special events (see the sidebar on page 48). And corporate meeting planner Nancy K. Kranstuber of Rockwell Automation in Cleveland calls the service at Amelia Island Plantation in Amelia Island, Fla., "four-star."

The resort includes the 249-guestroom Amelia Inn & Beach Club along with a 33,000-square-foot conference center. Overseeing roughly 25 special events a month at the property is La Vonne Christensen, special events sales manager. Her 12-person department is "a one-stop shop for the event," Christensen says. "We have our own prop warehouse. It's a package deal, all included with the menu price."

NECESSARY AMENITIES

When designing an event, "it's really important to get the insights, the personality of the CEO into the planning," Christensen says. "If you don't listen to them, you're just shooting in the dark. You have to give high value for the dollar."

She says that when her resort creates great special events, the entire industry benefits. "We have a responsibility to each other. We're an amenity, not a necessity," she says. "We have to be very creative and enthusiastic - `you have to have this party!' Then the amenity becomes a necessity."

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