FROM his start as a meeting planner in the automotive industry, David Dvorak, CMP, has moved into the hotel business in big way. As vice president of catering and convention services for White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts, his department manages from 15,000 to 20,000 meetings and events annually at some 350 properties in North America, spanning Starwood's spectrum of brands that includes Sheraton, Westin, W and St. Regis. Here, he looks at the new pressures on his planner clients:
SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: What is foremost on the minds of your clients now?
DAVID DVORAK: Most people are calling third party companies to plan their event and using different planners to create even one event, and they always look at their ROI [return on investment] now. All the costs of bringing people to different locations; does it benefit the company? They are more conscious of how food and beverage fits into the meeting, not just the cost but how it fits into people's lifestyles. You see a move away from sit-down events to buffets, where you get more choices and a quick in-and-out, and to working lunches. How that translates is that we need to provide a wider variety of offerings for the customer.
Also, the booking window used to be a year out, and now the booking window for pieces of business is three months or less. It's challenging for the managers, because your forecasting becomes a little more suspect. Then, there are a lot more smaller, regional meetings as opposed to large meetings.
Q: How is Starwood responding to client demands — with new services, new technologies?
A: You hit the nail on the head: What we are really concentrating on is the technology aspect, because technology is the key to customer service. Most people's homes have multiple computers, wireless networks, all this advanced audiovisual stuff — that's commonplace. And you want to have that for them in your environment. And that's what we are working toward: to make them feel very comfortable in the environment of our hotels, just as in their homes. And we are offering many more technological programs that can make the meeting planner's job a little easier, whether it be rooming lists, BEOs [banquet event orders], etc., in an electronic format and a timely format. Also on the meetings side, we're really pushing our StarMeeting concierge program. When the planner comes on site, this person works with them all the time; they are always there for them. This is going back to the way business is changing — allowing our convention and catering managers now to stay more at their desk, as opposed to being on the floor, so they can work on a lot more stuff. Years ago, they would go out on the floor to manage things, but now they just don't have the time. So this position is addressing that, and it's a consistent position within our system.
Q: What does Starwood do different and better than the competition?
A: It's innovation. Being at Starwood, I don't believe there ever was a “box” you had to think out of. It's basically whatever innovation works. And it's looking very closely at what the customer needs. Starwood is, relatively, a very young company with tremendous brands, but with very little deep tradition. We don't have the deep tradition of Hilton and Marriott, with years of being in this industry. What we believe in is innovation, and what the customer wants is what you need to start providing. Also, it's focusing on our franchise partners. Because quite honestly, the planner doesn't care if it's an owned, managed or franchised hotel — they just care that it has our brand on it. And so one of our big things is to make sure our franchise teams have all the information and support that we give our owned and managed hotels.
Q: If you could persuade your planner clients to do one thing differently, what would it be?
A: Give us the specifications for the meeting earlier. We can do a lot more with that. What we're trying to do is teach our managers to be consultants to the planners, rather than just order-takers. And the earlier you get the specs, the more you can consult on stuff. If you have an unrealistic budget, it can be addressed further out rather than closer in.
Q: What is the next big trend?
A: I think it's going to be more outsourcing of meetings to more third parties to cut down, obviously, on the high cost of wages and benefits. Then, we will continue to move in the direction of smaller and short-term bookings; it's here to stay. Also, as more companies go into satellite home offices for their teams, you'll see more interaction through that [satellite] technology in our smaller, on-site meetings as well.
The Starwood Web site is www.starwoodhotels.com.