AS THE EVENT and meetings industry continues to hone its professional prowess, so too do the hotel and resort properties that cater to group business. In recent years, it has become standard practice for big chains and small boutique properties alike to offer on-site design services, flexible event spaces, even high-tech audiovisual equipment. So how does an event and meetings hotel gain an edge in today's full-service market? In this month's cover story, in-house event experts talk about newly introduced special services, and offer their take on making nice to the niches.
LONE STAR SIZE
There are plenty of hotels that court convention-attendee business with their abundant guest rooms, spacious ballrooms and proximity to major convention centers. Then there are those forward-thinking properties that have taken things one step further, adding event space vast enough to rival the convention centers themselves.
With its recently completed $28 million renovation, Houston's Westin Galleria & Westin Oaks — the two towers flanking the city's Galleria shopping center make up a single property — now features more than 93,000 square feet of meeting and event space, including a 27,000-square-foot exhibit hall. For director of catering and convention services Vinodh Loganadhan, the expansion means the ability to host not only corporate events, but actual trade shows complete with up-to-date exhibit booths. In recent months, trade show and convention clients have included the National Association of Black Journalists, GE Power Systems and the Greater Houston Dental Association.
What's more, the Westin's renovation — which brought in more than a million rolls of new wall-coverings and added Wi-Fi service in both tower lobbies — also turned out an exhibit hall that could flex to group needs. “The space is fully carpeted, unlike some exhibit venues, so it can be used for additional meeting space or as a venue for receptions, luncheons or dinners,” Loganadhan explains. With room to seat 2,000 comfortably, the hall has accommodated large dinners for clients including BMC Software and Park Plaza Hospital.
BIG AT THE BEACH
Also turning its attention to the potential of conventions, San Diego's Manchester Grand Hyatt recently unveiled an additional 80,000 square feet of meeting space, bringing its total to 125,000. The expansion includes the addition of the Douglas Pavilion — a 34,000-square-foot multipurpose exhibit hall. Like the Westin, the Hyatt focused not just on sheer size when it added the space, but also on style. “It is surprisingly elegant for a multipurpose hall,” says director of catering and convention services Brian Comes, noting such plush touches as woodwork accents, removable carpet and upscale vinyl wall-covering throughout the room.
To accommodate super-size special events along with trade shows, the Hyatt also added the 30,000-square-foot Elizabeth Ballroom — the largest hotel ballroom in southern California, according to Comes. The ballroom's elevated balconies, designed to position sound and lighting equipment out of guest view while freeing up floor space, “will be a trendsetter,” he says. And if San Diego-bound groups are set on taking their festivities al fresco, they can always take advantage of the property's 25,000-square-foot pool deck, with a built-in stage, room for 1,500 reception guests and “a perfect view to the west for enjoying scenic sunsets,” he adds.
Comes says the hotel's expansion has been timed to meet the needs of a “rebounding” market. For the Hyatt, that market includes recent clients such as LPL Financial Services, with 3,000 event attendees, and AFLAC, with 2,000 — groups that could not have been accommodated by the pre-expansion property, he notes.
While some hotels are growing in size to get new groups on property, others are expanding their meeting-break repertoire to keep current clients coming back for more.
The Fairmont Washington's Suzie Murley says its theme breaks came into being about a year ago, when clients started asking for something new to break up the routine of multi-day meetings. “We all sat down to brainstorm,” the director of conference services recounts. Out of those staff meetings came a host of break options, including “Hooray for Hollywood,” which features such snack items as Milk Duds and freshly popped popcorn, served while an 8-mm movie projector runs black-and-white film footage.
Health-conscious clients often opt for the hotel's “Butterfly Lite” break. Depending on what the client wants to spend, the break may include fresh fruit smoothies, protein bars and energy drinks displayed among exercise weights and on-screen workout videos. Or it may include seated massage stations and a “refresh session” given by a fitness trainer before the meeting convenes. Whatever features clients choose, the important thing is that the break “invigorates attendees — it gets them talking,” Murley explains.
Meanwhile, at Canada's Fairmont Palliser in Calgary, Alberta, the concept behind the decadent “Death by Chocolate” theme break is simple: “Everyone loves chocolate, and coffee mates well with chocolate,” says director of catering and conference services Michele Tyrrell.
Conversation-starting visual appeal is evident, with items including “tuxedo-dipped” strawberries, hand-rolled truffles, chocolate “pizza” and a cascading dark-chocolate fountain. But, Tyrrell says, it's really all about the eating. “Chocolate is known to activate the pleasure centers of the brain, thus improving the spirits,” she notes. “The end result is a more productive meeting and high return on investment.”
WINE AND DINE
Recognizing the trend toward restaurant-quality banquet fare at today's meetings and events, some properties have turned the culinary experience into a focal point of the event experience.
Referrals from sated and otherwise satisfied corporate clients have increasingly led to “accounts who actually use the food as a deciding factor for hosting [their] programs at the lodge,” says Michael J. Murphy, director of event management for The Lodge at Sonoma in Sonoma, Calif. Recent clients have included Bank of America, Sony and Pfizer. Meanwhile, the food to which he refers — banquet menu items include prosciutto-wrapped veal loin and wood-fired boneless quail — is the handiwork of award-winning chef Michael Bilger, who heads up Carneros, the lodge's signature restaurant.
At a property where 80 percent of meeting space connects directly to outdoor event and dining space and corporate-courting features include high-speed Internet access, Murphy contends that it is Bilger's services that make the property a standout for events. “The main contributing factor to our success is that we prepare restaurant food in banquets,” he says. “We do not use hot boxes to hold the food. All our plates are done à la minute to ensure that our clients receive the freshest cuisine possible.”
Transforming its 10,000-bottle wine selection into a selling point for event clients, Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, Calif., has created an entirely new position focused exclusively on events.
“I think the addition of a special events sommelier helps demonstrate the resort's commitment to an innovative wine program,” says the woman who has assumed the new job, April Bloom. Certified by the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Bloom explains that “a fun and educational wine program can help serve as an ice-breaking prelude to dinners and other special events.” She adds that wine tastings have been gaining popularity as part of corporate event spouse programs at the beachfront property, which features more than 20,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
Bloom says her main job is to work closely with clients, as well as her own culinary team — a “cheese sommelier” is also on staff — to pair wines with banquet menus. Not only does the planning lead to a better hotel dining experience for guests, but, she adds, the partnering aspect “immediately improves the quality of the relationship between the resort and client.”
Fairmont Palliser, 403/509-5430; Fairmont Washington, 202/457-5028; The Lodge at Sonoma, 707/935-6600; Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, 619/232-1234; Montage Resort & Spa, 949/715-6000; Westin Galleria & Westin Oaks, 713/960-8100