SPRAWLING ballrooms? Not likely. Airplane-hangar lobbies? Forget it. One-size-fits-all event and meetings packages? Not even close. With their style-over-size aesthetic and highly customized event production approach, boutique hotels are winning event clients looking for cozier quarters and cutting-edge design options. Think that opting for boutique chic means opting out of big-chain production capabilities? Think again.
At Santa Monica, Calif.'s super-sleek Viceroy — part of the Los Angeles-based boutique Kor Hotels group — you may hear celebrities chatting over mojitos in the pool-side cabanas and pretty young things weighing pickup lines in the Cameo Bar. One thing you won't hear: the word “no” coming from the lips of on-site event producer Fawn Weaver.
The veteran event design expert says it's her flexibility and openness to unique ideas that draw clients to a hotel deemed one of the world's 50 hottest by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. “Hotel staff in general are trained as sales managers,” she notes. “But here, it's me who oversees events, and I am by nature an event producer. I know how simple it is to get things done.”
Take unusual menu requests, for instance. “You can go to another hotel and say, ‘I want to have something outrageous,’ like [Midwest fast food icon] White Castle burgers, and it's an automatic no.” At Viceroy, however, because of Weaver's understanding that food can make or break a thematic vibe, “I can go to my executive chef and say, ‘I know we make Kobe [beef] burgers, but they really want this.’ And we can get it done.”
Not only can Weaver promise clients a completely customized experience, but she can also assure them that they will have one point of contact throughout the often-complex design and production process. “Even if Marriott, Westin or Hilton decides to put out boutique properties, that doesn't change the client-to-salesperson relationship. You're sold by sales, then turned over to convention services, then turned over to banquet management,” she says. “Here the person you begin with is the person you end with, so you don't have details get lost in the shuffle.”
That personalized approach, plus flexible event space that includes two snug 420-square-foot meeting rooms and a first-floor area that can accommodate 1,000 reception-style, is drawing clients that run the gamut from L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai medical center's “Pamper Me Pink” benefit to Playboy magazine's “Playmate of the Year” bash. And there's much more in store, Weaver says: “I see growth happening. L.A. has pretty much frequented the same locations for a long time, and those locations have been able to relax. Here, my team makes sure we're set up in such a way that once we are able to speak into the client's ear, we can get them. And we work for it.”
While Viceroy prides itself on flexibility, Boston's Fifteen Beacon attracts clients with the inherent aesthetics of its sole event space: the 760-square-foot Wine Cellar.
“Clients usually take advantage of the space as it is, and it is beautiful,” says the hotel's private dining coordinator Sandy Glynn. Among features she touts as highlights are the cellar's Roman mosaic — “a spectacular piece of artwork” — and the expansive glass window that looks into the space's reserve room. And while complete pipe-and-drape jobs are a no-go in the working cellar, Glynn can accommodate the rare event client who wants to change things up a bit, as she did for a WWII-themed birthday party that brought in Oriental rugs, hurricane lamps and a cabaret singer in period costume.
Yet, for all its visual splendor, the cellar's 75-person maximum capacity might seem a limiting factor when it comes to luring events. Not so, insists director of sales Kathleen Robb. “When you're dealing with a smaller group, it's not as expensive to do elaborate centerpieces. Same with food — you're able to pick better product for your group.” The proof is in event numbers and quality of clientele, she says, noting that Fifteen Beacon books close to 300 events annually, and names GQ magazine and Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Club among recent high-profile clients.
Glynn maintains that the boutique property's exclusive space fits the needs of the current event environment. “The trend in the last year is a return to better events. Clients are thinking things through, they're ordering upscale wine, especially for client-driven events” — a demand Fifteen Beacon meets easily with its pedigreed on-site sommelier and a collection of 9,000 bottles that includes rare, auction-bought vintages. Not only that, the coordinator adds, but the fact that she's working on an intimate scale means “I can plan an event with a client in 30 minutes, and it's beautiful, but not over the top.”
A jewel in the crown of boutique bastion Kimpton Group, based in San Francisco, is the Hotel Monaco, also in the city. The Monaco is a virtual event megalith, counting between 2,500 and 3,000 on-site events annually in a mere 8,000 square feet of meeting and event space divided into nine rooms.
The key to courting event clients, says director of catering Laura McIver, is playing up not just the property's event and meetings capabilities — design, production, WiFi access, on-site AV and business center among them — but also the unique boutique amenities that define the Kimpton brand across the board. These include a stand-alone chef-driven restaurant, a cozy and stylish library-like lobby, and special touches such as nightly wine-and-cheese hours with tarot readers and massage therapists, and a “Forgot It? You Got It” kit with nylons, nail polish and other essentials for female business travelers.
And while an event management approach that mimics that of typical big-box hotels might seem a drawback to some, her property sees it as a boon, McIver says. “We run banquet operations just like a large hotel, and most of us come from big-hotel backgrounds. We have event order meetings every week, and the chef and banquet manager meet every day to discuss changes.” The hotel group also has recently completed a one-and-a-half-year project writing a standards manual for its catering and conference services operations, and developing a series of four branded meetings packages.
Such consistency, as well as Kimpton's recently renewed focus on the group brand rather than on the brands of individual hotels, means that corporate clients especially are becoming event and meetings regulars. “With event clients, we have a lot of boutique-hotel converts,” McIver says. “There are a lot of people that will seek out Kimpton, that will say ‘I love Kimpton.’” That's especially good news for the Monaco, as San Francisco finally seems to be rebounding from a long and painful post-9/11 slide: “We are starting to feel the economy come back,” McIver says. “Things are booking out longer term, and local businesses are starting to spend money again. It's great.”
LANDMARK'S THE SPOT
At Aspen, Colo.'s picturesque Hotel Jerome, it's the heft of history that seduces event clients — more than 600 of which seek out the boutique property's space annually. Director of catering and conference services Fritz Mercer stresses in particular that the 1889 vintage venue was originally intended to be “one of the world's most elegant hotels — it rivaled London's fabled Savoy in reputation for its modern appointments and stylish service.”
While the hotel has undergone many renovations and changes of hands since its 19th century beginnings, Mercer says it still strives to live up to the tradition in which it was founded, noting the hotel's membership in The Leading Small Hotels of the World, the Virtuoso Collection and Historic Hotels of America.
But in today's highly competitive hotel environment, a property can't stake its success in the event market on historical significance alone, Mercer acknowledges. That's why the Jerome offers five areas — the comfy Library and charming Garden Terrace among them — totaling 7,500 square feet of flexible private event space. Then there are the on-site event planners, high-speed Internet access and chauffeur-driven SUV transportation to famed local ski runs.
A new draw for prospective event clients is the Jerome's recent purchase by the Oklahoma Publishing Co. — owner of Colorado Springs, Colo.'s Broadmoor Hotel, an event and meetings powerhouse. As a result, “We anticipate many upgrades to the facility,” Mercer says, adding that “the current pace [of event bookings] is well above last year's.”
Fifteen Beacon, 617/670-1500; Hotel Jerome, 970/920-1000; Hotel Monaco, 866/622-5284; Viceroy, 310/260-7500