Hoteliers at properties that accommodate large groups for conventions or meetings say they will do just about anything to make them happy, provided it’s safe and legal.
GLOBAL REPORT—Managers of large convention hotels are upping the stakes in the group meetings game, accommodating a range of custom and personalized requests for sizeable clients. In many cases, hotel management and staff are willing to do whatever it takes (within reason) to make lucrative convention groups happy, even if it means breaking from brand-mandated procedure, sources said.
Convention attendees commonly return to their guestrooms after a long day of meetings to find personalized touches like swag bags, local souvenirs and specialized gourmet treats awaiting them. But many meeting planners—and the hotels they partner with—are pushing for more.
Some hotels temporarily set aside the brand book to undergo property-wide overhauls to adopt the feel and visual aesthetics of specific events they are hosting.
“What do we do whenever we have a group coming into the building? The answer is, whatever they want us to do,” said Skip Adams, GM of the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg Chicago. “I don’t think there’s a brand out there that would disagree with us changing a normal brand standard to make sure we maximize the experience of an incoming group, because the fact is that the brand wants us to take care of that client. I have rarely been given requests from a group that I’ve denied.”
The hotel hosted a four-day Starrcast wrestling podcast convention in late August and early September, drawing more than 5,000 attendees. Among a host of personalized touches, the hotel’s staff abandoned their usual uniforms to wear Starrcast T-shirts throughout the event. Adams even got in the spirit, wearing a different wrestling T-shirt each day under his blazer, he said.
“Starrcast asked if we would be willing to wear T-shirts, and I swiftly approved,” Adams said. “You want to make sure that over a four- or five-day event you have enough T-shirts, so that the staff are not just washing one every day. You just get a bunch of shirts in, you hand them out—two or three each, or whatever everybody needs—and then you just go to battle.”
Another recent example comes from the Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower, which hosted the Content Marketing World 2018 Conference & Expo in September. For the four-day event, the hotel and its staff embraced the conference’s orange color scheme, finding multiple ways to work orange hues into the hotel’s décor, lighting and staff uniforms, GM Hartmut Ott said.
“We asked every host in the hotel—at Marriott, we call our employees ‘hosts’—to wear an orange accent, whether it was a scarf, tie, or headband. We didn’t really prescribe it,” Ott said. “We had a light in the lobby with the Content Marketing logo, which was unique to Content Marketing in the sense that it clearly displayed their color. When you came in, we had orange up-lighting behind the desk, so you could clearly identify that there was a focus on orange.”
The JW Marriott Santo Domingo, Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel & Casino and Courtyard Marriott Santo Domingo, all in the Dominican Republic, take a different approach to making groups happy, said Royer Segura, cluster director of group sales for the hotels.
At the hotels under Segura’s watch, convention attendees are treated to inspired local cultural offerings, such as custom coconut carving exhibits, roaming onsite professional dancers and artisans, and excursions to offsite historical settings for special events.
“Many clients are looking for the ‘wow factor,’ and our hotels are trying to go beyond expectations,” he said. “We are more focused on giving an experience to the client, instead of changing the color of the towels and things like that. That way, the client can bring back an experience and tell others. We want people to get involved in our culture here, by seeing these types of things. We want to avoid doing the same things many hotels do; we try to do something very unique and different.”
Whatever it takes, within reason
The hoteliers said they have a fair amount of leeway and creative license, as far as straying from brand standards to accommodate groups. Any personalized touches can’t compromise building and personal safety, damage the property, break any applicable laws, or be offensive in a social, racial, political or similar sense.
“When we receive requests related to political stuff, or religious stuff, we avoid that,” Segura said. “That’s very controversial, and that’s Marriott’s position, too. When something like that comes up, we figure we’d better say no, and give them an alternative.”
The size of the group booking must also justify the extra efforts. If the majority of the hotel’s guests are there for the event, disruption to non-convention guests is minimized, sources said.
“The more business the group brings to the hotel, the more we can do. It’s as simple as that,” Ott said. “We’re not going to put clings in the elevator or on our pillars in the lobby for a group that brings us 30 rooms. While we value that, and that’s very much appreciated and I don’t want to minimize it at all, it’s just not large enough to justify that type of thing.”
Rallying the team
Of course, the hotel staff must be on board, whether that means working overtime or taking on additional duties. The key is to build a service culture, frequently communicate and pay fairly, sources said.
“At the end of the day, the employees look to us for learning opportunity, for growth, and most importantly hours,” Ott said. “When we show them that we’re creative and active in growing this business so they all can have hours, then they will support those efforts. We don’t just say, ‘Here, wear this shirt.’ We explain it to people and reason with them. Do we have folks who sometimes complain? Absolutely. But for the most part, our associate engagement is very, very high.”
Sometimes, that also means managers must step up to help get things done, even if it’s below their paygrade.
Adams said everyone at the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg—from hourly staff to management—periodically rolls up their sleeves and puts in the extra effort that some large group events demand.
“We had our full sales and management team working in the operations departments over Starrcast weekend, doing manual labor jobs,” he said. “We had two members of the sales team doing the coffee bar, along with the coffee bar staff. Whatever it takes to make sure the event is flawless is what we’re aiming to do.”