April 2016

Upscale hotel groups take distinctive approaches

by Fred Gebhart

  • Fairmont Pacific Rim


    Fairmont Pacific Rim

    Fairmont Pacific Rim
  • Manchester Grand Hyatt


    Manchester Grand Hyatt

    Manchester Grand Hyatt
  • Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas


    Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

    Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

Luxury is where every event planner and attendee wants to be. But what version of luxury is right for your meeting? Planners and event sponsors who are most concerned about price usually gravitate toward mid- and upper-end properties or brands. Planning a price-based event tends to focus on the transaction: How many sleeping rooms, how many meeting rooms, which standard setups for which rooms, which banquet menus match the budget, cutting every corner possible.

Luxury is a different animal. All the transactional elements are still there, but the focus shifts to the overall meeting experience. The nuts and bolts of room block and seating setup and meal menus are simply supporting player in the larger picture.

“We do not allow our events to become transactional,” says John Harper, vice president of sales for Ritz-Carlton, one of the first hotel brands to create and define itself as a luxury-only product. “A hotel must have the fundamentals, meeting rooms, lunches, breaks. Luxury goes beyond the fundamentals to create an experience that attendees remember long after the event is over. We’re not in the business of creating transactions, we’re in the business of creating memories for planners and their attendees.”

Every luxury brand has its own version of “luxury is the experience of a meeting, not the mechanics.” And each has its own take on how they envision luxury and how they deliver against the expectations their visions create.

Each of the top hotel brands brings its own spin to luxury and each offers a different set of advantages to planners. Grand Hyatt, for example, tends to have larger properties and meeting spaces, Ritz-Carlton has a wider global reach, Fairmont has more iconic properties, JW Marriott focuses on local flavors, Mandarin Oriental plays on its Asian aesthetic and service heritage. But there is one feature they all agree on: Luxury is an attitude, not a price point.

“Luxury” is highly overused. Planners and attendees want luxury, but too few brands can actually provide it.

“We are very conscientious in trying to understand what the planner and event sponsor are trying to achieve, then delivering against that expectation,” says Jeff Doane, vice president of sales and marketing-Americas, for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. “Delivering a meeting room with classroom seating for 300 and lunch is a mechanical detail that anybody can do. We focus on the ‘why’ behind your meeting and do our best to help you get there.” Consumer research tells Fairmont that “luxury” is the memory the customer takes home. Every consumer wants to be the hero in their own memory. Fairmont’s role is to create the platform and set the stage for customers to create those memories.

“The burden is on you, the hotel, to figure out what is meaningful to the customer and deliver against it,” he explains. “Our job is to sit down with the planner, and maybe the sponsor, to understand what they want to accomplish. If it’s a sales meeting, your basic goal may be a 10 percent boost in sales. But when we probe, maybe you are depending on a specific sales team to reach the goal. That’s the level of engagement that helps us meet your stated goals and the real goals that might not be obvious the first time around.”

Doane says the Fairmont Pacific Rim, on the waterfront in Vancouver, B.C., best epitomizes Fairmont’s vision of luxury.

Grand Hyatt
“The luxury meeting attendee, like the luxury traveler, is expecting more than the norm, something special and out of the ordinary that they can remember, talk about, maybe brag about,” says Gus Vonderheide, vice president global sales–Americas, for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. “Other brands that try to do this are typically in the 300- to 400-room range. We have Grand Hyatts [that are] 1,000 rooms and bigger with all the flexibility of boutique luxury properties.”

Being the largest meeting property in most locales gives Grand Hyatt meeting concierges (the brand's dedicated meetings assistants) more clout than the typical convention sales rep, Vonderheide says. Back of the house tours, local landmarks, historic government buildings—very little is off-limits when it comes to tailoring group experiences. DMCs and local CVBs tend to be more responsive when one of their biggest supporters comes calling with a special request for a specific group.

Size also carries advantages on the F&B side of the event. Executive chefs at luxury properties routinely tweak and tailor group menus. Grand Hyatt offers a Personal Preference option that lets diners give personal dinner orders in groups of 500 and larger.

“Our brick and mortar lend themselves to tremendous productions,” Vonderheide says. “We have the facilities and staff to put on major productions, something a competitor’s smaller luxury offering could probably not offer. Size and capabilities give us a strong competitive advantage.”

Vonderheide named the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego as a prime example of what Grand Hyatt does best in the luxury MICE market.

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