The Art of the Small Meeting
It’s not the size of the meeting that counts. It is how much gets accomplished before the laptops are shut down, the coffee cups are cleared and the room is reset for the next group. The truth is that a 12-person board meeting can be just as critical to a company’s future as a 500-person sales conference, if not more so. But there’s a fine art to making sure your small meeting gets the attention it deserves when there are bigger, more lucrative groups in house.
There are probably few things more frustrating to a planner than having a group bumped or “walked” in favor of a larger piece of business. But the economic reality is that larger groups are more profitable to a hotel’s bottom line. Dianne F. Filip, director of meetings/corporate travel for Oakbrook Terrace, IL based DeVry Inc. has discovered that having a small meeting bumped during the negotiation process can actually be a blessing in disguise.
“Fortunately, in my 25 years of experience in meeting planning, I have never had a small meeting get bumped in favor of a larger group after my meeting was contracted,” she explained. “However, I have been bumped during the preliminary stages during negotiations and having space on hold, unfortunately, more than once. The excuses were poor and communications vague, inferring internal errors in the catering books and apologies for the confusion that they never really had the space available. Not being born yesterday, it was clear that larger, more profitable group had come to the plate.
“I was truthfully thankful to have been bumped when I was,” she continued, “because the odds were high that these properties would not have given my smaller groups the onsite service and attention that they need and deserve.”
Jennifer Filipowski, vice president of marketing for InterAct Public Safety Systems in WinstonSalem, NC, has been planning meetings for 20 years. “The most important thing I have learned,” she said, “is the importance of good contract negotiation.
“Once the contract is signed, the hotel only has the obligation to provide what is down on paper,” she explained. “If the room you want for your meeting is the only room you will be happy with, make sure that any clause indicating that they can move you is removed. Also, add clauses that require the hotel to provide specific compensation should they move you. Some ideas include free parking for all attendees or free food and beverage. Make it as painful as possible for them to make that decision.”
“Hey, it happens,” said Phelps Hope, vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen Meetings in Atlanta, on the subject of getting bumped. “First of all, my programs are covered in the contract for this type of situation. I know that it is well worth the hotel’s bottom line to walk my group, so I will take advantage of that (within reason and ethical boundaries) to help gain some extra benefits for my group. Whether it is a hosted cocktail party, a few extra upgrades to suites, gift certificates for future stays, or a discount off the food and beverage, I do my best to make sure the move has a good enough windfall that it protects the reputation of my client contact, as well as ensures a great meetings experience for the attendees.”
Sometimes, the hotel is simply placed between the proverbial rock and a hard place in its efforts to meet both groups’ needs. Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM, chief strategist of Strategic Meetings and Events in Bernardsville, NJ, described a situation where timing was everything.
Scrambling For Space
“I was at a hotel where a larger company was hosting a meeting just prior to our meeting, and they decided they simply weren’t leaving on the day they were scheduled, forcing our meeting to scramble for new space. The hotel was not willing to confront the offending group as they were so large. We had the hotel move us to their restaurant on the top floor which had views of San Francisco, waive the rental fee and have the offending group pay for our beverage bill for the meeting, as it was a beverage company who commandeered the space.”
Lamagna described another situation where she had a hotel cancel her contract in favor of a larger piece of business. The hotel simply decided it would rather pay the damages outlined in the contract for canceling. “It was a real surprise to find out they were willing to damage their relationship with us and pay all this money simply for a ‘better piece of business,’” she explained. “We had the hotel move us to the convention center and pay for all the space, any ‘up charges’ that resulted in the difference in pricing, tickets for a new site visit and a free cocktail reception.”
Lamagna offered this caution. “Any contract can be ignored, it’s just a matter of then being willing to go to court to either enforce it or seek damages from the cancellation. What most folks don’t realize is that if the position of ‘sue me’ is taken, then that is often the only alternative.”
She gave an example. “I had a hotel do this to me with rooms for the Super Bowl, in that they signed an ironclad contract, gave me the space, and then simply resold it and told me to sue them, so that’s what I did. They’ll lose in court, but by the time we settle, the Super Bowl will be over.”
For Filip, communication is the key. “You need to remind the property that they had an obligation to service your business. See that they come through with the concessions you put in place as your insurance. In addition, have a conversation with the general manager and ask that they acknowledge in writing their failure to meet what both parties agreed upon. Request a letter of apology to be sent directly to the main contact for the meeting.”
Even if the meeting doesn’t get bumped, it’s only natural for planners to want to make sure that their 25 or 50 person meeting will get the same level of attention as that 500 person group meeting in the ballroom across the hall.
Filip described how a planner’s own attitude plays an important role in the meeting’s outcome. “Small meetings are not any less important than larger meetings. If you have a respect for their importance, you will communicate that respect naturally and help to ensure the focus on service.” Hope explained his strategy. “I make sure I am assigned the correct person within the hotel who is geared to manage the smaller meetings. This is most probably an executive meetings manager or someone with a similar title. I ‘enroll’ them into helping me make this program a success. Then I make sure I am communicating often and effectively, that I am in tune with what is going on with the hotel at the time, and that my program becomes the ‘squeaky wheel’ that will get the attention. If I have to, I make sure I connect with a senior manager to help with keeping an eye on my program.”
Starting With The Right Choice
While there probably always will be some hotels that give smaller meetings second-class treatment, there are many others that actively court and cater to the small meetings market. Limiting the search to hotels that demonstrate they have the people, programs and services in place to handle small meetings may very well be a planner’s best strategy to ensure small meeting success.
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North has a separate sales manager dedicated to handling meetings needing fewer than 15 rooms per night. Meetings advantage manager Jim Kollenda serves as a one-stop resource for planners. He oversees every step of the process, from the booking and planning stages of small meetings, right through their onsite facilitation. Set in the scenic foothills of Arizona’s Sonoran desert, the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale offers 210 Southwestern-themed casita-style rooms and suites along with 36,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space.
Dave Bonti, general manager for the California division of the screening products company The Western Group booked his small meeting for approximately 20 guests into the Marriott Grand Residence Club in South Lake Tahoe, CA. It was a gathering that included company owners, general managers and their spouses.
“The Marriott Grand Residence Club was the easiest one to work with,” he explained. “The location was fabulous. If you’re there during the winter, you’re right there at Heavenly, which is a major ski resort. If you’re there in the spring and summer, you’re there for water sports. It’s a couple of blocks off the lake, close to the casinos and there are plenty of places to eat close to the Marriott.”
The facility’s 199 residences range from 360 square-foot studios to 2,496 square-foot penthouses and offers Wi-Fi accessibility. For meetings, there is a boardroom that accommodates 14. “Everything was super,” Bonti explained. “I would go back in a second.”
Auberge Resorts will open a new 89-room property this July called Solage Calistoga in California’s Napa Valley. With a style described as “San Francisco loft meets Napa Valley barn,” the contemporary resort will feature studio-style accommodations and 16,200 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor function space. This space includes Solstice, a unique 3,500 square-foot barn-like venue with 25-foot ceilings and polished cement floors. The resort also will feature a casual bistro and Spa Solage will put a creative spin on the area’s mud bath traditions. Complimentary “cruiser” bikes also will be available for guests to borrow when they want to take a tour of the property.
The new Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort offers 272 studio accommodations and one, two and three bedroom suites. It also features 10,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and a 22,700 square-foot sixth-floor poolside terrace overlooking the Atlantic.
Small Meeting Incentives
To cater to small meetings, the resort is offering a Complete Incentive Package throughout 2007 for groups up to 80 guests. The package, which requires a three-night minimum stay, includes an oceanview suite, one spa treatment per person, daily breakfast, welcome and farewell receptions, ocean/beach sports activities and other amenities.
The 637-room Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, also located in Fort Lauderdale, has a management team dedicated to small meetings of 50 or fewer attendees. The team is responsible for every detail, from the contract stage through departure of the last guest, to ensure that small meetings get the attention they deserve. In addition to 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space, the resort features a 20,000 square-foot spa.
In Illinois, The Westin Chicago River North occupies a location that’s convenient to the city’s business, theater, restaurant and shopping districts. It features 424 guest rooms and 28,000 square feet of meeting space along with special services designed to meet the needs of small groups. The hotel has a dedicated catering sales manager who focuses strictly on meetings with 35 or fewer attendees and a convention services manager who handles small group meetings booking up to 100 rooms. The hotel also offers special menus for smaller events.
The 224-room Ocean Edge Resort & Club, Cape Cod, MA, has a dedicated executive meeting manager (EMM) who only handles meetings of 10 to 15 people. The EMM takes care of every detail from arranging meeting rooms, ground transportation and group activities to audiovisual equipment and business services.
Small meetings of 10 to 40 attendees can also be held in the historic Nickerson Mansion at the Ocean Edge. The mansion’s former bedrooms have been converted into meeting rooms and some offer terraces overlooking Cape Cod Bay.
Small Fish, Big Pond
Cindy Tanley, special projects and marketing manager for Lithographics Inc. in Nashville, TN, has found that it’s not the size of the hotel that matters — it’s the hotel’s commitment to serving the needs of small groups that really counts.
Tanley serves as the chair of a software user group. For the second time, her CRC User Group chose the 2,881 room Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville as the site of a meeting for 56 attendees from across the U.S.. Given the fact that this massive hotel is spread across a nine acre climate-controlled atrium and features a whopping 600,000 square feet of meeting space and 85 breakout rooms, you’d think a small meeting group might get lost, but that wasn’t the case.
Hotel Within A Hotel
To accommodate small meeting(s), the Gaylord Opryland offers a “hotel within a hotel” concept whereby the group’s guest rooms and meeting rooms are all kept in close proximity. “It was absolutely wonderful,” Tanley explained. “They had the meeting rooms absolutely perfect and they’re there 24/7 if you need anything. They have it down to a science.”
Tanley explained that prior to her meeting, a large, well-known corporation held a meeting in the same location. “I felt we were just as important. They paid special attention to us just like they would the larger company. I didn’t feel like we got lost at all.”
She took advantage of the hotel’s communications capabilities to keep her group informed of the meeting details. “I just called the desk and asked them to give the same message to everyone in the CRC User Group,” she explained. The hotel made sure her guests all received the same message when they checked in and she was able to send blanket voice mail messages to their guest rooms to keep them updated.
Starwood makes it easy to book small meetings online through its “Starwood Meetings in a Moment” feature on its Web site. This online tool allows planners to search for available meeting space for up to 50 participants and order food, beverage and audio-visual needs at the same time. A contact from the chosen hotel will then follow up to finalize any remaining details.
Planners booking small meetings may also want to consider the conference center route. Aramark Harrison Lodging offers a choice of more than 50 conference centers, corporate training centers and specialty hotels throughout North America. Aramark simplifies the process of planning small meetings by offering Complete Meeting Package (CMP) pricing that includes a single, per-day rate for accommodations, meals, breaks and audio-visual equipment.
Two other notable conference center companies, Benchmark Hospitality International, which manages 31 resorts, hotels and conference centers in locations throughout the United States and Asia, and Dolce International, with a collection of 23 properties in the United States, Canada and Europe, both accommodate small meeting(s) and offer Complete Meeting Packages.
“Do not let the size of the meeting make you complacent about its importance,” Hope summed up. “Some small meeting(s) carry a much bigger impact in the future revenues for the hotel, future revenues for my company, or individual career benefits for the planner. Small meetings give you the opportunity to be a little more creative with the program if it helps to achieve the goals and objectives of the meeting. Remember, size does matter when it comes to meetings, in that any size small meeting or not is important.”
Tags: The Art of the Small Meeting, Small Meeting, Event Planning, Strategic Events, Strategic Planners, Event Planners, Corporate Meetings, Corporate Events, Corporate & Incentive Travel