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Mr. Lowenstein

Group Meetings

Unique, Boutique and Independent Hotels Can Gain More Group Meeting Business

By Diego Lowenstein, Chief Executive Officer, Lionstone Development

More and more, smaller independent hotels striving for success in the group meeting business find out they're not truly on their own. Vying for this business remains highly competitive. Some strategies, however, can increase their chances to attract, impress and retain a significant amount of group meeting business.

When you're responsible for a lifestyle or boutique hotel's success, go with your strengths. Be unique and distinctive, target a niche in your community, and emphasize how you offer guests a truly different and memorable experience.

That's not to say it's easy. Successfully booking group sales at an independent hotel relies less on sheer volume and more on savviness. Importantly, avoid trying to compete directly against the large-group reliant and convention hotels for the same business in your city or town. You're less likely to succeed.

As CEO of Lionstone Development, I oversee a range of hotel properties that include both large and smaller unique hotels. In boutique hotels, we like focused group business, even if we are not able to target convention goers directly, as these larger city-wide events generally boost all hotel occupancies in the area and might allow to compete for smaller group business present at the same time. But success goes way beyond any indirect gain from proximity to a convention center.

Know Your Place and Fill Your Space

Independent properties can take some business from a prototypical group hotel like Marriott, Hilton or a Sheratons, but only if they adopt some effective strategies to remain distinctive and competitive.

The reality is any hotel with a significant amount of meeting space can generate their own proprietary group business. At our luxury properties like the Ritz Carlton South Beach, we attract and maintain key group accounts that make us thrive independently of the convention hotels in the same market.

Boutique or lifestyle hotels typically enjoy more freedom in design and promotion, factors they can use to overcome competitive disadvantages like smaller physical space or a lack of access to large key counts. Some become more of a hybrid hotel in group and transient positioning, like we did with the Virgin Hotel in Chicago. These properties target both segments of business, but also feature enough creative meeting space to take an independent approach to managing small group business.

Another successful tactic is to target groups more likely to want an imaginative, independent hotel experience in the first place. It's about going after niche businesses in more innovative industries, such as the entertainment sector or technology start-ups. These creative businesses often seek venues that encourage collaboration and idea sharing among 25 to 75 employees at a time. Many independent hotels are perfect for meeting their needs.

LEEDing the Way

No matter what the industry, meeting or exceeding each group's expectations remains essential. Getting LEED Certification is a great way to do just that. This environmentally-friendly designation can cost more up front when designing a new hotel or renovating an existing property, but it also can protect an independent hotel's investment over the long-term.

An increasing number of business groups seek out environmentally-conscious hotels. Our LEED Certification for the Virgin Hotel, for example, is a godsend. It allow us to better compete with other hotels in downtown Chicago that do not follow the same environmental practices. Our certification does not just drive more group business, we gain in other segments too. For example, it also boosts our transient traveler business. Many vacation goers tell us they feel better about staying in a hotel that takes care of the environment. This is especially true within millennial demographic.

Smart Aesthetics

It's no surprise that aesthetics play a role in the success of a boutique hotel, but I underestimated just how big a role they would play. I quickly became a believer.

Aesthetics can be tricky, however, and easily overdone. It's better to employ what I call "smart aesthetics." The reality is a meeting venue needs enough aesthetics to attract business - four white walls will not inspire or excite anyone about your space. At the same time, most groups want to take a space and make it their own. This means hotels need to design group meeting spaces to easily transform from a "sexy evening look" to an appropriate space for a wedding or business event the next morning. The more flexibility you can build into the space, the better.

It's safe to say that the whole industry is taking note. Traditional hotels are redesigning their spaces to make them more accommodating.

Many people choose a lifestyle hotel because the space more closely resembles their creative office layout. Although many millennials and startup employees work in open, collaborative workspaces, they're not the only ones who want to meet in a pleasurable environment.

Booking a group at an independent hotel is more about attitude and less about generational preferences. Even many established companies re-invent themselves by changing the aesthetics of their offices. So many group meeting planners, whether they're independent consultants or internal employees, are embracing more modern spaces.

Meeting the Meeting Planner's Expectations

Speaking of meeting planners, unlike the transient or corporate hotel guest segments, with group sales you're most likely appealing to the needs and preferences of an individual planner. Consider marketing your hotel to planners looking for a change or a unique experience. Independent hotels generally need to find the planners tired of "cookie cutter" experiences and explain why they can do something different.

First ensure your technology is up to snuff. If you don't offer great bandwidth, Wi-Fi and presentation capabilities, you're not going to get the business. Once you meet all the physical and technology conditions, securing group business becomes more of a dedicated sales effort; establishing and more importantly keeping relationships is key.

How can a smaller hotel protect rate integrity and remain competitive? Often it comes down to offering perks, like upgrade in rooms, offering food & beverage incentives or a special related to a particular amenity, like an on-site spa.

Creating a Unique Guest Experience

Creating a higher level of personalization is another strength of smaller hotels. More successful boutique hotels I've visited "surprise and delight" with small efforts that can make a big difference. For example, placing signature products from a local shop on the meeting tables can contribute to the overall experience and 'wow' the customer even in the smallest of details. It's also a potential win-win for a local vendor looking to promote their own business. An authentic experience will go a long way.

There is a take-home value above and beyond the meeting itself. It's not only about collaborating for six hours a day - it's the intangibles of people meeting and interacting outside their offices. Some smaller hotels excel at creating a unique bonding experience for group clients.

Find Your Niche and Fight Hard

If you want to be in the group space, you need a sales executive team that knows how to work the advantages of a unique, independent lifestyle hotel. It's a different proficiency than selling other hotel industry segmentations. Even if you're a smaller, boutique-type hotel, you have to be willing to invest in your team and bring those kinds of capabilities in-house. It's very difficult to outsource that and see the same results. That's priority number one.

Offer a property and experience that is differentiated from the rest, and go after like-minded clientele that will embrace the uniqueness of your meeting venue. Remember your property will not likely appeal to every company or meeting planner looking for group event space.

It's finding that niche, and fighting hard to do business within that niche.

There is a lot of competition in this space, just as there is in every segment, and in the end your hotel has to mean something. Remember that any time a group, big or small, announces plans to come to a particular town or city, they are already bidding with multiple properties. So you're competing with three or four bidders at any given point to secure that opportunity.

A major advantage of targeting group business is an ability to book rooms and meeting spaces farther ahead than possible for most transient or corporate business. It's a great way for any hotel, independents included, to generate certainty of occupancy as you budget one year to the next. Group business meeting planners typically search for the ideal hotel one and sometimes two years in advance. In contrast, the transient business, the vacation travelers, typically book 30 days out and that is even becoming less of the norm with the advent of on-line site that offer short term deals. It can be difficult to forecast month-to-month occupancies and revenue based solely on transient business. Instead, build your base group business, focusing especially on your shoulder or weaker months, to ensure greater occupancy year round.

Encourage Exploration

Another reality is hotels will always experience some "breakage," what we call it when guests leave a hotel property to explore dining, shopping and other nearby attractions. This can be especially true for a smaller lifestyle and boutique hotels in an urban setting. In general, the more active the city and the further guests are from their hometown environment, the more they're going to want to explore.

Take, for example, a market like Miami. People who visit South Florida for business typically want to go to South Beach. They might come for work but they also want to have fun, explore and go out.

You can embrace and facilitate this experience for guests. A hotel with professional employees driving group sales can help meeting planners and later, guests, appreciate the overall city experience. Your front desk staff and concierge can seamlessly steer business clients to other great restaurants or popular attractions in your city, thereby elevating the overall experience for your guests, making them more likely to recommend or return for a great independent hotel experience at your property again in the future.

Diego Lowenstein has been part of the family’s varied business interests for over 25 years. Since 1999, Mr. Lowenstein has served as the Chief Operating Officer of Lionstone and assumed the position of Chief Executive Officer in 2003. Mr. Lowenstein’s active involvement and know-how in acquiring, developing, revitalizing and repositioning hotels and casinos throughout Florida and the Caribbean has helped lead the firm to new heights. In partnership with service industry leaders Mr. Lowenstein has fulfilled developments in markets that include Miami Beach, Downtown Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Chicago. His knowledge in multinational operations and marketing has supported Lionstone Development’s further expansion into luxury residential real estate and mixed-use hotel developments. Mr. Lowenstein can be contacted at 305-672-5466 or info@lionstone.net Please visit http://www.lionstone.net for more information. Extended Bio...

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