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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | October 10, 2017

Cheryl-Anne SturkenIf hotels were thoroughbreds, Hyatt Hotels Corp. just became a Triple Crown winner in the very competitive, high-stakes arena of group business. In the past few weeks the Chicago-based brand has snapped up partner-of-the-year awards from the three largest third-party firms -- HelmsBriscoe, ConferenceDirect and Maritz Global Events.

Grand Hyatt Baja MarExactly how much group business is that, you ask? Consider this: Earlier this year, Scottsdale. Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe announced that in 2016, it broke the $1 billion mark, racking up $1.2 billion in room revenue in booking more than 6 million group room nights. Also posting record numbers last year was Los Angeles-based ConferenceDirect, whose 325 associates together booked nearly 4 million group room nights, or close to $800 million in contracted group revenue. Not to be outdone, St. Louis-based Maritz Global Events, the new parent brand for Maritz Travel and Experient, reported booking 4.3 million group room nights in 2016, which represented $1.3 billion in negotiated group spend.

All three companies combined represent an astounding $3.3 billion in group business booked at hotels. Like American Pharoah, the little colt that ran down larger rivals to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2015, Hyatt managed to outrun, outpace and outmaneuver Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide, its much larger rivals.

"We don't have Marriott or Hilton's distribution share, but what we do have is a niche within the third-party market that we have concentrated on growing in the last few years," said Chris Finelli, Hyatt's regional vice president of sales for the Americas, who estimates that 30 percent of all Hyatt group business comes through third-party firms. "We have grown our model on a very personal level that has created tremendous loyalty with these groups. It's all about collaboration, and honestly we have embraced them completely."

According to Finelli, Hyatt's third-party model includes monthly regional Hyatt Connect gatherings to meet with the brand's top 100 clients, webcasts to share market updates on properties and the brand's global pipeline, as well as a dedicated sales team to handle RFPs exclusively from the big three third-party companies.

One of the sales team's priorities, said Finelli, is driving third-party business that represents multiyear deals for Hyatt: "The multiyear deal right now is the hottest ticket, and it's been a big part of our growth. I am not shy about picking up the phone and talking to any of the third-party senior leadership to ask what is important to them in a contract that will drive market share."

Hyatt is also betting big on international group business. Earlier this year, the long-awaited 1,800-room Grand Hyatt Baja Mar in Nassau, Bahamas, opened with 200,000 square feet of meeting and event space, while next month the ultra-luxurious 126-room Park Hyatt St. Kitts, with 7,000 square feet of event space, debuts in the Caribbean. Next up, is the 1,300-room Hyatt Regency Seattle, which will feature over 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

"We are adding some amazing product in markets that are strong from a group perspective and that will be really strategic to our growth," said Finelli. "We are particularly bullish on Baja Mar, which we think is going to be a real game changer for that market. Atlantis has never had any competition since it opened, and now they do, and we are so excited."

It was a long 37-year wait between Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner, and American Pharoah. I don't think we will be waiting that long for another third-party awards sweep.