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by Agatha Gilmore | May 01, 2012

When picturing the venue for a typical business meeting, a planner might not immediately think of a historic homestead in Virginia, a cozy lodge in Colorado or a Zen-like sanctuary in New Mexico. But boutique hotels are hoping to change that.

In the face of a tough economy and an increasingly competitive hospitality environment, boutiques, those idiosyncratic bastions of high design and intimate service, are investing in bold marketing efforts as well as offering a variety of new options and incentives to lure meetings and events.

"During a down market, it's tough on everybody. But often it's more difficult on smaller properties because they don't have the critical mass in revenues," says David Gabri, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI). "Consequently, they're using a variety of different means to be aggressive in the marketplace to earn the business."

Getting the word out While group business always has been a cornerstone of hotel success, even for boutiques, today's unpredictable economy and cutthroat market have led independent properties to try to increase, or at the very least maintain, their market share. For many, the first step in this process has meant expanding or reorganizing their sales teams.

At KSL Resorts, a collection of seven boutique golf, spa and ski hotels, one additional small-meetings manager has been has added to nearly every property within the past six months, bringing the count to between two and three meetings professionals per hotel, says Michael Erickson, vice president of sales for KSL. This is partly to pursue new business as well as to handle incoming requests more easily, he says.

"We've found that the booking window has decreased so much that we're getting lots of calls within the same month for those small meetings to come in. So we need to handle those a bit better," Erickson explains.

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, which runs a collection of about 50 boutique hotels nationwide, including the Eventi in New York City and the EPIC in Miami, has added city sales managers in key markets to streamline the sales process and up the level of customer focus and support, says Christine Lawson, vice president of sales for Kimpton.

"When it comes to the group market, we have a multi-pronged approach," Lawson explains. Kimpton now has three channels through which planners can get more information and book: a National Group Desk, which is a general point of contact; a Small Group Desk, staffed with agents specifically trained to help planners with bookings of 25 or fewer rooms that require no meeting space or F&B; and Kimptonhotels.com, which features a "Meetings & Events" page.

Meanwhile, the Kessler Collection, a portfolio of 10 design hotels throughout Colorado, Florida, Georgia and New Mexico, has tweaked its approach by centralizing its sales force and adding virtual sales offices in some key markets.

"For instance, some of our properties, such as Savannah [Ga.] or Taos [N.M.], are way off the beaten path from where our customers actually reside," explains Eric Barnett, corporate director of sales for Kessler. "So we have added a lot of virtual sales offices or regional folks in some of the key markets like Atlanta and up in the Northeast, and we now have someone in the Texas market."

Another avenue many boutique hotels have taken involves aligning themselves with national organizations of independent properties like ALHI. For properties such as the 119-room Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix, such membership "expands their network or their reach into the marketplace to stay focused and keep their identity in front of the customer," says ALHI's Gabri.