January 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions Getting Personal - January 2000

Current Issue
January 2000

Getting Personal

How to create an intimate atmosphere in a sprawling metropolis

By Amy Drew Teitler

Although the anonymity afforded by a big city might appeal to honeymooners and fugitives from justice, it can be a challenge for planners of small meetings. To out-of-towners, cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles might seem like the fictional Gotham: towering, mysterious, rife with history, iconic landmarks, art, fashion and fine cuisine. But can planners give small groups a big-city experience without sacrificing the intimacy that makes a small meeting special?

M&C enlisted some urban destination management and meetings professionals to come up with some ideas on how to showcase the individual brilliance of a thriving metropolis and still leave attendees feeling as though everybody knows their names.

Traveling in style
“Only a seasoned professional can navigate the streets and avoid the freeways in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t wish that task on anyone,” says Matt Robbins, co-owner and vice president of marketing for The Event Team, a San Diego-based destination management company.

Get limos. Regardless of destination, limos are Robbins’ preferred method of welcoming clients and making them feel special from the outset. “With certain exceptions, chauffeured limousines are the way to get smaller, upscale groups from place to place,” he says.

On the hunt. Robbins also has used limos as a vehicle for team building. He staged a “limo rally,” sending four participants per car on a Los Angeles scavenger hunt of sorts. “The drivers knew where they were going, but the attendees didn’t,” Robbins says. They stopped at designated landmarks to get information and answer a questionnaire, to be graded later. “These activities work great for sales groups because they’re so competitive,” says Robbins. “And it was a lot of fun because the limos were fully stocked.”

Coach classics. Diane DeCorte, senior sales manager for the New Orleans office of USA Hosts, a Las Vegas-based destination management company, prefers to use time-tested methods of transport. “The French Quarter doesn’t permit big motorcoaches,” she says. “So we’ll do horse-and-carriage transfers to meeting venues, dinners or parties. We can’t do something this special for bigger meetings. It’s a nice touch.”

Above the crowds. In traffic-jammed places such as Los Angeles, consider aerial transport, if the budget allows. “We did a city tour via helicopter for a group of 18,” with six passengers per chopper, Robbins recalls. “They saw the coastal homes, the Hills, the downtown area.” In the true style of a Hollywood action flick, each helicopter landed on the roof of TransAmerica Center, where attendees had dinner in the restaurant on the 70th floor. They then were shuttled by limo back to their hotel.

Unique boutiques
Although convention hotels are perfect for large meetings, small groups can easily be swallowed up like a handful of wayward Jonahs in the whale’s belly. “Odds are good that your group will be the little fish in the big pond,” says Bryan Lewis, president of Chicago-based PRA Destination Management. “You’re generally in better shape at a boutique hotel.”

Close to the action. Chicago often is thought of as a convention destination, but the city has smaller properties where groups can have a more intimate, personalized experience. “Perhaps they’re not on Michigan Avenue or in the Loop,” Lewis says, “but there are quaint, cozy, tree-lined neighborhoods minutes from these areas that are wonderful.” One of Lewis’ favorites is the House of Blues Hotel. “It looks like no place your attendees have ever stayed,” he says. “Plus, a group of 30 or so will easily be its main meeting.”

L.A. confidential. In the Los Angeles area, Robbins cites the 125-room L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills as a phenomenal choice for upscale groups. With rack rates ranging from $330 to $3,800 per night, it is not for clients on a budget. “The rooftop terrace makes a great setting for a poolside dinner or cocktail gathering,” adds Robbins. “No expense is spared.” Another Beverly Hills property recommended by Robbins is The Peninsula, which has two staff people for every guest.

New York experience. In Manhattan, “one of the better hotels is The Mark on the East Side,” says Karen Shackman, president of New York City’s Shackman Associates International, a DMC. It’s very low key, the service is great, they have a wonderful restaurant and the rooms are well appointed.”

Ian Schrager Hotels, such as Morgan’s or The Royalton, says Shackman, also are good choices because the staff takes time to know the guests more personally. “Especially in cases where the guest hasn’t been to New York before, it’s nice to be a name and not a number at a large hotel.”

In addition to unique decor, such as the Royalton’s circular bathtubs, “these properties have penthouse suites that are available for smaller meetings and parties, [accommodating] 20 or 30 people comfortably,” according to Shackman.

Finding niches. Even in a huge convention hotel, small groups can find intimate spaces. Consider renting a bedroom suite rather than a boardroom for the day’s meetings, or booking a private niche in the hotel restaurant to stay conveniently on site but away from the masses.

Outer spaces
One of the luxuries of planning for small groups is flexibility. Large groups are limited to large venues, but for smaller gatherings, big cities are the creative planner’s oyster.

On the beach. Going to Los Angeles? Why not appeal to the beach boy (or girl) within? “We had a group of 32 that literally took over a beach house in Malibu,” says The Event Team’s Robbins. “They wanted it very informal. Five VIPs stayed in the house, and the rest were brought back from a nearby hotel each day for the meetings.”“Studios like Universal or Burbank offer smaller, personally led tours,” says Robbins. “Depending on what’s filming on the lot, your group can get in to watch.” Large groups are forbidden, as they are too distracting to cast and crew.

Robbins adds that because TV executives often like to keep studio audiences diversified, small groups might be able to watch while programs are taped.

A day in the life. The “special access” that small groups can be afforded transfers to cities like Las Vegas, where garish glitz and glamour reign supreme. Floyd Henderson, director of special events for Exquisite Impressions Special Events of Las Vegas, offers his small groups of 20 to 30 an experience that might not be for everyone: a glimpse into the lives of showgirls.

“One of the dancers will host the group at her home so they can see how she lives her day-to-day life,” he says. “They get to see that these women go to church and school, have kids...just like everyone else.”

Later, the group is permitted to watch their girl-next-door hostess transform into a heeled and headressed starlet of the Las Vegas stage. Afterwards, the group heads into the audience to enjoy the show. “They absolutely love it,” says Henderson.

Open kitchen: Chef Horst Pfeifer's New Orleans homeChef’s kitchen. Tourists in New Orleans enjoy walking tours of the Quarter but rarely get to see the opulence of the area’s homes. Chef Horst Pfeifer, of the five-star Bella Luna restaurant, hosts groups of up to 40 for an evening in his 180-year-old French Quarter home. While Pfeifer prepares the meal using the French rotisserie, Italian pizza oven or Viking stove, his wife, Karen, takes guests on a tour, offering wine and conversation about the home’s history, decor and lavish kitchen.

“We brought a group of about 20 there and had a lone sax player in the courtyard,” says DeCorte. “Their kitchen is the most incredible I’ve ever seen; the guests couldn’t stop talking about it. A large group simply can’t experience something like this at a meeting. It’s impossible.”

On top of the world. Shackman is planning a wine tasting for a small group at Windows on the World, the rotating restaurant atop New York’s World Trade Center. “We will have a very well-known wine lecturer, Kevin Zraly, speak for the group,” she says. After a presentation, dinner will be served, with one seat left open at each table. “Zraly will join each table for one course and explain the wine selection in detail.”

Customization is key. “Though they will be tasting many vintages, the VIP of this group has a penchant for red,” Shackman relates. “So that’s where the focus will be.”

On location. In Chicago, Lewis’ clients have enjoyed customized Blues Brothers-inspired tours that showcase the movie’s many area locations. “We’ve also done other tours of places where ER, The Fugitive and The Untouchables were shot.”

Art smart. Small art galleries also make ideal venues. Most of New York’s Chelsea galleries are closed on Mondays but may be available for special events. Shackman arranged a private gallery viewing for a group of 25. “They had lunch with the artist, then walked around the building for viewings of the other collections.”

New York altitude: Windows on the WorldOut on the town. Of course, it is possible to over-personalize the agenda. Planners should remember to add some free time for those who wish to explore the metropolis. “Sometimes,” says Shackman, “the whole idea of coming to a city like New York is getting lost in the shuffle.”


Small groups bound for other urban destinations might consider the following suggestions, courtesy of industry professionals.

In San Francisco&
“A property with good meeting space is the Monaco Hotel. Though it’s larger, the catering is wonderful, and it has contemporary decor that makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland. It’s centrally located, just two blocks from Union Square great for first-timers to the city.” Masumi Patzel
F.I.T. Manager, Agentours Inc. (DMC)
San Francisco, Calif.

In Dallas...
“We gave a group of 25 top-of-the-line treatment at The Spa at the Four Season Resort & Club in Las Colinas, followed by lunch. Then limos picked them up, and we handed out black velvet bags with Galleria Gold $100 in “gold” coins to be spent anywhere in the Galleria Mall and they went on a shopping spree.” Mollie Wallace, CMP
CEO, Planning Professionals Inc.
Old Town McKinney, Texas

In Washington, D.C.&
“We’re currently working with the Smithsonian, doing behind-the-scenes educational programs for groups of 20 or fewer at a time, where they get to work with scientists in the anthropology lab, space program and more. It’s very cool. If the sky were the limit, I think I’d take a small group to meet at the Library of Congress. The spaces there are just stunning.” Valerie Sumner
President, The TCI Cos. (a national meeting and event management firm)
Washington, D.C


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