by Lisa Grimaldi& Kaylee Hultgren | November 30, 2009
For Appearances' Sake

Jill Demone

Though the perception issue is not quite as heated as it was a year ago, many firms are treading lightly and trying to remain under the radar when they hold their luxury events.

For example, planners have asked hotel staff to be discreet when publicizing their meetings. Jim Waldrop, general manager of The Wort Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyo., says he has had requests from firms to not have their company's name or meeting information included on reader boards. "Though they were legitimate events, with training and board meetings involved, they were really flying under the radar," Waldrop notes. "It seems as if every meeting has a strategic component now, and yet they're still worried about it."

Pam Russell, director of catering and conference services at Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort, has experienced similar requests. "We've had to post ‘board of directors' as the group's name, in place of the company," she says. "When you have three ‘board of directors' meetings listed, it can get confusing, even comical."

Nonetheless, Russell sees a light at the end of the tunnel: "The big groups will come back. Some that we had at the property three years ago are starting to express interest now for 2011. They want to come back, but everybody's holding their breath."

Jill DeMone, director of sales and marketing for the Mandarin Oriental Miami, is confident that the situation has improved. "Six months to a year ago, even if a meeting had great value, it might have sent out the wrong message. But it's getting easier for high-profile companies, like Troubled Asset Relief Program recipients, to hold meetings."

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A year ago, the future of luxury meetings seemed a bit shaky. Many firms feared that, with a recession and backlash against corporate excess, events that bore even a trace of more-than-basic comfort would be subject to harsh scrutiny.

Today, the outlook is bit more upbeat. According to a number of industry professionals, luxury is not necessarily verboten for meetings and events. Rather, it's been recast and redefined to keep in line with corporate America's determined focus on streamlined budgets, return on investment and the reining in of opulence in any form.

Mary MacGregor"Obviously, budget has an impact on luxury. But it doesn't preclude anyone from creating the right experience, which may include luxury," says Mary MacGregor, vice president, account development, for Chicago-based BCD Meetings & Incentives. "I really think it is more about making sure the budget is aligned with the corporate culture and ROI of the event, so stakeholders and shareholders see that top executives and participants are behaving in alignment with the corporate promise."

For many meeting professionals, particularly planners of repeat events that traditionally are high-end, delivering the new luxury is a challenge. "It's a tough balancing act: avoiding extravagance for the company's sake, but giving attendees the same luxury experience they are used to," says Candace Burroughs, president of Laguna Beach, Calif.-based Kustom Incentive Concepts.

Following are examples of how industry pros are keeping the luxury aspects of their gatherings, but under new parameters.

• Shifting gifts. "The days of the lavish take-away gift are fading quickly; many of these items were left behind for the hotel housekeeping staff or taken home to family and friends and not used by the person for whom they were intended," says Steve Kemble, president of Dallas-based Steve Kemble Event Design. Instead of items such as bottles of wine or crystal pineapples, which one planner says were a staple for her Hawaiian programs, Kemble recommends more utilitarian gifts such as pens, notepads or business folios.

Another norm for some high-end events was the habit of placing nightly pillow gifts. When the practice had to be cut from a recent meeting Candace Burroughs had planned, she tried to make attendees feel special by leaving in their rooms a handwritten note or a saying that had something to do with the day's activities. "The notes let them know their contributions are wanted, needed and appreciated," she says.

• Trading down. For some firms, luxury hotel chains or five-star properties are off-limits. Such mandates might come from the government, procurement departments or even top executives. Chris Gaia, vice president, marketing, for Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Travel, says there has been a marked shift from five-star to four-star hotels, even though "there is little difference in pricing between the two now."

Terry Singleton, CSEP, president of Atlanta-based CCP Events Inc., recently had two clients who traditionally held events in ultraluxe properties shift to less opulent venues. One moved to boutique properties that she says "give an upscale feel with a great rate," while the other shifted to a four-star property in a trendy shopping area.

Adds Steve Kemble, "Many of my clients currently are selecting hotels and venues that have a built-in atmosphere and do not require a lot of décor, such as a boutique hotel with ballroom windows overlooking a fabulous garden."

• Leveraging perks. According to Jill DeMone, director of sales and marketing at the Mandarin Oriental Miami, room rates can decline only so much before the property no longer is considered a luxury product. Hence, hotels are offering more perks than ever before -- e.g., free breakfast, free Internet access for attendees -- and planners should take advantage of them. "These extras typi­cally cost the hotel very little, but they reflect great value to the customer," DeMone explains.

• Tapping local talent. Nikki Nestor, president and CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based incentive firm World Class Travel by Invitation, has eschewed using headline acts for meetings and events. "We're not flying in Huey Lewis now; instead, we are using more cultural entertainment reflective of the destination," she says.

Candace Burroughs also relies more on local talent rather than name performers these days. "In my RFP, I require the local entertainers we hire to interact with the group. For example, before they perform, they give salsa lessons."