by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | December 01, 2008

Conspicuous consumption is out of vogue. Even the mere hint of luxury raises eyebrows today, especially in meeting planning circles, where the long arm of procurement is apt to be flexing its muscle.

Yet, while luxury may have taken a direct hit, it is hardly out for the count. "People think that this poor economy has shut down luxury, and it really hasn't," says Kristina Sumey, CSEP, owner and creative director of Philadelphia-based destination management company Event FX Productions. "There are tons of options out there to make the ordinary event extraordinary."

It's no secret the lights have dimmed on the sellers' market. According to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research, average occupancy in the U.S. hotel industry will fall 3.5 points to an average of 59.2 percent in 2009, the lowest level in five years. If there ever was a time for planners to leverage their buying power, this is it.

"Smart hotels will quickly realize they have to get back to the art of negotiating rather than dictating the rules, because the rules are gone," says Steve Collins, president of Breckenridge, Colo.-based planning firm Resort Meetings. "Planners definitely will be able to build luxury into their meetings by taking advantage of concessions hotels are willing to offer."

Unlike the months that followed Sept. 11, when desperate hotels faced with plummeting occupancy levels practically gave away the store to fill beds, hotel executives say this time around they will hold the line on room rates and instead "get aggressive on building in value," says Ty Helms, senior vice president of revenue for Chicago-based Global Hyatt Corp.

David Scypinski, senior vice president of industry relations for White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, agrees. "Companies are waiting until the very last minute to place their meetings, and to get that business you are going to see hotels offering lots of interesting packages with built-in incentives." That means everything from free meeting room rental and hosted coffee breaks to discounts on food and beverage, with individual hotels determining their unique selling points and matching those to a meeting's specific needs. Among strategies for planners are the following.

Show flexibility. The key to getting the best rate, with built-in luxury concessions, is being flexible with meeting dates, says Lauren Andrews, senior manager of sites and contract services for Atlanta-based Meeting Expectations. "Call the hotel and ask what their nonpeak dates are, because even the most luxurious properties can offer some surprisingly low rates," she says.

Don't stop there, though. Get them to throw in concessions that up the ante on luxe. "You can often negotiate with a luxury hotel to receive concessions such as a free welcome reception, spa packages, VIP airport transfers or room upgrades," says Andrews.

•  Find value dates. At the upscale 376-room Laguna Cliffs (Calif.) Resort & Spa, which has 50,000 square feet of meeting space, general manager James Samuels recently targeted planners with a calendar of value dates and incentives to entice booking.

"Many planners think that a superior venue on the coast, with views of the Pacific Ocean, is cost prohibitive," says Samuels. "We are proving that they don't have to risk poor service and quality in an effort to save money."

•  Make a deal. Resorts such as Breckenridge and Vail in Colorado, which built their names years ago as ski meccas, have evolved into year-round destinations, making them tremendous value options in the warmer months. "Their rates are extremely competitive, even better than comparable downtown hotels," notes Collins, "and planners get to tap into all the great amenities, such as golf and tennis." And while many resorts are reluctant to negotiate out their daily resort fees, Collins says "they are willing to drop the room rate to cover the fee."

At the exclusive 170-room Boar's Head Inn, which this year unveiled a new $10 million meeting pavilion, Pat Burnette, marketing and communications manager for the Charlottesville, Va., property, says a slew of incentives have been rolled out to entice those planners "who still want an upscale, unique meeting but don't have the budget they had six months ago." For example, the property is willing to negotiate attrition clauses and be a little more lenient on cancellation clauses, as well as throw a complimentary full breakfast into the daily room rate.

•  Consider a new destination. Many second-tier cities have spent the past few years building up their hotel inventory and destination appeal. According to Mike Lyons, DMCP, president and CEO of GEP Philadelphia, a destination management company, several clients he has worked with "are now seriously considering Philadelphia as a less-expensive alternative to New York City."

•  Trade down. Swapping a five-star hotel for a four- or three-star alternative can be done without sacrificing outward appearances, says Pat Durocher, chief executive officer of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based third-party firm Global Cynergies. "If clients do have to downgrade, then we look for those venues that provide exceptional services, even though their star rating is lower. Exceptional service trumps everything."

Creative choices

While it might be time to put aside the champagne and caviar, with a little creativity and innovation, elegance and luxury still are attainable.

•  Work the menu. Don't assume a shrunken budget means chicken has to take the place of filet mignon, says Diane Baranek, director of catering for the 319-room Omni Berkshire Place in New York City. "You can serve a delicious, eye-catching flank steak, which is less expensive, and it doesn't look as if you are trying to do something drastic to cut back," she says. Baranek estimates a savings of 8 to 12 percent per plate, adding, "If you are serving a few hundred, that's a significant savings."

Christine Hilgert, CMP, vice president of Meeting Expectations, prefers to tap the hotel's executive chef for menu inspiration. "If you plan your menu around the chef's signature entrée, you will save money," she asserts.

Planners also should take advantage of special F&B offerings, says Baranek. For the past three years, Omni Hotels has brought the flavors and cuisines of other countries to its properties. In 2008, the focus was French fare. "We spent more than a year establishing relationships with French wine suppliers," says Baranek. "Why ask for a themed martini bar, when you can host a wine tasting and take advantage of the savings we have negotiated?"

•  Rethink décor. Yards of draping, custom lighting, costly props and gorgeous centerpieces can transform a ballroom into a lavish venue. But a huge splash also can be made with simple lighting techniques and the right focal point, says Event FX Productions' Kristina Sumey. "Instead of decorating the entire ballroom, only drape the front of the room, and make it outstanding," she says. "If you have a focal point, that's what guests will see when they walk in, and that's what they will remember."

For a few pennies, Sumey adds, any room can be transformed with simple up-lighting and the right shade of color. She recommends amber and blues.

•  Think local. Gift giving is one of those areas planners obsess about. With today's stringent airline carry-on regulations, items like regional wines are impractical. Christine Hilgert suggests planners ask their host hotel for ideas unique to their destination. "A small item from local artists is perfect," she says, noting she recently received a beautiful business card holder created by a local glass artist.