by Jonathan Vatner | October 01, 2006
The corporate planner

Laura SayeghLaura Sayegh (right), vice president of event marketing for Fox Cable Networks, balks at the term luxury meeting. “How do you define luxury?” asks the New York City-based VIP meeting planner. “You can pay $1,000 a night and still have a lousy experience, because your service is lousy. It’s the perceived experience that matters.”

M&C: What defines a luxury event?

Sayegh: It’s customer service. Any event can be a luxury event, whether it’s a sales meeting or client event, as long as it’s perceived as a service-oriented experience. You could have 50 celebrities, but if the food didn’t come on time, if you can’t find a fax, if the business center wasn’t helping you, it doesn’t matter who’s there.

M&C: How do you determine whether a property will provide a luxury

Sayegh: Sometimes I walk in cold and just check out the place. I’ll observe how the property is taking care of their grounds, observe how people are being greeted by the bellman, and how long the check-in line is. If they have ropes and stanchions set up, you know what you’re in for.

M&C: How do you get good service from a hotel?

Sayegh: Getting good service is really all about constant follow-up. I keep a laundry list of what my expectations are, and I review them every day with the staff of the hotel. It never fails: The more information you share with the people you’re working with, the better the attendees’ experience is going to be. Before the event starts, I gather all the people serving my event, and I make sure they understand who’s in the room. Sometimes I call everybody in and say, “Hi, my name is Laura, and I’m the point person here.” It takes all of two minutes’ time.

M&C: What about the spa? How do you ensure a luxury experience there?

Sayegh: First, I go for a spa treatment without telling anybody and make decisions based on my own experience. In one particular case, I felt the spa was too sterile, so I ordered some complementary flower arrangements to make it feel even more peaceful. Sometimes they don’t even have music, so I ask them to play some mellow music. It’s kind of odd when you go into a spa and there’s no music.

The independent planner

Lexye AversaLexye Aversa (right), president of Professional Touch International in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has been planning high-end meetings and incentives all over the world for 33 years.

M&C: What do luxury meeting attendees expect?

Aversa: When they’re on site, the service is expected; it’s not a thought process. When they’re doing their coffee break or having their cocktail, everything is delivered to them on a silver platter. There is a naturalness to that type of upscale service. When they travel themselves, they know they’re going to get good service. When they travel in a meeting or incentive milieu, you have to deliver an experience that no money can buy. The ability not to be able to duplicate that unique experience is what spurs these people to excel, what gives them that little extra charge.

M&C: How do you get that level of service from hotel employees?

Aversa: It’s like anything else -- it’s a combination of the experience you have in the industry, the connections you have and how well you know the product. One of my pet peeves in this business is advertising that promises the moon and gives you a patch of dirt. You have to know what hotel is promising the moon and is actually delivering the universe.

M&C: Which properties have you found to deliver the universe?

Aversa: I have to say Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons hotels, across the board. I love the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland; the Rome Cavalieri Hilton; the St. Regis properties; and the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, in Stresa, Italy, where they hold a lot of G8 meetings.

M&C: How do you know if a hotel will do a good job on a luxury meeting?

Aversa: You chat with the employees about their background. You track the longevity and the pedigree of the people that you’re working with on the property, from the GM level through the resident management level, banqueting staff, servers, etc. Are they full-time employees, or do they have to pull in extras? Also, who have they hosted? Have they done upscale meetings?

M&C: How is luxury changing?

Aversa: It’s become more important. Travel has become so mass market. For the ones who can afford it, luxury is an escape to an era we won’t see again; it’s this conscious thing that has to be offered. And that’s why it’s become so important. You have to find luxury now; it’s not synonymous with travel anymore.

M&C: Are budgets changing for luxury meetings?

Aversa: You have to provide more with less. Prices in hotels have skyrocketed. The dollar is weak overseas, and prices are higher because of inflation and the world situation. Everyone has fuel surcharges. If you’re buying a slice of pizza, there’s a fuel surcharge.

M&C: What’s next in the luxury world?

Aversa: Private jets are a big up-and-coming facet of our industry. Anything that’s a time-saver for people. And if you’re a luxury property and you don’t have a spa, you have a great handicap.