March 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions - The Roomiest Resorts - March 2003 Current Issue
March 2003
Living large: (right) The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville and (left) the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (Calif.)
Living large: (right) The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville and (left) the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (Calif.)

The Roomiest Resorts

Today’s mega-properties promise vast meeting space and all the trimmings

By Martha Cooke

  THINK MOST LARGE EVENTS are held in convention centers? Think again. According to the Chicago-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), 41 percent of exhibitions defined as events with at least 10 exhibitors using a total of more than 3,000 square feet of space in the year 2000 took place in hotels.

This is a phenomenon not lost on hotel companies. “Planners told us they want large, high-quality meeting space,” says Colin Reed, president and CEO of Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment. “They like keeping their attendees under one roof.”

Many of the resorts that have opened since 2000 have included square footage almost unthinkable in prior years. For example, the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., has 400,000 square feet in its convention center more than some stand-alone convention centers offer.

IMAGE: Outsized oasis: The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix
Outsized oasis: The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix

Getting in the game
The reasons for building these mega-resorts are clear, says Chuck DiMeglio, a principal in the travel and transportation practice of New York City-based IBM Business Consulting Services.

“Some of it is just keeping up with the competition,” says DiMeglio, who notes that large groups are especially lucrative.

That’s a market niche Gaylord Entertainment is banking on. The flagship Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville has 600,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, dwarfing the city’s municipal convention center. “Our target customers are groups looking for 600 room nights and up,” says Reed. “And our goal is to make sure these accounts rebook and rotate with us.”

To that end, Gaylord has expanded its offerings to include a huge Orlando-area property, and construction is under way on a similar project outside of Dallas-Fort Worth. A fourth hotel and convention center complex is on the drawing board for the Washington, D.C., area.

White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts is adding properties with extensive meeting space to its roster as well. “The projects we’ve opened recently are all large-scale hotels,” says senior vice president of development Joe Long. “Without building the right amount and configuration of meeting space, we can’t get large group and incentive business.”

The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla., offers a full 209,000 square feet of function space, while the Westin Kierland Resort and the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, both near Phoenix, each have more than 100,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Washington, D.C.-based Marriott International is pursuing a similar agenda. The JW Marriott Desert Ridge, which opened outside of Phoenix in November, has 200,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space. And the Grande Lakes Orlando, slated to come online in July, will offer nearly 100,000 square feet of space in a two-hotel complex consisting of a JW Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton. This combination will cater to large, high-end groups, explains director of marketing Bruce Seigel.

Quaintly new: The Old Hickory Steakhouse at the Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee, Fla.
Quaintly new: The Old Hickory Steakhouse at the Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee, Fla.

A growing need
Groups of all sizes are asking for more breakout space in their requests for proposal, says Seigel, who finds that over the past 10 years, the space required for breakouts has doubled in many cases, even when the size of the meeting hasn’t grown. Among reasons Seigel and others cite for the burgeoning demand:

High-needs pharmaceuticals. “The pharmaceutical market, the lifeblood of the hotel industry today, requires extensive space,” says Seigel. Increased specialization, coupled with requirements for continued medical education, adds up to quite a few breakout rooms.

More breakouts, better layouts. “The biggest thing I’ve seen changed over the years is the amount of breakouts,” Seigel says. “Attendees might go into focus groups. Meetings today have become more interpersonal.”

This is a boon for education advocates who have long decried the cookie-cutter PowerPoint lecture, but it can be a headache for traditional hotels, says Seigel. Many are reduced to pulling the furniture out of suites, an expensive and somewhat awkward solution, since guest rooms tend to be some distance from the meeting space.

Elaborate sets. Along with multiple breakout rooms, planners are asking for the space for longer periods of time, whether for more complicated setups, wiring for A/V or to construct elaborate production sets, says Seigel.

More private events. David Lutz, COO of Twinsburg, Ohio-based meeting planning firm Conferon, says the increase in what are known as private-label events, where corporations bring in a targeted group of buyers, is what drives the need for space.

“The need to put on a first-class event and have the exclusivity of having it all under one roof has increased in the past five years,” Lutz says. Especially when corporations partner or create high-priced sponsorship opportunities, the meeting organizers want to maximize the amount of face time the hosts get with their attendees.

Picking the right place
For many, the appeal of having everything under one roof is obvious: a single invoice at the end of the meeting, and no coordinating multiple housing lists or a bevy of transportation schedules. Since each meeting is different, though, consider the following variables to determine if such a property is right for your event.

Location, location, location. Ease of airlift is paramount, says Doug Ducate of CEIR. “The site has got to be near a major national and international hub of transportation,” he advises.

Also crucial, Ducate adds, is a climate conducive to outdoor activities. Indeed, most of the existing mega-resorts are in warm climes. Look for future developments to be in the Sunbelt, he says, where golf, tennis and swimming are offered year-round.

Reasonable rates. “Planners might be able to enjoy some favorable pricing while supply gets absorbed,” asserts Starwood’s Joe Long. With market demand still soft, Long says planners on the lookout should be able to spot deals at some of these new properties.

No buses. Housing attendees all under one roof and meeting there as well virtually eliminates citywide transportation bills, points out David Lutz of Conferon.

Lower-cost function space. Look for savings on meeting and exhibit space, says Lutz. “Traditionally you have more leverage somewhere where you’re occupying guest rooms than you would at a public facility that has to show profit in the area of space,” he notes.

Priority service. Pick a property where you can be the “big fish,” advises Harry Feinberg, director of conferences for the Rhinebeck, N.Y.-based Omega Institute. “We look for exclusive use of the space. You have more negotiating power when you’re a big group for the hotel,” he says.

Not only does this help you at the bargaining table, says Feinberg, but having the event space all together is a terrific way to promote networking and a sense of community among delegates.

Space vs. aesthetics. “It’s not just the space but the type of space,” points out Chuck DiMeglio of IBM. For many groups, a bare-bones box of a meeting room just doesn’t cut it anymore, he says. “Increasingly, they want things like high-speed Internet access, for example, and all of the support services that go with it.”

Entertainment options. Make sure attendees will have different ways to fill their spare time, especially if the percentage bringing guests and family members is high. Many of the new resorts include a variety of amenities such as golf, spa and even nightlife options right on-site.

Tower power: The Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla.
Tower power: The Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla.

A look ahead
CEIR’s Ducate is not the only industry figure making predictions about the future of this type of development. Hotels already have invested heavily in mega-resorts, points out IBM’s DiMeglio. “There’s such a purchase risk with these things, and the trend is toward bigger and bigger. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out,” he says.

DiMeglio predicts that the growing competition among mega-resorts will ultimately work out to planners’ advantage, while Colin Reed of Gaylord Entertainment sees the spate of new construction as raising the bar on facilities for large meetings.

“When the customer wants to come back, the availability of meeting space and its quality have to be a given,” Reed says, adding that efficient service and good entertainment will continue to drive standards higher for meeting hotels. “It’s not as simple as having 150,000 square feet. It doesn’t work that way, because the meeting planner takes that as a given. It’s all of those other qualitative things.”

IMAGE“I call it the ‘Wal-Mart Effect,’” says Chuck DiMeglio of New York City-based IBM Business Consulting Services, describing a scenario where attendees arrive at a mega-resort and need 10 minutes or more just to find their rooms, and the meeting space is a 15-minute hike away. Despite extensive “wayfinding” signs many hotels are now adopting, it is still common for guests to lose their bearings.

Cathy Crowell thinks on her feet, literally. As conference director for the Case Management Society of America in Little Rock, Ark., she settled on an extreme and extremely effective solution after hearing attendee complaints about long detours caused by taking wrong turns. Crowell positions her staff herself among them on the hotel floor throughout the property to act as live “directional support” for befuddled attendees.

Attendees appreciate seeing familiar faces, she notes, and she is better able to control the level of service when her own staff, rather than the hotel’s, is charged with traffic flow. “It makes attendees happier and gets them to their own rooms faster,” she says.

“It costs a little extra,” Crowell concedes, “but it’s worth the investment. One of the top comments we get from attendees is that they like to see us out on the floor helping them.”

• M.C.

Following is a roundup of resorts with large amounts of meeting space. All square footages refer to indoor meeting space; some properties have additional outdoor areas.


Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, Huntington Beach, Calif.: 519 guest rooms, 52,000 square feet of meeting space; 40 miles from Los Angeles International Airport. Opened in January 2003

JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, Phoenix: 950 guest rooms, 75,000 square feet of meeting space; 15 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Opened in November 2002

IMAGE: The Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, ArizonaWestin Kierland Resort and Spa, Scottsdale, Ariz.: 735 guest rooms, 60,000 square feet of meeting space (an additional 15,000 come online by year-end); 16 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Opened in November 2002

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, Phoenix: 500 guest rooms, 50,000 square feet of meeting space; 12 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Opened in October 2002

Royal Pacific Resort, a Loews Hotel, Orlando: 1,000 guest rooms, 75,627 square feet of meeting space; approximately 16 miles from Orlando International Airport. Opened in June 2002

Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, Conn.: 1,176 guest rooms, 100,000 square feet of meeting space; 46 miles from Hartford’s Bradley International Airport. Opened in April 2002

Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, Kissimmee, Fla.: 1,400 guest rooms, 400,000 square feet of meeting space; 19 miles from Orlando International Airport. Opened in February 2002

Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, Hollywood, Fla.: 998 guest rooms, 209,000 square feet of meeting space; eight miles from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Opened in January 2002


Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Las Vegas: 3,309 guest rooms; added a convention center with a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall for a total of 1.2 million square feet of meeting space; three miles from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Work completed in January 2003

IMAGE: The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin, Lake Buena Vista, FloridaWalt Disney World Swan & Dolphin, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.: 2,267 guest rooms (in the 1,509-room Dolphin and the 758-room Swan); added 50,000 square feet of meeting space for a total of 239,000 square feet; 15 miles from Orlando International Airport. Work completed in October 2002


  IMAGE: The Grande Lakes OrlandoGrande Lakes Orlando: 1,586 guest rooms (in the 1,000-room JW Marriott and 586-room Ritz-Carlton), 105,000 total square feet of meeting space (72,000 at JW and 33,000 at Ritz); approximately 10 miles from Orlando International Airport. Opening July 2003

The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City: 2,010 guest rooms, 70,000 square feet of meeting space; 10 miles from Atlantic City International Airport. Opening in summer 2003

Gaylord Opryland Texas Resort & Convention Center, Grapevine, Texas: 1,511 guest rooms, 400,000 square feet of meeting space; five miles from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Opening in April 2004

• M.C.


IMAGE: Jim Curtis, director of sales and marketing at the new Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa in PhoenixBeware of meeting space totals. A number of mega-resorts include outdoor areas such as lawns and pool decks into their claims of overall meeting space.

While you don’t want to count on the patio for a general session, outdoor areas can be ideal for some gatherings, says Jim Curtis, director of sales and marketing at the new Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa in Phoenix. Curtis offers the following pointers.

Control the climate. Nippy outside? To keep a group of 600 in rounds of 10 toasty, Curtis suggests using 20 to 30 portable heaters.

Don’t stray. For greatest efficiency, outdoor function areas should be in close proximity to indoor meeting space and/or the banquet kitchen.

Provide rest rooms. Have signage directing guests to indoor facilities. Or, if the function is far from the hotel, consider renting portable units or running a golf cart back and forth.

Have a backup plan. Above all, says Curtis, an outdoor event needs an indoor location as fallback. Ask to see the space assigned for your group in the event of inclement weather, and discuss any contingencies with the convention services manager.

• M.C.

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