by Loren G. Edelstein | October 31, 2017
With much focus on consolidation in the hotel market, independent properties are in a unique position to capitalize on just what makes them unique. M&C's editor in chief, Loren G. Edelstein, recently met with Mark Sergot, chief sales officer for Associated Luxury Hotels, which owns and operates Associated Luxury Hotels International, to talk about consolidation, commissions, security -- and the unifying power of meetings.
Where is ALHI represented, and what are your plans for the future?
We have more than 250 luxury hotels and resorts now in 63 countries. We also have 22 global sales offices in four countries -- the U.S., Canada, plus a new office in England, and an even newer location in Frankfurt, Germany. Worldwide, we have 75 sales professionals, and are adding another five this year. We will continue to grow our sales team, particularly in overseas markets. We're looking to get some people in China. 
How does ALHI serve member properties?
Our global sales offices are dedicated to representing independent hotels and resorts. The concept is similar to that of Hilton's "collection" of independent hotels. We bring together all these luxury and incentive-oriented independent hotels so they are able to compete more head-on with the big brands. We help them stay independent.
What is unique about being an independent property?
By nature, an independent hotel in a market has to go above and beyond in articulating the reason for planners to want to be there. They are the essence of authenticity in the market. They are taking the essence of their marketplace and bringing that to life. Look at places like the Grand America in Salt Lake City; the hotel is the essence of that destination. The Cameron House in Scotland is now part of ALHI. It is a stunning golf resort -- local, independent and full of character. That's our mission -- helping these independent hotels have the global presence that the big brands do, and connecting them with major customers.
How does consolidation of hotel brands affect ALHI members?
It's a good thing for us. We have a relatively small collection of hotels in comparison. What we zero in on is what we really believe the customer is looking for, which is that very high-touch, high-service salesperson. We don't even like to call them salespeople. We call them consultants or advisers who help find solutions. And customers are leaning on us more to do that. 
In what ways are customers more reliant on their hotel contacts?
When two big brands come together, there is always that period of disruption where people lose connectivity. How do those brands understand those 5,000 hotels? For us, consolidation helps enhance the value proposition we offer. We have stayed consistent in our approach. We are committed to helping our customers find the solutions they are looking for. 
Do you expect that the commission model for third parties to change as a result of consolidation?
I can't speak for what the big brands are going to do, although I think it's logical that they would look at all kinds of expenses. There has been a lot of focus on that model. It wouldn't surprise me if they would look at the meetings market. Many customers rely on the expertise of the intermediaries. Customers are going to have to look at how important that is -- and if they would be willing to pay for that service. 
Does ALHI represent any properties that are brand-affiliated? 
Yes, ALHI represents the Kempinski brand. We are also thrilled to represent many of the Loews hotels and many Omni, Langham, Fairmont, InterContinental and Montage properties. They have their own salespeople, but the challenge most of the small brands have is they are limited in what they can do in terms of deploying resources. They bring us on to enhance their exposure, to help them service opportunities in areas they can't cover. 
What do you consider "emerging destinations" now?
We just brought a group of six clients from the U.K. on a fam to the U.S., and the first place we took them was Salt Lake City. U.K. buyers, in particular, are very interested in some of these emerging destinations. Utah, for one, is emerging even domestically. Business continues to grow year-over-year. What's helping a lot is the compression the big markets are seeing. Trying to find space for a group in San Francisco or Chicago is hard. Planners are looking outside those bigger markets. Nashville continues to be off the charts. Once Omni opens in Louisville [Ky.], that will bring in opportunity for bigger conferences. Some hotels in secondary markets, such as the Broadmoor [in Colorado Springs, Colo.] have always done really well. But we're seeing more and more interest there, too. 
What has changed in terms of the experience groups want when they are on-site?
I love that question. Because to me that's where the real opportunity is -- to get personal on achieving that with every customer. We tend to hear trends, like charity give-back, green meetings. But we like to sit down with the customer and really figure out what is driving them. I like to get specific with the group. What is important to them? How does that manifest itself with their meeting or event? My belief is most hotels can create any type of experience the customer wants. The challenge is to figure out what that is. 
How can planners make sure F&B enhances the meeting experience?
We like to get them together with the chef and talk about some really interesting things. In a luxury hotel, the chefs are creative, they're artists. There's nothing they love more than to sit down with the planner and create. That's what chefs love to do. 
In what other ways can properties better serve the needs of the meetings market?
I think a big part of what we have to do, particularly as business continues to be very strong on the meetings side and demand is high, so availability is difficult, we have to try to slow things down, to have those meaningful conversations, and really understand what success looks like. Slow down so we can be more personal, because that's where the magic happens. 
In light of recent events, do you expect hotel security to change?
Security has always been a very significant concern, and hotels have detailed plans around handling a variety of incidents at the property. Of course, with the new realities we are really living this. The unfortunate part of it is that it has come to the top of everybody's list no matter where you go. Will we see metal detectors, etc., at entrance points? It wouldn't surprise me. I've gone to places that have had that in place for years. We hoped we wouldn't have to go there, but I think we all knew eventually this a would have to be addressed. 
What are your thoughts on the travel ban?
Those who have international meetings have to understand what's going on -- and really understand the specifics of the ban. Where, specifically are these things being implemented? Thankfully, it's fairly isolated and, for the most part, there is not significant travel from those areas to the United States. So we have to understand the implications. We also want to make sure that everywhere in the world people feel welcome. 
How can meetings and hospitality achieve that sense of welcome?
We need to dispel myths, to break down those cultural barriers. I think the hospitality industry has a lot to offer greater society. Meetings are examples that we can do this -- people sharing experiences and learning together. It helps us realize we have many things in common, vs. things that separate us. Ultimately, we are all ambassadors. The people we meet around the world are ambassadors. And we are all good people! We've got to make sure that welcome is at every touchpoint of the travel experience, starting with the TSA checkpoints at the airport. People can do their mission with a smile on their face. We want people to feel welcome and safe, and to make sure we take good care of them.