How to capitalize on changing group trends
How to capitalize on changing group trends
13 FEBRUARY 2015 2:00 PM
The key to attracting and retaining significant corporate business is to have a laser focus on what sets your property—and your people—apart.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Gone are the days when corporate group business by default only went to big-box, branded convention hotels. 
Today’s mixed bag of corporate business often skews smaller, ranging from a 10-person C-level meeting one day to an incentive trip tomorrow or a 100-person corporate retreat next week. This trend is suited well to the variations in size, scope and experience offered by independent properties. 
The key to attracting and retaining significant corporate business, according to independent hoteliers, is to have a laser focus on what sets your property—and your people—apart.
Know your location
Marc Becker, who heads up business development for the New Orleans Hotel Collection, knows New Orleans’ vibrant French Quarter (where the majority of the group’s six independent hotels are located) doesn’t attract the corporate traveler who spends 14-hour days locked up in meetings—and he’s fine with that. It doesn’t stop him from going after corporate group business. 
“Our location is so important to us, and we use it,” he said. “When people come to New Orleans, they don’t envision the 40-story business hotel; they picture the French Quarter. It’s a shame, sometimes, when people come to a convention in New Orleans and just spend all their time inside.” 
To claim his company’s share of business traffic, Becker and his team go after smaller groups—often groups of C-suite and other executive-level managers—as well as the corporate incentive travel market. Those meetings not only fit the space offered by NOHC hotels (which range from about 50 guestrooms up to 150, with variable meeting spaces), they also fit the spirit of New Orleans as a “bleisure” market, he said.
The company’s goals for growing corporate group business dovetail with what’s happening in New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina, he said. 
“Before Katrina, this city enjoyed convention traffic and volume of occupancy that was 60% (of total traffic and volume) or more,” he said. “Now we have almost reversed that. We see a lot more leisure-type travelers and less big convention activity.” 
Johnathan Capps, director of marketing for Charlestowne Hotels, which third-party manages and develops mostly independent hotels around the United States, said location often is the first tool his sales team uses when going after group business. 
“We sell the property, accommodations and sometimes location just as much as the space,” he said. Fifteen of the more than 30 hotels in Charlestowne’s portfolio include meeting space, which ranges from 1,000 square feet to more than 12,000 square feet. This means the company targets mostly smaller executive meetings. 
For Marianna Accomando, assistant GM and VP of sales at the 428-room Seaport Boston Hotel, knowing her location means knowing the business drivers in Boston’s distinct Waterfront neighborhood, which has attracted large-scale corporate headquarters and similar big businesses. Those companies developed in the area, Accomando said, because they had the opportunity to bring their entire workforce together with a lot more space than some of the city’s older neighborhoods could allow. 
As a result, Accomando said the group to transient mix at the Seaport is about 53:47, with corporate group comprising the majority of the group number. 
CVB impact
All three hoteliers said local convention and visitor bureaus and other civic groups are huge helpers when it comes to growing group business. 
“The CVB in Boston generates almost 50% of our business,” Accomando said, citing the city’s focus on generating in-town business from Boston companies. 
Becker generates home-grown business by seeking out partnerships with civic groups that match what his hotels can offer. For example, he works with a small business incubator in New Orleans. 
“They have helped launch more than 1,000 local companies within the last 10 years, and some of those companies have grown substantially,” he said. “None of them are huge companies, but they have growing needs for business events, and that’s where we can come in.” 
He said about 70% of the NOHC’s corporate business is influenced by a local contact in one way or another. 
Know your corporate guest
Different groups have different needs, and smaller independent properties likely are flexible enough to accommodate those needs. 
Sometimes that might mean taking over the entire hotel if that’s what the group needs. “Since many of our properties are much smaller than their branded competitors, we can offer a much more intimate experience,” Capps said of the Charlestowne portfolio. “With properties as small as 40 (guestrooms), corporate groups can buy out an entire property.” 
Becker and Accomando said price transparency has been a huge selling point when going after corporate business, and it’s something they attribute to their independence. 
“As an independent, we will never compete with (Starwood Preferred Guest) or Marriott points, so we just don’t go there,” Accomando said. “We opened the hotel in 1998 with free Wi-Fi in guestrooms and meeting rooms and we still do that. I tell planners that the advantage of going with an independent hotel is that full disclosure—we’re not restricted by corporate pricing.” 
Touting free Wi-Fi is important to Becker for the same reasons. 
“All our hotels have free Wi-Fi, including for meetings, and that’s put us ahead of some of our competitors,” he said. “We don’t charge for breakfast, for Wi-Fi, for in-room coffee—and that’s one of the advantages of being independent.” 
Becker agreed it’s impossible to compete with the force of big-brand loyalty programs. “There was nothing we could give away or offer that would make the difference to those points-loyalists,” he said. Instead, NOHC joined Stash Rewards, the loyalty program for guests who stay at member independent hotels. The benefits, he said, will come down the road when members start to build up enough points to make a difference. 
The flexibility of independence has helped Accomando and her team satisfy corporate groups in other ways as well. For example, the fitness room at the Seaport will be open around the clock beginning later this month because so many corporate guests requested longer hours. 
“This was an example of hearing about specific needs and being able to respond,” she said. 
Know the importance of your team
While group booking dynamics might constantly change, Becker and Accomando said having a consistent, satisfied and engaged sales team in place is a huge advantage for independent hotels when it comes to going after corporate business. 
“One thing we hear consistently from meeting planners is that at some hotels, they talk to a different person every time they call,” Becker said. “In large markets, some of the big hotel brands have removed sales people from the properties or reduced them, and they have to cover more properties.” 
That’s not the case for on-site sales staff, who can really get to know the details about their particular properties and develop long-term relationships with clients, Becker said. 
Accomando agreed. She said having her nine-person group sales team under one roof makes site visits and meetings easy and organic, and it fosters an environment where employees feel engaged in the property’s success and in their relationships with clients. 
And when potential business gets too big for Accomando, she taps into another team—in the form of her direct neighborhood competitors. For the past four years, she has worked with leaders at the nearby Westin Boston Waterfront and Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel to tackle group business that might be too large for any of the hotels to manage on their own. 
“We turned what could have been a negative competitive environment into a collaborative one,” she said. 
Through the partnership, the hotels—all within walking distance of each other—shoulder different burdens for especially large groups. One hotel might host an opening reception while the others host smaller breakout sessions and so on. 
“Independents have to be flexible,” she said. 
Best practices for getting group business
  • TripAdvisor matters: Maintaining great scores and visibility on TripAdvisor keeps independent hotels top of mind. “We do upper-level meetings because we’re small, and that often means CEOs have direct say in the meeting decisions,” Becker said. “The CEO may not know tools like Cvent, but they know how to use TripAdvisor.” 
  • Make good partnerships: Networking locally with CVBs and other civic groups often is an independent hotel’s first offensive move. But don’t discount national and international affiliations. Accomando cited the Seaport’s affiliation with Associated Luxury Hotels International as another partner to identify good fits for the property.
  • Maximize your channels: Marketing affiliations can boost distribution visibility, but meetings-specific channels are a must, sources said.
  • Leverage existing accounts: Accomando said one of her team’s strengths is leveraging corporate negotiated accounts into corporate group business. “It’s our responsibility to help support our customers. We have their corporate negotiated (rate) business, so how can we help them build value?”

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