Five signs that the hotel meeting business is recovering

Business meetings are back in style. Group customer is on the rise for the hotel business, signaling that the corporate crowd Is getting back out on the road. Joining the party are other groups, such as associations, sports teams, religious groups, social organizations and the military, according to USA Today.

The U.S. Travel Association is predicting a 7 percent increase in meeting and convention spending this year, with a forecast of $90.7 billion. Last year, this measure fell 15 percent, as the effects of the financial crisis and subsequent recession led to cancelations.

To get the big bucks back in the door, hotels and convention bureaus have been rolling out favorable pricing and sweetheart deals, and it’s starting to work.

So, how do we know this sector’s coming back? Here are five hints:

1. The meeting planners say so: A June survey by Meeting Professionals International showed 61 percent of respondents saying “that they’re seeing more favorable business conditions, including attendance, budgets and number of meetings,” according to a USA Today report. Only 15 percent responded this way in August 2009.

2. Hotel groups say so: InterContinental Hotels Group has announced that its group and corporate revenue climbed 10 percent in the first half of 2010 relative to the same period in 2009. Denihan Hospitality Group’s eight New York City hotels are showing an increase in group revenue of 26 percent year-over-year.
3. Even Grand Rapids has good news: The JW Marriott in Grand Rapids, Michigan has sold more than 1,500 group room-nights so far this year, up 20 percent from last year.

4. So does Fort Lauderdale:
In this Florida town, group revenue is up 30 percent at the Harbor Beach Marriott. Corporate deals are still down from last year, but other groups are more than making up the difference.

5. Hotels understand what’s going on: Even though the market is coming back, hotels realize that they still need to price aggressively. Notes George Aquino, general manager of the Grand Rapids JW Marriott Everyone’s felt the turmoil of 2009. We don’t want that to happen again.”

[photo by msprague via Flickr]

The Dealmakers’ Ballroom: Pick the right lobby for your meetings

If you want to hold a business meeting in a hotel lobby where you really don’t have any reason to be, it’s worth doing a little homework. Pick a hotel without doing a little reconnaissance, and you could suffer an embarrassing moment in front of a potential client or investor. You’ve worked hard enough for the meeting – and a faux pan may ensure that you won’t get another.

Invest some time in choosing the hotel lobbies you want to use (and you should definitely use more than one). Take a day to wander the city and look for big hotels that have spacious seating areas. Conduct follow-up visits to see how the traffic flows through the lobby on different days and at different times. In general, get to know your environment.

Once you have a feel for the hotel lobbies that could define your future, it’s time to take a closer look. You want to make sure you have everything you need at your disposal. Keep the following in mind when selecting hotel lobbies to use for business meetings:1. You need power
Make sure the lobbies on your list have plenty of power outlets. You may have a laptop with a long battery life, but you don’t know how long you’ll need. If you’re running around from one meeting to the next, you may not have time to stop to recharge in between. The best hotel lobbies for business meetings not only have lots of power outlets but have them (a) near seats and (b) in parts of the lobby that are out of the way.

2. Stay connected
You may not think you need internet access for your meeting, but it’s good to have a connection in case you need to look something up. Also, you’ll probably arrive early, and that connection will make you productive while you wait. If you can score free wi-fi, that’s fantastic. A good backup is a hotel that has a service anyone can tap into for a fee. What’s $10 when you’re future’s on the line?

3. Lots of motion
A busy hotel where nobody spends much time in the lobby is ideal. The action around you will camouflage your activity, but you won’t be taking up space that a paying guest might want. Hotels near financial or business centers are great places for this dynamic.

4. Busy employees
A staff that is regularly and fully engaged with guests won’t have time to think about you. A hotel lobby that has employees actively engaged in efforts to look busy is dangerous. A bellman looking for something to do could find a reason to hassle you.

5. Make sure there’s a “Plan B” nearby
This is what I loved about the Westin Copley Place Hotel. It was adjacent to a Marriott with a large lobby, and there was a Starbucks right around the corner (and across the street). Within a short walk, there were countless other hotels you could use.

This is a week-long series from the writer of White Collar Travel about the role hotels will play not only in the recovery of our economy, but in giving an early home to the businesses that will define tomorrow.

The Dealmakers’ Ballroom: How to use a hotel lobby and not get caught

You’d figure that hotel management might be a tad irked by squatters. The entrepreneurs who take up space in hotel lobbies generally aren’t paying a dime, and there’s always the risk that they could get in the way of hotel operations or wandering guests. And, let’s get back to that part about not paying a dime. The entire reason a hotel exists is to turn a profit, and just about every aspect of a hotel is designed to engage you in the process.

Even with this notion of essentially robbing the hotel of a profit opportunity, entrepreneurs use lobbies all the time to conduct business. I never had a problem when I was a part of this scene, and at a recent meeting, I was told ahead of time to let the front desk know who I was and where I would be, to make it easier for my cohorts to find me. This goes beyond merely taking up space – it involves broadcasting our presence and engaging the staff to help us out. I opted not to take this step, preferring to roll the dice when it came to identification (and had no problem finding my contacts, thanks to Twitter profile pictures).

Back in my day, we weren’t so bold. In fact, we made an effort to blend in, even though simply being quiet and not bothering anybody would have been enough to keep us out of trouble. Those among us with paranoid streaks (including me) shared tips on how to stay below the radar.

So, if you’re thinking about getting a new business off the ground and need some cheap meeting space, here’s how you can use a hotel lobby without getting busted (not that anyone will really care about your presence anyway).1. Dress for success
If you look like a business person, you’ll probably be treated like one. You don’t have to don your best duds for the occasion, but you should at least step it up to business casual. Dress like you could be at the office of some Fortune 500 company. This increases the likelihood that you’ll be mistaken for a guest who is traveling on business.

2. Maintain a small footprint
Taking ownership of a large portion of table space or stretching out on the couch will invite unwanted attention. Remember: this isn’t your space – you really shouldn’t even be there at all. When your fellow business folks show up, keep your meeting contained. You don’t have to sit on each other’s laps, but you should avoid the temptation to sprawl out.

3. Use your inside voice
This is smart for two reasons. First, you don’t want to broadcast your strategy, particularly if (a) you actually have a good idea and (b) you’re in the early stages of developing it. Running your mouth at an inappropriate volume could effectively deliver your entire business to a would-be competitor. Also, you really don’t want anybody to know why you’re in the hotel lobby. Get loud, and an employee may decide that the hotel doesn’t need your non-revenue-generating presence.

4. Clean up after yourself
Again, you don’t want anyone to know what you’re working on – nobody needs a head-to-head competitor that’s seen his playbook. Also, a great spot is worth revisiting. If you plan to have meetings at a particular hotel lobby again, you need to show that you aren’t going to create work for the staff that isn’t being offset with money you spend.

5. Stay at the perimeter
Plant yourself as far out of the way as you can – out of sight, out of mind. Further, you won’t be taking prime real estate that a guest could want, which means you won’t be interfering with the hotel’s effort to make money. Simply not screwing things up for anyone else can buy you plenty of latitude from the staff. Don’t give anyone a reason to care, and they won’t.

6. Spend some cash every now and then
Give a little. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than rent, and the space is much less embarrassing than where you live (especially if you have roommates). Stop at the restaurant for lunch or the bar for a drink every now and then … and tip well. Don’t go into any details about why you’re choosing these venues; just spend some money and let the staff know that it’s appreciated.

7. Have a rotation
Show up at the same hotel lobby every day, and you’re bound to generate some suspicion. Mix up your routine. Test out several hotel lobbies, and vary your meting spots. You’ll undoubtedly have your favorites, but you don’t want the employees to know you by name.

This is a week-long series from the writer of White Collar Travel about the role hotels will play not only in the recovery of our economy, but in giving an early home to the businesses that will define tomorrow.

The Dealmakers’ Ballroom: Understanding the hotel lobby phenomenon

Where will the future of our economy – from the global economy, even – come from? Forget about garages in Silicon Valley, illicit side projects in Manhattan cubicle farms and the online tinkering that happens in the Harvard dorms. Instead, take a look at hotels. Specifically, peek into the lobbies.

As travelers, we pass through the hotel lobby. The only reason to stick around is because you’re waiting to meet a local friend or your kid forgot something and had to run back up to the room. Sure, there are lobby bars that give you a reason to hang out for a while, but that’s not really the lobby. I’m talking about the couches and chairs that may be festooned with the day’s newspaper but don’t come with drink service or any other raison d’etre.

Yet, as hotel guests walk from the front door to the elevator bank, especially in major cities, there are always a few people lingering, alone or in groups. They talk in hushed tones, pluck away at laptop keys and occasionally shuffle papers. These transients look like any other business traveler … because they have trained themselves to blend in.

The reality is not what it seems.Hotel lobbies offer great places to meet. You can usually pick up a wi-fi connection, people come and go without asking questions and there’s plenty of traffic to conceal the fact that you don’t belong. And, you don’t. If you’re among these hotel-squatters, you’re not a guest of the hotel, and you probably shouldn’t be availing yourself of the free meeting space. Nonetheless, it happens all the time – and good things come from it.

Cash-strapped entrepreneurs have been using free spaces to meet for years. I first saw (and took part in) the practice in late 2001, when the Boston area was reeling from the dual pressures of the dotcom market’s implosion and the economic effects of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. I was starting a business at the time, and I was meeting with other entrepreneurs to discuss potential partnerships. Though we met in Starbucks locations, train stations and any number of public places, hotel lobbies were always the most comfortable.

And of course, I didn’t want to bring any potential business partner to my apartment (or my neighborhood, for that matter).

All that was almost a decade ago, and I haven’t spent a whole lot of time meeting in hotel lobbies since then – until this year. In the past few months, I’ve already been to two business meetings at the W Hotel Union Square in New York to talk to entrepreneurs with grand dreams and carefully managed execution plans. It occurred to me that the ashes of the financial crisis are awaiting their Phoenix, and I may have met it.

Hotel lobbies do serve a purpose, even if not for the hotel or its guests. This week, we’ll take a look at how entrepreneurs use these vast, free spaces to take their shots at becoming your next employer.

This is a week-long series from the writer of White Collar Travel about the role hotels will play not only in the recovery of our economy, but in giving an early home to the businesses that will define tomorrow.

Events at The Ritz-Carlton

This past weekend, I had the extreme pleasure of attending the annual Insurance Advisory Council meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Rose Hall, Jamaica. The Ritz-Carlton hosts a yearly visit with meeting planners who work with insurance giants (no one from AIG to my knowledge; that scandal was left to the St. Regis) to find out the needs of their group and, of course, to show off what they can do a little in hopes that it will encourage the planners to book their hotels for those big company getaways. They meet with groups from other industries, as well.

I recently wrote about the Meetings Within Reach package which is offering businesses very competitive prices. Corporate annual meetings and large groups account for a huge slice of the Ritz-Carlton occupancy pie, and it was no surprise to find that they really know how to do it right. Over the course of a couple of days of meals, activities, late night pool parties and a fair amount of rum, I found myself bonding with this group of people I didn’t otherwise know, learning about not just their work, but their lives and how they react in different situations.

For example, rather than playing hippy-dippy trust exercises, the Ritz-Carlton offers your group a chance to check out the local zip-line, paint a local orphanage, and showers you with elaborate parties including music, dancing, fortune-telling and more.

Of course, as always, it’s the little things that make Ritz-Carlton hotels special — and especially luxurious. Check out the gallery to see what your company’s annual meeting could look like.