by Matt Alderton | August 31, 2017
When it comes to hotels, "charming" and "quaint" often means "dated" and "small." And "historic" sometimes is just a nice way of saying "old."

But not always. In fact, some properties feel just as "contemporary" as they do "classic." Such hotels are perfect for meeting groups because they provide the modern amenities meeting attendees demand alongside the unique ambiance they crave, says Mike Schugt, president of Teneo Hospitality Group, a hospitality sales and marketing firm representing some of America's best-known historic hotels. During a recent conversation with Successful Meetings, Schugt shared advice for how meeting planners can exploit historic hotels' strengths and overcome their weaknesses.

Meeting planners and attendees -- and travelers in general -- are looking more and more for unique properties. Has their appetite for one-of-a-kind venues created more demand for historic hotels?

Yes. The demand is very high. Whether it's for leisure or for business, what people are looking for today when they travel is something multi-dimensional. They're looking for more authenticity and a little bit of grit. It's not enough to be a hotel in the middle of the city that has the services they're looking for. People want something far more interesting than that. They want a hotel where they can learn something about a time and place.

Unfortunately, I think meeting planners sometimes take for granted the historical significance of properties. If you're meeting a planner in Washington, DC, for example, you have probably been to the Willard or the Hay-Adams a number of times and not given much thought to it. But I would not underestimate attendees' desire to experience history, which can really add a new dimension to the meeting experience. 

In a hospitality landscape that's crowded with options, historic hotels can't compete on their history alone. What are historic properties doing to remain current and contemporary?

The properties we represent are all four-diamond hotels. They have all of the necessary "bells and whistles" that people are looking for in their stay because there's a foundational element to staying in a four-diamond hotel -- whether it's historic or not. You have to have exceptional Wi-Fi, for example. You have to deliver a very relevant culinary experience in your bars and restaurants. You have to have the right amenities in your guest rooms, including the right lotions, soaps, and shampoos; the 40 or 50 television stations that people want; an exceptional lighting package in the bathrooms. And, of course, you want to provide the right connectivity for the guest. Ten years ago, for instance, a historic hotel may not have had all of the electrical outlets a modern guest needs for their devices, but today they're adding those extra outlets to their rooms as they're refurbishing them. As a result, guests can enjoy a historic property without sacrificing all the things they want in a modern hotel.

Although many historic hotels have updated their accommodations, the fact remains: Old properties lack some of the advantages of new ones. What challenges should meeting planners be prepared for?

Of course, there can be physical limitations due to the age of the building. In some hotels, for example, you have things like older plumbing or older HVAC systems. But if a hotel is a four-diamond hotel, its owners have typically spent a lot of money upgrading those things. Sometimes you'll find meeting rooms that, from a dimensional standpoint, have some limitations. Sometimes bathrooms in historic hotels are smaller than what you would find in new builds. You also have smaller kitchen spaces, smaller laundry spaces, and smaller back-of-the-house places. So, there are certainly some things that one should be aware of. But at four-diamond hotels there are very, very experienced staff who are aware of their property's limitations and can help meeting planners work through them.

At the same time, I've opened up 20 hotels in my career and can tell you that older properties often were built much better than newer properties are. In today's environment, they're building hotels in less than two years, and that can create some issues. Whereas if you were to go into the Viking or the del Coronado, or if you were to go into the Hermitage or the Peabody, you would be blown away by how well maintained these hotels are. Their construction is remarkable.

How do you see hotels leveraging their history?

We find that most historic properties are really proud of their heritage and communicate it very well to the guest. For example, at the Willard, you'll learn about presidents that stayed there and events that took place there. You'll find the same thing at the Hay-Adams, and at the del Coronado, which has its history displayed throughout the property. These hotels recognize that their history is a tremendous value proposition, and as a result they're really accentuating it across the board.

I'll give you an example: I stayed at the Boston Park Plaza recently. This is a hotel that's really interesting. It's an old kind of "grand dame hotel" that was built in 1927. It had the laydown carpet, the mahogany woods, and the big, big chandeliers that you expect from an old hotel. But it just was not relevant; it was too dated and didn't fit the times. So, they basically gutted the hotel and spent $100 million renovating it. It's still the hotel that was built in 1927, but by modernizing it they've opened it up to a whole new clientele. It's now a beautiful four-diamond property versus a three-diamond property, but you still find many, many historical elements. What they named their restaurant, for example, is a nod to the hotel's past. They also modernized the elevator, but left the old-fashioned elevator indicators above the elevator doors. In the guest rooms you'll see a plethora of history, and they even created a little brochure so you could learn about it. That's just one example of the way historic hotels are embracing their history while also keeping up with the times.

Likewise, how can meeting planners exploit properties' history?

If you have an event at a historic hotel, and everyone has a great experience, that's all well and good. But if you can actually link the theme for the meeting to the history of the property, that adds a new dimension to your meeting experience, which has tremendous value.

That's one idea. Another is: When you're communicating to your meeting attendees what the meeting agenda will be and where the meeting will take place, share the story of the hotel so they can anticipate going to a place where there is history, interest, and intrigue. And then when they're there, you can expose that to them. Look at the Omni Parker House in Boston, for instance. Malcolm X used to work there. You could do a quick tour of the hotel and offer a behind-the-scenes look at where he worked. Or you could show attendees where they started making the hotel's famous Parker House rolls back in the 1800s.

You also can utilize social media. Millennials, especially, are always looking for opportunities to talk to their friends and followers about something interesting. Whether it's, "Hey, I just took a selfie in front of a picture of Dwight Eisenhower somewhere," or, "I'm on the beach at the del Coronado where X, Y, and Z films were made," there are lots of opportunities at historic hotels to leverage social media with millennial attendees.

Not everybody is going to gravitate to historic hotels, because not everyone likes history, but it creates a different point of entry into the meeting for those that do.