Cover Story: The All-In-One Resort

Resorts are often perceived as being principally for the benefit of leisure guests.

But Cammy Lopez, of Austin, TX-based CL Consulting (who has been planning corporate meetings and events for six years) recalls how a resort once bent over backwards to save one of her meetings: "It was at Barton Creek Resort and Spa; and it was a sales meeting of about 325 local and international attendees. The company was going through a recent acquisition, which resulted in downsizing and leadership changes, so there were a lot of last-minute changes with our rooming list, registration, and guarantee numbers.

"But the Barton Creek staff was accommodating and sensitive to our situation, the food was superb, and the scenery was just beautiful. Having the meeting in a resort created a relaxed atmosphere and helped to ease attendee tensions."

Why all the fuss to accommodate the needs of a meeting at a resort? In today's society, the key to success is the ability to multitask; in fact, the more in function and spirit you resemble a Swiss Army pocket knife, the better. And since what's true for people is also true for the contemporary resort destination, most new "hybrid" properties are purpose-built with meetings in mind, while vintage resorts spend millions to refine and enlarge their function space.

"Most attendees prefer a resort setting with conference facilities," says Peggy Young, of Santa Cruz, CA-based Peggy Young & Associates Inc. "There are concerns about perceived luxury with my groups, but if the pricing is the same, a resort offers the ambiance of relaxation." Ken Deans, principal, LGI Worldwide in Los Angeles, adds that staying on site at a resort can even reduce costs such as car rentals, cab fares, and increased conference fees to cover shuttle buses. Also: "Attendees are more relaxed and attentive because they do not have to rush about."

As a result, many planners say that resort destinations drive attendance and attendee satisfaction. Lopez agrees: "A resort will almost always boost attendance. Having on-site resort amenities and capturing the 'resort ambiance' is always a plus—for attendees, it's almost like you're on vacation, not at a meeting."

Side by Side

One problem faced by planners is that some guests staying at the resort will actually be on vacation—and act like it.

Luckily, the scheduling habits of leisure and meeting visitors solve part of the problem. "The leisure guest has their own schedule," says Mike Wainwright, vice president of sales and marketing at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Orlando, FL. "The meeting guest is on the meeting's schedule—they're up early and back in the rooms late. The leisure guest is more likely to leave the property, and the meetings guest is more likely to be on-property."

But for Gaylord Hotel & Resorts, which boasts its under-one-roof-style hybrid resort in Orlando, Dallas, and now Washington DC, its solution is something Wainwright refers to as "careful design," where guest streams are separated by dedicated convention centers (with 400,000 to 600,000 sf of space), built away from the resort's public space. "I opened the Gaylord Palms as GM," says John P. Caparella, Gaylord's executive vice president and COO, "so I know it very well. There were a lot of focus groups done; we really wanted to know what meeting planners had to say. It was about making meetings easy."

According to Caparella, Gaylord Hotels' signature design evolved from the original Opryland Resort built next to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN. "The Grand Ole Opry was a pretty hot venue," he understates, "and people wanted to stay there. Then a man named Jack Vaughn had a vision for a convention hotel, and it was successful. Then we added a 2,800-room hotel."

Each Gaylord hotel cum resort boasts public space under glass (where the temperature is always 72 degrees), where the themes are taken from the destinations in which they are located. Florida's Palm, for example, features a Key West-style kick-back bar and a gator swamp; the Gaylord Texan boasts the Glass Cactus bar and lounge; and DC's Gaylord National has Federal- and Georgian-style buildings in the midst of its atrium. Among the modifications made to the original concept in the new properties is the creation of an atmospheric watering hole. "Venues like Pose [at the National] were designed for guests on-property," says Wainwright. "The entire thought was that meeting planners told us that it was important to keep attendees together in the evening, for informal networking to continue." As it turns out, Gaylord's lounges are widely successful with local guests; prior to its grand opening in April, the National boasted lines waiting to get into Pose—which has its own entrance and elevator.

Like Opryland, the 301-room Chateau on the Lake Resort, Spa & Convention Center, which was one of the first upscale properties in an increasingly diversified Branson, MO, was located to take advantage of the popular country music destination. Developed by John Q. Hammons Hotels Management LLC, the Chateau has served as the model for Hammons' expanding network of midsize convention hotels in second-tier Midwest and Southern destinations.

A place for everyone

Conference center resorts also struggle with the two guest streams. "It is difficult where you mix business guests with a lot of families with children who are running in and out of the lobby and into the swimming pool," says Andy Dolce, chairman and managing director of Dolce International. Dolce International currently manages 26 conference centers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, the standards of which are determined by the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), and has recently debuted the 264-room Dolce La Hulpe Brussels, in Belgium, and the 346-room Dolce Valley Forge near Philadelphia. "Generally, conference guests get a little upset about distractions that keep their people from staying focused." Alternatively, he adds, leisure guests or individual travelers may resent being herded like meeting groups. "For example, an individual staying in a hotel, is joined by an associate [for a meal at] the restaurant, and is asked [by the server], 'What group are you with?' You get insulted by that."

Dolce points to one of the company's new resort properties, Zermatt, which recently hosted the IACC Annual Conference: "Brand-new, beautiful, and up near Salt Lake City, which does a lot of leisure and ski business. There, we have a conference center, with dedicated space just for meetings that is isolated from the public space. We have two restaurants—one for conference dining and one for a la carte dining. In the evening, if you go by the pool, you might find a whole bunch of people there: meeting guests, families, and everybody else. The pool is big enough that it seems to work okay."

Sam Haigh, president and COO of Benchmark Hospitality International (which operates conference resorts in the U.S., Japan, and Panama) agrees: "Conferees have a better experience if they're in a place that's vibrant, [which is why] we like to operate within the envelope of full-service hospitality. Last year, Benchmark reopened the 216-room Bedford Springs Resort in Pennsylvania, a historic resort that had lain fallow for decades, and it expects to open the Costa d'Este, a 94-suite resort owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, in Vero Beach, FL, this year. "Whether our guests are conferees or transient guests," says Haigh, "they are coming into an operation that has all of the bells and whistles that a high-level, high-end resort would offer. Almost all of our resorts are positioned as such: Lansdowne Resort, Bedford Springs, Cheyenne Mountain Resort, Scottsdale Resort, Chaminade, Turtle Bay Resort. That's how we operate them. In addition, we have the conference center concept. So you have the best of both worlds."

On-site conference and convention facilities are not to every group's taste. Planner Jen Merkel prefers an IACC hotel and conference center "because it will have the best technical facilities, and I will typically have the advantage of getting a lowered or comped fee for meeting space due to sleeping room revenue."

Still, these are often accused of being "cookie cutter." One detractor (who asked not to be named) sniffed, "You can almost point to where the blueberry muffins will be placed." Conference resort managers claim this is a misconception. "In terms of differentiating," says Dolce, "we've upgraded our meeting space and technology to whatever's the best available; and to the conference planners who quarterback the meetings, we provide help through the process. At the same time, our menus are more broad-based; more like you would find in a fine restaurant."

The Good Old Days

And while conference resort managers seek to bring their reputations in line with world-famous destination resorts like The Breakers, The Broadmoor, The Sagamore, The Homestead, and The Greenbrier, it is important to note that those resorts built their reputations partially on group business. The Greenbrier, based in White Sulphur Springs, WV, hosted the American Dental Association in 1871, according to The Greenbrier's historian, Dr. Robert S. Conte; Jerry A. Wayne, vice president of sales and marketing, confirms that today, "the meetings market represents more than half our business mix." At The Broadmoor, in Colorado Springs, CO, "We have been in the business of marketing meetings for 90 years," says David C. Fine, director of sales and marketing. "The Colorado Credit Union just celebrated their 74th annual convention here!" The Broadmoor continues to handle approximately 800 meetings and gatherings in any given year, comprising 70 percent of its business.

Mark Holland, planner for the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation (based in Westminster, CO), thinks, "Resorts with conference facilities result in a great meeting; attendees find it more convenient to have everything in one place." One advantage he finds is that "we can usually get the hotel to waive room charges; the same doesn't usually hold true for those with conference centers."

Joana Vieira Gomes, management and project support at Brussels-based Integra A/S, also prefers a resort with conference facilities, because "it is easier to coordinate last-minute details of the event and at the same time be available for individual problems if they happen. You can get some special discounts if you book a big amount of rooms and conference facilities (catering, etc.) and you do reduce transport costs and other nuisances for those who come from abroad."

Part of the Team

Even as meeting space has expanded at resorts, so have team activities for groups, far beyond golf. Sure, at the landmark Scottish, 232-room Gleneagles Hotel, a game on the world-famous golf course is a must, but now groups can also learn how to handle a trained gundog through lessons that incorporate obedience, agility, and handling at the world's only Gundog School. At the 483-room Homestead in Hot Springs, VA, activities include skeet shooting, fly-fishing, and falconry. Like The Homestead, the Equinox Resort in Manchester, NH, also includes falconry in its activities, with the British School of Falconry in the U.S. demonstrating how to handle and fly a hawk. And at the Doral Arrowwood Resort in Rye Brook, NY, groups can divide into teams and conquer through the resort's paintball program.

Is Everybody Happy?

Can one apply a formula for which type of resort will suit which type of meeting? Says Lopez, "I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all. It's about availability, what is happening where the meeting will take place, and how badly the venue needs the business." Eric McNulty, managing director of conferences at Harvard Business School Publishing, says, "I look for a location that will make the event a memorable experience. I want great food and service, natural light, and some interesting features or activities that will help participants engage with each other." Says Kevin R. Johnson CEO of Atlanta-based Advantage Event Group, "The bottom line is that, when you start looking at where the next conference will be, it's not just point-and-click. In a perfect world, all choices are good choices, but reality dictates that when all the bills are paid, all the evaluations are in—and the CEO asks, 'Did we accomplish what we set out to do?'—the forethought and expertise applied to the front end will most often justify the results."

Originally published June 01, 2008

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