Dolce Hotels and Resorts last month continued its evolution from a pure conference center chain with the hiring of former Wyndham Hotels executive Peter Strebel as chief revenue officer, responsible for sales, marketing and North American development, and former Omni Hotels executive Richard Maxfield as chief operating officer. MeetingNews executive managing editor Chris Davis this month sat down with Strebel and Maxfield at an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Dolce Basking Ridge's $8 million renovation.
MeetingNews: What's your assessment of the meetings market?
Peter Strebel: Obviously, the market is down. Our whole portfolio is down about 10 or 11 percent in total revenue, which is not good, but compared to the industry, which is reporting 18 to 21 percent, we're doing a little bit better. We're doing a lot of small and midsize meetings, training and executive MBA programs that have not been hurt as much by the economy as some of the large incentive meetings. Our core business meeting is off, but not off as much. We haven't seen an uptick yet, but in talking to our customers, there is a sense that things are beginning to shift. Once the stock market starts performing a bit better and companies report better results, things will let go. The corporate market is holding back, but the association market is taking advantage of the economy and working with hotels on better rates and better terms. I'm hoping the worst is over.
MN: Dolce's new CEO, Steven Rudnitsky, is a former hotel executive, as are the two of you. How has that affected Dolce's strategy?
Strebel: Our goal is to increase our number of properties, and the best way to do that is to have phenomenal operating results. We want to increase occupancy and revenue, and we'll do that by honoring and protecting the business they've had while seeking new business opportunities, and try to change the focus of the company. We want to bring in a culture of revenue generation—not to say we weren't focused on that, but to be even more focused on that.
Richard Maxfield: We're very committed to operations and standards, and we feel we have a nice little niche. We have the ownership backing that can withstand the ups and downs of the economy.
Strebel: We're not a public company. We're not held accountable to shareholders, and we can look at the business on a long-term perspective.
MN: Are you seeing more success in attracting new customers?
Strebel: We've done focus group research, and there's a mystique about conference centers. People see them as cold and sterile, so we really want to introduce the hotels to people, and that might include using our competition and giving them something new to try. The beauty of the conference center is that you know up front what you're spending. We price per person and it includes everything. There are no extra A/V charges and no surprises. Planners like that now, because they can put it in a budget and feel comfortable.
MN: How wedded are you to the Complete Meeting Package concept?
Strebel: We prefer to sell that concept, but if a company wants something different, we will develop a package or program that suits their needs.
MN: How challenging is it to be a traditional conference center chain and branch out into a hotel operation, given issues like the CMP?
Maxfield: It's about customization. There are many customers not even familiar with the CMP, so being able to offer that, and then customize from that, is a competitive advantage for us. From a standards or human-interaction point of view, it doesn't change from a hotel to a resort to a conference center, but one-size-fits-all doesn't work in any business today.
MN: How much of a problem are perception issues?
Strebel: We actually benefit from them. Dolce has always been an upscale brand, not a luxury brand. I think our pricing packages are very affordable, so we are finding people looking at us who have traditionally gone to luxury properties. Fortunately and unfortunately, I think that is going to be the new future. People today are looking for value in every purchase that they make.
MN: How aggressive are you being in contracts and terms?
Strebel: Each hotel is different. We have some that are doing very well. Europe is more robust than North America, for example. We've been very flexible on terms because we want to book the business that is the right business for us.
MN: What are your initiatives for the remainder of the year?
Strebel: Growth, for one. We have a few deals we're working on in markets that need an alternative for the group customer. Rich is working on increasing and standardizing service levels. Right now, international is a little bit stronger, but there are good opportunities domestically. It's very big in Europe now, and we're pretty ingrained there. We have not been in the Asia/Pac market, and no conference center chains really are. We have no plans to go there now.
Originally published June 22, 2009