"As a third party, I use every resource available to me for site selection," says Brett J. Sterenson, president of Hotel Lobbyists, a conference site-selection firm based in Washington, D.C. "I use convention and visitor bureaus to ensure I'm getting the most up-to-date picture of the market's landscape; I use national sales offices to quickly distribute my lead; and finally, I tap hotel consortiums that represent properties across many brands or independent hotels that have something thematic in common."
Perhaps not as well-known, hotel consortiums offer sales and marketing services to portfolios of curated, usually independent hotels, and can provide planners with a turnkey solution that shaves precious time off the sourcing process. Hotel consortiums typically can streamline the sometimes unwieldy process of researching and sending eRFPs to countless properties.
"There is no cost and tremendous value for planners to reach out," says Michael Dominguez, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International, which represents more than 300 high-end properties throughout the world, many of them independent. "We are hearing from planners that they are looking for other resources to help them with their events."
The Curated Portfolio
According to hotel-data research company STR, about 27 percent of hotels in the United States are independents; worldwide, that ratio is much more even, with 54 percent branded and 46 percent independent. While many unbranded hotels are perfect for groups, without the backing of a major hotel company it can be more difficult for them to convey the level of service that planners can expect. When properties join a consortium, they get that additional vetting and gain planner confidence that comes from being part of a larger organization — without losing their independence.
"While each property within our global portfolio has an authentic and locally inspired aesthetic, each of our 750 member hotels must meet and maintain our brand standards of excellence," explains Amy Butterfield, senior vice president of group sales for Preferred Hotels & Resorts, which offers five collections, each distinguished by its level of luxury, from immersive to approachable. "We regularly visit member hotels to monitor for consistency in the quality of product and guest experience using a unique measurement tool." The organization's Integrated Quality Assurance program aggregates consumer review scores combined with surprise site inspections to provide quality-assurance scores.
According to Kenan Simmons, vice president, Americas, for Small Luxury Hotels of the World, its more than 500 member properties have passed a similarly strict vetting process, which only about 5 percent of applicants complete successfully.
Consortiums can make life easier for planners by simplifying the RFP process and other steps involved in securing a venue.
"Historic Hotels of America offers all the meeting-related services you would expect from a major hotel brand, including RFP sourcing, contract and concession negotiations, activity planning and site-visit coordination," explains Michael DiRienzo, director of sales and development for HHA, whose portfolio features more than 300 properties with an historic pedigree.
His group recently worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its PastForward conference of about 2,000 attendees. "Using beautiful and historic venues like the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., where we will hold our 2021 conference, provides not only an elegant learning location but it also helps the attendee better remember each annual conference experience," says Farin Salahuddin, director of PastForward.
The added value goes beyond the basic numbers and RFP process, though. Dominguez compares ALHI's role as similar to a convention services manager but on the front end, helping the planner understand how to make an event work for a particular venue.
If an RFP gets a "no," that does not mean the event can't be done, explains Dominguez: "That's where the human resource comes in to say, 'We can't do it exactly this way, but what if you do it slightly differently?' Our global sales professionals know our properties — they've lived, visited and understand them."
Improved SMMP Compliance
For clients with strategic meetings management programs in place, hotel consortiums can help them choose unique independent properties and provide comprehensive event numbers, even if the hotel itself lacks an updated data-collection system. Butterfield gives the example of a Fortune 500 company that had an SMMP; under its strictures, the planner thought their venue options would be limited and choosing a specialty property would be a no-no. Preferred Hotels & Resorts helped them find some surprising choices.
"[We were] able to help this customer be more strategic by acting as a true consultant," says Butterfield. She says Preferred Hotels reps also can help negotiate contract addenda, concessions and other key points. And crucially, Preferred is able to track the spend for the end user, creating custodial accounts on behalf of companies, "so the internal meeting clients within the company's umbrella, who crave unique and memorable experiences, are incentivized to follow the SMMP guidelines."
Consortiums can aggregate event trends and related market conditions that independent hotels on their own might otherwise lack.
"Planners should be leveraging us for business intelligence and understanding the environment of the hotels they might be working with," says Dominguez of ALHI. "They can use us to help those stakeholders understand that they need to make a decision sooner, not later. When there needs to be flexibility around meeting programming — they can really leverage our intelligence to show 'this is how you can make it work.'"
That insight has been a major selling point for ALHI, says Steve Kinsley, president of Kinsley Meetings. "ALHI conducts research in an attempt to stay on top of trends in our industry, and they share that information not only with their partners, but also with the industry at large," he notes. "That dedication to our industry makes them a more trusted partner."
Small Luxury Hotels of the World puts out an annual trend report and plans are moving forward to launch a Sustainability Manifesto this year, committing member properties to specific green best practices. Initiatives will include the elimination of single-use plastics, providing toiletries in locally manufactured celadon containers and placing reusable shopping bags in each guest room.
Studying its customers, Preferred Hotels & Resorts has noticed that a new generation of management is involved in the planning process. "More and more stakeholders and decision-makers are Millennials and Gen Zers," says Butterfield. "Savvy planners recognize the need to program their events to appeal to these stakeholders. Authentic experiences are key — followed closely by sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Our member hotels who cater to these desires will find greater success than those who don't."