Innovative Ways to Capitalize on Group Meeting Business
By Peter Strebel Chief Executive Officer, Omni Hotels & Resorts | September 09, 2019
As meeting and event planners cater increasingly to millennials, the largest generation in the work force, a key trend continues to emerge: what was done in years past will not work moving forward. Every meeting must be more impactful, more exciting and more attractive to attendees than what has ever been planned before.
The fact is, this trend isn't only driven by millennials. Seventy-four percent of Americans surveyed prefer experiences over products. For the hospitality industry, that means hosting a traditional meeting in a ballroom with great service is not enough anymore - in fact, American Express' 2019 Global Meetings and Events forecast specifically notes that younger professionals are unsatisfied with "typical" venues and increasingly are calling for quirky, unique and above all, authentic settings for meetings and events.
As meeting planners strive to integrate unusual settings into their events, more and more business is being driven away from hotels and resorts in favor of off-site venues such as zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and museums. For our industry, it presents both a challenge and an opportunity to evolve our business in a way that meets the needs of meeting planners' shifting priorities.
Uncommon Destinations Lead TO Uncommon Experiences
The way to address this challenge is to adapt with creative, inventive ways to ensure hotels are just as authentic to their destination as any of these alternate sites. The old way of selling group meetings into standard ballrooms and boardrooms that look the same as their counterparts across the country will fall increasingly by the wayside. But we can't simply change the way we're selling - the product itself must be genuine in order to resonate and create the experience that meeting planners are not just envisioning, they're requiring.
Omni Hotels & Resorts approaches this by offering a diverse portfolio of properties, in addition to looking toward the future with an ambitious development strategy. Walk into any two properties across the country, and none will look exactly alike. This is because in every market in which Omni operates, the local culture is leveraged to influence design, food and beverage and meeting space decisions.
The Sprouting Project at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort started as an aquaponic greenhouse, but now features an apiary, root cellar and chicken coop to deliver one-of-a-kind foodie experiences.
The Sprouting Project | Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
A perfect example of this is The Sprouting Project at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort in Florida. Daven, the executive chef at the time (he has since been promoted to director of food and beverage), stumbled upon a dilapidated greenhouse hidden away on the sprawling property. He has such a passion and vision for local flavor and color - where anyone else would have seen a tumbledown shack, he saw an opportunity.
The property invested in converting it into an aquaponic greenhouse, planting 720 herbs and leafy greens, but keeping the space otherwise modest with dirt floors. The original intent was to keep it purely functional, but Daven knew it was too special to remain behind the scenes. It soon began to be sold as a small, intimate event venue.
Since then, The Sprouting Project has expanded with even more space to host larger events. It also has an apiary boasting 28 beehives which allows the property to harvest three different types of honey; an above-ground root cellar with 36 reclaimed tequila barrels that the food and beverage team uses for aging spirits and sauces; a chicken coop with more than a dozen birds; and by demand of meeting planners, turf flooring.
The venue itself inspires the events that are held there, whether it's hosting a "make-your-own hot sauce" workshop, having guests select and pick their own herbs for a custom handcrafted vinaigrette or barrel-aging a group's signature cocktail leading up to an event so it can be served "on tap." There's no template for an event at The Sprouting Project; each one is 100 percent customized to the client's needs, wants and vision.
The Sprouting Project is really remarkable because it's not just about sprouting herbs and vegetables anymore - it's about sprouting ideas. It's always changing and evolving so that no two events are ever the same. This is the kind of creative, unexpected approach that will allow us to answer the question of, "What are we going to do that's different?" The solution is an amazing, authentic event that keeps the group on property.
Falls City Market | Omni Louisville Hotel
When Omni developed the recently-opened Omni Louisville Hotel, creating an on-site venue that felt off-site was part of the strategic vision. That's how Falls City Market, a 20,000-square-foot food hall came to be.
Anchored by Heine Brothers' Coffee, a local organic coffee roaster with a loyal fanbase, the market is an urban food hall inspired by concepts like Eataly in Chicago or Eatzi's in Dallas, and features a bakery, sushi bar, pizzeria and even a taco truck among other rotating concepts.
The space lends itself to group buyouts with opportunities for unusual, engaging events that can include chef demos, liquid nitrogen bourbon slushies and workshops where attendees can hand-dip their own bottle of bourbon in wax. Its casual and trendy environment serves as a refreshing contrast to more formal venues.
Importantly, Falls City Market is branded and operated entirely with its own identity. Guests can't even charge back purchases in the market to their room, and that is entirely by design. In order to create a true off-site experience, we had to commit to creating a genuinely independent location - authenticity is something that has to be crafted, not faked.
The beauty of this uncommon destination is that it binds the feeling of an off-site venue with the convenience of an on-site space. And it has been a powerful selling tool, as the sales team at Omni Louisville credit Falls City Market as differentiator that closes sales.
Pin & Proof | Omni Louisville Hotel
Another gem at Omni Louisville Hotel is Pin & Proof, the property's speakeasy. While it's very trendy right now for bars to call themselves Prohibition-themed, it takes a lot of courage to commit to running a true speakeasy. Pin & Proof has no signage, and is accessed only when guests literally walk through a painting at the end of an unmarked hallway.
In the small, intimate space (the bar has only a 69-seat capacity), the walls flanking the four bowling lanes are covered with authentic vintage photography that was curated in partnership with the local historic society. It's nuances like this that give credibility to the space and make it desirable for meeting planners and attendees looking for something Instagram-able. In fact, when people do rent the space, they very rarely add decoration beyond what's already present.
Partnerships with world-class brands like MLB's Atlanta Braves unlock the ability to offer meeting and event experiences that cannot be found elsewhere. Partnerships with world-class brands like MLB's Atlanta Braves unlock the ability to offer meeting and event experiences that cannot be found elsewhere.
Omni Hotel at The Battery Atlanta
Cultivating partnerships through development is another fundamental way to create hotels that can become destinations in-and-of themselves. For example, the recently-opened Omni Hotel at The Battery Atlanta operates in partnership with Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves, and everything from the location to the interior design is crafted to leverage a professional sports pedigree.
Located at The Battery Atlanta, a multi-use dining and shopping destination - not to mention the Braves' home field - the property leverages their partnership to sell group experiences that cannot be found anywhere else: "Backstage" tours of the athletic facility and locker rooms, breakout sessions in the ballparks' luxury suites, teambuilding activities on the professional baseball field and even award recognition on the Jumbotron.
For meeting planners looking to host big league events, the partnership also provides additional fun and unexpected opportunities like borrowing the Braves' life-size bobblehead statues, or hiring the Heavy Hitters or Tomahawk Team, the team's drum line and dance team, respectively.
Omni Frisco Hotel
Another example of a world-class partnership is Omni Frisco Hotel. Not only is it the official hotel of the Dallas Cowboys, it's located within The Star, home to the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters.
The partnership allows access to areas of this impressive NFL brand that few others may ever see: Cowboys Club, a private social club and restaurant; behind the scenes tours; and even the players' training facility.
What's so impressive about the Dallas Cowboys is that they're not simply a professional football team - they are the most valuable sports franchise in the entire world. Even for planners and attendees who may not be huge fans of football, there is a palpable energy and polish to every part of the Cowboys brand and facility, and that in-and-of itself creates an experience unlike any other.
By cultivating and leveraging strategic partnerships, we have greater opportunity to exceed meeting planners' demands of uncommon destinations and unforgettable experiences.
Development strategies can be heavily influenced by the vision of creating uncommon destinations, as shown in the rendering of Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport's main dining room.
With more than $2 billion in active development, Omni is taking every lesson gleaned from these experiences and applying it toward forward progress.
For instance, Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, slated to open in 2021, leverages Boston's reputation as a city for the arts. The interior design of the main dining outlet references the iconic Boston Public Library ceiling with dining tables reminiscent of study tables below. The bar features a painted ceiling and the overhead lighting is stained glass - it's going to be like dining in a museum. The main dining room has a huge mural and tons of artwork on the walls, and that's just a taste of the sort of inspiration our design team is infusing into the new build.
The team is also committed to creating unusual and unexpected spaces, like an indoor/outdoor elevated pool deck. As anyone who's visited Boston outside of summer knows, a year-round pool is very uncommon in the city.
Another property slated for 2021, Omni Oklahoma City Hotel, will be leveraging its proximity to Scissortail Park, a 70-acre urban park that, once complete, will feature an entertainment stage, ornamental gardens and woodlands, a lake and boathouse, grand promenade, water features, outdoor roller rink and much more. Again taking design inspiration from the local area, the property will sport earth tones rooted in the prairie landscape, subtle influences like carpet designs that reference the shape of the scissortail and artwork that showcases iconic plains imagery like buffalo and wheat.
Say Goodnight to Hunger
As meeting planners become increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and corporate responsibility - at Omni, we have seen that very much in the corporate and association segments- there is yet another opportunity for our industry to understand and meet their needs.
Say Goodnight to Hunger is Omni's signature corporate responsibility initiative, and through it the company has donated nearly 16 million meals since the inception in 2016. The donations are made to Feeding America, who in turn direct that money to local food banks in the markets we serve. So we're not just doing business in these local communities, we're actively giving back both through financial and time donations.
To leverage our relationship with these local food banks, the team at Omni Bedford Springs Resort in Pennsylvania coordinated with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank to create a volunteer opportunity for our group clients, both current and prospective. They met at the food bank, volunteered their time where needed and afterward shared dinner, drinks and a sense of comradery.
We've received overwhelmingly positive feedback from this outing, and the sales team even closed business with a past client who had not booked in some time. This renewed relationship is directly attributable to the property team's ingenuity in creating a unique, uncommon experience for their meeting planner clients.
As meeting planners continue to outdo themselves with every event they plan, we have to listen to and understand how the needs and wants of this customer is changing.
By understanding the driving force that is luring events off-property industry-wide, we must acknowledge that this is not a trend that will soon fall out of fashion. Rather it is a pattern and theme that, with vision and execution, can be leveraged as a true differentiator. In doing so, we can transform this challenge into remarkable, unexpected opportunities.
HotelExecutive retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.