Swimming with the Big Fish

Meeting Planning

Sponsored by: Clarion Hotels

The first thing many already know about small meetings is that there’s nothing small about ’em. In fact, they account for a large portion of the meetings industry, and their numbers are growing. According to a 2011 PhoCusWright study of current planning trends among planners and suppliers, a vast majority of meetings had fewer than 100 attendees and 64% had fewer than 50.

Unlike their larger counterparts, the small-meeting sector actually spiked in growth during the recession. “As companies tightened travel and meetings spend, larger meetings became midsize meetings and midsize meetings became small meetings,” says Douglas Quinby, PhoCusWright’s senior director, research.

This year, Q4 is experiencing a growth spurt as well, for a number of reasons. “What we see is lastminute adjustments toward the end of the year. There’s an increase in bringing people together to build that strategy for the rest of the year and talk of Zentila, an online meeting-planning service.

The second thing you should know about small meetings is that their business proposition isn’t “small” either: These meetings encompass everything from C-suite long-range planning and decision making to core team building and crucial sales training. They include incentives, motivational/ inspirational workshops, board meetings and “bluesky” visioning. And they vary from local day events to regional and national meetings.

Because the outweighs their individual attendee counts, we thought it was time to take a look at them, with input from planners, hoteliers and other industry experts.

Small Meetings, Big Pluses

Some advantages of small meetings are obvious. For planners, they offer easier logistics with fewer moving parts, budget-friendly costs and a more targeted program for the audience. And for hotels, they put guaranteed heads in beds. “Collaborating with long-distance colleagues means hotel room-night revenue,” says Patricia Morreale, general manager of the Toll House Hotel in Los Gatos, Calif.

But there are other advantages from relationship building to productivity worth considering as well.

Face Time

According to Ali Pena, with Forums Event Design & Production in Miami, one advantage is that “the presenters can have more of a one-on-one interaction. When they present a product, for example, they can review the features and take the time to pause for questions. In smaller meetings you can have a conversation. In larger conferences you can have a presentation. The focus of a smaller meeting, among our clients, is sales, and you can be a lot more effective when you have more of an opportunity to have face-to-face interaction.”

Increased Productivity

   L'Auberge de Sedona, Arizona

Given some companies’ reduced budgets and tight staffing, increased productivity is a necessity. Getting out of the office for a fresh approach can help. “There is a definite trend right now where companies are taking their top-level salespeople and execs far away from their normal day-to-day activities,” says Gregory Roper, director of sales and marketing for L’Auberge de Sedona in Arizona. “This speaks to productivity. In order for a meeting to occur, the planner must prove productivity. Getting people far away from their tasks (in terms of a mind-set more than a physical distance) gets them to shed layers and formulate a more productive mind-set.”

The “Kumbaya” Factor

Speaking of bonding, small meetings offer an excellent way for attendees to connect. It’s been a tough few years for the employees of corporations and associations, Roper adds. “Now that the economy is in a recovery, companies need to heal, as do their employees. People feel like their opinion matters rather than being one voice in the crowd. Team building is a definite focus, as is productivity.” In practice, he notes, smaller groups have a stronger focus on the tasks and topics at hand and it’s easier for participants to create close bonds with their fellow attendees. It creates an atmosphere where a natural healing and trust occurs.

Small Meetings, Big Challenges

   Seasons Ballroom at Millennium Bostonian Hotel

While the challenges of small meetings are not the same, or on the same scale, as larger events, many are remarkably similar. For instance, these challenges translate: “Making sure the location, the facility, the activities, the speakers and the food are all just right—and that each guest walks away with a positive memory,” says Joanne Cadenas, operations manager at Printing Industries Association of Southern California, who recently held an annual administrators meeting for 30 attendees at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.

Other small meeting programs need event space, but fewer room nights. There’s also the space-toroom ratio, says Teresa Lovich, manager, exhibits and project management for Imedex, a leading independent continuing education conference organizer, in Dallas. “We still need plenty of meeting space for growth, but don’t always need the sleeping rooms…They can also be a challenge if you have a large F&B or meeting-space rental minimum to meet.”

Other challenges run the spectrum:

Lead Time

Small meeting planners have taken the short lead time for bookings to a new level, causing great stress for properties catering to that market. While everyone knows short lead times are the new normal, “they’re shorter than ever! Anywhere from two days to two months,” says Jacqueline Bjorkes, catering manager for The Listel Hotel in Vancouver.

Zentila’s Mason agrees. “They’re still very last minute, going as the economy goes. We started to see the booking window lengthen a little earlier this year— but it depends on what day you read the newspaper. There’s still a level of uncertainty out there.”

In peak season—and with growing occupancies— these short lead times can become an issue. “Most effective yield management teams are keeping some space in their hat to have available for that perfect fit. Then they may change direction if it fails to materialize,” says Roper of L’Auberge de Sedona.

Last-Minute Changes

   Terrace view at MileNorth, A Chicago Hotel

Lead times aren’t the only last-minute challenge for smaller properties. A cancellation can affect more than one piece of group business. “If you have a small property, and a planner books a 50-person group that doesn’t materialize, the impact of attrition is greater on a hotel my size [213 guest rooms; 3,000 sq. ft. Of space],” says Heidi Edinger, director of sales and marketing for MileNorth, A Chicago Hotel. “We don’t have the flexibility to take more than two programs at the same time.”

Last-minute, onsite changes are also more prevalent with smaller meetings, according to Mary Mayes, director of sales and marketing for Trump SoHo New York. For example, she says, a client may arrive at the property and decide to change the room setup from conference style to crescent rounds, not a big deal from the client’s perspective as it’s a small meeting. The hotel, of course, accommodates the request—it’s good service to do so— but it’s not really an insignificant request, she says.

Who’s on First?

“As often happens with smaller meetings, you have an individual in an organization who initially sources and possibly contracts for a program, and then someone else who organizes details such as food/beverage and meeting arrangements, guestroom lists and off-site events,” says Joan Ferraro, director of sales and marketing for the Millennium Bostonian. “With multiple people involved, needs and expectations can easily be translated into the actual event being very different from what was originally intended.” With that in mind, she says, it’s important for hotel event managers to be very organized and detail-oriented, so they’re able to “uncover and communicate all of the client’s needs to the staff.”

Big Fish, Small Pond

Boutique hotels have carved out a niche for small meetings due to their size (50–200 guest rooms) and specialized appeal (intimate, stylish, usually luxurious or quirky, as defined by the Boutique and Lifestyle Lodging Association). Boutiques are popular across the country, some affiliated with a larger brand, such as Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Joie de Vivre and Destination Hotels & Resorts. Others, such as La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, near San Diego; the Oceano Hotel and Spa in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco; and the historic Hotel Shattuck Plaza in Berkeley, Calif., operate as independents.

“A meeting of 50 to 60, they’re basically the big fish in the house,” says Edinger of MileNorth. “They have all our attention; they’re a shining star instead of getting lost.” Kim Rose, artistry and education executive for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, who recently held a brand product training meeting for 15–20 attendees at the Chicago hotel, agrees. “We like the intimate setting at MileNorth. Choosing a boutique hotel, we felt that our group received a little more personal attention from the staff.”

Keen competition among boutiques for small meetings business is a boon for planners. One way hotels compete is to offer all-inclusive pricing or meetings packages that include team building or other recreational options. “Competition among our level of hotel has made it [a matter of ] the best deal in pricing,” says Michael Beardsley, general manager of Twin Farms, an all-inclusive luxury boutique property in Vermont. “Once you come through the gates there are no charges except for the spa.” Among services included are recreation options (with equipment and training), meals, Wi- Fi, worldwide phone calls and private airport transfers. Granlibakken, a resort at Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers a Meet in the Treetops Conference Package that includes lodging, meals, meeting facilities, complimentary cocktail hour and a treetops teambuilding experience, among other options.

While rates are always a factor, amenities are key. One well-appreciated amenity is noted by Andrea Walczyszyn, meetings and special events coordinator for CSA Group in Ontario, Canada, who books small meetings for 22–30 attendees at The Listel Hotel in Vancouver: “The entire property has complimentary wireless, which is rare in downtown Vancouver. It is built-in and offered at no cost.”

In the past, large properties typically struggled with booking small meetings, only taking them at the last minute to fill in gaps or cancellations, says Roper, of L’Auberge de Sedona. “They wanted to hold out for strong yield management.”

The recession changed that attitude, however, forcing big brands and other large properties to beat the bushes for any kind of business. “Hotels that traditionally focused on transient and corporate business had to shift their focus in order to sell out,” says Mayes of Trump SoHo.

   Spring Terrace at the Trump Soho, New York

Has this tune changed now that the economy is coming back and large meetings are resurging? Not for many hotels, especially urban hotels, Mayes says. “In general, more and more hotels are realizing the importance of these small groups, how critical they are to the success of their business.” There’s also a realization that they’ve spent a lot of time and energy on small meetings and want those groups to come back, she says.

Some planners, too, are finding that larger hotel chains are still pursuing smaller events. “They’re catering to smaller groups by creating packages that include F&B and A/V in order to offer a better price. In our case, we might book 10 to 15 smaller meetings and events in a particular hotel per month, so they make special concessions,” says Pena of Forums Event Design & Production.

Large hotels are keenly aware that bringing a small meeting in-house in the short term is a good way to showcase their property for a potentially larger meeting in the future, says Dianne Pepe, director of group sales for the Millennium Broadway Hotel, New York.

Even convention centers have tossed their meeting space into the ring. They’ve always had smaller spaces available for board meetings or breakout groups related to their in-house citywides or other large events. But they’ve taken a look at the small meetings market, and they’ve liked the view.

On the forefront of the trend to draw meetings of all sizes, some convention centers—such as the Palm Springs Convention Center in California— have renovated their facilities to take advantage of the natural environment and culture of their locations, giving groups a sense of place. Many have created a range of tailored or customizable spaces that appeal to smaller groups and make the experience feel less like a small box within a big box.

The brand-new, LEED Silver-certified Wilmington Convention Center in North Carolina has made small meetings a primary target to fill 107,000 sq. ft. Of space. According to Susan Eaton, general manager, the center has succeeded in drawing numerous smaller groups for local and regional meetings, among them the Association Executives of North Carolina, North Carolina Medical Group Managers Association and North Carolina Chapter of Society of Government Meeting Professionals.

The Phoenix Convention Center took a wise tack several years ago when it opened the Executive Conference Center Downtown Phoenix, a self-contained IACC-certified facility in the convention center’s West Building. It features 21,000 sq. ft. Of high-end meeting space for two to 200 attendees, all on one floor, and includes a 192-seat lecture hall and an executive boardroom with a private bathroom and catering area, where a small group can assemble, according to Cynthia Weaver, CTA, director of communications, Phoenix Convention Center & Venues.

   Executive Conference Center, Phoenix Convention Center

The Other “S” Word

These days, there’s more than lip service being paid to “service.” The recession has taught the industry that going beyond expectations to help planners and attendees before, during and after an event is the differentiator when it comes to property choice and return bookings, both in the planning and execution stages. “Smaller meetings really allow staff to cater to every type of request and pay more attention to detail,” says Mayes, of Trump SoHo.

These efforts pay off. “The staff at MileNorth is the real reason we return time after time. The team goes above and beyond to make us feel welcome,” says Rose, of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. “MileNorth also creates customized menus for groups, which is great.”

Having a dedicated onsite hotel event manager is another service-oriented feature. “When planning a meeting in an unfamiliar city, having a good event manager at the hotel is instrumental in making it a success,” PIASC’s Cadenas says, noting the excellent manager at the Millennium Bostonian.

Imedex’s Lovich also extols the importance of a dedicated small meetings event manager. She held a successful one-day continuing medical education meeting for 75–100 attendees at the Millennium Broadway Hotel New York. She credits the hotel’s events manager with being “so on-the-ball, it made the planning process seamless.”


Our experts have a front-row seat to see some emerging and recurring trends. Here are a few.

What Weekend?

While the length of the typical three-day meeting has shrunk to two days, there’s a move on the part of some companies to hold meetings over the oncesacrosanct weekend. “[Companies or planners] tried to avoid weekends before,” Zentila’s Mason says. “It’s not a huge change, but we’re seeing it.”

Got an Hour? Got Space?

According to Mason, “We are seeing an inordinate amount of demand for day meetings, where people who live and work in those cities want to find space for them.” Some hotels are looking at converting smaller spaces for one-off meetings, he says. The move would appease the need for day events, but hotels would need to change the way they think about that type of business. “For most [big hotels], giving away space without F&B would be very hard,” he says.

Westin Hotels & Resorts is accommodating the need for small, impromptu meetings with its own solution: Project Hive. Recognizing that today’s travelers are more mobile than ever, the brand is replacing the business center of old, as well as some dedicated meeting spaces, with a new “smart room” concept that provides a fully equipped, private workspace for up to four people, including options for digital data sharing, videoconferencing, wired and wireless Internet (at no additional cost), flexible outlets and teleconferencing. The space can be booked by the hour, at a moment’s notice. Hive workspace is available at The Westin Boston Waterfront and The Westin Arlington Gateway in the Virginia, as well as The Westin Grand Munich in Germany, with plans for a global rollout through 2013.

Changing Spaces

If there’s one thing planners have learned over the past few years, it’s how to be flexible. This is due not only to costs, but also to the lifestyles and demographics of attendees. Planners, for instance, are looking for ways to make setups more interactive and intimate, according to The Listel Hotel’s Bjorkes.

Hotels have learned this lesson as well. “The hospitality industry is constantly in movement to keep up with the current trends of our customers, including our meeting facilities. Today, attendees want to spend time in rooms that do not have the feel of an institutionalized box. They like freedom of movement, lots of light and outdoor space for breaks,” says Morreale, of the Toll House Hotel.

Renovations play a key role in this trend. At La Valencia Hotel, “our recent meeting-space renovation was designed to highlight our regional destination by opening up the views and adding windows in the spaces,” says Stephanie Howard, director of sales for the property. “For several smaller meetings, we have added furniture like coffee tables, sofas and other elements that give the space a more residential feel, facilitating a more social atmosphere.”

Social atmosphere is definitely the buzz today. “Classroom seating is becoming less and less important. Sofa groupings, relaxed pods and circles of executive chairs are a strong trend,” says L’Auberge de Sedona’s Roper. “Many corporate facilitators are utilizing this type of environment to get people to open up and remove the barriers that a table places between the facilitator and the attendees.”

Some properties have inherent ways to address the concept. “Our small retreats and meetings rarely have a typical setup,” says Ann Graham, director of sales and marketing for Lake Placid Lodge in New York. “Participants are as likely to be meeting around a bonfire, on a boat or in a meeting room with sofas (as they are with tables and chairs). These setups promote relaxed conversation and a natural flow of thoughts and ideas.” Even in a boardroom setting, groups are likely to be meeting on couches in front of the fire or bonding through team-building activities, says Twin Farms’ Beardsley.

Small meetings might be getting a boost from the economy, but Pena, of Forums Event Design & Production, says the reason they’re thriving is “the quality interaction.” That’s a sentiment that drives the demand for small meetings.

Flexibility and Service: One Planner’s Story

Teresa Lovich, manager, exhibits and project management for Imedex in Dallas, recently held a continuing medical education meeting (“Great Debates and Updates in Gynecologic Malignancies and 18th Annual Perspectives in Breast Cancer”) for more than 75 attendees at the Millennium Broadway Hotel New York (pictured). She recounts her experience:

“We had originally contracted a meeting for two days and had to cancel. We then came back with the same meeting, but decreased to one day, and to recoup some of the cancellation fees, we also put in another meeting of equal size,” she says.

The first meeting went off without a hitch, she says, and the staff was excellent. “The meeting space worked well, and we liked the setup. We went back for the second meeting, and everyone was in place, and it was a mirror image…All of the staff has been very accommodating and great to work with. I look forward to coming back.”

Myth Busting in San Francisco

CVBs and DMOs Do Want Your Small Meetings Business

A common myth in the meetings arena is that CVBs and DMOs are interested only in large or citywide events that fill their convention centers. Not true, says John Reyes, CMP, executive VP and chief customer officer for the San Francisco Travel Association.

In a recent interview, Reyes spoke about what San Francisco is doing to attract and secure this self-contained segment of the market, which accounts for 40% of San Francisco meetings.

• The organization has two distinct sales efforts: a citywide sales team that focuses on large events and a dedicated self-contained sales team whose job is to meet and generate interest in San Francisco for non-convention-center meetings. "We're expanding our self-contained team," Reyes says. "The Board of Directors has approved our hiring two additional self-contained salespeople, moving from six selfcontained SF travel salespeople to eight—an additional commitment of resources and personnel."

• "San Francisco Travel Association also has a very strong, vocal hotel community that wants us to continue to send the message to non-citywide groups that San Francisco is a great destination for all sizes of meetings."

• San Francisco Travel Association recently formed a customer advisory council composed of planners from all over the country and various industry s e g m e n t s – corporations, associations, incentives, etc. The council, whose role is to advise the organization on promoting the market and attracting small meetings, met early this fall to establish a dialogue. "They help from a customer perspective—benchmarking what we're doing now and where we can improve."

• The organization also offers a complimentary lead service that's funded by the hotel tourism improvement district. It's "a positive way to allow customers to get a strong collection of properties to consider."


Consider the following properties for small meetings.

Granlibakken Conference Center and Lodge: granlibakken.com
Hotel Paradox: thehotelparadox.com
Hotel Shattuck Plaza: hotelshattuckplaza.com
Lied Lodge and Conference Center: liedlodge.org
Oceano Hotel & Spa: oceanohalfmoonbay.com
Villas of Grand Cypress: grandcypress.com