If attendee feedback is any measure, Marriott's annual Insurance & Financial Services Customer Forum continues to build on its success. Thirty-seven meeting planners attended the event, held May 10 to 13 at the recently renovated Marriott Newport Beach Resort & Spa in Newport Beach, Calif.

In an attendee survey, more than 71 percent of respondents rated their overall experience at the 2006 I&FS Forum as “excellent,” a result forum organizer Judy Parker, director of national accounts, Marriott global sales, credits not only to the excellence of the venue, but to an increasing emphasis on the educational aspects of the program.

Discussions of trends in the Marriott brands had a prominent place on the agenda. Mike Beardsley, senior vice president of sales, North America, and Michael Murphy, vice president sales and marketing, Renaissance Hotels, North America told attendees that Marriott's current emphasis is not so much on new construction as on reinventing the brands by putting more resources into existing properties. Whether it's the replacement of every bed in the entire chain, or the introduction of ergonomic desks, Marriott is continuing its efforts to create a “home-away-from-home” experience for guests, they said.

Attendees also heard from Andy Williams, regional director of loss prevention for U.K. Marriott International, about a real-life case study of a terrorist attack on a Marriott property. Williams discussed the implications on how Marriott protects against and prepares for acts of terrorism, and also talked about how the company deals with issues like natural disasters.

Bill Scanlon, regional vice president, sales and marketing, Caribbean and Latin American region, talked about Cancun's rebuilding from last fall's Hurricane Wilma. The CasaMagna Marriott Resort and the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa are expected to be fully open by the end of July.

Networking highlights included two sessions of a “reverse marketplace,” in which planners sat down with Marriott property representatives for four-minute get-to-know-you sessions. “If you think about it, at a regular trade show a planner and a supplier may spend 15 minutes talking, but only about three to five minutes are actually spent talking about business,” Parker explained. “We cut out the fluff and went right to business. It was kind of like speed dating — a lot of fun.”

The I&FS Forum is known for its teambuilding events, and this year's event did not disappoint. Teams boarded Duffy boats for a sail through the bay searching for, and photographing, boats beginning with letters that spell the word “Marriott.” Another popular excursion took attendees to Mission San Juan Capistrano for an evening event catered by Newport Beach Resort & Spa.

Sparkling Renovation

Forum participants also checked out the $70 million renovation completed last winter at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Spa. Highlights of the redesign include a complete redo of all 532 guest rooms. Every room now has flat-screen TVs and the newly introduced Marriott Bed with an 11-inch mattress and feather-bed topper. New to the property are 20 luxury suites, including five penthouse suites with ocean views; a 14,000-square-foot spa called Pure Blu, The Spa at Newport Beach, with 16 treatment rooms; and a steakhouse restaurant. More than 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space includes two ballrooms, 23 meeting rooms, and a dedicated conference floor level with nine breakout spaces.