The Hilton family of hotels--six brands with a total of about 2,157 properties--aims to become a preferred supplier for corporate and association meetings by bringing added value to the table. That was a key message expressed by a group of top execs from Hilton Sales Worldwide who spent a day at the Waldorf Astoria in New York last week being interviewed by editors of meetings industry magazines.

Execs also noted a change in the way people are booking meetings, particularly in the medical and financial services niches. While short-term meetings and cost containment are still the norm, the booking window is starting to lengthen to 18 months or more for some meetings, they say. The slowdown in training meetings at Hilton’s 17 IACC–accredited conference facilities has eased, led by pharmaceutical sales training with longer booking windows, and short-term insurance and financial services training in response to changing government regulations.

Hilton execs view the meeting planning consolidation trend as an opportunity to build group business across the brands. "We’re seeing more companies wanting to do all of their business with fewer partners," notes Steve Armitage, senior vice president, sales.

In addition to the obvious economies of scale that come with multiple bookings, Hilton aims to woo planners with technology solutions that can help streamline and simplify the planning process. A case in point is a new group reservation reconciliation tool that will be rolled out to Hilton’s 30 top convention hotels by the end of the year. This free tool allows the planner’s registration list to interface with the hotel’s reservation system: It will take about 15 minutes to generate a comparison of the two that notes any bookings outside the block--and accurately establishes how many rooms the meeting brings in. Hilton credits all of the room nights driven by a meeting regardless of how they were booked, says Larry Luteran, vice president, group sales & industry relations. However, planners should negotiate in the contract at what rate the "circumvented rooms" will be credited, he advises.

In other Hilton news and comments on industry trends:

  • In the first week of December, all the Hilton brand Web sites will be updated with new search and mapping features such as one-step group value dates searches. The HiltonDirect.com group reservations site will be updated with similar features in March of 2004. Online group reservations have grown to 10 percent, and there has been a more than 200 percent increase in Web site usage so far this year.
  • The last quarter of ‘03 saw "a tremendous increase in the volume of business activity," says Armitage. On the corporate side, the pharmaceutical market has been robust and the insurance market has been steady. On the association side, the SMERF market has been growing.