Jim Trombino was sure the hotel salesperson was making a mistake. Trombino, director of conferences and professional development for the Metal Powder Industries Federation, Princeton, N.J., needed a facility for a board of directors meeting--"a very small, very important meeting," says Trombino. But the salesperson was suggesting--an airport hotel!
Then the salesperson showed him pictures of the property, the Miami Airport Hilton and Towers, and Trombino realized that this was not your father's airport hotel. "This property is in a beautiful setting, and is very high quality." The hotel turned out to be the right choice not only for the board but also for Trombino. Negotiating the, he says, was "as smooth as it could possibly be."
As Trombino and other association executives are learning, airport hotels aren't all motel-style facilities with flashing neon signs. Many major hotel companies have top-of-the-line properties at airports. Hilton leads, with 37 out of its 230 U.S. hotels. And airport hotels have meeting rooms large and small, with features comparable to those at downtown locations
"Airport hotels several years ago reinvented themselves, and they're now doing an outstanding job with meetings," says Donn Sanford, president of the Aluminum Extruders Council (AEC), Wauconda, Ill.
Meetings are important to airport properties. They represent 30 percent of the business at both the O'Hare Hilton and the Harborside Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center in Boston, 40 percent at the Atlanta Marriott, and 45 percent at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, which is converting an exhibit hall to a full-scale ballroom to accommodate more meetings. At the 296-room Rosemont Suites Hotel at Chicago's O'Hare airport, groups account for a whopping 65 percent of the business mix. The Hyatt Regency DFW has 81 meeting rooms, and "I'd like to expand to about 100," says director of sales and marketing Brian Booth.
Would an airport hotel work for your meeting? Would it be a good deal? Here is a list of factors that can help you decide.
When to Choose an Airport Hotel * Tight deadlines. The booking window for airport hotels is usually one week to six months. You don't even have a week? "We can completely wrap up a meeting on the phone in 15 minutes," says Joe Collier, director of sales and marketing for the Tampa Airport Marriott. "We can fax a proposal, menus, and a short-form contract. For a small airport meeting, no one should use a long-form contract." That doesn't mean you can't book well in advance. Ronald Bruns, director of administrative affairs for the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), Park Ridge, Ill., has a long-standing relationship with the Westin O'Hare and books some meetings three years out.
* Short meetings. Airport hotel executives report that meetings at their properties average one-and-a-half to two days. The Chicago-based Equipment Manufacturers Institute (EMI), for example, recently used the Hotel Sofitel, near O'Hare International Airport, for two small committee meetings held on the same day. One of those meetings was a planning session for a two-day seminar for about 200 attendees at the Hotel Sofitel in October. This is the third consecutive year that the seminar will be held at an airport property, says EMI technical assistant Barbara Toeker.
* Small meetings. At airport hotels, most meeting rooms are geared to groups of 10 to 75 people. Often, these rooms have permanent conference setups. For example, the Hyatt Regency DFW has an executive conference level with 15 pre-set boardrooms. At the O'Hare Hilton, 39 of the 60 meeting rooms are pre-set. Moreover, at the Rosemont Suites Hotel, there are 22 executive conference suites, in which instead of a parlor area there is a conference table accommodating 10 people. These rooms are very popular for high-level or "power" meetings, according to director of marketing Troy Jones.
For large groups, the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers has a ballroom that accommodates 1,300 people theater-style, and the Hyatt Regency Orlando can accommodate 800 people for receptions.
* Meetings that are all business. Although airport hotels often have recreational facilities, the choice of venue tells participants, "We're going to get in, work, and get out."
"We don't have time for a social life," says Dan Weber, executive director of the Institute for Food Technologists in Chicago. He schedules two one-week clusters of committee meetings--one in March and one in October--at the O'Hare Hilton. For serious business, you can even find a conference center at an airport. For example, the DFW Lakes Hilton, just a few minutes from the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, has 40 dedicated meeting rooms, three tiered amphitheaters, and 14,000 square feet of exhibit space. The Hotel Sofitel near O'Hare has a separate conference wing, with five meeting rooms and its own business center, in addition to the meeting rooms and ballroom elsewhere in the hotel. The ergonomic chairs in the conference wing proved so popular that they are now used in all the meeting rooms.
The Benefits * Time savings. Meet at the airport and you eliminate travel time to and from downtown. It's just a short van ride (complimentary) from terminal to hotel, and sometimes not even that. Both the Hyatt Regency Orlando and Tampa Airport Marriott are literally within the terminal; at the latter, you can phone a bellman from the baggage claim area. The O'Hare Hilton is connected to the main terminal by an underground walkway: "Our members step off the plane, go to the concourse and then to the hotel," says Sanford. "It cuts a minimum of an hour off the travel time."
* Cost savings. An airport location eliminates the costs of taxis, airport shuttle buses, and rental cars. "Our members run a per diem, so a $40 cab ride to downtown has an impact," says Bruns. There can be other substantial savings as well, Weber points out. "In some cases, you'll save a room night because people can make their flights so much more easily."
* Experience. Because airport hotels host smaller, shorter meetings, they do a greater volume of meetings than many downtown properties. "We do 600 to 800 meetings a month," says Ken Smith, general manager of the O'Hare Hilton. "That's more than the Chicago Hilton and the Palmer House combined. We turn over 70 to 75 percent of our guest rooms each day. That's why we offer Zip-in check-in and Zip-out check-out."
The Myths * They're downscale. Major brand name airport hotels have all the features that you'd expect from that brand, from concierge floors and suites to guest room data ports to 24-hour room service. At the Hotel Sofitel, a French-owned property, nightly turndown service includes a fresh rose and a bottle of Evian water. And departing guests receive a loaf of crusty French bread. Of the O'Hare Hilton, Sanford says, "The food service is second to none, and there's an outstanding health club."
The Rosemont Suites Hotel, also at O'Hare, positions itself as a 'boutique" airport hotel, offering full American breakfasts and evening cocktails as part of the room rate. "We offer great value" because of these types of amenities, says marketing director Jones.
* They're not equipped for meetings. "People who hold meetings at airport hotels need to accomplish the same things" as people who meet elsewhere, notes Collier at the Tampa Marriott. "We have audiovisual equipment, including LCD panels, fax capabilities, and a service staff that can get things done." Properties that target the meetings market offer groups what they need. The Hyatt Regency O'Hare has 61 meeting rooms, from boardrooms to ballrooms, 100,000 square feet in all. There are 40 meeting rooms, three tiered amphitheaters, and 14,000 square feet of exhibit space at the DFW Lakes Hilton, ISDN lines at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, multilingual translation at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton. Business service centers and on-site audiovisual support are the norm.
The Negotiating Game Negotiating with an airport hotel is much like negotiating with any other property: the fundamental things apply. To get the best deal, keep these factors in mind:
* Market conditions. Airport hotels, like others, are benefiting from the seller's market. But competition and the local economy also matter. At Boston's Logan Airport, the Harborside Hyatt is the only upscale airport property, and it is small--just 270 guest rooms and 19,000 square feet of meeting space--so it's selective. But go west, and you'll find that Los Angeles is "the bargain basement of the world," says Dennis Clarke, general manager of the Los Angeles Airport Hilton & Towers.
O'Hare has more hotels than other U.S. airports, but the demand for meeting space is so high, it's a tough market for negotiating.
* Timing.That said, you can do well in Chicago in the first quarter. "People don't mind coming to a cold climate if they'll only be here two days, and they can get a great deal," says Daren Snow, director of marketing at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. Troy Jones of the Rosemont Suites Hotel at O'Hare, recommends getting the property's Hot Dates information for price breaks during the week.
In Boston, rates are better in the first quarter but "substantially higher" September through November, says Judy Sheng, sales manager at the Harborside Hyatt. Florida's low season is May to October. "In summer, you negotiate everything," says Farooq Rehmatwala, general manager at the Miami Airport Hilton and Towers. The deals are better at all these properties for groups that can check in on a Thursday or a Sunday for a one- or two-day meeting.
* Number of sleeping rooms. The more sleeping rooms you book, the less you'll pay for a meeting room--at an airport, as elsewhere.
* Food and beverage expenditures. The more you use the hotel catering department, the better your deal. At the Atlanta Airport Marriott, director of marketing Bob Stewart tries to limit group business to 40 percent. "But if a group has heavy F &B, and a lot of sleeping rooms, we'll trade out the transient business" for that group, he says.
* Continuing relationships. "The Westin O'Hare is not inexpensive, but we get great value," says Bruns. A key reason: his group has been meeting there since 1985.
In sum, use your standard negotiating points with airport hotels. But don't expect them to be pushovers. As Fabris at the Westin O'Hare puts it, "I don't have the Magnificent Mile, but downtown hotels don't have O'Hare."