Picture this: A neon hotel sign with a flashing arrow directs you to a low-rise building where the walls are paper thin and the windows rattle every time a plane roars by overhead. No room service, a swimming pool if you're lucky, one or two rooms that could be pressed into service for a meeting if necessary.

Typical airport hotel, right? Wrong! As planners who have recently used airport hotels will attest, today's airport properties can match their downtown peers feature for feature. And some can even hold their own against resorts.

Many major hotel companies have top-of-the-line properties at airports. Hilton leads, with 37 out of its 230 U.S. hotels at airports. And meeting rooms at airport hotels have features comparable to those at the chains' downtown locations.

Meetings are important to airport properties. They represent 30 percent of the business at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago, 40 percent at the Atlanta Marriott, 45 percent at the Hyatt Regency Orlando (which is converting an exhibit hall to a full-scale ballroom to accommodate more meetings), 50 percent at the Westin O'Hare, and a whopping 65 percent at the Holiday Inn O'Hare. The Hyatt Regency DFW has 81 meeting rooms, and "I'd like to expand to about 100," says Brian Booth, director of sales and marketing.

Would an airport hotel work for your meeting? Would it be a good deal? This checklist can help you decide.

Airport hotels work well for . . . * Planners with 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 at 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."

* 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's meeting space includes an executive conference level with 15 preset boardrooms. At the O'Hare Hilton, 39 of the 60 meeting rooms are preset.

But the extensive meeting space means that large groups can be accommodated as well. Tim Aube, for one, brings in between 550 and 600 people for his annual business education meeting. For the past three years, Aube, manager, enterprise meeting services, at UNUM Corp. in Portland, Maine, has held the meeting at the Hyatt Regency DFW. He's also used the Sheraton Gateway Hotel Los Angeles Airport, a hotel he'd like to book again, but his group has outgrown it.

For groups even larger than Aube's, The Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers has a ballroom that accommodates 1,300 people theater-style, and the Hyatt Regency Orlando offers a ballroom for receptions of 800 guests.

* Short meetings. Hotel company executives report that meetings at their airport properties usually last one-and-a-half to two days. Jennifer Lagowski's meetings fit that profile. Lagowski, meeting specialist for Fortis Health, Milwaukee, finds that airport properties work well for her regional sales training meetings, typically one-and-a-half-day events. Among the properties she has used: The Philadelphia Airport Marriott, Atlanta Renaissance Airport, and Chicago Marriott O'Hare.

* Meetings that are all business. Although airport hotels often have recreational facilities (see sidebar), the choice of a venue away from downtown attractions usually tells participants, "We're going to get in, work, and get out."

For serious business, you can even find a conference center at an airport, as Heather Huebner learned. "I wanted an IACC conference center," says Huebner, manager, marketing services at Hartford Steam Boiler and Insurance Co., Hartford, Conn. But she also needed "a place mid-country near a major airport, so we could get direct flights in from all our branches."

What she found was the DFW Lakes Hilton, just a few minutes from the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, with 40 dedicated meeting rooms, three tiered amphitheaters, and 14,000 square feet of exhibit space. "It's a true dedicated conference center that happens to be near an airport," says Huebner. "I was surprised. You really didn't hear the airplanes." The facility worked so well for Huebner's 50-person engineering management meeting last October that she returned in January 1998 for her 200-person national sales meeting.

But might not be right for . . . * An incentive program. There might not be enough recreational opportunities for spouses and children--unless it's the lakeside Miami Airport Hilton and Towers, with its many water sports; or the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport, adjacent to a major shopping mall.

Airport Hotel Pluses * 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--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. That time savings also means that people can head home immediately after the meeting rather than staying another night. "If the meeting ends at three p.m., people can be on a flight by five," says Aube. "If you're downtown, there's not as much flexibility."

* Cost savings. An airport location eliminates the costs of taxis, airport shuttle buses, and rental cars. And that can be substantial, as Heather Huebner points out. "If you have 200 people, and roundtrip airport transportation is $40 per person--which is low--that's $8,000 you're saving. I can put that money into my program."

* Parking spaces. Agents drive to Lagowski's regional meetings, so she needs facilities with lots of parking space. What better choice than an airport?

* Experience. Because airport hotels host smaller, shorter meetings, they do more of them. "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 Hilton combined. With the short stays, we probably turn over 70 to 75 percent of our rooms each day," he adds. "That's why we offer Zip-in check-in/Zip-out checkout."

Airport Hotel Myths * 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, and a service staff that can get things done."

And consider the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, with 61 meeting rooms, from boardrooms to ballrooms, some 100,000 square feet in all. 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.

There are ISDN lines and fiber-optic cables at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, multilingual interpretation capabilities at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton. Business service centers and on-site AV support are the norm at nearly all major airport hotels.

* They're not versatile.The Holiday Inn O'Hare has 50,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 24,000-square-foot ballroom with 12-foot ceilings. And more is on the way, according to Director of Sales Tom Gale. The hotel broke ground on a new tower in May that will add 260 guest rooms (for a total of 760) and eight meeting rooms of 1,000 square feet each. Four of those rooms will be permanent conference room sets. The new tower is scheduled to open in August 1999. "We have everything from Fortune 500 corporate meetings to weekend fraternal groups," Gale says.

* They're downscale. Airport hotels that carry a leading brand name 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 baguette--a loaf of crusty French bread.

"Sometimes there's a perception that you don't get quality at an airport hotel," says Alan J. Fabris, director of sales and marketing at the Westin O'Hare. "But I'll put my hotel up against any downtown hotel in my category." The Westin O'Hare is a AAA Four Diamond, Mobil Four Star property.

Getting the Best Deal Negotiating with an airport hotel is much like negotiating with any other property. The fundamental things apply:

* 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, meeting planner, 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. "People today don't talk rates; they talk availability," says Clarke. "But Los Angeles is behind the rest of the country, and anything is negotiable here." 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.

* Seasonality. 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.

In Boston, too, 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. Deals are better at all these hotels for groups that can check in on a Thursday or a Sunday for a one- or two-day meeting.

* Number of sleeping rooms. Book more sleeping rooms and you'll pay less for a meeting room--at airports, as elsewhere.

* Pickup history. The more detailed and supportable your records, the greater your negotiating clout.

* Food and beverage expenditures.The more you use the hotel catering department, the better your deal. Aube's meetings run three-and-a-half days, and most of the group's meals are on property--a big plus when it comes to negotiation.

At the Atlanta Airport Marriott, Director of Marketing Bob Stewart tries to limit group business to 40 percent. "But if a group has heavy food and beverage, and a lot of sleeping rooms, we'll trade out the transient business" for that group, he says.

The Hyatt Regency Orlando will even cater off-property and factor that revenue into negotiations.

* Continuing relationships. If you can use the same property repeatedly, you're likely to benefit from volume discounts.

In sum, use your standard negotiating points with airport hotels. But don't expect them to be pushovers. They want your business, and are confident they deserve it. As Fabris at the Westin O'Hare puts it, "I don't have the Magnificent Mile, but downtown hotels don't have O'Hare."*

That's right. Most brand-name airport hotels have health clubs comparable to those at downtown properties. Often they're open 24 hours to cater to the international traveler. Some properties offer much more.

Case in point: the Miami Airport Hilton and Towers, which calls itself The Resort Near the Airport and targets the incentive market. Located on a peninsula in a 100-acre lake, the hotel offers jet skiing, Wave Runners, and power boats for water skiing, plus three lighted tennis courts, an outdoor pool, a Jacuzzi, a half-mile jogging path with 11 workout stations, and a cardiovascular fitness center.

The Hyatt Regency DFW has a health club with weight machines and other workout equipment in each of its two towers, plus a heated outdoor pool. And just five minutes away (via free shuttle) is the Hyatt Bear Creek Golf and Racquet Club, with two 18-hole golf courses, seven tennis courts, ten racquetball courts--and a ropes course for teambuilding activities.

The Hyatt Regency Orlando doesn't offer golf or tennis. But for shopaholics, the adjacent terminal has 37 shops with mall prices, not airport markups, according to hotel general manager Patricia Engfer. Back on property, there's a health club and swimming spa.

At the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers, the 25,000-square-foot fitness center, open 24 hours, has 30 exercise bikes, 30 treadmills, a racquetball court, and free weights. Elsewhere in the hotel are a swimming pool and four Jacuzzis. And one floor above the meeting rooms are landscaped gardens, available for coffee breaks, receptions, or banquets.

Available at the Atlanta Airport Marriott: an indoor/outdoor pool, lighted tennis courts, racquetball courts, a health club, and saunas. Starting to sound routine for an airport hotel? There's more--the property sits peacefully amid 14 wooded acres.

The bottom line: If you haven't seen an airport hotel lately, you haven't seen an airport hotel.