IT'S NOT EASY to get nearly 40 high-level planners from insurance and financial services companies across the country to take the time from their overpacked schedules to attend an optional meeting. You've got to deliver value — and that's exactly what Marriott did at its 2004 Insurance and Financial Services Customer Forum at the impressive JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, May 19 to 22. The event was sponsored by Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Renaissance Hotels & Resorts, Delta Air Lines, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., LLC.

Called “Partnering for Success,” the I&FS Forum prefaced its intense educational and teambuilding agenda with a “Spirit to Serve” charity activity at Give Kids the World Village. Among the many business sessions at the official conference that followed were a presentation on the new Marriott Meeting Rewards program and the Marriott/Passkey partnership; a planner panel on industry trends; updates on the Marriott, Renaissance, and Ritz-Carlton brands; and a very popular interactive roundtable discussion on how to build stronger relationships between planners and hotels. In a hilarious teambuilding activity, small groups of planners and hoteliers outfitted with video equipment and props traveled to different spots in Orlando to shoot three-minute movies.

One theme came through loud and clear: Both planners and suppliers are struggling to keep up with a changing business landscape that is constantly posing new challenges. The consensus was that now more than ever, hoteliers and planners need to work together to arrive at win-win solutions. “We've been very successful in moving away from [impersonal] vendor transactions and instead are developing new hotel partnerships,” said one planner, summing up the tone of the event.

Eye on Design

Among the news from Marriott is a new emphasis on design. Marriott International Senior Vice President Field Sales, USA and Canada Mike Beardsley announced that Marriott will be rolling out a new guest room look by the fourth quarter this year. It will combine “timeless sophistication” — characterized by clean lines and natural materials such as wood, stone, and marble — with a stylish consumer flair he described as “progressive residence.” Forget the old-fashioned bedspread, and think duvet with a throw on top, or a reclining chair that you'd have in your living room at home instead of the standard side chair and ottoman.

At Ritz-Carlton, “We've started to build hotels that are different from each other and that fit the environment they're located in,” noted John Harper, vice president, international sales offices, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., LLC.

As for Renaissance Hotels North America, Michael Murphy, vice president sales and marketing, said that the brand is aiming for distinctive design and a slightly edgier look. “We're looking to deliver style,” he said.

IN THE PIPELINE

Marriott Update

Noted by speakers at the I&FS Forum:

  • Occupancy was up in the first quarter of 2004 for both the Marriott and Renaissance brands, but a return to 1999 levels of revPAR — revenue per available room — is not projected until 2007 or 2008.

  • Business travel is on the upswing, particularly at airport hotels.

  • Marriott's Rewarding Events loyalty program has been simplified and planners will soon be able to access all the details of their account online.

  • The Passkey online group booking engine has been rolled out for a select group of hotels and is being looked at for all properties in the Marriott family.