The new $500 million Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman hosted two programs for insurance and financial services planners in early January: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.'s first insurance advisory board, held January 4 to 8, followed by an educational event January 8 to 11. Both included a variety of educational sessions and gave attendees the opportunity to experience the spectacular 365-room resort, targeted for high-end meetings and incentives.

Concurrent with the eagerly awaited gala opening, 10 industry veterans gathered for the insurance advisory board. “We deliberately kept it small and intimate so participants could share their thoughts,” says Pam Ferguson, director of insurance sales, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. LLC.

Rather than listen to formal presentations, the advisory board met in closed-door sessions to talk about their perception of luxury in the hotel marketplace. Led by professional facilitator Bob Joselyn, president and CEO, Joselyn Tepper & Associates Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., they participated in various interactive exercises, including one that involved designing their ideal hotel chain. Also, they discussed such industry issues as the new seller's market and the challenges of flat-line budgets. “Interacting with a group of such seasoned professionals is an education in itself,” says advisory board member Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM, travel and corporate events planner, Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America, Pittsfield, Mass.

The program concluded with an update by Ritz-Carlton's Bruce Himelstein, senior vice president, sales and marketing (see sidebar, below). “Educationally, it was very helpful to learn about Ritz-Carlton's strategic direction for the future,” notes Chapman, “and good to hear how much they value financial services and insurance business.”

Program Highlights

A larger group of industry planners (including some advisory board members) met January 8 to 11 for an event that included presentations by property developer Michael Ryan; General Manager Jean Cohen; renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who developed the resort's tennis center; and Alynne Hanford, global sales manager, group and meeting travel, American Airlines.

In her airline industry update, Hanford noted the rising cost of fuel — the greatest challenge to all carriers — as well as initiatives by American to “streamline the group process so it is easy, efficient, and productive.” American still offers refundable, changeable, zone group fares, she said, with a 154-person department dedicated to group sales, and another roughly 200 group reservationists. Among recent technology enhancements is a new online booking feature for groups that gives 5 percent discounts off the cheapest online rates.

In other highlights, planners toured the resort's 13,000 square feet of event space, experienced the 20,000-square-foot, $10 million Silver Rain spa; and learned about Ambassadors of the Environment by Jean-Michel Cousteau, an eco-educational family adventure program that introduces children to the natural wonders of the island. They also had a bit of their own adventure, sailing to Stingray City and swimming with the stingrays.

Participants enjoyed learning about the new resort, and learning from each other. “As a meeting planner, I am often invited on fam trips,” says Leanne Acton, CMM, director, conference planning and travel services, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., Horsham, Pa. “Generous offers to beautiful places, but who has time? Attending the Ritz-Carlton educational event was time well spent outside of the office because of the educational components — not just the speakers, but the opportunity to interact with my peers. My company benefited from my participation.”

In the Pipeline at Ritz-Carlton

Bruce Himelstein, senior vice president, sales and marketing, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. L.L.C., shared company news at Ritz-Carlton's first insurance advisory board in early January, and at the educational event that followed. The events marked the opening of Ritz-Carlton's 60th hotel. By 2008, Himelstein said, 14 more Ritz-Carlton properties will have opened, primarily in Asia and Europe. All will reflect a local “sense of place” in their design. Himelstein also reviewed new company standards for guest rooms, already incorporated into new hotels and to be included in upgrades of existing properties. Among them are “rainforest” shower heads, 400-thread-count sheets, flat-screen televisions, and Bulgari amenities.