Approximately 80 financial and insurance meeting professionals and hospitality partners gathered at the newly renovated Boston Marriott Long Wharf January 15–17 for the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Northeast Region Meeting to “connect, learn, and evolve,” the theme of the conference.

The Marriott, fresh from a four-year, $30 million, full-property renovation, seemed like a whole new hotel to many attendees who hadn’t been there since the redo began. The event opened Sunday night with a marketplace, where planners and suppliers got to connect and network in a relaxed setting before watching a dragon dance, performed by residents of nearby Chinatown, to celebrate the Chinese New Year and Year of the Dragon. The dragon represents everything important in Chinese culture—wisdom, power, and wealth—and seemed befitting of an association and meetings industry segment destined to have a successful year after two years of decline.

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That evening, in the stunning new Harbor View Ballroom, attendees sampled a family-style Chinese banquet, which turned out to be a big hit. Even if you didn’t love some of the dishes, there were enough that you could be happy with the one or two that most appealed to you. “I appreciate the fact that the Marriott went out of its way to try something different,” said one insurance conference planner, who was anxious to try something comparable at her next banquet.

Robust Education
Monday was all about education and learning, with a full day of seminars planned by the design team, led by FICP Northeast Region Chair Sheryl Krongold, CMP, senior meeting planner, Prudential, and Vice Chair Karin Pontelandolfo, CMP, senior meeting planner, Liberty Mutual Insurance.

One of the highlights of the day’s education was a presentation by Alice D. Domar, PhD, a Boston-based pioneer in the application of mind/body medicine to men’s and women’s health issues. She not only established the first Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health, but also conducts ongoing groundbreaking research in the field and has written a number of books on the subject. Her research, and her presentation, focused on the relationship between stress and women’s health conditions, and on creating innovative programs to help women decrease physical and psychological symptoms.

She addressed both women’s and men’s issues and graciously and gladly took many questions at the end of her presentation.

Another expert peppered with questions by the audience was Jim McGuirk, CPP, security manager, Corporate & International Protective Services, Liberty Mutual Insurance, who gave a session about applying risk management principles to events. He talked about his company’s process and policies in determining levels of risk and the extent to which his department is involved.

Monday evening’s dinner was hosted by the exquisite Boston Harbor Hotel at Rowes Wharf, another sponsor of the meeting and within walking distance of the Marriott. Tuesday’s education sessions included Patrick O’Malley (otherwise known as “617-PATRICK”) demonstrating ways to get more out of social media; independent contractor Jennifer Squeglia, CMP, Boston Private Wealth Management Group, leading a panel discussion about revenue management, and author Scott Christopher’s presentation, “The Levity Effect: Why it Pays to Lighten Up.”

Region Chair Sheryl Krongold also presented more than 300 donated items to Katherine Carroll Day, director of corporate and foundation relations, Horizons for Homeless Children.

FICP in the News
Another highlight of the meeting was a presentation by Steve Bova, CAE, executive director of FICP, based in Chicago, who briefed the audience on some exciting news about the association and how it has evolved over the past year or so.

“Our goal in 2011 was to increase our membership by 10 percent,” he told the audience, but that goal was exceeded when the association marked a 15.2 percent net growth in membership. It’s especially impressive, Bova said, considering that “5 to 6 percent is the industry norm.” He added that the association now has 523 members representing 203 different companies. The association also enjoyed a slight increase in the number of its hospitality partners, a net gain of 3 percent.

In 2012 FICP will experiment with social events called “FICP Connects,” said Bova, which will bring members and prospective members together for networking. One is planned for New York, he said, and another for the Midwest.

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Revenue Management from the Inside

“There’s been an assumption that sales gets a lead and revenue management just gives back a rate,” says Theresa Doherty, director of market strategy, Downtown Boston Marriott Hotels. “That isn’t what happens. A lot is taken into consideration.” Doherty was part of a panel discussion at the FICP Northeast Region Meeting moderated by independent contractor Jennifer Squeglia, CMP, Boston Private Wealth Management Group. The other panelists were Cathy Bergeron, global account executive, Marriott International Global Sales; Maureen Chambers, director of group strategy, Downtown Boston Marriott Hotels; and Tina Strauss, senior account executive, Marriott International Eastern Region. Responsible for the strategy for the nine Boston-area Marriotts, Doherty helps to set each hotel’s revenue and market share goals for the year ahead, while Chambers evaluates group business against those larger goals. “Market share has become much more important as a measurement,” Doherty notes. “So we always look at how group business fits into the overall strategy. It might increase profits but if we don’t grow market share as well, we are not successful.”

Their advice to meeting planners:
1. Be flexible.
You’ve heard it before, but changing dates or patterns can boost negotiating strength. Chambers suggests asking for bids for different patterns so you can see the value in shifting arrival by even one day. And consider alternate meeting space options such as re-using general session space for breakouts, or meeting and eating in the same room.

2. Be open.
More information given to the salesperson could give you more flexibility in rates and concessions, Chambers notes. For example, if a hotel knows that you will be reaching significant F&B minimums, your less-desirable Tuesday/Wednesday pattern might not be a problem.

3. Prioritize.
Rather than give a long list of concessions, Chambers says, “evaluate and rate those that have the most impact on your event and your business. Some of these items may be in line with what the hotel can easily offer.”

4. Know the hotel.
Try to learn the hotel’s goals during the period you want to book. Is it high season, where rate is paramount? Or is demand low, and the hotel more interested in driving occupancy? Even within the Boston area, different hotels may have different demand patterns. And rates can vary drastically from month to month, even week to week, says Chambers.