Hotels these days find themselves having to contend with not just a recessionary economy and a public afraid to travel, but also some residual hard feelings from punch-drunk planners who long have warned the hospitality to play nice because what goes around, comes around. Now that the market’s turned, hotel chains are hearing their message loud and clear—and trying to do some things to improve their planner relationships.

One effort from Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels and Resorts involves simplifying its meetings contracts to make them more user-friendly, says company spokesperson Rafal Karkis. "We’re working to make it easier for the hotel and the planner to reach agreement, and to simplify the language through better verbiage." The shorter, simpler contract is slated to debut in January.

Washington-based Marriott International is taking a different tack: It announced in late November that it would indefinitely eliminate early-departure and toll-free phone call fees. Adam’s Mark Hotels also took off toll-free phone access charges earlier this fall.

Dave Scypinski, senior vice president of industry relations with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, White Plains, N.Y., says Starwood is going to leave it to hotels to negotiate as they see fit. "We have some cities that are doing well, some that are distressed, and others that are in-between. To put a corporate-wide program into place that addresses every hotel we have in the portfolio…in some cases would be making us be our own worst enemy."

Of Hyatt’s plan to introduce simplified contracts, Scypinski says: "Been there, done that. When Christie Hicks and I first came to Starwood a few years back, the first thing we did was take our 15-page contract down to six pages. We put it in easy-to-read language, and added the clauses that invariably show up on customer addendums. Now I’m just chuckling that other chains are coming out with simplified contracts. Well, duh. Customers have been asking for that for 10 years."

Like Starwood, Hilton Hotels Corporation, Beverly Hills, Calif., isn’t making any corporate-mandated policy changes, according to Kathy Shepard, vice president, corporate communications. "There are lots of concessions being negotiated on a case-by-case basis at individual hotels. Times are tougher, and we’re eager to work with planners." She says Hilton is offering incentives, but they’re customized to meeting the needs of specific groups and hotels.

"Whatever we can do to make it happen, we’re doing—as long as we’re not asked to give away the store," says Shepard. "But we’re fairly open to whatever’s out there."

"This past fall was a wake-up call in so many ways," says Scypinski. "We went from having our best year ever to our worst year ever in six months. It was a severe lesson, but a good one in the long run. We won’t neglect our customers again."
—Sue Pelletier