The name Ritz-Carlton is synonymous with luxury, not meetings. But, "in many of our hotels, 40 to 60 percent of our business is group business," says Ralph Grippo, vice president and area general manager, The Ritz-Carlton Huntington, Pasadena, Calif. Grippo was one of many speakers who participated in the first Ritz-Carlton Luxury Meetings Forum, an event for editors from the meetings media held at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas Jan 26 to 29.

At the forum, Ritz-Carlton executives hammered home the point that the former boutique hotel company is a growing collection of 58 properties actively pursuing a healthy share of the meetings market. (While owned by Marriott, Ritz-Carlton maintains a separate brand identity.) One big change: Newer properties such as those in Lake Las Vegas and Grande Lakes Orlando are being purpose-built for larger meetings of between 200 and 500 people. "In the past, we couldn’t handle groups of this size," says Bruce Siegel, area director of marketing, The Ritz-Carlton Hotels of Georgia. "But our new hotels are being designed with more guest rooms, large ballrooms and breakout spaces, and meeting space that is separate from the rest of the physical plant."

Of course, there are some meetings that are never going to take place at a Ritz-Carlton. Alicen Holmes, a meeting planner with Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif., and panelist at the luxury forum, says that she is one of few in her company allowed to book Ritz-Carlton, because her events are for top executives of Fortune 500 companies. The all-employee meetings are a different kettle of fish. "Frugality is one of our [corporate] values," she says. "We don’t want to send the wrong message."

Nevertheless, the use of luxury properties for sales incentives and client meetings appears to be going strong, and there is intense competition for the business. At Ritz-Carlton, in addition to building bigger properties with more meeting facilities, the sales staff and operations staff are being trained to cater to meeting planner needs.

Among the initiatives:

-A new program requiring everyone in catering and conference services to earn a CMP designation is anticipated for 2004 and 2005.
-In response to the growing role of procurement in site selection, salespeople are being trained to be more data-driven. "They need to be able to show the return on investment [of luxury meetings]," says Jo-Anne Hill, regional vice president, sales & marketing, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. "It’s a tougher sell."
-Ritz-Carlton is targeting specific group markets such as insurance and pharmaceutical, and "designating experts" within the company to keep current with issues like pharma meeting guidelines.
-Efforts are being made to get on the preferred vendor lists of major corporations. "It took about nine months to become a preferred vendor for Microsoft," says Karen Sheldon, regional director of sales, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. "We got all of our city hotels to buy into this agreement. It helps the negotiating process because [many of the contract] details have been ironed out ahead-of-time. We’re already seeing more meetings from Microsoft."
-Meeting planner preferences are stored in a computerized database called CLASS (customer loyalty and satisfaction system), so that personalized service can follow the planner at future events.