Meetings Are Back, Say Planners at Ritz-Carlton Insurance Advisory Council

The 31 senior-level planners at The Ritz-Carlton Insurance Advisory Council—a record turnout—are all moving forward in 2011 with the same or a greater number of meetings.

The planners were polled at the meeting, held August 26–29 at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, among the most picturesque Pacific Coast properties south of San Francisco. The educational agenda included updates from Ritz-Carlton representatives and supplier partners; a community service activity; and a three-hour interactive session of candid conversation on industry issues among planners and Ritz-Carlton corporate representatives and property salespeople. As well, planners experienced area activities organized by destination management company Maximize Events and the attentive hospitality for which Ritz-Carlton is known, culminating in a delicious farm-to-table dinner followed by the fabulous Bill Hopkins Rock’n Orchestra.

Council organizer Pam Ferguson, Ritz-Carlton’s director of global accounts, insurance, introduced a series of speakers who opened the meeting with updates on hotel news. In his opening remarks, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, General Manager Bernd Kuhlen spoke about “putting the human touch to business”—and he exemplified this philosophy by joining the group throughout the meeting and showcasing the hotel’s line employees whose behind-the-scenes efforts create front-of-the-house success.

Speaking about the evolution of the brand, Kelly Wood, vice president, global sales organization, North America, for The Ritz-Carlton, noted that Ritz-Carlton was named the preferred hotel luxury brand in 2009 by the Luxury Brand Tracking Study. She attributed this in part to a new brand vision that began in 2006: a sense of place in architecture and design more tailored to the local market; a more relaxed and comfortable vibe; and service delivery tailored less to a scripted set of guidelines and more to core service values.

As well, Ritz-Carlton properties spent more than $3 billion on renovations between 2006 and 2009, said Wood, and began growing internationally. “We’re no longer a U.S.-centric company,” she said. In the pipeline are hotels opening in Toronto, Aruba, Puerto Rico, Panama City, Dubai, Hong Kong, Bali, and Cairo, among other locations. While Wood predicts that 2011 will be another transitional year for the economy, she cited positive growth of insurance meeting room nights at Ritz-Carlton properties for the first half of 2010.

Other speakers included Gary Grove, regional vice president, sales and marketing, The Ritz-Carlton; Jennifer Alexy, regional vice president, sales and marketing, The Ritz-Carlton; Charles Jones, manager, global sales group and meeting travel, American Airlines; and Inge Campbell, national account manager, insurance and incentives, Maui Jim Sunglasses.

American Airlines, said Jones, is one of a handful of airlines that has stayed consistently committed to the meetings market, and will be rolling out 35 new aircraft during the next few years. A shift to a stronger marketplace was noted by Campbell, who reported that Maui Jim’s corporate gift team is experiencing record sales.

On day two of the meeting, attendees participated in a “Community Footprints” activity to benefit Coastside Hope, a community assistance center for the Half Moon Bay area that provides help with food, clothing, shelter, and social services. After hearing a single dad talk about how Coastside Hope helped him to get back on his feet after losing his job, participants packed up a large donation of food that hotel employees had collected during the previous few weeks.

The feel-good benefits of CSR was also one of the topics discussed in an interactive session facilitated by Jo-Anne Hill of JH Hospitality Consulting, with about half of the planners in attendance saying that they typically have a community service activity at their meetings or incentive programs.

Among other talking points at the meeting: the fallout from the perception wars, including not using company names on meeting signage; imminent hotel rate increases; the different needs and dynamics of younger meeting and incentive attendees; and technology trends that are affecting meeting planning.

Overall, the tenor of this year’s insurance advisory council was more upbeat compared to the same time last year, with both planners and hospitality partners shifting their focus from staying the course to planning for the future.

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