Meeting demand is growing, and planners are on the hunt for flexible spaces where they can create memorable and, at times, non-traditional events on a budget. Booking windows remain short, however, and hotels are upgrading their meetings and special events spaces to win over clients.
“It’s not done on a long-term basis anymore,” says Park Hyatt Washington General Manager Andrew Davidson of bookings. “When you’re dealing with people’s money in the wedding and social markets, they are always a little more cautious on who they spend it with. And expectation levels are high.”
Park Hyatt Washington, which first opened 25 years ago and has become known in the D.C. area as a reputable setting for meetings and social events, completed a redesign of its private event space in the fall of 2011. “In order to stay current and fresh, and continue to intrigue your audience, you have to somewhat reinvent yourself,” Davidson says.
The flexible event and meeting space, renamed “The Gallery,” comprises the luxury hotel’s 10,000-square-foot lower level. The space features a gallery foyer, lounge and ballroom, plus a drawing room that can be split into two separate sections. A second foyer leads to the salon, which can be divided into five intimate rooms. To unify the food and beverage program, Park Hyatt Washington now offers the farm-to-table dining experience available at its Blue Duck Tavern in The Gallery. Newly appointed Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault leads the culinary effort.
In 2006, Park Hyatt Washington completed a major renovation of its guestrooms and public spaces, and introduced the Blue Duck Tavern, all designed by Tony Chi. In order to bring the private event space in line with Chi’s design, which interprets American artisanship with contemporary twists, the hotel sought the help of Jose Gonzalez of Savannah, Ga.-based Gonzalez Architects. Jane Dillon Design Group and Ken Ventry Lighting Design also were integral to the renovation. “It was tired, worn, and totally inconsistent with what had been done in the lobby,” Gonzalez says of the ballroom and meeting spaces.
“We wanted to be sensitive and responsive to what had been done in lobby and at the same time create our own look for it, tying the two spaces together and creating more interest for the hotel,” he adds. “We were also inclined to be suggestive of Americana and put our own bent on it.”
Gonzalez finds that traditional meeting spaces can be somewhat garish, so he created a warm, comfortable space that’s suitable for cocktail parties and lectures alike. The entryways use a series of dark and light woods and have a plank style that evokes early Americana structures. “The suggestion of that came from looking at early American log structures and early buildings, which were basically simple post and beam structures with very emphasized lintels,” Gonzalez says.
Prior to the renovation, the space felt cavernous, so lighting was an important component of the redesign. Electronic lighting modes can be pre-programmed to achieve a specific mood for each event. “You don’t feel like you’re underground anymore at all,” Davidson says.
HOTEL 71, CHICAGO
Hotel 71 in Chicago wrapped up a comprehensive $20 million renovation in December that included the addition of nearly 5,000 square feet of meeting space, a refreshed Penthouse Ballroom, and new business center. Architecture firm Pappageorge Haymes Partners led the project, with Borg Design assisting with the first level renovation. “Everything we addressed from the front-of-house side of things, we really listened to the guest rather than our egos,” says Steve Shern, Hotel 71’s general manager.
Located in the city’s financial district, Hotel 71 heavily caters to business travelers. The team placed emphasis on upgrades that would attract and satisfy more business travelers, while also appealing to transient guests.
The 356-room hotel has nearly 13,000 square feet of flexible function space. New meeting rooms created during the renovation include a 1,400-square-foot flexible space for mid-sized groups adjacent to Hoyt’s, the hotel’s full-service restaurant that opened in March 2011. “We knew we needed more meeting space, period, because of the number of rooms we had in the hotel,” Shern says.
Small- to mid-sized board meetings and classroom-style functions can be held in one of the sixth floor meeting spaces. For larger cocktail receptions and weddings, the 3,400-square-foot Penthouse Ballroom on the 39th floor features a reception hall and a deck with views overlooking the Chicago skyline. Guests can look directly down the Chicago River and watch the boats, drawbridges, and other activity on the water. “People always gravitate toward the windows,” Shern says. “It’s a great backdrop.”
Spinoff from small meetings and entertaining has been impressive so far, Shern says. In May, the hotel had 9,000 more room nights year-to-date compared to last year. The increase in room nights is in large part due to the success of the group and convention business, he says, coupled with business travel. “With the city being in a top convention market,” he says, “we see that coming back very strong this year and next year.”
Shern says small meeting space is becoming more attractive, and Hotel 71 has leveraged its strength in this category during the past few years while other hotels went after larger groups. “We really embraced that,” he says, “and we’re hoping to capture more of it and get the word out more this year.”
ST. REGIS ASPEN RESORT
The St. Regis Aspen Resort, which re-opened in December 2011 after a $40 million redesign, has the largest indoor meeting space in Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley, Colo., according to General Manager Senih Geray. “That becomes a key advantage for us to be able to secure groups when they’re in the prospecting stage,” Geray says.
A significant portion of the money invested during the renovation was spent on upgrading the meeting spaces. The result is an elegant yet functional design that appeals to meeting planners. “The investment was right on in terms of timing and the scope of it,” Geray says.
For the overall project, designer Lauren Rottet conceptualized a quintessential mountain manor similar to what John Jacob Astor, the visionary behind the St. Regis brand, would have designed for the seasoned traveler during the Gilded Age. The property’s more than 20,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space has been transformed into the palace ballrooms of the Astors. The walls and millwork have been painted to emphasize the traditional moldings and character. Antique mirrors, tufted sofas, and elegant furnishings reflect the grand salon style. A new catering venue on the lobby level allows groups to dine in a restaurant setting without leaving the property.
The June debut of St. Regis Aspen’s new restaurant concept, Chefs Club by Food & Wine, marked the completion of the redesign. Through an exclusive partnership and licensing agreement, Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” will curate a menu of seasonally-inspired American regional cuisine that the resort will rotate bi-annually. Geray says the partnership will become an important up-selling mechanism. “It will be a great tool for us to put more in-depth emphasis into banquets and catering,” he says.
Since meeting planners usually expect venues to bring excitement and participation to group attendees, the hotel has been experimenting with new concepts that pay tribute to the brand’s heritage. For example, the property has hosted “midnight suppers” for meeting groups that hark back to the early days of the brand, when prominent American socialite Caroline Astor hosted elegant social events at the St. Regis New York. Playing on the popularity of farm-to-table cuisine, the hotel has also hosted functions with guest appearances by farmers.
St. Regis Aspen aims to have a 50/50 split between its transient and group business in a given year. The average-size group accounts for between 80 and 100 rooms, depending on the time of year, Geray says. In the summer months, there is more group business activity, while the number of transient guests, especially international travelers, increases in the winter. The hotel typically hosts about 15 to 20 weddings a year, Geray adds, mostly in August and September. “I’d like to see that grow with the new space we have,” he says.