Topping out

There has never been a better time for consumers to barter for goods and services. But what about the businesses at the top end, are they slashing their prices or holding firm? Vikki Carley and Sarah O’Donnell check out the five-star hotel offers.

As the saying goes: ‘It is all about quality, not quantity’. Or is it? One would think it has been a particularly difficult year for hotels at the top-end of the meetings market because of the recession. They have to work that bit harder to attract clients wishing to hold events in lavish surroundings, as companies step down the star scale. 
Declining demand from large corporates has been a particular blow to these top-end hotels, as they are keen not to be perceived as spending large amounts of money on a costly event for staff when business is suffering.
The Maybourne Group has three hotels in London; The Berkeley, The Connaught and Claridge’s, which are all marketed as luxury hotels, with collateral that boasts “exquisite innovation, timeless glamour and understated elegance”. Maybourne Group’s director of events, Eugene Leonard, says: “We are working three to four times as hard to get corporate events, private dinners and weddings business.”
The three hotels claim never to have had to advertise before, their marketing previously reliant on the awareness of the brand and most business coming through reputation. Although the group reports steady levels of business, Leonard says: “There is no room to lose business and we are working harder than ever.” This drive includes employing a dedicated marketing team.
The Group says it is adverse to cutting costs. “We have seen the last year as an opportunity to pioneer new standards in the private events industry and implement clever ways of offering value for money,” says Leonard, whose team are fighting the five-star corner fiercely.
This includes looking at ways of offering the highest level of service combined with a unique experience, and having professional event teams on site seven days a week to ensure expectations are well surpassed, says Leonard.
“Luxury spa facilities are increasingly becoming a point of differentiation within the London five-star hotel arena and our hotels are able to offer this, which is definitely a selling point in their ability to attract business,” adds Leonard.
The Maybourne Group says that compared to September last year, it saw slow growth in autumn conference and meeting bookings. It hopes to see healthier business levels and believes its private events calendar pick up in 2010. This autumn, for the first time in the Connaught’s 112-year history, purpose built private entertainment facilities are on offer.

Utilising spa facilities and packages to attract business travellers, has been particularly beneficial for Maybourne’s competitor Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. The hotel’s spa, which is divided into male and female facilities, was recently voted the ‘Top Hotel Spa in the UK’ at the Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Travel Awards 2009. 
“The business traveller has limited time so we designed a package for them called ‘Time Traveller’, designed to ease the effects of a long flight,” says events manager, Rachel Angell. 
Along with business-tailored packages, clients can opt for the ‘Best of British’ programme, which includes a gift certificate for Harrods, breakfast at the Park restaurant, lunch in the Michelin-starred restaurant Foliage and entry to the gaming club Aspinalls in nearby Mayfair. Usually priced at £1,000, the package has brought the cost to £525 plus VAT, and is aimed at clients wanting the British experience when staying at a hotel for a conference or meeting. 
Over 80 per cent of the hotel’s business is international and the balance between business and leisure bookings has tipped towards the latter this year. “Although the hotel has seen a slight drop in corporate client volume, we have noticed an upswing for Q4 towards business clients,” Angell adds, underlining that her team has become more creative and flexible.
“We have been busy thanks to our loyal partners and out strong long-standing relationships.” One such creative move is the launch of a new ‘Meetings Edge’ package at 12 of the Mandarin Group’s properties, including London. Offering discounts for group bookings of 10 or more rooms, Angell says it guarantees group rates at 20 per cent lower than the best available rate, as well as credit to the master account of up to 10 per cent. 
Always the most expensive and coveted spot on the monopoly board, the May Fair draws in those hoping to glimpse a celebrity or two during their stay. 
Reluctant to rest on its laurels, the hotel underwent an extensive renovation from 2003 to 2006 during its daily running. New to the Radisson Edwardian chain at the time, the hotel group hoped to maintain the perception of five-star quality with strong branding and committed clientele, so continued independently of its brand owner. 
Unlike the other hotels featured, the May Fair incorporates its spa offering within its conference business, rather than supplementing it. “For conferences around Christmas, we create tailored packages for spa parties, teambuilding activities and partners of delegates to tie on to, or extend the event,” says spa manager, Stacey Spooner. 
“Group bookings for spas can be very stressful for an organiser already dealing with large numbers for their own event. 
We can take on that responsibility and will schedule the length, time slots, food and beverages. For those on a budget, we also offer mini-treatments for delegates,” she adds. 
The conference and spa team offers quirky options to keep meetings fresh. “We have created themed scrubs and products to match, such as a coffee scrub for Nescafe; chocolate or even detox-themed products,” adds Spooner. 

She says that the conference market is extremely important not to only the hotel’s business, but also to the spa, and that the conference team “ensures that what is offered suits the event”. 
“For breakout sessions, instead of the usual coffee and biscuits, we can offer a ‘revitalising corner’, with shot glasses of energising lemongrass tea teamed with a mini massage to revitalise delegates,” says Spooner, who claims it can all add value to an event and make a lasting impression. 
In August, Spooner admits they panicked over a drastic drop in spa bookings. June had been their best ever month and July also returned a good income, but, “the fact that our business was dead in August, meant we had to quickly turn it around and be creative”. She says the spa has attracted new clients after increasing its third party offers and since then has seen a constant rise in bookings. 
“We’re riding at a high, and in fact above the average room occupancy,” says the May Fair’s meetings and events sales manager, Urvi Shah. “Across the industry, room rates are down on last year.” 
The May Fair increased its spa prices at the end of 2008 but says this was necessary. “We have been running the spa for five years and have only increased the price once. We plan to increase the cost of the offering every three years. For £99, a client has full use of the facilities,” says Spooner. 
Although the draw of an ‘exclusive’ experience was almost irresistible for business travellers on high travel budgets in the past, the current ‘experience’ seems to have lost a little of its sparkle. With the lower end of the market attempting now to punch way above its weight and seemingly winning market share against their upmarket competitors, the elite have been forced to rethink their strategies, creatively reshuffling standard. They can no longer rely on loyalty and word of month alone to generate business. 
The elite cannot remain aloof from the battle for business.

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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