Louise Gordon, conference manager at Oxford’s Wolfson College finds a kindred spirit in St Paul, Minnesota
Visiting my native country USA for a family occasion recently, I found myself in Minnesota, where I enjoyed a comfortable stay in the Embassy Suites by Hilton in downtown St Paul. As luck would have it, the hotel was hosting a meeting for a major corporate client during my stay. So I was able to turn from tourist to trade, and talked shop with catering, sales and operations manager Timothy Herme, whose every phrase expressed congenial enthusiasm.
We chatted in a corner of the open-air atrium, with ducks gliding past in the water feature and glass lifts (or as Americans say ‘elevators’) gliding between the seven floors of this spacious environment aptly described as ‘Inside Outside’.
The venue has 464sqm of banqueting space and, beyond this, a business wing with four interlinked meeting spaces, an additional boardroom, and the separate Emerald Room with its wooden beam ceiling. Accommodation is not only en-suite, it is all suites: 208 of them.
Although I was an ocean away from my home terrain of an Oxford college, venue management comes down to the same ‘truths’ whoever and wherever you are, and these became apparent as Tim and I exchanged transatlantic venue manager experiences.
We are experts on our space and what we can make of it and agreed that with numerous options comes the need for a delicate touch in steering clients to the optimal set up for their particular purpose and scale.
A further dimension lies in having mixed use of spaces: my challenge in fitting conferences around college activities was mirrored in Tim’s meshing of delegate timetables alongside ever-present hotel guests. A ‘good fit’ can be as much about compatability as capacity.
We shared a strong sense of brand, knowing how to navigate by it when presenting and personalising our packages and product lines. A Hilton hotel and Oxford college each rely on strongly defined, if markedly different, character and reputation. These lend great strength in pitching to our customers, but also set parameters around our scope for inventiveness and individuality. As Tim put it: “‘Yes’ is the answer, whatever the question”, but it can take skilled manoeuvres to get to that ‘yes’. Venue managers the world over are driven by positivity informed by pragmatism, harmonising the client’s aspirational vision with our sites’ operational realities.
Venue managers are equally managers of processes, people and relationships. Tim valued his capacity to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for clients, with Hilton’s Meetings Simplified, a further tool in giving organisers a mapped-out plan for a day’s programme.
This simplicity goes hand in hand with comprehensiveness, and we share a practice of providing detailed information to every enquiry, as Tim put it ‘going the extra’ from first contact onwards. And while making it all easy for our clients, we agreed that, like those ducks in the atrium water feature, our own practised calm composure entailed much paddling beneath the surface. As Tim said: “You’re always learning”, from what works and even more, from what doesn’t.
Printed on the keycard to my suite was the Hilton slogan, ‘Make it right’, expressing the organisation’s policy of empowering and enlisting frontline staff to address guest requests on the spot. Tim explained that in hospitality and catering “you need to expect the unexpected”.
I experienced this that very evening, when I slipped through an open door to explore meeting spaces which had been in use earlier in the day. Guiltily turning towards the voice firmly asking ‘Can I help you?’, I encountered Ted, amiably offering to conduct an impromptu tour. An example of Tim’s earlier promise to me: “If you don’t have a smile, we’ll give you one of ours”, and that’s a sentiment that sounds good in any accent.