By Julia M. Johnson
(The Archview Ballroom at the Hilton St. Louis at the ballpark.)
You’d think dealing with a portfolio of a dozen hotels, 3,000 rooms and 140,000-plus square feet of meeting space would be a complex task for the planner booking events at Lodging Hospitality Management’s St. Louis properties. Sounds like a situation requiring multiple tedious phone calls and a laundry list of questions for various hotel sales and catering departments, doesn’t it?
Surprisingly, the reverse proves true. With an emphasis on training and customer service, Maryland Heights-based Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM) has developed a “one-stop shopping” model for the busy meeting planner who doesn’t have time to contact multiple properties and compare notes on their offerings. LHM has trained its sales staff to be the single point of contact for a planner, whether the client is booking 15 guests or 500. That point person handles everything, from recommending appropriate venues to arranging for food and beverage service, décor and audio-visual equipment.
It sounds simple, but it’s what hotels need to do to remain successful in an increasingly challenging marketplace, says Tom Lyons, LHM’s vice president of sales and revenue.
Right now, the company is in expansion mode, with plans to add two more St. Louis-area hotels in spring 2009 – the Moonrise Hotel in the University City Loop, and a Hilton Garden Inn at the North Park mixed-use development. LHM also owns the Marten House Hotel and Lilly Conference Center in Indianapolis, and it is building a new Granite Park Hotel in Plano, Texas. And Lyons says the company’s newly acquired Hotel Collinsville will be reflagged as a Doubletree following an extensive renovation.
In the meantime, LHM is constantly upgrading its other existing hotels, sometimes spending up to $10 million to refurbish a single property. Planners and clients benefit from that attention to detail, and many say the entire LHM service model is what keeps them coming back. The company’s client roster reflects that success – planners at major St. Louis companies such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Monsanto Co., Edward Jones, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. and Wachovia Securities have relied on LHM to provide top-notch space for their events.
“It’s our job to make the meeting planner look good,” says Steve O’Loughlin, LHM’s president and chief operating officer. “If we provide an exceptional experience for attendees, the planners will have achieved their job of executing a productive meeting.”
DOING IT DIFFERENTLY
According to Lyons, the “one-stop shopping” model of service is the main factor that sets LHM apart from other hotel ownership groups. The program respects planners’ valuable time, recognizes that event coordination is often just one of many hats they wear, and saves them the trouble of comparing several properties and amenities to see which best fit a particular meeting.
“It’s great that you don’t have to make multiple calls,” says Carole Zimos, regional operations coordinator for the northeast region at Warren, Mich.-based Imagine Schools. Her organization, a network of charter schools, recently chose LHM’s Hilton at the Ballpark in downtown St. Louis for its annual 700-person awards celebration. “Once we signed a contract for the facility, we were turned over to the food and beverage/banquet manager, and we coordinated everything through her,” Zimos says. “It was wonderful not to worry about arranging parking or figuring out discounts. She handled everything, including our sophisticated audio-visual needs, lighting and special food requests.”
“You don’t always want to be tied to a walkie-talkie or cell phone during an event like this,” Zimos says. “Everything was so well orchestrated by LHM, I don’t think I had to use mine once at our meeting.”
Robin Frye, former corporate sales coordinator and planner for Carboline Corp., a St. Louis-based industrial coatings manufacturer, says LHM’s single-point-person model saved her untold hours and phone calls in coordinating her company’s quarterly training programs. “At the very beginning, our rep would let me know what dates were negotiable on room rates, at which properties,” Frye says. “I never had to call the different hotels. If all my people couldn’t fit at Westport, they could offer me the Doubletree or the Ballpark Hilton.”
“The hospitality industry can be very fickle,” Frye says. “The customer will say, ‘If you don’t take care of me, I won’t come back,’ so it’s good that LHM trains everyone to reinforce customer service. I never had to worry about an employee having a bad day and taking it out on my attendees.”
For Shannon McGowan, manager of corporate consulting services and a former planner for Pennsylvania-based Lincoln Financial Group, LHM’s understanding of the client’s bottom line is what makes it unique. “For us, the most important thing is the room rate,” she says. “Our 500-person events aren’t incentive trips. People pay to attend and book hotel space; it’s not going on a corporate account. So we have to be very mindful of rates.”
“LHM’s properties are a great value for the dollar,” McGowan says. “And other properties we looked at in St. Louis didn’t have the breakout and trade show space we needed, but LHM did.”
TRAINED TO EXCEED EXPECTATIONS
Ralph Chrismer, president and co-owner of St. Louis-based independent meeting planning firm R & E Enterprises, says LHM’s training commitment to its 70-plus sales managers is what sets the company’s hotels apart from others. “Other hotels send us literature saying, ‘We have the perfect room for you,’ but they really don’t,” Chrismer says. “When I do site inspections at LHM properties, though, the sales personnel are open-minded. We need a lot of small breakouts and general session rooms, but they have such an array of hotels to choose from in St. Louis, they can tailor their space to any of our needs. Their sales and convention services personnel are trained to build relationships.”
Chrismer and Carole Zimos agree that LHM’s menu flexibility is another reason its properties stand out. “Sometimes it’s hard for other hotels to deviate from set menus or come up with special items,” Chrismer says. “But most of our clients are agricultural organizations, so they understand food. I can bring them in to sample LHM’s offerings, and the staff are always trained and willing to do what we need, even if we have last-minute changes.”
Chrismer says the hotels’ room setup staff is just as knowledgeable and accommodating. “Our setups are usually pretty elaborate,” he says of his clients’ events. “I have a meeting with the hotel staff before each event, and they’re very receptive to my being present at that time to make sure everything is in place. Not all properties will allow that.”
O’Loughlin says the hotel group has taken its customer service cues from successful companies such as Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines, and it recently hired a corporate trainer to focus specifically on service education. “We’ve also partnered up with Bob Brown, an industry leader and management consultant for hotels and restaurants worldwide, to help us achieve service excellence and guest loyalty,” O’Loughlin says.
The company’s unique model includes its own technology services company, HAVS (Hospitality Audio-Visual Services), which operates under the same training and service standards the hotel properties do, according to Lyons. Again, planners need only mention audio-visual technology requirements to their LHM sales representative, and he or she will coordinate from there.
Lyons says LHM is offering two incentive packages that meeting planners will want to examine. The company’s Ultimate Meeting Planner Package and Imagine the Incentives package offer various discounts and concessions for companies and associations booking space at LHM properties. “We have also offered gasoline-card programs for clients who book rooms,” Lyons says.
The company also wants planners to know it is as concerned about current economic, community, disability compliance and environmental issues as they are. Lyons says LHM is actively involved in donating furniture to nonprofits and providing complimentary hotel rooms for children receiving treatment at local hospitals, among other charitable programs. The company works regularly with accessibility auditors to determine how its properties can better serve disabled patrons, and it strives to conserve energy and water through various programs at its hotels. LHM also seeks out vendors who have green policies in place, according to O’Loughlin.
“The green movement is really taking on legs,” he says. “Our clients are asking us what we’re doing, and it’s becoming an increasing factor in hotel selection. With the economy tightening up, we know we will have to work harder to secure future business.”
“Our focus right now is on how we can strengthen relationships with our clients and provide excellent service.”
Steve O’Loughlin owns LHM with his father, chairman and CEO Robert O’Loughlin. The company has annual revenue of more than $200 million. MM&E
(Julia M. Johnson is the Assistant Editor from St. Louis, Mo.)
For more information, contact:
Barbara Koenig, Regional Sales Manager