The overall theme from this year's C&IT Hotel Chain Survey is "steady improvement", which can be traced back to anecdotal evidence from clients, agents and hoteliers themselves, and the statistical findings from this year's research.
Some 64 per cent of respondents reported business to be "healthier" than a year ago, with 23 per cent claiming trade had been "much healthier".
However, this sunny picture was tempered when the chains were asked to back this up. For a start, some 27 per cent did not offer precise figures on how much C&I business had risen or fallen over the past year, but of the majority that did, 81 per cent had seen some kind of increase. The average rise in group bookings came in at 11 per cent.
The star of the show was global giant Hyatt, which clocked up a massive 40 per cent rise in business, followed by high-end UK operator von Essen, which saw a 30 per cent increase in C&I bookings. Von Essen executive director sales and marketing Greg Ward can pinpoint why his firm has got it right in 2005/06. "We run country house hotels so the consumer trade is not there Sunday to Thursday," he says. "We've, therefore, focused heavily on the conference market and put a range of dedicated resources in place such as a conference agency sales manager who liaises continually with the individual events manager we have installed at each property."
Other bells and whistles brought in include a customer-relationship management system that allows individual hotels to communicate with each other and a beefed-up website with full C&I options and online booking.
For its part, Hyatt has seen a lot of growth in Asia, particularly China, and it's also seeing the fruits of a long-term focus on C&I, according to director of sales (MICE) Farida Messaadi. "Clients are very clear what each of our three brands offer the market," she says. "As well as our facilities, we are well known for our properties' design and food, and that we can also offer outside catering."
Hotel operators are, of course, bound to paint a rosy picture, but it does seem that agencies and clients agree that the working relationships are becoming easier. "Things have improved," says Absolute Corporate Events managing director Tim Gasson. "Hotel chains are listening more and have a greater understanding of our requirements rather than just providing the facilities." His agency's roster includes the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Hewlett-Packard and KPMG and he flags up the Four Seasons Buenos Aries as one property that went the extra mile for him recently. "The staff were unbelievably friendly and were very proactive even when it came to things like creating signage, which is normally outside Four Seasons policy," he says. "It's the kind of thing that people should be empowered to do naturally but all too often aren't."
Clerical Medical events manager Della Cole agrees that while things have improved, there are still niggles serious enough to make her think twice when booking. Her role involves organising 50-75 meetings for her company each year, most of which are overseas. On the up side, she cites a staff event at the Ritz Carlton in Boston - a last-minute venue change following the most recent Bird Flu outbreak.
"It sounds corny but their slogan is 'ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentleman' and it really rings true," she says. "For example, the venue had photo files of our 45 delegates and all the key hotel staff learned their names. The response to that kind of recognition from delegates was priceless."
Seal of approval
Another property that gets her vote is Frankfurt's Schlosshotel Kronberg a member of the Leading Hotels of the World Group, which offers a selective, but free, minibar. "When you are pay £170 per night, it's a small thing to offer but it makes a big, long-term difference."
The other side of the coin - what Cole terms the 'small meanesses' - inevitably elicit the opposite reaction. "When you are placing £40,000 for a small one-night event and you get charged for a room drop or for someone taking breakfast in their room rather than downstairs, it really does feel like you are in a 24-hour sting," she says. "We need to work together to add value without attacking hotel margins or our budgets."
While many hotel operators are undoubtedly making a concerted effort to meet event planners half way, Miles Quest from the British Hospitality Association admitted there is still a lot of work to be done: "If you are charging a client £200 per room it is these seemingly smaller things that get noticed," he says. "As an industry we have to be careful. The revenue that is generated can soon get overwhelmed by the day-to-day gripes."
All sides seem agreed then that the C&I/hotel relationship needs to build on the past year's progress as a platform to create a better dialogue.
In practice, though, how can both parties ensure that this actually happens?
One mechanism that seems to work is the hotel advisory board concept, which is something that Tina Morris, managing director events at Euro RSCG Skybridge, has adopted with Ritz Carlton. Her clients, which include Jaguar, HBOS and Bayer among others, are looking increasingly for brand-venue fit and so this kind of dialogue is vital for her. "Clients want hotels that match their brand values and can bring them to life," she says. "The forward-thinking hotel chains are already considering the kind of brands they want to work with when they are acquiring and refurbishing properties."
Ultimately then, it would seem a less entrenched supplier-buyer scenario is emerging. The logic behind advisory boards is obvious. The fact that successful hotel groups such as von Essen are focusing on getting sales and operations departments to work closely together, gives hope to the many agents that bemoan the over-zealous promises made by hotels that fail to materialise once booked groups are on-site.
There's no perfect world solution, and whether this time next year debates such as the RFI/RFP process will have moved on remain to be seen, but, for now, the future appears positive.
TOP 10 AGENCY GRIPES
1. Bad service
2. Staff turnover
3. Sales promises vs delivery
4. Arrogant attitudes
5. Lack of flexibility
6. Billing issues
7. Slow response rates
9. Lack of sustainability policy
10. Understanding needs
Source: CIT Agency Forum 2006.
TOP 10 GROWTH DESTINATIONS