Although the glory days of 2007 have not returned, many hoteliers are seeing special event business firm up at their properties.

Event business has been great in 2011 at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, reports market catering sales leader Dean Peters. The resort in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will "reach a new record in the number of local catering events" this year, Peters says. "We see budgets increasing as well as the average check, and covers are on the rise."

The event team at the JW Marriott at L.A. LIVE in downtown Los Angeles is also seeing brisk business. Says food and beverage events manager Jose Camara, "Client budgets have improved substantially, and guest counts continue to go up" this year.

2010 THE TURNAROUND YEAR

Other hoteliers, though, say the big recovery year was 2010, with 2011 holding pace.

For special event business at the Fairmont hotel chain, headquartered in Toronto, the year 2011 "is very similar to 2010—not significantly more," explains Jeff Doane, vice president of hotel sales and marketing. He adds, "2010 compared to 2009 was significantly better, while 2011 compared to 2010 is up slightly."

Paula Fenner, director of catering and conference services at The Adolphus in Dallas, sees a similar picture. For 2011, "We are ahead of pace for social events and behind pace for corporate events," she explains.

NOW OPENING: WALLETS

In welcome news, the bad old days of the "AIG effect," which put the damper on even the suggestion of a special splurge, seem to be fading a bit.

"We are seeing guests loosening the purse strings," Fenner says. "Corporate events are having fun themed breaks, ordering flowers again and even bringing in entertainment--it has been awhile since we have seen that."

As Camara puts it, "Clients are looking for lavish without being showy or too in-your-face luxe. They are looking for high-quality, memorable, 'wow' events."

As an example, he cites a recent corporate event at his property that paired a "modern" tea with a Willy Wonka-themed cocktail party. "Both were relatively cost-effective events with the big takeaway being 'memorable,'" he says. "How many corporate clients go to a modern tea?"

LUXURY ON THE QT

Camara notes that choice is its own form of luxury. "Customization is huge," he explains. "Clients are willing to spend the extra money to create a custom mac-and-cheese bar or custom mini-cupcake bar. So you find the luxury in the additional ingredients, and the luxury of choice."

Doane says that Fairmont's corporate event clientele are willing to spend if they get the return they want. "Last time, a company might send its 200 top sellers on an incentive, whereas this time, it's 100. But they are spending the same amount of money because they recognize that those 100 salespeople account for 80 of revenue, and they need to be motivated."

Doane adds that spending is there--it's just not as flamboyant as it used to be.

"One of our beach resorts told me that people used to go sit on the beach and order Dom Perignon and Cristal champagne," he relates. "Now, he's selling just as much champagne, but people drink it in their rooms."

HERE COMES 2012

Although the ongoing headache of short bookings makes forecasting 2012 event business tough, some hoteliers are already feeling optimistic.

At the Woodloch Resort in Hawley, Pa., "All Saturdays during the most popular wedding months--May, June, September and October--are already sold out for 2012," notes spokesperson Brooke Jennings Roe.

The JW Marriott at L.A. LIVE is also optimistic about event business in the new year. "2012 is looking very good for us," Camara says. "We are well booked through the first half of the year throughout all our outlets--ballrooms, restaurants, etc.--with signed contracts in hand, and are receiving numerous calls daily about booking space for the remainder of the year."

Next year will also bring the U.S. presidential election, an event that can mean a landslide of businesses for some venues while coming up dry in others.

Since the Fairmont has properties in cities throughout the U.S., Doane has a highly nuanced view of the power of an election year.

WHAT PARTY THROWS THE PARTY?

"Historically in election years, everyone leaves Washington, so it will negatively impact [the Fairmont in] D.C.," Doane says. On the other hand, fundraisers in other cities will benefit Fairmont. For instance, the landmark Fairmont in San Francisco is "the White House of the West," Doane says, because it has hosted so many U.S. presidents and presidential fundraisers.

The banner year for Washington hotels, Doane says, will more likely be 2013, when the winner of the election is inaugurated. Not only do inaugurations attract events, they also attract lobbyists eager to influence the newly elected--especially if the White House changes hands to a new political party. "2009 was huge for us in D.C. with the Democrats coming in," Doane recalls.

What's your forecast? Please share the forecast for your hotel's special event business by taking our online poll, on the right side of our website. Please forecast both 2011 and 2012 business—thank you.

See the full story in the November-December issue of Special Events.

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