Hilton chases small meetings to make up for dwindling convention business

November 24, 2013

Hilton Worldwide is hoping there is big money in small meetings.

The McLean-based hotel company last week debuted a program to keep up with growing demand for meetings of fewer than 25 attendees. Meetings Simplified, a new online system with a pared-down pricing structure, helps planners quickly book short-term gatherings at 1,800 hotels — from Hampton Hotels to Waldorf Astoria — across the United States.

Executives say small conferences are a bright spot in an otherwise struggling meetings business, as government cuts, sequestration and dwindling corporate budgets take their toll on large conventions.

“Certainly with the down economy, people are less inclined to hop on a plane for a conference,” said Sherry Romello, senior director of Hilton Meetings and Product Management. “We are seeing more regional and small meetings popping up very short term. Executives are turning to their assistants and saying, ‘Can you book a meeting for Tuesday?’ ”

Nationally, group business continues to decline. In September, for example, the group occupancy rate fell to 23.5 percent, down from 23.8 percent last year and 24.4 percent two years ago, according to research firm Smith Travel Research.

“There has been continued drag from government agencies and associations,” said Nikhil Bhalla, an analyst for FBR Capital Markets in Arlington County. “However, small corporate events — training-related meetings, sales launches, brainstorming meetings — those are making a comeback.”

The demand for small corporate gatherings is a reflection of the broader economy — the stock market has been improving, and many companies are faring better, Bhalla added.

Hotels also are experiencing competition from a host of new entrants offering co-working and shared space that appeals to small groups and those trying to set up impromptu meetings.

Responding to such changes is particularly important to a company such as Hilton, which has filed notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it plans to sell stock to the public.

Meetings that require fewer than 25 rooms per night now account for 70 to 80 percent of conference bookings, Romello said.

“We looked at the data and immediately said, there’s an opportunity here to simplify the process — not just for customers, but for our hotels too,” Romello said.

The new system, which has been in the works since 2011, simplifies the meeting booking process — long geared toward large conventions — into a one-stop shop. Hilton has created a basic package, which includes meeting rooms, wireless Internet and beverages, and eliminates the need for multiple phone calls and contracts. Prices have been pre-set, and there are no requirements for overnight room bookings.

“There is very high demand for meeting rooms that don’t come with sleeping rooms,” Romello said. “Particularly in cities like New York or Washington, people are driving in for the day and then going back home.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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