Hilton Hotels Corp. last month announced new online group room block booking technology and said it plans to extend the tool to meeting space and services this year. Hilton is the third hotel chain in the past year to announce new online capabilities to book or compare group room blocks and meeting space. However, buyer reaction to booking a meeting entirely online has been lukewarm, said hotel executives, leading one chain to shift away from booking in favor of providing more efficient response capabilities for requests submitted through their Web site.
Hotel executives said that most meeting buyers don't want to waste time negotiating for smaller events, but some buyers said that automation isn't necessarily the solution they are looking for to manage small, ad hoc meetings.
Hilton said its E-Events Small Group Product would offer non-negotiable group rates—set by individual hotel properties—for five to 25 guest rooms. The tool also allows a corporate meeting buyer to set direct billing so that room expenses can be sent directly to the company.
The announcement followed a move by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide in April to offer online booking for day meetings (Meetings Today, June 6, 2005)
and an announcement by Hyatt Hotels Corp. in November 2005 that it had enhanced its four-year-old meetings technology product on its Web site by eliminating some booking functions in favor of instant request-for proposal-response to meetings of any size.
By early spring, Hilton executives said buyers would have the option of booking group rooms and meeting space together or separately on their tool. Starwood's tool allows buyers to book meeting space only.
Hilton executives said of the approximately $10 billion the chain earns in revenue each year, more than $3 billion is generated by groups and meetings. Bala Subramanian, senior vice president of distribution and brand integration for Hilton, said groups and meetings business is expected to grow as much as 10 percent this year and the online tool is aimed to capture that growth. However, putting smaller meetings through an RFP process is inefficient for both sides, he said. Sixty percent of leads for meetings is generated by groups of 25 rooms or less, he said, and smaller meetings are more likely to be planned by administrative assistants or non-dedicated meeting planners.
"That's the marketplace that really doesn't have a self-help tool," Subramanian said. "So this whole E-Events product initially is positioned as something that squarely meets the needs of that market: makes it automated, as trouble-free as possible, no RFP, instant confirmation, that sort of thing."
In addition to meeting space, buyers in the spring would be able to book food and beverage and audiovisual services through the tool, said Bob Brooks, vice president of corporate and group e-distribution for Hilton. The chain isn't ruling out a future option to load negotiated meeting rates into the tool, he said.
"In some of our customer research, we've heard that come up, so that's certainly on the radar screen for future enhancements and considerations to drive more business to the Internet," Brooks said.
"It's soup to nuts," Subramanian said, adding that buyers can purchase services separately as well. The initial focus of the tool is to make the purchasing process more efficient, but the tool could be used to market chainwide promotions and discounts in the future, he said. By year-end, Hilton plans to expand the tool to groups of up to 50 sleeping rooms.
The Hilton tool also includes a guest list manager to access rooming lists for all group bookings. "That is not limited to groups of 25. Even our large groups and meeting managers can manage their rooming lists efficiently with this product. We expect that to be a productivity tool that would be extremely popular with all of our group bookers," Subramanian said. "We feel that's a competitive first in the industry."
Through the rooming list management function, buyers can decide whether to allow attendees to pay for rooms or to bill the company directly for expenses, Brooks said.
Hyatt in November 2005 announced it would offer real-time response to RFPs through its Web site, something it had previously offered through meetings technology provider StarCite Inc. Users now can expect real-time response to any size of meeting through the Hyatt site directly, with no restrictions on lead time or location, said Fred Shea, Hyatt's vice president of sales operations.
Customers used to be able to search for meeting space on the meetings tool, a feature that has been eliminated on the new system because, contrary to initial customer feedback, Shea said meeting buyers did not want to spend time searching for meeting rooms—they simply wanted rates and availability information. "They preferred to have immediate response with unlimited dates and size as opposed to the ability to truly book the entire meeting online, but only for short meetings," Shea said. "That's why we made the change."
Hyatt uses StarCite technology for its E-mmediate Response tool. During the past four years, the chain has developed the tool to offer StarCite customers quick answers to meeting requests.
"What we've done most recently is provided that same immediate response on Hyatt.com," Shea said. "Now, you can come through StarCite or directly through Hyatt."
Hyatt customers still want to use the RFP process for their meetings, Shea said. The tool was originally designed for booking small meetings, but customers found the rates and availability information most useful, so that is what Hyatt decided to develop, he added.
"We'd like to give an immediate response of basic rates and availability, that's what we've found that customers are searching for first and foremost," he said.
The tool has seen the biggest pickup of new customers through local channels, Shea said, many companies using the national sales office continue to do so or book through StarCite.
"We're seeing new customers that are specifically looking for Hyatt or specific Hyatt properties," he said.
Previous parameters on the Hyatt E-mmediate Meetings tool requiring five to 100 guest rooms up to six months in advance have been lifted, Shea said. "When we went to E-mmediate Response we eliminated those parameters so you can search any dates for any size group," he said.
Hyatt continues to make enhancements to the tool, including a possible option to provide alternative dates for availability, he said.
Starwood in April 2005 launched its online booking technology, aimed at small day meetings. The service, called Meetings in a Moment, allows buyers to book meeting space for up to 25 attendees at Starwood properties in major cities. The tool uses an RFP process and promises a response within 24 hours of the request.
Starwood's tool does not allow meeting buyers to contract group guest room blocks, although executives said that feature might be added in the future. A future tool also may allow buyers to bundle multiple meetings or adopt a customized corporate site with the Starwood search tool loaded with prenegotiated corporate rates, executives said.
Victoria Ascione, manager of business meeting services for Miami-based Bacardi USA Inc., said she doesn't need an automated booking tool for her smaller events. Though technology has its place, Ascione said, she prefers to work with hotel sales managers directly over the phone.
"I very rarely have a cookie-cutter meeting," Ascione said. "I need a hospitality suite, I need upgrades, and I have VIPs—which I'm sure a lot of companies have, but it's always too complex to fit into a typical online request."
Ascione said she also wants to ensure that the sales manager with whom she has developed a relationship, and who understands Bacardi's requirements, handles her meeting requests.
"That's my sales manager. I have a personal relationship with them and they know my past business," she said.
Ascione said she would find more value in an accepted template, such as the OfficeReady toolbox developed by the Convention Industry Council's Accepted Practices Exchange Initiative (Meetings Today, Aug. 15, 2005).
"That might be a more logical option for me and I would love to see the contracts become a little more uniform. The time we spend on that is unbelievable," she said. "Automation has a place, but for us it would never take the place of the relationship."
Beryl Gibbs-Roux, corporate travel manager for New York-based engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., said she has never used the online meeting tools provided by hotel chains, but that she could see a use for them in gather information on rates and availability.
"I still value the possibility of discussing rates," Gibbs-Roux said. "It's very easy to go on to a Web site and find the published room rate, and it doesn't give you any leeway in negotiating."
Gibbs-Roux said she would like to have a clearer view of availability at properties to give her an extra edge in negotiations, but added that she doesn't expect a hotel to divulge when they would be more flexible on rates.