Lessons for Association Meetings From Three Hotel Brands

If you think your attendees have lower expectations for their experience at your meetings than they do for their experience staying at a large hotel chain, you’re mistaken. What these brands are doing today and planning tomorrow will affect your future events.

As I’ve written previously, your meeting attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors are going to have the same expectations of your association—when it comes to technology, customer service, and other experiences—as they do of major brands. I was reminded of this once again when I came across two stories that discussed how three major hotel chains—Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood—are working to boost the guest experience and better meet guest expectations.

It’s clear that guests want greater choice and control.

The first article, which was posted on on Wednesday, looks at how Marriott and Starwood Hotels choose room amenities for their guests. According to the piece, the selection process for everything from bedding to shampoo and soap can take months, as teams are assigned to “research, test, and produce everything.” They even take into account hotel locations.

For example, before Marriott began testing 52 brands of shampoo, conditioner, body gel, lotion, and soap, it worked with its branding team, and based on research, says Scott Mitchell, director of design and development for Marriott International, “found they were looking for a ‘hip and cool’ brand for the Americas and Asia Pacific hotels, and a brand with a long, family history for its European and Africa hotels.”

Another consideration is current consumer demand for higher-quality products, as well as changes in the way guests travel, says Hoyt Harper, global brand leader for Starwood’s Sheraton Hotels and Resorts Group. For instance, the airline ban on liquids larger than three ounces has increased the importance of hotel room toiletries.

According to Harper, consumption of hotel shampoo, conditioner, and lotions is up. Ten years ago, about 35 percent of guests used the items, while today 75 percent of Sheraton guests do.

Both hotel brands admit that when guests take the toiletries home with them, it’s a signal that they chose the right products. But they’re just as hopeful that when that guest goes to use that product again, they’ll be reminded of that hotel brand and be more likely to book another stay.

As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think about two commonplace items at association meetings: attendee bags provided by the host at registration and tradeshow swag distributed by exhibitors. The goal of tradeshow tchotchkes is similar to that of hotel amenities: Exhibitors—like hotel brands—want attendees to take them home, reuse them, and be reminded of their brand. Same goes for attendee bags that usually feature the association logo.

But I wonder how much vendors and associations think about the value that these items provide. How many exhibitors actually conduct research around their giveaways? For example, do they take into account where attendees are coming from or the problems they’re looking to solve? Sure, there’s always a time and place for something fun (my personal favorite was the USB lava lamp I got at one tradeshow), but could vendors and exhibitors make more of a name for themselves if they gave attendees something they really needed? What if they looked at tchotchkes more like hotel amenities? I realize they likely don’t have the time or budget that major hotel brands do, but there could be something to digging a little deeper.

Also listening and responding to its guest feedback is Hilton Worldwide, which announced late last month that it would be using new technology to boost the guest experience for its Hilton HHonors loyalty program members.

As Associations Now‘s Ernie Smith reported last week, These guests will gain control over their hotel stay with the ability to check in and choose their room from digital floor plans, as well as customize their stay by purchasing upgrades and making special requests for items to be delivered to their room—all on their mobile devices, tablets, and computers.  Guests also will be able to check out using these devices.

“We analyzed data and feedback from more than 40 million HHonors members, as well as guest surveys, social media posts, and review sites, and it’s clear that guests want greater choice and control,” said Geraldine Calpin, senior vice president and global head of digital at Hilton Worldwide. “In fact, in a recent study, 84 percent of business travelers surveyed said they wanted the ability to choose their own room.  We are giving our guests the ability to do just that by enabling them to select not just their room type, but the exact location in the hotel, all the way down to their room number.”

Next year, the company will also begin to equip its hotel rooms with technology that allows doors to be unlocked with guests’ smartphones, enabling them to go straight to their rooms upon arrival—and reducing the number of lost hotel room keys worldwide. Since guests use their smartphones as everything from alarm clock to music player, it only makes sense that these devices would also start to play the role of key, too.

Associations should give some thought as to how they can allow their meeting attendees to better customize their meeting experience. For example, could each attendee get a  personalized bags filled only with items the individual has chosen to receive? And since most attendees can’t live without their smartphones these days, what can organizations offer on them that would make their attendees’ lives easier? After all, your attendees will come to expect your association to compete with these larger brands and deliver on their expectations. If you don’t, you’ll likely see attendance start to dwindle.

How is your organization using technology or research to boost the attendee experience? Share your story in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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