Culture + Creativity

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The Savoy, London
The Savoy, London

During the early ’80s, Studio 54 in New York City was the hottest nightclub on the planet due to co-owner Ian Schrager’s creative event planning. Having Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali on the guest list didn’t hurt either. A few years later, it was Schrager who brought his showmanship to the hotel industry with the landmark Royalton in New York, Delano in Miami and Mondrian in LA, among others. And voila, the “design hotel” was born, filled with avant garde art and other knowing cultural influences.

Around the same time, cities not named “New York” caught hold of culture fever themselves to promote inbound tourism. Festivals centered around music, food, wine, film, art—you name it—popped up somewhere in any given month in any given city. Today, almost every major city in the US lays claim to having a strong Creative Class—the term spawned by the book of the same name suggesting that cities with a strong cultural arts community blessed with “tolerance, talent and technology” will thrive in the 21st century.

And so it is with the meetings industry. Hotels continue to evolve their product with more and more creative and interactive designs, while CVBs promote their cultural attractions as much as their infrastructure—especially during these times of economic change and demographic shifts among corporate groups.

“We are seeing the group customer coming back but many of them want a different group experience,” says Kip Vreeland, Brand VP for the newly minted Marriott Autograph Collection of properties. “With the Autograph Collection, the hotels are the guest experience, whether our guests are interested in art, culture, history, music, fashion or design…. But at the same time, they still want all of the same Marriott Rewards and Marriott standards of quality and service.”

This new network of hotels specifically targeting the creative mind began with Marriott partnering with Kessler Hotels, a collection of eclectic boutique hotels in Florida, the South and American West. Examples run the gamut from the 105-room Grand Bohemian Hotel, Asheville, which resembles an upscale 18th century hunting lodge, to the new 2,995-room Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas opening Dec. 15.

Another differentiating factor of the Autograph Collection is how the hotels are organized by their individual storylines to offer customized experiences matched to your group’s behavioral preferences. Choices include properties defined as: Boutique Arts, Boutique Chic, Iconic History and Luxury Redefined, with more on the way.

Vreeland expects the total number of properties to top out around 15 by the end of the year. Talks are already underway to double the size of the collection in 2011, with more properties coming on board in Europe and the Caribbean.

SOUTHERN BELLE

After torching much of Georgia in the Civil War during his devastating “March to the Sea,” General William Sherman stopped short at Savannah because he was so enamored with its beauty. That’s why this Southern belle is exceedingly well preserved with its moss-draped architecture and 22 green park squares. Forsyth Park is a 30-acre lawn in the Historic District anchored by fortifications built in 1915 for the Savannah Volunteer Guards. The forts stood in disrepair for nearly a century, until the City of Savannah revived them with a $4.7 million renovation that added an open-air bandshell stage available for group events.

The facility is operated by Kessler’s 126-room Mansion on Forsyth Park and the 75-room Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront—both part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.

“This is a great offsite venue for groups,” says Mansion’s General Manager, Chris Coyle. “The bandshell can host up to 125 people for dinner or 175 for receptions. And with music and dancing, it’s hard to beat.”

Easily one of the most spectacular hotel renovations in the South, the 4-diamond Mansion is a magnificently restored 18,000-sf Victorian-Romanesque house with 8,500 sf of meeting space. Function areas include the gourmet 700 Drayton Restaurant featuring six private dining galleries, the Viennese Ballroom handling 275 for receptions, the Carriage Wine Cellar seating 20, and the modern 700 Kitchen Cooking School.

Debbie Stazak, event planner with Molnlycke Health Care US, held a final night teambuilding event for 10.

“The ladies learned culinary tips and skills while preparing a 4-course menu consisting of clam fritters, vegetable purses, grilled pork tenderloin, delicious pineapple cake and homemade fruity sangria,” says Stazak. “I received excellent feedback from my group, saying that the Cooking School was much more fun than they expected and it was an evening they’d never forget.”

The Skirvin Hilton Hotel, Oklahoma City
The Skirvin Hilton Hotel, Oklahoma City

PLANTATION PARTIES

Sitting on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, Baton Rouge is a bubbling gumbo pot of French, Spanish and Caribbean cultures spiced with celebrated cuisine and stately plantations.

“Baton Rouge is great for groups because there’s just so much to see, do and taste in such a close area,” says Jan Allen, CMP, with the DMC, New Orleans Convention Co. “There are so many beautiful old plantations for offsite events and bayou tours just across the river 15 minutes from town.”

Geraldine Bordelon, Destination Sales Director with the Baton Rouge CVB, adds, “We have some really creative ways to share our cuisine. “We can throw a fish fry with kegs under a big tent overlooking the Mississippi, a cochon de lait with suckling pig or a candlelight dinner served on the lawn of an antebellum mansion.”

Considered tops among these Civil War-era venues, Nottoway Plantation is a national icon offering 18 historically accurate rooms, with 22 new suites scheduled to open next year. Its largest ballroom accommodates 300 for elaborate dinners with a Mississippi River gala ball theme.

“In the middle of a cane field here on River Road, we’ve created a whole new world that still has all the significant ambience of a 150 year-old lavish plantation home,” says Susanne Romig, Director of Sales. “Groups will hold meetings during the day, cooking classes with the chef in the afternoon and have a Louisiana crawfish feast outside in the evening.”

THE MUSIC IS BACK

Nowhere is country music celebrated more than at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, so it was a serious blow to the local psyche when the big flood in May closed the place down. But after extensive renovations, the lauded facility reopened in September to host 4,370-pax groups in its theater for scaled-down shows with backstage tours. For cocktail receptions, the performance hall’s museum entertains 150 revelers with interactive displays and historic memorabilia.

“There’s such a creative vibe here that feeds on itself and generates more creativity,” says Billy Kirsch, founder of the events company, Kidbilly Music. “Groups definitely pick up on that energy.” The Grammy-nominated songwriter’s Team Building Through Song program brings up to 300 attendees together to produce songs as individual teams and perform them live during a full-blown private shindig at venues like the Wild Horse Saloon or Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.

“These programs open up lines of communication as people get emotionally involved and experience who they are as individuals and what they can contribute as part of a team,” Kirsch says.

Trish Stapp, Director of Medical Center Special Events at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, adds, “We took 100 global attendees from a surgical society to the Hall of Fame’s Curb Conservatory for a buffet lunch, and then had them record their CD with live musicians in the Ford Theater. They were so excited to share this with their friends back home.”

Plantation Row, south of Baton Rouge
Plantation Row, south of Baton Rouge

COWBOY CULTURE

In the 1800s, four railroads ran through Oklahoma City due to its centralized location, making it the “Crossroads of Commerce” at the time. Much of that industrial history is preserved today in the newly revitalized Bricktown area, which also happens to encompass the Cox Convention Center and two fashionable group-friendly hotels.

“Bricktown really lends itself well to people visiting during meetings and conventions because they can do so much exploring during their free time since everything is so close together,” says Laura Kriegel, Director of Marketing for the Oklahoma City CVB. “There’s also the Bricktown Canal—a mile long canal where people can take a water taxi ride and learn about the history and stories about the city. The NBA being there also creates a lot of excitement…. It’s just a real vibrant atmosphere that maybe Oklahoma City didn’t have a while back.”

For the National Harley Owners Group in 2009, the city closed down Bricktown for one evening for 4,000 people. The group brought in a variety of different bands to create a festive street party atmosphere. Groups can either create outdoor BBQ buffets or book some of the many fun Bricktown restaurants, ranging from the upscale Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. Great for dinearounds too.

“We’ve had groups do the same thing on a smaller scale, say for a Blues festival or Mardi Gras event,” explains Kriegel.

For cultural events, Oklahoma City hosts the Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival every summer. Over 100 North American tribes come in from around the country, and it’s the biggest event of its kind nationally. Meanwhile, the Art Festival in April is ranked among the top 10 art festivals in the US.

Kriegel is also a big fan of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. “It’s great for dinners and large groups, and it’s a museum unlike any in the country: wonderful galleries, very iconic Western art, and they even have an exhibit on barbed wire. Definitely a place where groups like to go.”

For group accommodations, check out the 108-room Colcord Hotel celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2010, which recently underwent a $16 million renovation. Total function space totals over 6,000 sf.

Also take a look at the historic 225-room Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City, a gorgeously refurbished gem with 18,500 sf of meeting space including a 6,100-sf ballroom.

“Skirvin hotel up until 2007 had been boarded up for 20 years,” Kriegel says. “It was the hotel in the 30s and 40s where actors, actresses and politicians all stayed, but it fell on hard times during the oil bust. Through a cooperation between the city and the Hilton brand, it was restored as close as possible to its original look from back in its hey day….

“That’s the beauty of Oklahoma City. Planners who’ve never been here are surprised at everything Oklahoma City has to offer. We hear that over and over, that it’s so much more than what they expected. They think about us as cowboys and indians, and that’s a very big part of our culture, but on the flip side, we have a wonderful arts community, music, cuisine, you name it. It’s the duality of the destination that makes us such a wonderful meetings destination.”

FOR THE LOVE OF SPAIN

Across the Atlantic, there are few regions in Europe that have moved into the international meetings spotlight like Barcelona, Bilbao and the Rioja wine region. Madrid too has come on strong in the last decade following vast, multi-million dollar expansions of its three signature museums.

The American owners of the DMC Valesa Cultural Services have witnessed it all over the last 20 years, while focusing their efforts on exclusive cultural events for US-based groups. Valesa has developed long-term partnerships with English-speaking guides who are experts in the history, art, food and wine of the Iberian Peninsula; and they’re well positioned to provide access to private venues you won’t find in guidebooks. Most recently, Valesa just entered into an agreement with Hotel Majestic in Barcelona to provide one-stop shopping.

“We’re filling a niche for groups from 10-50, maybe 100, because we have contacts in the art and culinary worlds, not just the tourism world,” says co-owner Marcy Forman. “There are very few services like us who can provide entree into private palaces or private collections of art inside the artist’s home.”

For example, Forman organized an architecture symposium with Princeton that included an event with Bilbao Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry in the national Prado Museum.

For groups of 20-25, Valesa specializes in cooking classes with famous gourmet chefs in the chefs’ homes. The DMC has also enjoyed success with escorting groups through cities like Madrid “for tapa tours to all the top restaurants. Or ham tasting tours with demonstrations about how to cut the ham and discern the difference among the many varieties. You know, a lot of people have been to Spain. But when they come with us it’s like discovering the country for the very first time.”

A DATE WITH TATE

The biggest hotel news in Europe right now is the October reopening of The Savoy in London following one of the most ambitious restorations in British history. The 268-room hotel was closed for almost three years while more than 1,000 workers and artisans modernized the deepest recesses of the building and rehabbed some of the priceless Edwardian and Art Deco decor dating back to 1889.

This was the first hotel in the world with “ascending rooms,” a.k.a. elevators, and it’s where artists from Whistler to Monet painted the River Thames from their suites. Churchill lunched here with his cabinet. Today, the hallowed Art Deco River Restaurant serves modern French cuisine, and let us know if you book the private dining room seating 12. Love to hear about it. The American Bar, which launched the martini in Europe, is a museum treasure, and the new look still feels like Frank Sinatra just walked out. Three banquet rooms host 800 pax.

For group events on the water, take a look at Thames Clippers who offer a series of sleek catamarans for private hire seating groups of 62, 138 or 220. We took a jaunt on one of these a few years back and it’s really one of the more civilized ways to get about in London. Ask them to drop you off for a group tour and elegant reception at either the Tate Modern or Tate Britain, both of which line the river banks. If ever there was a reason to consider a museum locale, it’s the present exhibition at Tate Britain by conceptual artist Fiona Banner, winner of the UK’s most prestigious art award, the Turner Prize.

Banner has a preoccupation with the philosophy of war and the male psyche towards it. So she hung a full-size British Navy Harrier jump jet upside down from the roof in one gallery. Then she laid an RAF Jaguar fighter upside down on the floor in an adjacent gallery. We’ll let you decide what it all means, but that’s a world-class icebreaker for any group.

FANTASY REBUILDING

When ancient Polynesians navigated the South Pacific in their outrigger canoes, they relied on stars, waves, currents, birds, the sun and wind to guide them along their course. Sure makes the 7.5-hour flight from LAX seem like a breeze.

Today, the tipairua outrigger canoe still plays such a vital cultural role that it’s honored in colorful celebrations throughout French Polynesia—35 islands and 83 atolls best known for the Society Islands archipelago containing Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Rangiroa and Maupiti.

Once luring primarily honeymooners hankering for a little R&R in those iconic bungalows that hover above baby blue lagoons, these islands are gaining ground with the MICE market thanks to 5-star havens like the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, St. Regis Bora Bora, Le Meridien Tahiti and the newly renovated InterContinental Moorea Resort & Spa.

According to planner Nikki Nestor, CEO of Carlsbad, California-based World Class Travel By Invitation, these brands have done an admirable job of respecting Polynesian culture while integrating group amenities into their decor.

“You don’t just feel like you’re at any beach destination,” says Nestor. “It all speaks of the Society Islands.” Nestor says that what hooks group business is the vast pool of diversions. “There are so many opportunities to learn new things and experience nature together,” she says. “So it’s a natural for incentives and meetings.”

And who doesn’t dig staying in a bungalow? Opened in 2008, Four Seasons serves up 100 of these beauties perched on stilts, as well as seven beachfront villas nestled along a stretch of private beach. Function space handles 250 for banquets.

Arranging this tropical paradise for up to 300 pax, Nestor has arranged bungalow buy-outs at two of InterContinental’s other Polynesian pads: Le Moana and Thalasso Spa. “Attendees get such a thrill going down their steps into the water and swimming in their own lagoon,” she says.

Al Keahi, Managing Director of Tahiti Tourisme North America, adds that teambuilding plays right into the rich Tahitian culture. “Aside from outrigger canoe paddling, you can bring in pearl farming, stone fishing and traditional sport competitions like javelin throwing, stone lifting and coconut tree climbing.”

Nestor’s groups have dived into everything from searching for Tahitian black pearls underwater to “Fantasy Island” day trips at private motus (islands) for picnics under coconut trees.

She also created an Amazing Race event on Bora Bora for 100 attendees from San Diego’s CBS affiliate station, KFMB. “Teams had to paddle, search for clues, make leis, identify fruits while blindfolded, husk coconuts and find shells hidden in the sand,” says Nestor. “It was so great to see these type-A personalities transformed into kids on a playground.”

BLU BLAAUWBERG

Radisson Blu Hotels are pioneers in developing dedicated meeting, conference and convention spaces throughout the African continent. South Africa is home to six of their properties: two in Cape Town, three in Johannesburg and one in Port Elizabeth. And during the World Cup this year, South African president Jacob Zuma, Shakira and golfer Gary Player all resided with the Radisson Blu brand.

In Cape Town, the Radisson Blu Waterfront is about to be joined by the Radisson Blu Blaauwberg in early 2011. Both are sleekly designed and stylishly decorated with a boutique-like feel. The Waterfront has a nautical design complementing its Victoria & Albert Marina location with killer views of iconic Table Mountain. While it has a big presence, the hotel is intimate with 82-rooms across five floors. There are three banquet rooms for large events and meetings, while the Harbour View room is ideal for swankier private events. Guests access via boardwalk to face the marina for 120-pax seated dinners.

Especially attractive for groups, the V&A Marina is home to a wide variety of restaurants and tour ops, offering group experiences from whale watching to chopper tours.

The upcoming 144-room Blaauwberg property is just outside the cosmopolitan area for planners seeking more of a resort atmosphere that still has quick and convenient access to the city center. Meeting space includes six meeting rooms and two conference halls.

PARIS OF THE EAST

Due to its sprawling port and openness to foreign trade at the turn of the 20th century, Shanghai evolved into the Far East’s cultural and economic center up through WWII, with no shortage of international intrigue and artistic expression. It has one of the world’s greatest collections of Art Deco architecture due to massive development in the 1930s, and its winding riverfront known as The Bund is China’s most exciting thoroughfare.

A wave of new hotels are recreating Shanghai’s old “Paris of the East” ambience, along with new cultural venues following the $45 billion Expo 2010. Peninsula, Waldorf Astoria, Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton, Langham and others have recently opened, or will be opening, many of them in historically important buildings while others are monuments to modernity. That duality is Shanghai’s strength. While focused on maintaining its status as Asia’s most dynamic city, Shanghai is actively preserving its vibrant period architecture and old neighborhoods.

“If you want to experience the history of China from 1,000 years ago—the Wall of China, the Forbidden City—that’s Beijing,” says Robby Gu, Account Manager with the DMC, Pacific World Shanghai. “If you want to know what China was like in the 1920s, when it opened up to the world, that’s Shanghai.”

Gu says due to its size, scope and longevity in the region, Pacific World can navigate groups through the city better than any other, and they will be the first DMC to gain access to many Expo sites following ongoing deliberations.

His fave places to take groups are the French Concession district, where French bankers and traders worked during colonial times. Shanghai Museum caters elegant cocktail receptions for 300, and the Zhujiajiao Water Village just one hour away chronicles Chinese life 1,700 years ago. We like the idea of corporate dinners at the Children’s Palace, originally a marble mansion built in 1918 by the majority owners of Peninsula Hotels. During the day, the facility is a cultural arts school for Shanghai’s most gifted children, and groups tours can be arranged.

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