The standardized meeting is dead. Marylouise Fitzgibbon, GM at W Fort Lauderdale, says she and her team are no longer presenting meeting planners with formulaic, one-size-fits-all meeting strategies. We spoke with Fitzgibbon to learn about her particular approach to creating the meeting of the future.
Prevue: Marylouise, tell us a little bit about how the W brand approaches meetings.
Marylouise Fitzgibbon: One of the things that really makes W unique, and I’ve been with Starwood now for 22 years, and W about half of that time, is this whole idea about being cutting edge. Being innovative is really part of our DNA. So when you’re talking about meeting trends, my goal is always that we should be leading those trends.
When clients tour the building, sometimes they have an idea what they’re looking for, but a lot of times the reason we get the business is because they’ll say, “So what ideas do you have?”
Prevue: How do you respond to that?
Fitzgibbon: We hire very purposely very creative people. A lot of times we don’t hire event managers and catering managers who’ve done this at a bunch of different hotels. We hire creative people who maybe came from a marketing background or an advertising agency.
I think at a lot of hotels you have all of these lists. You know, here are our event spaces, here are our events, and you have all these check boxes. My perception of the client in even just the last six months is they don’t want to check the box. They’re like, “I don’t even want to look at your list of what your special events can be.” They don’t want to go there because that feels so common.
So really, the advantage of hiring folks who have a different eye is that they don’t really even care about what’s on the list. Because that’s not the world they come from. There are no lists in advertising. You sit down with your client and you say, ‘”What are you trying to do? And how can we tie everything together to tell a congruent message?”
Prevue: So that’s a shift in just the last six months?
Fitzgibbon: Yes, there’s definitely a shift I’m seeing where everyone is saying, “Don’t send me what you’re sending every other client.” And I’m pushing that trend so I’m telling my sellers, don’t even show them the menu. If they’re really old school and that’s what they want then we certainly have it, but don’t go there. Ask them what they want and how we can be part of that solution.
And I think sometimes planners just aren’t use to that. They’re not used to the seller being part of the solution.
Prevue: What trends are you seeing in terms of event space?
Fitzgibbon: The luxury residential market, like in a lot of places, took a hit in Fort Lauderdale, so we have these spectacular condos with patios that can hold 50 people.
We saw a real spike in planners saying, “Hey I want that room. And not just one room, 10 of them. I want that for my breakout, because it feels different than a breakout.” So we’ve seen a huge rise in planners saying, “I know you have the junior ballroom and I know you have your studio room available that I can book, but instead I’d rather use one of these converted suites because it feels really unique.”
And that’s something I’m seeing where people are choosing these unique spaces even when the standard space is available. Versus maybe even two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say that. Before, if the ballroom and surrounding rooms weren’t available, then we had to get creative, and the planner would feel kind of obligated to take it. Now they’re asking for it.
Prevue: How are Millennial psychographics impacting meetings?
Fitzgibbon: With Generation Y and Millennials, we’ve noticed the need to be active is greater than ever. Versus, say, when I started 22 years ago, you sat there, smiled and took notes about what your CEO had to say. And obviously we skew to a younger demographic, but the days of just listening to a speaker speak are gone.
I’m noticing a lot of multimedia things, a lot of time people are being Skyped in, or where you have a hashtag and everyone’s sending that across all different social media channels. We’re always doing that and our A/V team is great about working with planners and groups to deal with all of that.
They’ll say, “Hey, here’s 10 ideas how you can work social media into your meeting.” Or a younger generation meeting planner will come to us with some really cool ideas because they’ve researched all of this and they know what they want.
Prevue: This is a huge issue. Are Boomers adopting social media more?
Fitzgibbon: With the Boomer generation it’s more of a case where they’re asking us for assistance. At W, we do really well in that Boomer space, and it’s probably the reason they came to us because they know that we know. So we sort of function as a subject matter expert when it comes to tech and media.
And more and more, Boomers are no longer saying we don’t want any part of that. They’re saying, “Hey, could you help me out with this? So we’ll give them 12 ideas and they’ll pick five that they think will work.
Prevue: There’s been a major drive by Starwood to position W as a luxury brand. How’s that going at your hotel?
Fitzgibbon: The definition of luxury is shifting and it’s shifting fast. The days of a customer wanting a butler to iron your underwear are quickly leaving us. They’re still out there but it’s quickly changing. Today’s groups want insider, customized experiences, but they still want luxury too.
We have a position called the W Insider and we have a lot of them, but they’re not ironing anything. The W Insiders from a meeting perspective are your connection to what’s cool. And they can tell you everything about the city because they know all the back roads kind of stuff. That’s where luxury is going.
That’s what I tell all of my employees. So when they’re down there on the meeting floor, I say, “You can be W, you can be really cool, you can be really authentic, you can do all of those things. But at the same time it has to be luxury, it has to be at that level. And to me that is the most exciting thing about the W brand. It really has evolved, we go head-to-head with all of these luxury brands all the time. And a lot of times we win the business because planners today want this new luxury.