To survive, small venues go ‘above and beyond’

INN CROWD: Linda Naiss, director of marketing for the Bristol Harbor Inn, says that small venues are dependent on last-minute bookings. /
INN CROWD: Linda Naiss, director of marketing for the Bristol Harbor Inn, says that small venues are dependent on last-minute bookings. /

The trend for business meetings in 2009 can be summed up as fewer, shorter, smaller, less frilly, more self-conscious and budgeted so tightly that every nickel squeaks.
To cope with these times of corporate austerity, small, low-profile meeting venues in the region are becoming more thrifty, flexible and creative at marketing.
So far, proprietors of smaller regional venues like the Bristol Harbor Inn and White’s of Westport say they are holding their own and even seeing the chance for more and bigger meetings in 2010. For the most part, these venues host local organizations, like the yachting industry, Roger Williams University and Raytheon Co. at the Bristol inn.
Pulling in business meetings has been a struggle for smaller venues for a year or more. In addition to a general fear of spending in recessionary times, companies also are feeling defensive about holding meetings because of a public backlash against the extravagance displayed this year by some big corporations, sometimes called the “AIG effect.”
The Bristol Harbor Inn in Bristol, which can host up to 150 guests, is seeing the cutbacks in business meetings. “Corporate clients are being cautious,” said Linda Naiss, director of marketing. “Bookings are last minute, because people are waiting each quarter to see how things are going before they make spending decisions.” Annual meetings are being scheduled biannually. Gloria Pacheco of the Aldrich Mansion in Warwick said seminars that once came to the mansion are now being held at the organizations’ home sites.
Charlie Fellows is general manager of Lafrance Hospitality Company, which owns White’s of Westport, Bittersweet Farm and Rachael’s Lakeside. He said his meeting business has been reduced, sometimes in the most dramatic way possible – including the shuttering of a major client, Quaker Fabrics of Fall River. Fellows said the company’s three venues host smaller business meetings – up to about 100 people – almost daily, but bigger gatherings have been scaled back because of the economy.
Tim Walsh, vice president of sales for the Newport County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, a region with many smaller hospitality venues, said the meeting business also has suffered due to statements from the Obama administration that seemed to vilify business meetings as an expression of corporate excess and self-indulgence.
“Newport has lost meetings on the basis of perception alone,” Walsh said. A Web site,, founded by the U.S. Travel Association, is an attempt to offer some pushback to a generalized demonizing of business meetings. The Web site notes that meetings provide essential income to thousands of people in the hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, local venues like Bristol Harbor Inn say it is essential to keep costs low, offer little freebies, coddle clients with personal attention and market relentlessly.
“You have to offer unbelievable quality and service, and go above and beyond what the customer expects,” Naiss said.
To nudge businesses in the heavily populated New England and New York-to-Boston drive market, the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau and its members are promoting the “one-tank meeting,” meaning that guests can travel to and from a gathering on one tank of gas.
It has become accepted in the meetings business that for a venue to be successful, it is vital to be seen in the business world by every means possible: print and Internet advertising, e-mail marketing, direct mail, social networking, trade shows, networking in all its forms and membership in professional organizations.
“You have to constantly be out there,” said Naiss. •

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