GLOBAL REPORT—Ever wonder what it’d be like to play host to a world leader or even a political candidate? Better yet, how does one court these VIPs and win the stay? As the race for U.S. president heats up, politicos are hitting the road, staging rallies and meeting supporters where they are—insert your city here—and they are staying in hotels, too. Likewise, global powers are converging on retreat-like properties for private summits and meetings internationally. When national and world events arrive at your hotel’s door, are you ready to answer?
Executives at three properties in the New Castle Hotels & Resorts portfolio share the inside scoop and tips to prep for success.
For Jeffrey Burrell, general manager of The Westin Portland Harborview in Portland, ME, it was two phone calls to the general sales line that set things in motion. In a couple of hours, his team had two contracts written—one for Donald Trump and the other for Bernie Sanders, as both presidential candidates were stumping there.
“Donald Trump’s campaign just called. They were looking for a high-profile location that could fit 500-700 people,” Burrell said. “The Bernie Sanders campaign was staging a rally at the State Theatre and we are across from the venue. We served as a satellite location and provided overflow for a simulcast for anyone wanting to watch him speak but couldn’t fit in the theater.”
For the past seven years, The Westin Nova Scotian has been completely taken over for three days in November by the Halifax International Security Forum comprised of political leaders from more than 50 countries, according to General Manager John Wilson. “You’d see former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. John McCain (R, AZ) attend events like this one,” he said. “Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent the afternoon here for the Nova Scotia Liberal Party’s annual general meeting.”
In St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, the Algonquin Resort St. Andrews by-the-Sea, Autograph Collection, also hosted Trudeau. “They wanted to do a retreat to bring the new cabinet together and break the mold of staying in Ottawa. They sought out areas that needed economic development and increased exposure,” shared General Manager Matthew McKenzie. “When they came in for a site tour, the Algonquin checked all the boxes and was able to keep everyone under one roof for a luxurious and unique maritime experience with few distractions for the working cabinet.”
For some hoteliers, hosting a political figure is akin to Ernest Hemingway’s story of the Old Man and the Sea as he reels in the catch of a lifetime—it’s a significant and defining moment. For others, it is simply business as usual and likely a testament to a hotel’s history of creating memorable experiences for VIPs. Still, there’s lots of preparation, coordination and know-how that goes into achieving a successful hotel stay.
“It starts with the hospitality component. Are they ranked well and do they have a good experience rating? Can they execute from past history of visits? How are VIPs greeted at the door? It’s vital to have confidentiality of the rooms and sound security. Also, responsiveness is extremely important and it has to be quick and smooth,” said Gerry Chase, president and COO, New Castle Hotels & Resorts.
“Once there was a signed contract, we pulled the key hotel management and got our game plan together. To monitor access, we worked with Secret Service and Trump’s private security people. We have a standard of operations playbook that we pull out and can put an event together in hours,” explained Burrell. “The Secret Service mandated what was needed, such as a holding room with private bath, and the Trump team provided F&B—lots of Diet Cokes. We provided sofas and worktables. For such a high-profile person, he was low maintenance in terms of setup. Our hotel team did a great job to get the staff rallied and meet the needs of the client.”
For all of the properties, paying significant attention to security added another layer of comfort for the VIP and taking great care to ensure the privacy of the individual was paramount.
“The security measures for the prime minister were self-contained, and we supported them to make sure the property was in control. We have security cameras, and they had access to that, and entry and exits were monitored,” McKenzie said. “It’s the little details…knowing who is coming and going. The hotel staff went through security checks, and we do that also as employers. This property is unique because of the amazing leaders coming on a seasonal basis anyway, so it’s important to do what we do well and highlight that no matter where you are on our property.”
A customer-focused approach is central to the hotel-guest relationship and one of the key factors that set The Westin Nova Scotian apart from its competitors.
“We take all of our events quite serious, and a lot of it is the relationships we have with customers over the years. We make sure to take care of their needs. The Halifax International Security Forum could’ve gone anywhere in Canada and they chose our hotel, and I think a lot of it has to do with how we treat the customer and having a proper site inspection prior to the event. ‘Yes’ is always the answer,” Wilson said. “We can close the entire hotel and it goes into lockdown where you need credentials to enter. It’s not a normal piece of business where we just close the hotel, but our answer was yes, and we got the contract.”
Ensuring your property is up-to-date with the latest technology is important for high-profile and everyday travelers alike as digital connections, or a lack thereof, can impact the guest experience. For historic properties, Chase recommends upgrading them with new technology when it’s time to renovate.
“We take historic properties and renovate them or retrofit them to current conditions. These high-touchpoint customers require advanced technology and only the most contemporary hotels have those details. When we redo these hotels, it’s a big part of the budget, and we make sure we’re providing something that is state-of-the-art and technically advanced,” he said.
In hospitality, everyone is a VIP no matter the political affiliation or pedigree. The common thread for these hotels is their strong desire to ensure a memorable stay by meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
“Celebrities and politicians are our guests just like anyone else traveling and paying for a room. Although there is more care or touch points because of individual needs, when the day ends it’s a lot of fun having them there and we take it seriously. We ultimately view people as not untouchable, but very important guests just like anybody else,” Chase said.