Business-oriented luxury resorts tempt executives to squeeze a little fun into trips
With few lamps to light the winding 3-mile stretch off the main road, driving up to the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines at night evokes the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining. The path is slow going, with deer and armadillos threatening to dart out from behind tall trees. Yet just 15 miles east of Austin, the hotel is anything but cut off from civilization. Lost Pines is actually one of the latest in a new breed of resorts catering to business travelers who shun the idea of all work and no play.
Busy American workers have dispensed with the standard two-week vacation. Instead, many are tacking on extra days to work trips, blurring the line between business and pleasure travel, says Jan Freitag, vice president at Smith Travel Research. Families with two working spouses find it complex to schedule long trips, while workers are traveling more than ever for their jobs. An increasing number of road warriors are using those trips as a way to squeeze family time and personal relaxation into otherwise hectic schedules. Last year, 68 percent of business travelers mixed work and play. Twenty-four percent of those multitaskers brought kids along, according to Travel & Leisure magazine.
And resort developers are making sure these trips no longer mean drab, windowless meeting rooms and mysterymeat dinners. Today's business travelers include more women and are younger than their baby boom counterparts. Accustomed to luxury and drained from work pressures, they are demanding-and getting-indulgence from hotels more than happy to oblige.
"It's just becoming so competitive in the hotel environment," says Owen Wild, director of marketing at Amadeus North America. To stand out, more hotels are tailoring resorts to business travelers who want a luxury spa getaway without having to stray far from laptops or big cities. After all, "you can't just put a meeting in a tiki bar," says Wild. The number of new resorts will jump from 45 in 2004 to 101 in 2008, according to Patrick Ford, president of Lodging Econometrics in Portsmouth, N.H.
LXR Luxury Resorts & Hotels has holiday havens from Hawaii to Jamaica. But when it bought the 23-year-old Rihga Royal in midtown Manhattan earlier this year, it set about transforming it into a glamorous oasis for business travelers. The London NYC, which opened in November, caters to "captains of industry" looking to be pampered while perusing proposals, says manager Dominique Piquemal. About 65 percent of bookings at this $599-a-room hostelry will come from business travelers, he says.
Meeting rooms open next year to lure high-level gatherings such as corporate board meetings. Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsey will be in charge of catering those affairs as well as the hotel's restaurants. About 90 percent of the London NYC's 562 rooms are suites with french doors leading to a separate living room where execs can entertain clients or hash out deals. Suites not only have limed oak parquet flooring and Egyptian cotton sheets but iPod docking stations and flat-screen televisions, into which visitors can plug their laptops for in-room presentations.
Pizazz. Spending on business travel included $33.6 billion on major conventions and $41.8 billion on association meetings in 2005, according to Meetings & Conventions magazine. Having your meeting at an easily accessible but upscale resort makes busy managers more likely to attend.
"You should want to go to a meeting based on content alone," says Mantill Williams, national director of public affairs at AAA. Yet with increasing demands on workers' attention, "every convention needs a certain edge," he says. Lavish digs also foster networking, and that creates better meetings, says Warren Breaux, vice president of sales and marketing at Gaylord Hotels.
Gaylord is upping the ante on otherwise ho-hum convention centers by injecting decadence and theater into its resorts. Its 1,511-room Dallas hotel has replicas of a Guadalupe River waterfall, a nine-story oil derrick, and even a canyon.
The company's latest project, the National, near Washington, D.C., won't just be the largest East Coast hotel convention center; it will also include enough flair to entice attendees to bring family and stay longer. Scheduled to open in 2008, the 2,000-room hotel will connect to 470,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, all being built in a $4 billion project that is transforming a raw stretch of land along the Potomac River into a new city with apartments, hotels, restaurants, and even its own fire and police departments.
Two piers will jut out into the water for water taxis, river cruises, and boat shows. The central artery, American Way, is being modeled after Barcelona's Las Ramblas. The vibrancy of the planned minicity will give business visitors more places to network outside of meetings and a reason to stay the weekend, says Breaux.
The National will occupy 41.7 acres of the 300-acre project. Construction is just getting underway, but convention planners have been lapping up the rooms, which will cost an average of $275 a night. Gaylord has already booked 800,000 room nights at the $800 million hotel.
A fountain that spikes 90 feet into the air and changes colors for water shows will mark the National's entrance. Inside, dark wood will mingle with wood and stone columns, dark blue accents, and pictures of tall ships, creating a clubby, D.C.-meets-boathouse feel. A red carpet will lead to the airy 1.25-acre atrium, replete with champagne and martini carts. Two private elevators will whisk guests to the top-floor Pose nightclub, with its floor-to-ceiling, 18-foot windows and optical walls that can change to accommodate company logos. Every restaurant will have its own executive chef, and the resort will employ a full-time fromager.
With 85 percent of its visitors projected to be business and convention travelers, Gaylord is making sure the resort satisfies a businessperson's needs. Inside guestrooms, safes are large enough to not only store laptops but charge them as well. The planned convention center has a separate entrance to handle busloads of attendees. The center's third level will house 25,000 square feet of breakout space. What is to be the area's largest hotel ballroom will have a full stage and leads to an outdoor balcony overlooking the Potomac.
Dallas-based Woodbine Development Corp. chose a more rustic locale for its Hyatt Lost Pines resort, which borders Bastrop County's McKinney Roughs Nature Park yet is a short hop from fast-growing Austin. Travelers may well feel as if they are camping in the thick of luxury. Woodbine bought extra land to buffer the resort from homes and other buildings. That made the long road necessary, creating the feeling of a remote escape, says Brian Sbrocco, sales and marketing director for the resort, which opened in June.
Hardwood floors, vast stone fireplaces, buttery leather sofas, and a chandelier made out of a large branch make the two-story Lost Pines lobby feel more like a country home than a convention center. Sbrocco calls the décor "unapologetically Texan." Central Texas music plays throughout Lost Pines, and pictures of famous Texans like writer Larry McMurtry and musician Lyle Lovett adorn the walls. Local touches, such as Elgin sausage with an assortment of mustards, pepper the seven eateries.
Pony express. Business travelers can check in on their BlackBerrys or at a lobby kiosk. They can access the Internet wirelessly while sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch, gazing out at a 300-year-old pecan tree. The resort offers 290,000 square feet of meeting space, including a lighted outdoor amphitheater on the banks of the Colorado River. During a recent company meeting at Lost Pines, the fast-food chain Whataburger brought in local musician Ray Benson for a concert on the grassy knoll. Companies can also make use of the grounds by having team-building scavenger hunts with GPS trackers. Or they can opt for a 30-minute express horseback ride created especially for business travelers.
While parents are busy working, children can amuse themselves in the water park, video game arcade, and youth spa or hike on nearby trails. Meeting facilities are on one side of the hotel while the fun stuff for kids is at the other end. "As a person in a business, you don't want to see little Tommy running around in a bathing suit," says Sbrocco. So far, Woodbine's calculation seems to be paying off. Even with rates starting at $250 a night, occupancy has hovered around 70 percent. About 65 percent of guests are business travelers with client meetings in Austin or company meetings at the hotel.
Doak Hunter helped plan a weeklong retreat at Lost Pines for software company Vignette's 130 consultants scattered throughout the United States, Mexico, and Brazil. Attracted by its seclusion and space, he booked the property in March for the November meeting before the resort was even finished. "Going out there, I'm like, 'Where am I going?'" recalls Hunter, a senior purchasing manager at the Austin-based company. The isolation "gave you time to sit back with your team and focus on them." Because the five-day event was chock-full of meetings, breakout sessions, team-building exercises, and dinners, Vignette employees had little time for golf or massages. But just being at the tranquil resort surrounded by nature, "everyone left feeling pumped up and excited," Hunter says. And "that's what we want-everyone to come out feeling refreshed and hopefully to gain some knowledge."
This story appears in the December 18, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.