In case you haven’t had your fill of politics during this election season, let’s talk about government meetings. A few weeks ago, I visited Hunt Valley Inn, a Wyndham Grand Hotel, a property in Hunt Valley, Maryland, just north of Baltimore, that’s carved out its own niche as an alternative location for government programs — so much so that at least one person on its sales staff has the Certified Government Meeting Professional (CGMP) credential.
Hunt Valley Inn sits in the heart of Maryland horse country, which explains its low-slung, lodge-like dimensions and its understated equestrian-themed decor. But what explains its appeal for the public sector? Sure, it’s got the infrastructure, including 392 rooms and suites, and 30,000 square feet of conference space, but with government meetings as scrutinized as ever, how does a hotel with a low-key resort vibe about 50 miles from Washington, D.C., come to specialize in them? I asked Donna DeClementi, Hunt Valley Inn’s director of sales and marketing, over lunch at the hotel’s Cinnamon Tree restaurant, where you would be well-advised to try the house-made potato chips.
How much of your meetings and events business is government-based? I would say currently about 15 to 20 percent. Ideally, we probably would like it to be in the 25-percent range, only because we are a really good fit for government once I get them out here to see how flexible and how great our space actually is.
How does a property in a quiet little corner of upstate Maryland decide that government meetings are going to be a significant part of its portfolio? Way back in our earlier history, government was a little bit stronger out in this area. There also wasn’t the same multitude of hotel choices and options that you had out here. Towson was less developed, so you didn’t have all of that going on. When government meeting planners were looking to get away from the city, whether it be Baltimore or the D.C. area, this was an ideal option, because it really was the only space that was large enough to host a decent-sized meeting where you could meet and feed more than 300 people at a time. It worked out for us. Of course, as things changed in the area and different hotels started popping up, it became more and more difficult to attract them further and further out. We have had to work to re-position ourselves to be attractive to that segment.
What’s the makeup of your government business in terms of local versus state versus federal? Right now, what we are seeing actualized is definitely more of the local, certainly our state level, and then of course county-type things as well. We have bid on a lot of more national and federal-type programs. It’s just a hard thing to convince some of the government planners to really consider us coming out this way [from Washington, D.C.]. I’m right at that 52-mile mark outside of D.C., so that prevents some organizations from even considering us at all. My understanding is that if it’s outside of 50 miles, it has to be a certain size meeting or a certain scope of meeting [for a D.C.-based government agency] to consider a location that is that far out of D.C., because now all of a sudden it mandates that people have to spend the night.
Then there are others who want to create meetings where they need to be that 50 miles out, because attendance might be mandatory and they have to have everyone stay the night. Then we become a really good viable option, because we’re not that far out. We’re still close enough where it fits the parameters of everything that they need to do. And of course our pricing is so much lower than the D.C. market. That always helps us. We’re only at $101 per diem. That works very nicely for us.
Do the government planners you work with seem conscious of their expenditures being scrutinized? Yes. Everything from food-and-beverage and what’s included and the wording of how things are even proposed, to being on property and what level property they’re choosing, how expensive things are overall, what the experience can be in a general area — it all comes into play. Personally I have found that the planners that I have been dealing with are a lot more conscientious of not only what they are spending but also what their attendees will be spending, and really trying to take their personal finances into account as well. I have found that refreshing, if you will, because oftentimes you don’t necessarily see that. It’s all about the goal of the meeting, what they have to spend, what that final PO is going to be, and all of those sorts of things. It’s nice to see this emphasis on, I don’t want my attendees to have to pay for this, and I don’t want my attendees to have to pay for that.
Are there any other differences when it comes to hosting a government meeting? I always associate a sense of formality with a lot of government groups. There are things to me that are standard with government groups that you may not get requests from for associations or a standard corporate group, like the American flag in the room or the state flag in the room. Things like that don’t mean much necessarily to anybody else, but I think for a government planner or people attending government meetings, little touches that make a difference and make it feel like it is something — I don’t want to say it’s more important, but it elevates it just a little bit.