Philadelphia’s New Hotel Association Chair On What Planners Can Expect in Philadelphia

Greg Stafford began his career in the hotel industry as a night auditor during the summer between undergraduate and graduate school. Today, he is the General Manager for the Inn at Penn, A Hilton Hotel in the heart of University City and recently took over the reins of the 87 – member Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. He sat down to talk about the hotel landscape in Philadelphia and what meeting planners can expect here.

Greg Stafford

Q: Over the past five years what do you think the top three changes hoteliers have had to make based on outside factors (i.e. Ownership, economic condition, supply demand)

Greg: There have been many changes in our industry over the past 10-15 years, and I’m not sure if I could select the top three.  But I will say that our industry today is conditioned to a great extent by the events of 9/11 and of the major recession that occurred in 2008/2009. So, I think that there a number of things that come out of that conditioning. You have much more vigilant and engaged ownership groups than you might have had in the past. They are very cautious of not allowing excess in terms of their cost structure and they are careful to make sure everything has a good ROI. We don’t get to do things that we might have down in the past, without being mindful of “Is this an economically viable thing for us to do.”

Q: How do hotels within your membership, work within the best interest of the meetings planners that are doing business in Philadelphia?

Greg: Well – there are a number of things, there is a very high number of service orientation in Philadelphia. It’s a key part of our orientation within our industry and we talk at length about that. We certainly work together to see that we are getting the room-blocks that meeting planners need. In Philadelphia, the meetings and conventions industry is our core business, unlike a lot of cities, meeting planners aren’t vying with a huge corporate base or a huge federal government base. We have two real primary sources of business: group business, and leisure business. Our bread and butter business during the week is groups and so meeting planners are our primary focus. We aren’t bouncing around to find who our real masters are, it’s very clear for us. I think that’s different than most cities where you’re competing against a variety of other important consumers. And we (the hotel community) realize that.

Q: What are some things that your hotels, or some of your member hotels do for meeting planners or for convention attendees in particular?

Greg: We are certainly no longer just selling bricks and mortar, we sell a destination, and we sell our own sub-parts of the destination. It’s not just about what our hotel can do, that’s important but we also have to sell what’s around our hotel. What is there to do? Where do I go to eat, drink, play? People care, and want to understand all of these elements. How do I get around? Transportation hubs, there’s a lot of concern for these elements and it’s important to be able to sell those effectively. Within Hilton we’ve all become experts at value selling, there’s a lot of focus on this. We teach not only our sales people the art of value selling but we teach all of our management this. It’s about understanding each individual customer and what matters to them. What do they care about, what are their needs? And understanding how we can adapt our products and our services to them. So we are very focused on that.

Q: How are the hotels adapting to international visitors?

Greg: ation as you can see with the introduction of Qatar Airlines service. The merger of American Airlines and US Airways has opened a world of new routes so that PHL is much better connected particularly to Latin America, and Asia than we have been in the past. We have a great airport, one of the finest airports on the eastern seaboard. Philadelphia is becoming a major global gateway.

In terms of the hotels, certainly you’re seeing things like signage becoming very important; We’re converting our websites into multiple languages right now. We’re also seeing the expansion of food offerings to include an array of international options.

We are also making sure we understand what languages our staff speak, so if we have a guest who needs assistance we have a member that can provide that assistance. You are also going to see more hotels with television programming geared toward international visitors, enabling customers to feel like they’re at home and making their experience a little less disorienting.

Q: Do you have any tips for negotiating with hotels?

Greg: I don’t think I have anything revolutionary to say there. Obviously hotels can do more when you can push your business into time frames that make sense for them. Pattern matters, year matters, so we tell our sales folks that it’s not always about what you sell, but what you move. So, we try to piece business together in ways that optimize what we have to sell. We try to move things around and fill our holes, and so on. We’ve got owners who expect an ROI on all of our activities, and we understand that associations and other kinds of organizations have the same kinds of pressure within them–they are all looking for the return on investment for their members as well. So to the extent that we can work together to find win-win opportunities where everyone gets the best return, that’s what we all want to do.

Q: Are there any other things that you think are important as it relates to Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and its importance?

Greg: I’ve spent time working in Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago, and Washington, DC and they’re all fine convention cities with good centers.  Without disparaging any of these cities or their centers, I’ll simply say we have a great convention center. I am extremely excited about the new management in the center under Lorenz Hassenstein and SMG, absolutely the premier convention center management company in the country, and John McNichol. I am also excited about the engagement of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority. In 35 years of doing this, I’ve never been around a more engaged board than the one at our Convention Center. As a community, we are absolutely committed to delivering an exceptional customer experience in that building. I know there are a lot of folks who think: “Oh gosh it’s just going to be business as usual in Philadelphia.” It’s not, it’s a new day and we’ve got a great product and we’re delivering great experiences and we’re going to keep improving that experience.

Q: Is there anything you want people to know Philadelphia’s hotel community?

Greg: One thing I think that is really important to note is that in Philadelphia, the hotel community is only about half the size of Washington and Boston and much smaller than NY. Meetings and conventions are vital for us, so we’re a very closely knit hotel community. We have a hotel association, where every hotel is a member. Every general manager sits on the board that I now chair and so the richness of the conversation, and the lack of gaps in the conversation is much better than it might be in many other communities, and I think that’s important if you’re standing on the other side as the meeting planner, and asking “what am I going to get here?”.That’s sort of unique to Philadelphia. This closeness of the hotel community and willingness to support and help each other out in the interest of our customers is greater in Philadelphia than anywhere else I have worked.  We don’t approach business as a zero-sum activity.  We believe when Philadelphia wins, there is space for all of us to win… our owners, our employees, and, most of all our guests.

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