VIP reception on George Washington's Mount Vernon, courtesy Visit Fairfax
Published March 06, 2017
Planning a meeting for a VIP or executive group can be a stressful endeavor. In many cases, high-end clients operate on a different plane of existence, requiring personal pickups, special menus and other immediate services, and planners must understand that lifestyle to meet their expectations and needs.
To shed some insight on the subject, we spoke with two planning experts: Kris Shea, vice president of The Juice Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dean Miller, national sales manager at Visit Fairfax, Virginia. Here’s what they had to say.
Ask a Lot of Questions
More than anything, knowing your client is key. Age, gender and origin are all important factors to consider, as well as the nature of the group’s industry.
To understand their background and preferences, planners should find out what clients have done in the past and what features they liked or disliked. Sometimes, customizing the experience means knowing the right brand of soap to put in the room or what drink to provide in the transportation vehicle.
“Every meeting group has some level of wanting to feel like a VIP,” said Shea, “so you have to figure out what the expectations are.”
As planners work on developing original concepts for activities and entertainment, it can be helpful to ask clients if there is anything they have always wanted to do or whether they have any particular interests.
Don’t Make Them Wait
Planning for VIP groups involves much more than booking an expensive hotel and arranging reservations at an upscale restaurant. Planners must see that every detail transpires smoothly, from pickup at the airport to presenting slideshows at the meeting itself.
“The thing about working with VIPs that you’ve got to remember above all else is that they do not like to wait,” said Miller.
When he worked in the hotel industry, Miller heard numerous stories from travel agents that worked with CEOs and other high-profile clients. They would have to book multiple plane tickets throughout a given afternoon so that no matter what time the client arrived at the airport, a ticket and seat would be waiting. Afterward, the travel agency would have to refund the extra tickets.
Many VIPs expect the same thorough service. Whether it involves transportation or food service or necessities like an ATM or a public phone, planners should always check on available resources throughout the planned program.
“You can book them a room at the glitziest resort, but if the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, then you’re in trouble,” said Miller.
As another example, Miller recalled how Nelson Rockefeller reportedly never wore a topcoat, despite living in a northern region of the United States, because he never had to stand in the cold for more than a few seconds. A car was always ready for him, and planners should be prepared for their clients as well.
Inspect the Venues in Person
When it comes to reserving lodging or event space, planners should always inspect the site’s amenities in person and speak with the staff to make sure everyone involved is prepared.
“Never book a place you haven’t been to,” said Miller. “VIPs will not just look at a picture online or make a phone call; they want someone to personally inspect the hotel.”
The same goes for dining. Planners can organize meals as a catered event or reserve a private banquet hall at a restaurant. As soon as attendees arrive, someone should be waiting at the door to escort them to their table, with a waiter ready to serve them.
Even if a venue is just hosting a board meeting, planners should ask the hotel or business if they have a VIP set, and very often they can bring in special decor, like flowers and elegant table settings.
It is also crucial to make sure that the audiovisual presentation during the meeting is flawless, with a tech support person on hand in case of any issues. Attendees will not be happy if a meeting cannot proceed due to a malfunction with the computer or sound system.
Provide a Unique Experience
Most VIP groups want to experience something unique to the destination, so it is ideal to find exclusive venues, such as museums, art galleries or historic homes.
“VIPs love anything out of the ordinary that’s not available to the general public,” said Miller.
In Fairfax, the convention and visitors bureau often organizes special events on the beautiful property of Mount Vernon or in the National Air and Space Museum, where attendees are surrounded by magnificent displays. At Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, groups can reserve one of the tented decks, enjoy a catered meal and schedule a backstage meet-and-greet with performers after the show.
Following a private museum tour, Shea described how her team in Atlanta occasionally brought in artists or collectors to discuss their work, or coordinated dinners in the artists’ homes. Other activities could involve a private wine tasting with the owner of the winery or a chef’s table at a gourmet restaurant.
Though it is great to highlight local culture, planners should also pay attention to the client’s hobbies or passions.
“Here in Fairfax, we have the Tesla dealership, so if I had a group interested in cars, I would see if we could get a tour and talk to the owner,” said Miller.
During one event for the American Wine Society, the city coordinated an opening reception with sample products from 20 Virginia wineries. They also invited a historic interpreter to perform in character as Thomas Jefferson, who is known as the father of Virginia wine.