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Sales and Marketing Become Keys to Success for Fairfield County, CT
 
Hotels as They Experience Decline in Corporate Business

By Michael C. Juliano, Connecticut Post, BridgeportMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

April 25, 2009--Fairfield County hotels are coping with a slowdown in corporate sales as the economy continues its sluggish pace.

"We've seen a softening in the meeting business, but the transient business has been most affected," said Michael Bennett, general manager at the Holiday Inn Select in Stamford. "Financial constraints with a lot of our companies in the area have caused them to cut down on travel."

In response, Holiday Inn Select tries to offer package deals to companies, some of which ask for a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in meeting room rental rates, Bennett said.

"Packaging is a big thing for event planners," he said.

Corporate business for hotels throughout the county has decreased by about 30 percent since September because of the slow economy, said Christopher Batel, general manager of Ramada Stratford.

"Before we had no problem, but now we're fighting for business from other hotels," he said, adding that he has hired a sales employee to network at events held by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. "We're OK with being down 25 (percent) to 30 percent through the summer, but we don't want to be down 50 (percent) to 60 percent."

His company has cut back substantially on its corporate travel as it looks for ways to save on expenses as the recession ensues, said Dean Hamilton, director of investor relations and corporate communications for ATMI Inc., a Danbury-based supplier of thin-film materials, equipment and services used to make semiconductor devices.

"What we've done is we have racheted down on discretionary travel and really focused on sales and marketing efforts," he said.

ATMI, which has about 150 employees at its headquarters and about another 600 workers worldwide, relies more nowadays on phone and video conferencing to bring its employees together, Hamilton said.

"The more we can keep people working from their home bases, the more cost-effective we can make the business," he said.

Hotel lodging overall is expected to decline nationwide by 13.7 percent this year as corporations and leisure travelers alike have reduced their traveling, according to PKF Hospitality Research in Atlanta.

"Based on what we've seen in past recessions, the first that we've seen drop the most is individual corporate travel and group meetings, while leisure travel seemed to hold up," said Robert Mandelbaum, PKF's director of research information services. "This time around, though, we think people are abandoning travel altogether."

This travel slowdown will take place although the number of new hotels is expected to increase by 2.9 percent as a result of projects started before the recession began, Mandelbaum said.

"That's what makes this recession that much more frustrating for hotels," he said.

The decline in corporate travel may translate into savings for vacationers as hotels look to fill rooms previously taken by business travelers, said Brian Ek, vice president of public relations for Priceline.com Inc. in Norwalk.

"The winners could be the leisure travelers," he said.

Leisure travel rose 23 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2008, according to Priceline.com, which allows Internet users to negotiate prices for hotel rooms and airline tickets.

"We continue to see attractive domestic unit-growth rates, which we believe are supported by consumer demand for travel deals in a weak economic setting and attractive supply from airlines and hotels using our service to round out demand," Jeffrey Boyd, Priceline.com's president, chief executive officer and director, said in a statement.

The company's results for the first quarter of this year will be released next month, Ek said.

Workers for Pitney Bowes Inc., the Stamford-based supplier of mailing equipment and services, still are allowed to travel for business, but also are encouraged to use the company's video-conferencing equipment, said Jeff Jacobson, vice president of finance at Pitney Bowees.

"We push that to augment face-to-face meetings to save money and also as a green initiative," he said.

Dolce Norwalk, a hotel and conference center with 31 meeting rooms that recently received a catering license from the city, hopes social events, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, will counter its diminished corporate business, said Christine Imbrogno, Dolce's director of sales and marketing.

"That's picking up big, so that might be our saving grace," she said

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Copyright (c) 2009, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

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