Chicago Hotel Expert Noreen Heron Shares Trade Secrets

noreenNo one knows how much the meetings business has changed in Chicago over the past decades more than Noreen Heron, founder and president of lifestyle communications agency Heron Agency. After beginning her career with Hyatt, Heron launched her own firm in 2000 specializing in the hospitality industry. The company, which now has a staff of nine and an office in Chicago’s popular Lincoln Park neighborhood, has since expanded its client base yet stays true to its roots repping many high-profile hotel brands in Chicago and around the country. Heron sat down with Connect to discuss what she’s learned, the shifting role of hotel publicists and what’s next for the hospitality industry. You’ve worked in the hotel industry since 1995. How have things changed since then for meeting planners? Management on property is now much more hands-on in how they’re servicing the business, which has only helped meeting planners. There are lifestyle and entertainment marketing positions popping up in hotels. We talk about how meetings are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but what are guests doing from 5 to 9? Every hotel is trying to redefine what the experience is for guests, rather than just a bed and someone checking in. Brands are developing new words for guests—for example, Hyatt Centric is explorers; Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel is discoverers. How has the role of a hotel publicist changed? It’s no longer just a placement and we’re done. Being a rainmaker for a client is a very powerful part of the process. We’re legitimately looking at how we impact their numbers. For example, our client Hyatt Regency McCormick Place wanted to increase its restaurant covers. So we reached out to every meeting organizer planning a convention there and got coupons in their attendee welcome bags. During one meeting of 25,000 teachers, the restaurant was jam-packed with people trying to dine there. Our philosophy here is if hotels are making money, we’re making money because they’re going to need us. One of 2015’s biggest trends was major hotels launching a millennial offshoot brand. What do you think is next? The next thing might just be comfort and value, but done in a luxurious way. I’m surprised how every hotel now has fruit-infused water in lobby. In the ’90s, no hotel would have wanted to compete with its restaurant by giving out free beverages, even if it was just water. The GM was trying to drive every cent of revenue they could. Now, it’s about how comfortable you can make the guests so they don't have to run out to get anything. I think that will only continue. You recently wrote a blog describing a day when 1,600 employees of Hyatt Regency Chicago lined up to welcome a planner from a high-profile convention in town for a site visit. Do you have any other stories about hotels going above and beyond? I think I was giving out a little trade secret by writing that! The doorman at the hotel actually posted to my Facebook page that he remembered that day and would never forget it. Another event we did at Hyatt Regency Chicago was to honor the 15 millionth guest. We had “Hail to the Chief” playing, a dozen roses, Champagne—this guy pulls up, wearing shorts, and has no idea what’s happening. We had news crews there and put him up in the Monarch Suite. Ah, the element of surprise! Any stories about wooing meeting planners? For any meeting planner coming to the property in charge of a large convention, PR would get involved. We’d find out information about him or her. For example, if it were a man coming with a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old, we would load his room with things every family would want. Or if it was a woman coming, I’d call up the PR director for Saks and ask her to send some things over. Can creativity really outweigh the bottom line for planners? It depends on the meeting. Some group leaders just want to be in Orlando. But building relationships along with that creativity can make a difference. For example, when Mayor [Richard M.] Daley was in office in Chicago, he was so pro-business that he would make it a point to be there for meetings between the city and the planner of a particularly big convention. People were blown away by him wanting the business and taking time to be there. It shows how hard people work to get a piece of business. You also mentioned in your blog that it’s harder to sell Chicago than most people think. What factors into that? Chicago struggles with weather. Our taxes also went up to 14.5 percent last year. The taxes themselves aren’t the issue, but when you’re up against New York and Las Vegas and their taxes are the same, it’s hard because their CVBs have larger budgets. Chicago experienced a hotel boom last year, adding at least 2,500 new hotel rooms to its inventory. Yet convention bookings are down. What’s your take? There are more new hotels coming, and I think we’re in a recession right now. Next year I think we’ll be in a deeper recession. But we have peaks and valleys, so it will go up. We’ve been in this same position in Chicago before, and there have been times where we’re walking people to Milwaukee when we have no room nights. [inlinead align="left"]"I think there’s a higher level of service and more value added from hotels. The overall hotel experience is far more enjoyable and customer-oriented than it’s ever been."[/inlinead] What do you think is the biggest challenge for the hotels as a whole right now? The biggest challenge is Airbnb. There are lobbyists on the hotel side working to control that; it’s very similar to the cab associations trying to control Uber pickups across the country. However, I think there’s a higher level of service and more value added from hotels. The overall hotel experience is far more enjoyable and customer-oriented than it’s ever been. How is social media affecting the industry? Everybody is a critic now. Hotels live and die by TripAdvisor and Yelp. Not everyone on the planet is fair and reasonable in terms of reviewing, and that’s the fear in terms of the future. [These sites are] changing the way people are choosing hotels, and there’s a lot less brand loyalty.