No 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.