Benchmark and Gemstone heads discuss merger, meetings

On July 11, Benchmark Resorts and Hotels announced a merger with Gemstone Hotels and Resorts. Collectively, the single new lifestyle hotel management company now has a portfolio of 58 properties spread across 22 U.S. states and four countries, making for a business deal earmarked for the annals of “another 2016 hotel company merger.”

Yet, there is one very distinct aspect to this merger that makes it unique even in the face of Marriott’s Starwood acquisition. Unlike any other hotel company—soft brand or otherwise—Benchmark officially positioned itself as a leader in the meetings and conventions industry in 2014 when it unveiled Benchmark Conference Center Management, a designation that classifies select Benchmark properties as purpose-built meetings facilities with a locally sourced food and beverage experience and Four Diamond accommodations.

Conference Center Expertise

“We’re very well known in the conference center business and we’ve added several properties to that portfolio since we launched Benchmark Conference Center Management,” said Alex Cabanas, Benchmark CEO. “But the launch has also helped us establish an identity as specialists in the meetings business with an expertise in conference center planning that lends itself to all of our properties with significant meetings space and that expertise and identify are strengths that we bring to this merger.”

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Benchmark Conference Centers—one of Benchmark Hospitality International’s brands, which also include Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, Personal Luxury Resorts & Hotels and now Gemstone—consists of both private and semi-private facilities, 12 of which are IACC (International Association of Conference Centers) designated venues. In fact, Benchmark is one of the organization’s founders and understandably so as the management company has a long history of designing and operating corporate universities and leadership centers for Fortune 500 businesses, beginning with corporate training centers for Exxon and Shell in the early 1980s. Most recently, Benchmark has developed and operates private leadership centers complete with full-service hotels for Lockheed Martin and Deloitte.

“About half of our portfolio has meaningful meeting space and we’re better known in the transient segment, so we saw the affiliation with Benchmark and their history and expertise in the meetings sector would have a very positive impact on our operations with meeting space,” said Jeff McIntyre, a principal partner at Gemstone.

On the semi-private front, Benchmark also operates the Edith Macy Conference Center, a 14,000-square-foot meeting facility with a 52-room hotel that’s owned by the Girl Scouts of America and located 45-minutes from New York City where Benchmark also operates the Pace University-owned Downtown Conference Center, which houses 17,000 square feet of meeting and event space.

The Benefits of Scale

Together, the two hotel management companies have combined databases of approximately 125,000 meeting planners and about two million guest profiles. “The combined customer database and reach gives us access to market that we weren’t previously in, including L.A. and Boston where Gemstone has a presence and these are very critical markets,” Cabanas noted.

Benchmark will also now benefit from Gemstone’s New York City sales office. “Our New York City sales office will also help feed Benchmark’s business and offers potential expansion opportunities,” stated McIntyre. However, neither company currently has a hotel in New York, although both Cabanas and McIntrye agree that needs to change. “We have a conference center in New York, but between us, we’d like to have a hotel there as well,” Cabanas said, with McIntyre adding, “This new platform allows us to grow more readily than we would have as two separate companies, but it will be measured growth and something that we will do carefully, strategically and thoughtfully. We will not grow at the expense of our current portfolio.” 

In the meantime, the two companies have opportunity to share corporate business in several key markets including Miami, the San Francisco Bay area, as well as Colorado Springs, where Benchmark’s Cheyenne Mountain Resort’s 40,000-plus square feet of meeting space will soon by complemented by Gemstone’s neighboring Garden of the Gods Resort, which is in the midst of a $10-million expansion that will double the property’s existing 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

More Destinations, More Choice

“Who we speak to in the meetings world is significant because everyone of those attendees is a future guest and now that we have an even broader portfolio of destinations, we can further promote pre- and post-stays as well as ‘bleisure’ meetings,” Cabanas pointed out. “Now we offer a lot more destinations to our meetings contacts.”

A total combined staff of 10,000 employees will serve all property guests, clients and owners and a joint sales force of more than 200 managers will cross sell both brands’ products. “The combined database and collaborative efforts among the hotels that are in shared feeder markets are the types of synergies that we expect to leverage immediately,” McIntyre said.

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