Onsite: Carlson Global Business Conference

LAS VEGAS-The baton was officially passed at the outset of the 2008 Carlson Global Business Conference at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Carlson's longtime leader and matriarch Marilyn Carlson Nelson introduced her replacement, Hubert Joly, who will officially begin his duties as Carlson's new president and CEO on March 1, but not before passing on a few words of affection about the company her father founded, particularly for the hotel component and its five brands, Regent Hotels and Resorts, Radisson, Country Inns and Suites, Park Inn and Park Plaza. .

"It feels like we are about to burst," Carlson Nelson said, referring to the growing hotel pipeline and imminent property openings. "The clarity of brand positioning is at its best ever as we stand at the beginning of a golden age of travel." Carlson Nelson left the stage to a standing ovation, triggered by her next-in-line, Joly. .

Joly was brief in his address-seemingly because of his low exposure to the hotel industry, which he said he's still being inundated in ("I'm now beginning to understand hotels")-but told the audience composed of Carlson hotel owners, management representatives, global partners and Carlson executives that one of his business strategies is always to grow businesses. .

With the conference's focus on Carlson's hotel business, Jay Witzel, president and CEO of Carlson Hotels Worldwide, led the opening session. He cited a still burgeoning hotel market, but with short-term obstacles such as a laboring economy. "There is unstoppable momentum long term," he noted. .

In Carlson's case, the company opened 74 new hotels across all five brands in 2007 with eyes set on opening its 1000th property this year. Much of the company's attention is being focused on regions outside the U.S., especially China, India and the Middle East. "We are growing strongly worldwide," Witzel said.

After speaking, Witzel brought out two Carlson executives and Kurt Ritter, president and CEO of Rezidor Hotel Group, which Carlson has a 42 percent stake in and operates Carlson brands in Europe, the Middles East and Africa. Ritter expressed an upshot in business due in part to the advance of baby boomers and said Rezidor was targeting 15 hotels in Africa by 2010. He boldly pronounced that the Radisson brand was "closing in on Hilton."

Paul Kirwin, president of Carlson Hotels, The Americas and Martin Rinck, president Carlson Hotels, Asia Pacific, both shared their perspective and insight on the regions they represent.

Kirwin, who just moved back to Carlson's Minneapolis headquarters after spending six years in Singapore in Rinck's present role, reported that Country Inns and Suites and Radisson were thriving, with 115 new signed properties for the former and a resurgence in Radisson. "People are coming back to the brand," he said, though not sharing where they had gone.

Regent's growth was reviving he said (Regent Bal Harbour will open in March 2008 and Regent Boston three months later), while Park Plaza was still not big in The Americas, but they are looking into how to grow it. Park Inn, Carlson's mid-price, select-service brand, was being grown through a conversion program.

Meanwhile, Asia Pacific only represents five percent of Carlson's portfolio, but that will change with the surge in hotel development particularly in China and India where demand outweighs supply. "We will accelerate growth of our core brands," Rinck said. He also said that the Regent brand would be important as they are seeing an increase demand for luxury as consumer wealth grows.

Following the opening session, Carlson held breakout brand sessions. One of the more interesting brands to investigate is Regent as it sets a course of growth under the leadership of Bjorn Gullaksen, the newly named president of the Regent Luxury Group.

Gullaksen said that Regent guests were on the lookout for unique experiences that are exclusive. Regent currently has eight properties operating, with eight more due out within the next two years.

While Gullaksen talked generally about the Regent brand, Frederik Korralus, executive vice president, revenue generation for Carlson Hotels, gave specifics on how the Regent brand would proceed and reliance on luxury travel consultants to do so. "The luxury agent is key to the brand," he said.

Meanwhile, there are other big plans for the brand, including the development of a customer database to truly track Regent guests. "It's key to build profiles," Korralus said, adding Regent would also leverage its partnerships such as one it shares with American Express to target other customers.

Most noteworthy was the announced debut of the Global Brand Council, a synergy between Regent's hotel and cruise business that was borne out of Regent's license agreement with Apollo after it sold the cruise component to the private equity firm late last year. Gullaksen said the council was established to cross utilize sales and marketing of both its hotel and cruise business.

Regent will look to leverage its cruise business for the sake of its hotels business and vice versa. While there isn't a 100 percent overlap between Regent's hotel clients and cruise clients, Korallus said it's an area to tap into.

Also expect new advertising this summer that will push the awareness of the Regent brand.

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