by Jonathan Vatner | May 01, 2005

Negotiating with hotels can be a daunting task. But meeting planners should not be intimidated, urges James Trombino, CAE, executive director and CEO of the Princeton, N.J.-based Metal Powder Industries Federation. “You should be in the driver’s seat,” he says. “You’re the one bringing business.”
    Trombino and other seasoned planners offer these points of advice.

1. Bundle up. Work with the same hotel chain, individual hotel or rep firm for multiple meetings, and it will increase your clout. It’s called bundling, and it’s becoming an increasingly common practice. For better service, make sure the hotel contact knows you’ll be bringing future business, suggests Melanie Penoyar, director of marketing and business development for the Society for Marketing Professional Services in Alexandria, Va.

2. Call a third party. For larger meetings, or for a large number of small meetings, a site-selection firm such as HelmsBriscoe often can secure a great deal relatively quickly. Be sure the third party directs your search only to cities and properties you actually are considering; hotels receive countless requests for proposal that have gone to every large property in the state.

3. Do your homework. Find out through the convention and visitors bureau what meetings will be in town over your dates, offers Vicki Hawarden, director of meetings and programs for the Bethesda, Md.-based American Association of Blood Banks. Then call those groups and politely ask what rates they’re paying. Use that information in your negotiations.

4. Angle for the year-end closeout. Come December, sales reps will be racing to meet their quotas, vouches Patty Magalnick, CMP, president of Orlando-based Perfect Meetings and Conventions. Ergo, she sends out her requests for proposal in the fall and conducts site inspections in early December. Hoteliers are quite flexible when signing on Christmas Eve, Magalnick says, adding, “It puts everybody in the spirit.”

5. Say it up front. In the original RPF, let the hotel know exactly what you want, with as much detail as possible. “You can’t hide your goals from the hoteliers,” says Leila MacFeeley, president of Leila M. & Associates in Greenland, N.H. “How is a hotel going to give you what you need if you don’t tell them what you need?”

6. Know what to ask for. Some perks to request in the RFP, courtesy of Sharon Collins, CMP, director of meetings for the Kellen Co., an association management firm based in Atlanta: One-per-40 suite upgrades, complimentary meeting space, group rates available three days pre- and post-meeting, reduced menu prices, a free cocktail reception, amenities and free airport transfers for VIPs, and waived storage charges and handling fees. The hotel’s willingness to grant concessions will depend on the meeting’s size.

7. Go for what’s free. Things that don’t cost the property extra money, like telephone service, high-speed Internet access and passes to the fitness facilities, can be relatively easy to obtain, says Brooke Selby, managing partner at Cambridge, Mass.-based Planning House International.

8. Include deadlines. Add a timeline to the RFP that specifically delineates when you’re sending it out, a deadline for the hotel’s response and when you expect to reply with a decision. “They’re going to know that you stick to your commitments,” says Magalnick. “Some of the hotels call me back and say, ‘Wow, we don’t ever get this from people.’”

9. Tell them price is important. It sounds obvious, but this simple statement will get the salesperson working to save you money and might even endear her to you, according to Brooke Selby.

“Some planners spend a lot of time hashing over the fine points of a contract. Years before the meeting, they poison the well.”

10. Provide a profile. Describe your company and give stats on its profits and net worth. If your company or your meeting’s attendees might book future meetings, or if the group is high-profile, the property might be more eager to snag your business.

11. Major in history. From year to year, keep track of your room pickup, the master bill and spending on any ancillary events at the hotel that aren’t included in the master bill, such as a vendor’s hospitality suite. Consistency in these areas will be encouraging. “Hotels get inundated with RFPs and phone calls,” says Magalnick. “Your history will really tell them that you’re serious, and they might give you the business first.”

12. Don’t make the first move. Let the hotel make an offer before you start discussing rates, suggests George G. Fenich, Ph.D., meetings educator at the University of New Orleans, in his new book, Meetings, Expositions, Events and Conventions (Prentice Hall Pearson). Better to give a general budget range and see how the hotel divvies it up.

13. Bend on the date to drop the rate. If you don’t have to meet in peak season or Monday through Wednesday (weekends for resorts), don’t.

14. Don’t haggle. You’ll only make enemies if you keep adding demands halfway through the negotiation process, or if you penny-pinch. “Some planners spend a lot of time hashing over the fine points of a contract,” says Frank Wilton, CAE, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based association AdvaMed. “Years before the meeting, they poison the well.” Put all requests in the original RFP, and if the rate comes back too high, try to settle on something acceptable without nickel-and-diming.

15. Don’t get angry. “Emotions do tend to take over,” says Fenich. “If either party starts to yell and scream, everybody will lose sight of the point.”

16. Go up the ladder. If you don’t feel comfortable with the salesperson you’re dealing with, ask to speak with the director of sales, says Wilton.

17. Do read between the lines. Instead of being told your business isn’t right for the hotel, you will see unforgivably high rates and an unwillingness to negotiate, says Trombino. Take the hint and try a different property.

18. Take your time. Don’t let a salesperson rush you into signing something. If they’d rather sell the space to another client, let them. There’s always another hotel. As Magalnick points out, “Sometimes they’re bluffing.”

19. Always have a backup. Once you’ve made a choice, don’t be too quick to turn down all the other hotels on your list. Wait until you have a signed contract to break the news.

20. Be willing to back out. If the contract phase isn’t going well and you don’t have a backup hotel nearby, follow Magalnick’s advice and change cities. She didn’t find any space at a peak period in Washington, D.C., so her client moved the meeting to New Orleans. “There are always options out there,” she says.