April 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Bargain Hunting April 1999 Current Issue
April 1999

Bargain Hunting

Should you take advantage of hot dates?

By Mark Chestnut

They’re announced via fax, U.S. mail and e-mail, promising great savings to meeting planners who can take unused inventory off a hotel’s hands quickly. Hot dates, sometimes called open dates or value dates, offer enticingly discounted group rates to planners willing to book at the last minute.

But more often than not, planners don’t take advantage of hot dates. “I would say overall we use them probably less than 15 percent of the time when we’re booking,” says Penny Moroney, meetings manager for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in Rosemont, Ill. “The information usually comes too late.”

So why pay attention to these offers? “You can get a good deal at a nicer property than your budget might be able to afford normally,” says Joan Jensen, meetings and travel manager for J.C. Penney & Co. in Plano, Texas.

Although she doesn’t usually take advantage of them, Jensen says she keeps a file of the latest hot-date information handy.

“When the dates click, it’s a good match for the company and the hotel,” she says. “They fill the hole, and you give your attendees something they’ll like.”

Is it worth it?
“When [hotel specials] come in, they’ve probably reduced their rate a minimum of 20 percent off their original group rate,” says Madeline Daryadel, president of MADSearch, a meeting planners’ Web site based in North Miami Beach, Fla. Moreover, Daryadel notes, hot dates can be negotiable. “The closer you get, the more a hotel is willing to negotiate,” she says. “Because most of the dates are within a six-month calendar, that’s where the bargains are. But hot dates don’t necessarily have to be within a six-month period. It can be July of 2001 in South Florida, when they know there will be availability.”

The savings presented by a hot date “depends on the product and the market you’re in,” says Barb Taylor Carpender, CMM, president of Edutraining International, a Denver-based company that provides education and training to hospitality professionals. Carpender says cities with short or nonexistent shoulder seasons might not offer the best deals. “In a hot city like Orlando, [a hot date] may not be as big a deal as in Colorado Springs.”

One of the problems with hot dates is that hotels don’t provide enough pricing details, according to Mary Ellen Stein, corporate meeting planner at Rosenbluth International in Shelton, Conn. “Some places will list the dates but not the rates,” she says, “so you don’t even know if it’s out of your budget until you call.”

Suzanne Loeb, corporate travel director for Federal Way, Wash.-based Weyerhauser Corp., would rather negotiate with her usual hotel sales representatives than use a hot date offered by a less familiar property. “If I get hot dates for hotels that are not one of my corporate hotels, [I] probably wouldn’t use them,” she says.

But Rose Phillips, group manager at San Antonio, Texas-based Corporate Travel Planners Inc., says, “Sometimes, [negotiating a rate] can bring better savings than when they’re offering value rates. But most of the time, it’s not as good a deal.”

Flexibility is key
Inflexibility is the biggest obstacle for any meeting planner trying to secure last-minute deals. “Most of the time, [we plan meetings] so far ahead that we’re not able to take advantage of hot dates,” says Marcy Kraft, executive director of National Nutritional Foods Association in Columbus, Ohio.

Furthermore, she feels she often can get just as good a deal by building relationships with hotels and always talking about repeat business. “It’s always helpful when you’re negotiating to talk about multiple visits. Your numbers make a difference, how many room nights you’re going to pull.”

A group’s size can affect a planner’s ability to secure hot dates. Because specials often apply to a limited number of rooms, small groups generally have more hot dates from which to choose (although discounted rates can apply to larger blocks of rooms).

Nevertheless, “I would not rely on [hot dates] for the smaller meetings,” says Moroney, who plans board meetings as well as large conferences for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “When we begin the planning process, we pretty much know when and where the chairman wants to go. Occasionally we can change dates, but not often.”

Planners can encourage their organizations to be more open-ended about scheduling. Some distribute information about hot dates to co-workers. Others nudge higher-ups toward destinations that feature specials.

“There usually isn’t much flexibility in terms of dates or destinations,” says J.C. Penney’s Jensen. “But sometimes, there might be a meeting where they only specify they want a ‘warm- weather destination.’” That is when Jensen is likely to steer them in the direction of a hotel with hot dates.

Some planners say hot dates might make more of an impression if hotel reps promoted the rate specials more actively. Moroney says, “It seems to me that salespeople aren’t interested in taking that extra step right now. All they have to do is sit there and take orders. I think the fact that business is good deters them from going out and talking about the dates.”

The story from the hotel side is different. “Any of our sales folks who are familiar with the meetings market are familiar with the dates they have to fill,” says Scott Fischburg, senior director of sales for Minneapolis-based Radisson Hotels Worldwide.

Omni Hotels gives its sales force monetary incentives to book hot dates, according to Leslie Cox, corporate director of group national sales for the chain.

Reps would be selling a lot more hot dates if price were the only reason to select a property, but it isn’t, planners say. “We’re not going to have a meeting someplace just because a hotel says, ‘We’re having good rates,’” says Michael Hudson, president of New York City-based Site, Search & Select, a site research firm. “Rates aren’t always the most important thing.”

Up in the air
Although airlines often offer last-minute specials for consumers, they are slow to follow the hotels’ lead and introduce the hot dates concept for meeting planners.

American Airlines offers Group City Specials through Group & Meeting Travel, its group sales organization. These specials offer discounts off current fares for groups of 10 or more traveling on selected routes. The fares are lower than those normally offered by Group & Meeting Travel, which are 5 percent off any published fare or 10 percent off full coach fare.

Savings with Group City Specials might be as high as 60 percent off full coach rate, according to George Coyle, American’s product manager for group and meeting sales. Meeting planners can register at the company’s Web site (www.aa.com) to receive Group City Special information monthly via e-mail.

Continental Airlines, meanwhile, offers group discounts of 5 percent off the airline’s weekly Cool Travel Specials, to which individuals can subscribe via the airline’s Web site (www.flycontinental.com).

Comparing the Savings Let’s say a meeting planner needs to arrange a conference for a group of 50. How much is she going to save by booking hot dates? Here is a random comparison of room rates of several properties, based on inquiries made at press time. Note that these samples are current at the time they were received from the hotel companies or individual properties but are subject to change according to availability. They also may be negotiable, based on group size, food and beverage packages or time of booking. HotelHot date and rateRegular group rate Hilton New York & Towers
New York City $179
(Feb. 25-26) $244 Omni Tucson National
Golf Resort & Spa
Tucson, Ariz. $99
(June27-30) $109-$129 The Phoenician
Scottsdale, Ariz. $200
(Feb.21-22) $450 Radisson Augusta
Augusta, Ga. $92
(March 1-10) $94-$104 Sheraton San Diego
Hotel & Marina
San Diego $149
(Feb. 11-19) $300 Sheraton New Orleans
New Orleans $109
(March 30-April 6) $179 Net Results

In addition to hotel Web sites, planners learn about hot dates at:

  • (www.eventsource.com) An event-planning search engine with hot dates and e-mail notification.

  • (www.hotdateshotrates.com) A service linked to the Meeting Professionals International Web site, offering listings and e-mail.
  • (www.madsearch.com) Planners can register for weekly e-mails that list hot dates years in advance.

  • (www.pcma.org) At the Professional Convention Management Association’s site, search for specials by place, date, room-block size or property type.
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