Her search started off innocently
enough. Judy Wander, director of conventions and
conferences for the New York City-based International Council of
Shopping Centers, had a 1,000-person conference she wanted to place
in Phoenix or Scottsdale, Ariz., next February. But her request for
proposal didn’t yield any results, so she expanded the search to
January and March. Then April. She still couldn’t find any
Part of the problem: Wander needed a
lot of exhibit space -- 10,000 square feet -- but just 75 guest
rooms, since most of the attendees were local and wouldn’t be
needing overnight accommodations. Additionally, her convention
committee wouldn’t let her schedule the meeting on a weekend or
consider dates that overlapped with any of the association’s 60
other regional meetings.
One hotel found dates in early June,
but ICSC’s convention committee deemed them too close to the
council’s annual national convention, which is held in May, and
directed Wander to find an alternative. She opened her search to
the fall. Then the winter. The hotel identified some dates in
December, but the committee exercised its veto again.
“I’ve been unable to place it, period,”
she said in late July, after searching for four months.
What Wander had on her hands is an
“ugly meeting,” a term some planners use to describe meetings that,
for one reason or another, are a tough sell to hotels. Any number
of factors can make a meeting ugly: The group has an undesirable
ratio of meeting space to guest rooms, for example, or can’t
guarantee any food and beverage revenue, or needs too many room
nights during peak dates. As a rule of thumb, if a meeting would
prevent a hotel from maximizing revenue, given the dates and the
amount of space being requested, it’s plain ugly.
So what’s a planner peddling such a
meeting to do? There aren’t any magical formulas. “It’s a
time-consuming business,” admits Mario Bass, director of sales for
the New York Marriott Marquis. “It’s not something you can solve in
Nevertheless, planners with this
challenge have developed some useful strategies for finding the
ugly meeting a home.
The grim reality
Hotel salespeople pledge allegiance to
the maxim that no business is bad business. “There will always be a
time when the business is desirable to us,” says Lisa Maggiore,
director of sales for the Hilton New York.
Still, when confronted with an RFP
that’s less than desirable, some salespeople “hope to have the
fortitude to hold out for a better piece of business,” admits Jeff
Gloeb, vice president of hotel sales for Wynn Las Vegas. “But
you’re also potentially shooting yourself in the foot if nothing
comes up. It’s a juggling act,” he adds.
The good news for planners is that
ugliness isn’t immutable; a meeting that’s undesirable at the New
York Marriott Marquis, for example, might be a peach in Detroit or
Cincinnati, or even the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott Ñ or
back at the Marriott Marquis the following week, depending on what
holes the hotel has to fill.
As it happens, hotels aren’t always the
bad guys. A group can hurt its own cause if it’s unwilling to
consider alternate dates, venues or destinations.
State or federal regulations also can
handcuff planners. Last summer, for instance, Carl Musson, program
coordinator for continuing education, conference management
services, at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, had
trouble trying to place a meeting for the state’s Department of
Education. Florida guidelines stipulated that Musson couldn’t pay
for food and beverage, because the meeting was funded with grant
“When you take out a big chunk of
business [such as F&B], it becomes increasingly harder to
negotiate,” notes Musson.
And, in some of today’s ultra-hot hotel
markets, groups are competing for a shrinking number of rooms Ñ
rooms that fetch higher rates with transient travelers. “What’s
happening in the market is hotels are limiting the number of rooms
allocated to group business,” says Katie Callahan-Giobbi, senior
vice president, sales, services and membership for L.A. Inc., the
Convention and Visitors Bureau in Los Angeles. “The market mix
changes as the economy changes.”
The industry, however, can be
pleasantly mercurial. There’s no telling which meetings will or
won’t be challenging to place. Sheri Clemmer, associate meeting
planner for the world headquarters of the Seventh-Day Adventist
Church, based in Silver Spring, Md., recently sent out an RFP for a
meeting that had all the trappings of a tough sell: a religious
gathering requiring 16 guest rooms during the first week of January
in Florida. But rather than dismissing the lead, hotels “were
jumping at the business,” reports Clemmer. One property, in St.
Petersburg, even waived the meeting space fee for her.