by Tom Isler | October 01, 2006

illustrationHer 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 takers.

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 one conversation.”

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 money.

“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.