by By Michael J. Shapiro | August 01, 2009

F0809 Labor mainMany hotels are hungry for meetings business these days, which gives planners a good deal of negotiating leverage. But ask for too much, and the property will have a hard time delivering. Margins are tighter than ever, so it's helpful to know where properties have room to negotiate. Here's where meeting planners can help the hotel -- and help themselves.

"The largest cost for any hotel is labor," explains Michael Dominguez, vice president of global sales for New York City-based Loews Hotels. "If you can save us in labor, then I'm able to be a little more flexible with you."

Of course, hoteliers can tailor their offerings to meet a group's particular whims and desires. But if a client needs to watch costs, it's a lot easier for a hotel to reduce the number of people required to serve a meal, for example, than it is to lower the cost of the food.

A good working relationship, says Dominguez, means understanding each other's needs and limitations. "It's never been more critical in our industry that we have a true partnership and are working together through this," he adds.

With that in mind, what follows are simple ways planners can help hotels cost-effectively meet a group's needs. What's less costly for the hotel should, in turn, be less costly for the planner.

 Food and beverage
Stay in one place. That outdoor reception preceding dinner in the grand ballroom might come with a great view, but it also requires a significant amount in set-up costs. "Realize," says Dominguez, "I've had to set up two different bars, I've had to set up two different function areas. So the staff is almost doubled from the bar standpoint and from my setup standpoint. And, most importantly, I have to break down two different areas."

What's more, the transportation of the banquet equipment, which is often stored near the ballrooms, is a lot easier at some hotels than others. At some properties, says Dominguez, "I have to lug it up 2,500 feet to get it where it needs to go."

Take advantage of the setting.
While some hotels find it difficult to move equipment outdoors, others, by nature of their locale, prefer to do just that. "Here on St. Maarten, everyone wants to be outside, of course, and do things on the pool deck and the beach," points out Christopher Polak, director of catering at the Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort & Spa. That's what the resort encourages planners to do, he adds, because the setup is fairly minimal. "We don't need grand flowers and grand entertainment, because the ambience is already out there -- you're right on the ocean, right on the beach."

F0809 Labor DRoss rvGo for buffet-style. "A lot of people -- some caterers, even -- don't get it because they focus on the possibility that the food costs might be higher," says Don Ross, vice president of catering, conventions and events, for Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah's Entertainment. "But it's all about labor nowadays. As much as food cost is, labor costs and benefits and all those things are more than the actual food cost itself. So when people say, ‘I can't believe you're charging me $3 dollars for a cookie -- I can go down to the 7-11 and get it for 99 cents,' I say, ‘It's not about that cookie. It's about all of the people that have to touch the product before it gets to you.' "

While some buffets do entail elaborate setups, the labor required to create them is miniscule compared to the number of people needed to set up each plate in the kitchen and then serve the meals individually.

Centralize break sites. Find a convenient spot for a large group coffee break, advises Bob Moore, vice president of conference management for Gaylord Hotels in National Harbor, Md., rather than setting up in each meeting room. In addition to slashing labor set-up costs, it will produce much less waste. "Especially for coffee," Moore points out. "Instead of putting a gallon in each room, you can probably just do four gallons in one spot to satisfy the entire group."

Stick to the menu. "If someone tells us exactly what they want and it's not on the menu, that also adds to our costs," explains Michael Harrison, director of conference operations at the Four Seasons Resort & Club in Irving, Texas. "We have to source those items and bring them in, and a lot of times do prep on them that we don't normally do."

Have what they're having. "Communicate with the catering manager about what else is going on in the hotel," suggests Moore. "See if you can menu match. If a company's willing to do a menu that we're already using, we'll look at it and give them some sort of a cost break. Because now I don't have to put the pressure on the kitchen to produce a whole different type of menu."

This approach often is formalized as a package meeting deal, as is the case at the Four Seasons in Irving. "It lets us enjoy some economies of scale so that we can pass those savings on to the customer," notes Michael Harrison. "They buy a package from us, and the chef chooses the lunch menu. It's always a buffet and has three entrées. It's a very elaborate buffet, but he chooses the menu. So for everybody who's here on that package, the chef just has to make one type of meal, instead of putting together all these different things, and that saves us money on food and saves us money on labor in the kitchen."

Use the restaurant. "If you are organizing a meeting of 10 to 12 people," says Michael Dominguez, "it's much easier to have you meet in my restaurant than for me to set up a banquet room for your lunch. My staff and my restaurant are there whether you're coming or not."

Another smart option is to consider an on-site restaurant that otherwise is closed for breakfast or lunch but would be perfect for a private function. These venues require less labor to set up than a meeting room. Furthermore, adds Bob Moore, "If we don't have to dedicate another meeting room to a lunch, we can sell more rooms."

Eat where you work. To really minimize set-up costs, roll a buffet table into the meeting room. "A lot of people are doing that now because they're trying to be more time-efficient," says Harrison. "But that also saves us money that we can pass on to the client."


Meeting setup
Minimize room turnover. "If you want to be in the meeting room until 5 p.m.," says the Four Seasons' Harrison, "and then you want to have a dinner in there at 6:30 with round tables, we have to turn the same room over. That really drives our labor costs up." One solution: Set up the meeting room using crescent rounds instead of a classroom setup. "If the rounds are already there, we can just come in and set them for dinner," adds Harrison. "Things like that really help us a lot."

F0809 Labor chairsKnow how many chairs you'll need. "We get a lot of groups that don't really know how many people are going to be in a given session," explains Don Ross. "You might have a customer who has a general session scheduled for 2,000 people and 10 breakouts, and they'll ask us to set every room to capacity. They have no clue of what the interests of their attendees are and where they're going to sit. What that sometimes does is totally extinguish our inventory of equipment."

Ross' staff might have to scramble to move chairs from general sessions and lunch to breakout and other session rooms, just to make sure each room is properly set to capacity. That translates to a lot of unnecessary labor.

Reuse room setups. This holds true whether it be for a morning and afternoon breakout in the same room or for a meeting room from one day to the next. If you can use the same audiovisual setups, that's even better, says Moore. Strategically plan the meeting with this in mind, he suggests. "Talk to the presenters; see if you can just tweak a few things in order to not have to turn the room. It's a big savings for the hotel, and it can be for the meeting planner, too."

Stage back-to-back registration. Is another group coming in just before or just after yours? Maybe you can use the same registration area they do, suggests Moore. "You might only have to change the headers to brand your group or association. If the setup is very similar to what was just in front of you or is coming in behind you, you can probably save a lot of money." Essentially the same principle applies for exhibit hall setups.