Meetings & Conventions: Is the Price Right? - April
Is the Price Right?
Demystifying Conference Center Packaging
BY LOREN G. EDELSTEINH
otel prices are up and meeting budgets, in
many cases, are down. The mantra among meeting planners is "do more
with less." Are conference centers the answer?
These facilities, purpose-built for small to mid-size meetings,
aim to create an ideal learning environment often with some leisure
component thrown in. But at a median price of $255 a head for a
complete meeting package (CMP) at resort conference centers in
1996, the daily rate can be intimidating to the uninitiated (see chart). And most facilities are
loathe to "unbundle" the package price to show those more
accustomed to Æ la carte pricing where those dollars are going.
Just what are you getting for your money? And is it worth it? We
asked conference center executives and meeting planners to answer
these and other common questions about the mysteries of conference
center pricing and negotiations.
What's included? The CMP generally includes
meeting rooms, sleeping rooms, all meals, continuous (and often
copious) food-and-beverage breaks, gratuities and basic
audiovisual. In some urban centers, sleeping rooms and dinner are
not included, and users pay a day rate. Some groups have a mix of
overnight attendees and day visitors, for which centers will offer
both the CMP and day rate. (Expect to pay extra for alcoholic
But that's not all there is to it. The CMP is somewhat of a
misnomer, believes Dennis Layer, vice president of sales and
marketing for Benchmark Hospitality, the conference center
management company based in The Woodlands, Texas. "I don't think it
ever was a complete meeting package, and it probably is less so
now." Variables that will add to the price might include off-site
dinners or private dining, additional A/V or other services.
Here's how conference
centers internally allocated CMP dollars in 1996 (based on median
price per attendee).
Food and Beverage
Source: International Association of Conference Centers
and PKF Consulting 1 Target mid- and upper-level
management meetings; 2 Target low- and mid-level
employee training and other meetings; 3 Offer extensive
recreational amenities; 4 Located on college or
Can I get a price breakdown? "Unbundling is
usually a topic of conversation with someone who's not familiar
with the conference center concept," says Ron Naples, a conference
center consultant based in Rutherford, N.J. Most centers refuse to
provide breakdowns that show what portion of the price goes to
rooms, food and beverage, A/V or other services. Once the contract
is signed, however, they may be more likely to dissect the
For Jerry Schmidt, CMP, of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, cost
breakdowns are a necessity.Many of his meeting attendees are grant
winners who pay for their own lodging, while the foundation pays
the remainder of their meeting expenses. "Unbundling becomes the
difficulty. Some places resist it; others easily accommodate us,"
says Schmidt, director, meetings, travel and facilities for the
Battle Creek, Mich.-based organization.
Of course, planners are always free to "unbundle" on their own.
At McKinsey &Company, a management consulting firm, "We break
the CMP down internally," says Tony Pastor, CMP, New York
City-based site and contract specialist. "We make our best guess;
for tax reasons, that has to be done. The government treats
expenses for foods differently, so I can't list the whole CMP for
Can I negotiate? Good luck. Conference centers
have traditionally resisted negotiating on price, and that stance
seems to have become more implacable in recent years. "There was a
time when you would peg a price one way expecting that you were
going to sell it lower than that, much like you would sell a car,"
says Jo Ann Swahn, senior vice president of marketing for Dolce
International, the Montvale, N.J.-based conference center
management firm. "We really don't adhere to that kind of pricing at
all. Conference centers have always tried not to get into the rate
wars, because you don't win that way; it's going to have to come
out of the product or service in some form."
You can, however, negotiate for more products or services.
Rather than saying, "Ican't pay $300," a savvy planner might ask,
"How do I get more value for $300?" says Naples. "Some may not need
all of the technology, but would love to have a welcome
In short, "One size does not fit all," says Joan Eisenstodt,
president of Joan Eisenstodt Associates in Washington, D.C. An
independent planner and longtime conference center user, Eisenstodt
finds centers to be more flexible than ever in piecing together
packages that meet the individual client's needs.
What else can I ask for? Ask for what you need.
"I define my own CMP," says Tony Pastor. Items on his wish list
vary, but generally include extra A/V, such as roll-play and
videotaping equipment, and in some cases complimentary fax and
photocopying services, extra breakout rooms and private dining sans
Do Ineed all that food? With three
all-you-can-eat meals and hefty, nonstop snacks, most conference
centers could go head-to-head with major cruise lines in the
gluttony department. "Some clients say, 'Geez, you have an awful
lot of food here,' but I think the critical thing is to provide a
variety of food that meets individual needs," says John Potterton,
CMP, co-owner of Conference Center Concepts, LLC, a Chicago-based
consulting firm. Most centers will provide some healthy choices,
but there will still be people who "just like a good old doughnut,"
says Potterton, who also serves as director of business development
for Summit Executive Center, a nonresidential conference center in
And, be careful in assuming you know your group's eating
patterns. In Potterton's experience, high-level executives
generally eat lighter than middle- and lower-management types. Why?
The top executives are used to attending meetings and having a
lavish spread in front of them. They tend to favor good, hot coffee
at breakfast and a simple sandwich or salad at lunch. "For the
others," he adds, "it's like a kid in a candy store."
What if I go off-site for dinner? Generally,
you'll get a food-and-beverage credit, which is essentially a
deduction from the CMP for that day. Or, to make your job easier,
say you'll pay the whole CMP, but you want to go to the restaurant
down the street for dinner and have the bill go directly to the
facility, suggests Naples. "Many conference centers will do that
for you they will actually make the arrangements," he says. If it's
a luxury restaurant, he adds, you may need to pay a surcharge on
What's "basic" A/V? This is a real hot button.
In short, the standard package doesn't generally include what
today's groups need. A center should be able to provide whatever
technology you need even if it's rented from an outside supplier
but expect to pay extra.
"What was standard six or seven years ago is different now,
because technology is changing so fast," says Kellogg's Schmidt. "I
think the conference center industry ought to look at that more
carefully. When's the last time you used a 35 millimeter
In fact, conference centers are looking closely at the A/V
issue. Topping planners' A/V wish lists are LCD projectors. But,
while they're in great demand, adding them to the package is not
necessarily the answer for conference centers. "Those are two very
different machines with two very different price breaks," says
Summit's Potterton. Not only are they costly, but rapidly changing
technology could render today's models quickly obsolete. And, if
centers do make the investment and include LCD projectors in the
CMP, that could up the price, even for groups that have no need for
them or prefer to bring their own.
Dolce International has stopped using the term "A/V" altogether
at least with respect to the CMP. The rate includes "learning
tools," says Swahn. The basic tools consist of a meeting room with
flip charts, TV and VCR, pads, pencils, water, candies and a slide
projector (for those who want one).
LCD projectors are in such high demand that properties were
renting them and passing on the exorbitant fees, Swahn admits. To
ease the blow, Dolce recently forged an alliance with a
manufacturer of LCD projectors, and is now able to lease the latest
units at a more reasonable cost, she says.DAY
Median day package rates
per attendee in 1996:
Type of CenterDay Rate
Source: International Association of Conference
Centers and PKF Consulting
Is it worth it? Those unfamiliar with the
conference center concept might balk at the price. To put it in
perspective, add up what you'd pay to hold the same event at a
hotel, including meeting room, A/V, breaks and meals.
"If they're priced correctly, conference centers are probably
unbeatable," insists Naples. "For a company that really needs the
technology conference centers offer, the CMPis the best deal on
earth." while you may pay extra for some equipment, at a hotel not
even the basics are included. By the same token, a group that just
needs a room with a flip chart and some coffee would be better off
at a hotel.
And, consider the benefits of one-stop shopping. "Time is money,
and if someone can save time in the planning process, then that is
value," says Naples. "I've had customers tell me, 'I would pay
anything per person if it made my life easier.'"
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