January 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Last-Minute Meetings January 1999 Current Issue
January 1999

Last-Minute Meetings

So little time, so many details...Here's how smart planners cope

By Maria Lenhart

It’s a request independent planner Laura Colderchant, president of Progress in Planning in Elgin, Ill., has gotten used to: the frantic call from a corporate client who has an unexpected meeting on the horizon. It’s small, it’s strategic and it’s happening in three weeks.

Welcome to the era of the “pop-up” meeting. While an increase in small, short-term meetings has been an industry trend for a few years now, the definition of “short term” seems to be shrinking all the time. While two months used to be considered last-minute, now it’s anything inside of 30 days.

What’s driving the scramble? Susan Hodapp, brand director for Marriott Hotels, Resorts and Suites in Bethesda, Md., points to the strong economy. “More companies have been investing their profits into new products and other areas,” she says. “That means there’s a lot of hot information that has to be communicated quickly to a core group of people. So we’re seeing a lot of meetings that have to be turned around at the last minute.”

Fortunately for planners under pressure, the resources for handling last-minute meetings have been growing as well. Hotels are eager to promote their “hot dates,” periods where rooms are available at discounted rates, usually just a few weeks in advance. Thanks to the Internet, planners can quickly access hot dates information from a huge variety of meetings industry Web sites. Contacting a convention and visitors bureau, hotel national sales office or a site selection firm can also yield information on properties with availability and, with a bit of luck, discounted rates.

“Although it’s not the message we want to get across, these days it can actually be an advantage to book short term,” says Keith Hymel, managing director of sales for Hilton Direct, the Dallas-based small meetings sales division of Hilton Hotels Corp. “If you can be a little flexible, there are some really good last-minute deals.”

Roger Helms, president of HelmsBriscoe, a site selection firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz., agrees, noting the odds of finding affordable rooms for short-term meetings are getting better all the time. “It used to be that clients would say ‘find me space,’ but now more are saying ‘find me value,’” he says. “The hotel market is growing softer, and this benefits short-term business.”

So while site selection for short-notice meetings is growing easier, the biggest problem for planners may be keeping everything under control. For Laura Colderchant, this means keeping the hotel in the loop at all times. “Things can be disorganized and highly changeable in these situations, so it’s really important to have good back and forth communication with the hotel contact person,” she says. After all, she stresses, “You’re not in this alone.”

Site Selection Firms
When Charlene Scannel, corporate meeting planner for Clorox Co. in Oakland, Calif., needs to put together a meeting, she has no time to call around to hotels. Instead she calls a site selection firm.

As a one-person planning department responsible for about 60 meetings a year, many of them on short notice, Scannel says site selection firms are “one-stop shops” that make her job with the detergent products manufacturer much easier. “I’m freed up to concentrate on other aspects of the meeting,” she says.

When Dawn Hardecky, project manager for American Management Solutions, a Fremont, Calif.-based company that manages nonprofit technical associations, found herself in desperate need of 10 hotel rooms in sold-out Denver for a meeting in two weeks, she panicked. Then she called a site selection firm.

“I knew hotels in Denver were booked solid and so I was willing to settle for anything in the metro area,” says Hardecky, who called EventSource, a site selection company and Internet event planning search engine based in Novato, Calif. “To my surprise, my contact called back in 20 minutes with a downtown hotel.”

Site selection firms, companies that specialize in finding available space at hotels and off-site meeting venues, are among the newest and fastest-growing segments of the meetings industry. Acting as a distribution channel much like travel agencies, these firms are normally paid commissions by hotels and other suppliers and do not charge meeting planners for their services.

Often, these service providers are staffed with former hotel salespeople. Roger Helms, president of HelmsBriscoe, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based site selection firm with 48 offices worldwide, estimates that 95 percent of his company’s 140 sales associates have a background in hotel sales. Helms himself worked in sales for the Registry Hotel Corp. in Dallas before teaming up with another Registry employee, Bill Briscoe, to found the company in 1992.

Time is of the essence
Many site selection firms have quickly built databases that can track availability at thousands of hotels worldwide. Along with availability, the databases can generally find “hot dates” at hotels offering blocks of rooms at a discount, usually on a short-term basis. According to Helms, many hotels view site selection firms as a way to reach more customers and to sell rooms that might otherwise go unsold.

While site selection firms often offer a range of services that can include booking off-site venues and arranging for golf and other activities, most frequently they are used for finding sleeping rooms and meeting space at hotels. “In most cases, a planner will give us a choice of one or two cities,” says Heather Dobbins, director of sales and marketing for The Hotel Network, a site selection firm with offices in San Diego and Phoenix. “We’ll check all the hot dates information that comes in from hotel reps and convention and visitor bureaus.”

With time critical in most cases, site selection firms often promise a range of competitive bids from hotels within 24 to 48 hours. “We eliminate what can be both a time-consuming and demoralizing process,” says EventSource president Brian Langer.

After a hotel is selected, site selection firms frequently negotiate the contract on behalf of the planner. After the contract is drawn up, the site selection firm presents copies of the document to both the hotel and the meeting planner to review and make any desired changes. According to Hardecky of American Management Solutions, the contract negotiation service provided by site selection firms is another time-saving feature. “They can often get the same rate right off the bat that it takes me several rounds of phone calls to get,” she says.

Contract Negotiation
When a hotel comes through with rooms and meeting space on short notice, why get too picky about the contract? After all, you were lucky to get anything at all this close to the meeting. At this point, you can’t quibble about rates, amenities or the quality of the meeting space. Or can you?

You can indeed, says attorney Kim Zeitlin, partner in Zeitlin & Buonasera in Washington, D.C. “Hotels may take the attitude that they’re doing you a big favor by giving you rooms on short notice, but don’t accept this,” he says. “You’re actually doing them a favor by taking rooms that would otherwise probably go unsold. In the hotel industry, rooms not sold within 30 days are usually assumed to be a loss.”

Zeitlin recommends planners negotiate for the same sort of desirable terms they would expect for a meeting planned well in advance.

The same basic theory holds true when it comes to the contract. While many aspects of a last-minute meeting may require taking short cuts, contract review and negotiation should not be among them. Zeitlin advises planners to not give into the temptation to overlook the fine print and stresses the importance of questioning any ambiguous items.

“Big problems can arise when meetings are planned in haste and contract issues are slighted,” he cautions. “Always read and review the contract carefully. When you’re under the gun, you have to be even more careful than usual.”

In particular, clauses on matters such as attrition and indemnity should not be glossed over; if possible such clauses should be taken out of the contract. “Don’t let the hotel try to make big demands about attrition at 30 days out it shouldn’t even be an issue,” Zeitlin says.

Even when working with a site selection firm or other third party, Zeitlin recommends planners take a proactive role in defining the contract terms and provide as much information as possible about the group requirements. “You have to make sure your specs are very clear to the intermediary,” he says. “They can only know what you tell them.”

And while it may be expedient to let a third party handle contract negotiation, the final review process and the signing of the contract should always be in the hands of the end user. “Never let an intermediary sign the contract,” says Zeitlin. “Too often I’ve heard people shriek ‘You signed what?’ Then it’s too late.”

Group Air Fares
Your boss calls a 20-person meeting for 12 days from now. At this point, you’ll be lucky just to get your people there; you’re not about to bargain hunt for air fares. But you may not have to settle for exorbitant prices. In fact, you could end up with better deals than if you had booked the tickets six months ago.

In some cases, a planner who needs to book on short notice has the clock working in her favor, says Brenda Davis, manager of group and incentive sales development for Houston-based Continental Airlines. Normally, an airline meetings department bases a decision about group discounts on the market’s history for that time of year. The closer in the meeting, the less guessing and more negotiating an airline can do. “We may be more aggressive in our pricing because we can pinpoint better how full that flight will be,” says Davis.

For any group, Continental usually offers a 5 percent discount on published fares or 10 percent off unrestricted tickets. For short-term bookings, individuals can apply those same group discounts toward the airline’s weekly Cool Travel Specials, last-minute fare deals sent to registrants via e-mail.

American Airlines has a program designed specifically for last-minute meetings. Group City Specials work a lot like last-minute deal programs for individuals. Good for travel up to three months out, the city pairs are faxed or e-mailed monthly to group travel planners. The savings can be huge, according to George Coyle, product manager, group meeting and sales, for American Airlines in Dallas. “If you’re looking at a full coach rate, savings could be as high as 60 percent,” he says.

Airline sources and planners offer the following tips for getting the best deals on short notice.

  • Be flexible about time. On popular business routes, a morning flight on a smaller plane may be full, but a later flight on a larger plane may be wide open. Coyle adds that Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are usually lighter travel days and may offer discount opportunities, especially in big markets like New York City or Los Angeles, where major carriers run up to 20 daily flights.
  • Split them up. Deals vary depending on the number of attendees per flight. For the most part, the fewer the better, say airline representatives. Most group departments keep in close communication with revenue management, which keeps track of the number of discounted and full-fare seats. While an airline wants to fill the empty seats, says Continental’s Davis, “We don’t want to replace a full-fare passenger with a group passenger.” She recommends breaking the group up into several flights, so fewer discounted seats are booked per plane.
  • Consider zone fares. For those who need to make connections, finding discounted group seats can be even more difficult. To get a last-minute deal, both legs need to have the available seats. “If we have a group that wants to go to L.A., they have to go through Dallas,” says Robin Westbrook, group meeting and incentive planner for Corporate Travel Planners, Inc., based in San Antonio, Texas. “Even if the flight from Dallas to L.A. is wide open, the San Antonio to Dallas leg is a busy route and often fills up.”
  • Faced with a short lead time, Westbrook usually signs a contract that gives her zone fares, a 5 to 10 percent discount off published fares, or a combination of each. She’s also sure to have the contract turned around in 24 hours, so she can start ticketing right away.

    Carla Benini

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