by By Tom Isler | June 01, 2009

tree insideAlong with outright cancellations, the number of relocated meetings has spiked this year. According to a recent M&C survey ("Pressured to Cancel," April), 40 percent of planner respondents have changed venues, cities or both for scheduled meetings simply "to appear more frugal." And this doesn't take into account those who have moved meetings for other reasons. In some cases, new projects have been halted, displacing meetings booked in the preopening phase. Corporate groups have moved to save money or avoid unwanted publicity. And with associations facing dwindling attendance, some are shifting to smaller, more cost-effective venues.

"We've certainly seen a fairly significant degree of movement specifically related to perception issues more than anything else," says Mark Sergot, vice president of global sales for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Sergot estimates he's received as many as 10 phone calls in the past several months that sound like the one he got in March: A law firm, which was six weeks away from holding a three-night, 500-person meeting at one of Fairmont's Mexican resorts, wanted to move to an urban hotel because "they didn't want partners to be subjected to unnecessary criticism" as had become de rigueur for corporate meetings at posh golf resorts, he says.

Sergot negotiated a deal for the group to relocate to the Fairmont Chicago. In return for a much smaller cancellation fee than was written into the contract, the group agreed to book the next year's annual meeting at the Mexican resort, along with several regional meetings throughout the rest of 2009. Sergot says the regional meetings won't make up for the lost business entirely, but they will give the property "financial relief in the short term."

He adds, "The most important thing, not only for hotel salespeople but planners, too, is to keep an open mind and approach it as an opportunity to solve a problem with a comprehensive approach. The times we are in are so unusual, people need to rally around and do what's right for everybody."

Planners and hoteliers who have been on either side of transplanted meetings say the process tests their negotiation and communication skills, as well as time- and risk-management abilities. And many planners admit the experience has led them to reconsider how they plan for any meeting.

Renovation delays
As executive director of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion, Dr. Conrad Ostwalt (also chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.) was responsible for organizing SECSOR's 2009 annual meeting, held in March for 300 people.

On a Friday morning in late February, two weeks before the conference, Ostwalt received a call from Wes Collins, the sales director at his meeting venue, the Sheraton Chapel Hill Hotel, informing him that the hotel's renovation had been delayed, and the property no longer could accommodate the group. But Collins already had identified an alternate venue, another Sheraton, that had space and had agreed to honor Ostwalt's original contract. On its face, the new Sheraton was an upgrade. Ostwalt's group never could have afforded the hotel under normal circumstances.

There was just one small problem. "We had to move cities," Ostwalt recalls. The new facility, the Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons, was about an hour's drive from Chapel Hill and even further from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, where some attendees were due to arrive. "I didn't know how it would affect attendance," Ostwalt says. "I pictured people backing out en masse."

Ostwalt estimates his group incurred $1,000 to $1,200 in unplanned ground transportation costs to shuttle attendees to Greensboro ­-- the Sheraton Chapel Hill offered to pay $500 -- but otherwise the conference was not adversely affected by the move. "To their credit, they found a hotel and did some of the legwork," Ostwalt says of Collins and his team. "They didn't abandon me." But he describes the last-minute move as "unconscionable" and believes the hotel should have covered all of his extra expenses.

For his part, Collins claims the hotel notified Ostwalt within 24 hours of learning of the delay, which was related to a stalled supply shipment to a subcontractor. And even then, there was internal disagreement about whether the Sheraton Chapel Hill could host the group. "It was not a unanimous ‘no,' " Collins says. "We may have been able to keep the client here, but they would not have been happy. I made the decision to relocate them."