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May 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Post-Convention Report - May 1998 Current Issue
May 1998
Post-Convention Report

How to get accurate data when the event is over

BY DANA NIGRO

No doubt about it: Information is power. And when it's time to negotiate, lack of information about a meeting's history can render a planner virtually powerless. The best way to gather that data is through post-convention reports from hotels and convention and visitor bureaus.

These reports sum up the original plans, changes made along the way and what actually happened in the end. "They work to everybody's advantage," says Mickey Schaefer, vice president of membership, meetings, conventions and administration for the American Academy of Family Physicians in Kansas City, Mo. "Hotels can make sure they are holding the right amount of rooms. CVBs can make sure they aren't allocating too many rooms for a citywide. And it helps us to put together better proposals, instead of having to re-invent the wheel each time."

Susan Hodapp, brand director for Marriott Hotels, Resorts & Suites, adds: "When the hotel sees this document, it speaks to their business. They understand the group's total impact on the hotel."

And that should lead to better service, points out Dean Peterson, assistant vice president of catering and convention services for Hyatt Hotels. The front desk will be sufficiently staffed to handle peak arrival times, housekeeping will have rooms ready, the concierge will be prepared to handle heavy requests for tour information, and the golf director may arrange special outings if many attendees have requested tee times in the past. Adds Peterson, "In this business, you always say, 'I wish I would have known.' "

But if all parties agree post-convention reports are critical, why are accurate and timely reports so hard to come by? Sources blame several factors, including simple inconsistency: Every hotel handles the task differently, and every group needs different information in a somewhat different format.

The good news: As hotels upgrade their technology and the meetings industry moves toward standardization, many of these difficulties will soon be obsolete. Until then, M&C outlines the top problems and how to solve them.

THAT WORD AGAIN: STANDARDIZATION Wouldn't it be nice if meeting planners and hoteliers could all work the same way? Why not create a universal post-convention report form in an easy-to-read format?

Nice fantasy, say the skeptics. Every group and every hotel is different. But perhaps it is possible at least to develop a common frame of reference. That's exactly what the Convention Liaison Council is looking into.

Working off a proposal developed last year by a Professional Convention Management Association task force, CLC is setting up the Accepted Practices Excellence Exchange. The ultimate goal is to bring all the industry subgroups together to define recommended practices (the group is trying to avoid the word "standards").

Among the seven key areas the project aims to tackle are meeting histories and post-convention reports. "We would develop a wish list of what we would like everybody to be providing 10 years from now," explains Mickey Schaefer, CAE, president of PCMA and one of the original proponents of the project. "This way everyone knows to track certain things when going into a meeting, and everybody knows what they need to present at the end of it," adds Schaefer. "Then you'd get a wonderful snapshot of the whole value of the meeting."

D.N.


You Just Don't Get It
Problem: You were expecting a post-convention report, but never got one. Your hotel contact says, "Sorry, we don't do that." It's true: Some properties simply don't provide reports for every meeting, particularly for small groups. "Our six-page reports are somewhat time-consuming," points out Joe Dymek, Chicago-based corporate director of meetings and conventions for Hilton Hotels Corp. At a small, independent hotel, the staff may not even know what should be included.

Planner tactics: Ask and you shall (probably) receive. If you really need the information, stipulate in your contract that you won't pay until you get an accurate report. If the hotel doesn't generally offer such reports, provide a form detailing exactly what you expect. The Convention Liaison Council has developed a recommended form, with long and short versions. (See "What You Really Need to Know About Your Event" on page 56.) Give it to the hotel before the event.

Hotel insights: Many chains have been listening to planners' demands. Hilton changed its policy in March. Previously, the company only provided reports to its large national accounts that moved from city to city. Now, any group that uses 100 rooms or more on peak night gets a copy of the report. Says Dymek, "That applies even if it's a local state association that meets every three years at the same Hilton."

Marriott properties follow the same guideline of 100 rooms on peak night. "We will provide a report to a smaller group if they ask for it," says Hodapp. Hyatt hotels have been using the CLC form for four years, says Peterson.

It's About Time
Problem: Your citywide convention used rooms at 14 different hotels. Four sent you the reports right away, six took well over a month, and the rest are yet to be seen. You're already on to planning your next meeting; the last thing you want to do is spend time tracking down data from the last one.

Planner tactics: "Planners really need to schedule quality time to deal with this when we get back from a conference instead of it just being an afterthought," says Windy Christner, director of meetings and expositions for the American Pharmaceutical Association in Washington, D.C. Christner has a standard letter that she sends hotels if she doesn't get a report; if there's still no response, she faxes another memo. After that, she'll ask for help from the CVB. Sometimes she writes a deadline into the contract, but says, "I feel I shouldn't have to do that. This is basic information; it should be a given. We are merely asking for a record of a large, money-making business transaction."

Hotel insights: At Hilton and Hyatt, the standard is to provide reports within 21 days. "The reason we wait even three weeks is to make sure we get appropriate information back from any outside suppliers," says Hyatt's Peterson. At Marriott, the standard is two weeks, giving the hotel time to review the final bill with the planner. "There may be discussion back and forth about that," says Hodapp. "Then, the data needs to be realigned in the post-convention report. Those two items need to match."

Playing With Blocks
Problem: Your sessions were standing-room only, but the hotels claim their beds went half empty. What happened? According to Schaefer, the problem has several sources: "If people miss the cutoff date, they may be paying a different rate and often they don't show up as part of our group." Some attendees make a room reservation without identifying themselves as part of the group. Others who are walked, arrive mid-meeting or check out early can affect the final tally.

Planner tactics: "You have to cross-check everything," says Jean LaCorte, president of The Compass Group, an independent planning firm in Montville, N.J. "I've never seen a perfect rooming list." If anyone is missing when you compare your registrants against the hotel's final rooming list, ask the hotel to check if reservations were made under the missing names.

If you're working with a housing company, double-check that its numbers match up with the hotel's, adds Christner. If your group has a cutoff date, look for late registrations. Compare arrival and departure dates on the reservations to see if anyone checked in late or left the event early.

Finally, there's always the chance that the hotel incorrectly coded your group block and the reservationist can't find it in the system when attendees arrive. "As a planner, you may need to spot- check and try to make a reservation on your own," suggests LaCorte.

Hotel insights: "With any given group you are going to have wash factors," says Pat Welsh, Sheraton's divisional director of sales automation for North America. While hotels can't change attendees' behavior, better automation can help minimize errors. "Going back a few years in the industry, even if there was automation at a property, it was really a very manual effort," says Welsh. Data was captured in the property management system, checked in the back-office accounting system and then transferred manually into the sales and catering system or onto a post-convention report. "With the manual transferringÉeither someone doesn't get all the information from accounting or something is mis-entered or mis-counted."

Most hotel reservation systems today have the capability to track detailed room-block data. Hilton's system generally starts providing room pick-up numbers 12 weeks out. Hyatt can start tracking pick-up as soon as the definite room block is entered. "I had an entire group make reservations within two days of the block going in, and that was a year in advance of the event," says Peterson. And, for large conventions, many hotels can provide daily updates near the end of the reservation period - a time when there are usually huge fluctuations. To capture last-minute information, Hyatt has added day-of-arrival pick-up as well as actual usage numbers to its post-convention reports.

All this information can be exchanged more efficiently and accurately if every hotel system - the reservation system, the property management system (which tracks the various hotel outlets and services) and the sales and catering system - interface electronically, explains Welsh. Many chains are working on it. Sheraton, for one, plans to have its property management system integrated with the sales and catering departments in every corporate-owned and -managed property by mid-1999. This will help more accurately capture not only guest room usage, but also catering information and ancillary revenue from the outlets.

What Subgroups?
Problem: You've divided your overall room block into sub-blocks for exhibitors. Their room pick-up is tied into an incentive system; if they meet certain numbers, they get preferred housing status next year. The hotel data show an important exhibitor's room use fell well below that number. As a result, you penalize the exhibitor, who then complains that the information is wrong - a very embarrassing and touchy situation.

Another twist on the theme: You're the planner for a huge convention. At least 10 companies are holding events - from meals to hospitality suites to entire meetings - in conjunction with yours. You want to include them in the total volume of business your event brings into a city. How do you find out how much they spent?

"Affiliated group revenue generated is a huge number that sometimes doesn't show up at all," says Schaefer of the American Academy of Family Physicians, whose annual convention attracts many ancillary events by pharmaceutical companies.

Planner tactics: "If you need specific data at the end of a meeting, you have to set that up from the get-go," says The Compass Group's LaCorte. The hotel won't be able to track exhibitors separately if you don't set up assigned sub-blocks in advance. And if they have separate billing, the hotel may not know which groups (sometimes referred to as "in conjunction withs") are affiliated with your event. Provide as much information as you can.

And cross-check. If exhibitors challenge the pick-up numbers for their sub-blocks, Schaefer asks them for copies of the folios for all the rooms they booked and paid for.

And if you can't get complete data on ancillary groups, estimate it yourself to add to your meeting history. Says Schaefer: "We do it by average per-head cost on how many events we know took place. It's about knowing our meeting and not being afraid to fight for what we know."

Hotel insights: Hoteliers insist that they do recognize the importance of tracking subgroups. Hyatt, for one, has embellished the CLC post-convention form to include more detail about affiliated groups, provide the name and contact, the room blocks, cutoff and pick-up numbers and catering volume.

And again, it is a largely technological issue. Hyatt's reservation system has the capability to track sub-groups, but this isn't all automatic, says Peterson; the convention services staff has to manually set up the sub-blocks and pull the relevant reports.

They Did More Than Meet
Problem: When a hotel salesperson asks for the full value of your group's business, she means everything: how much attendees drink at the bar, how much they spend at the gift shop and whether they use the coat check. "If a group is taking all the meeting space, the hotel wants to be sure it is going to get revenue from additional outlets," says LaCorte. However, not all properties can track this data.

Planner tactics: Do your own investigating. You should have an idea if attendees party into the wee hours of the morning or prefer to go to bed early. Walk through the hotel during the event: Is the restaurant bustling at noon? Is everyone lounging by the pool, umbrella-festooned drinks in hand? Talk to the hotel staff, too. They should be able to tell you if the health club was packed at 6 a.m. or if room service was crazed three days in a row.

Hotel insights: Again, technology is the eventual solution. "Property management systems are so much more sophisticated than they used to be," says Welsh. "They will need to have interfaces to about 200 different types of programs." In many cases, hotel outlets operate on different systems - one for the restaurant, one for the gift shop, one for golf reservations, one for spa bookings and so on. While sophisticated property management systems can track everything charged to a guest's room, they need to be integrated with the sales and catering system so the convention services staff can easily access that information.

One caveat: There is a privacy issue involved with tracking and reporting individuals' spending. If an organization arranges to pay for all attendees' room-service breakfasts, the hotel will certainly report those totals to the meeting planner. But if an item is paid for by an individual, "we wouldn't go into a private account and report that publicly," says Hodapp. "Let's say an attendee watched movies - that's private. Let's say they were playing golf on an afternoon they should have been in a meetingÉ"

While properties may not be able to provide exact spending figures, they can provide a good approximation. Says Dymek, "If we know a group doesn't have a breakfast one morning and they make up 60 percent of the house, we estimate that 60 percent of the business at the coffee shop is from them." At an isolated property where attendees don't have options to go elsewhere, it's a safe bet that these numbers are accurate.

The more information a planner can provide in advance, the easier it is for a hotel to track attendees' spending. "Share as much as possible what you believe the movement of attendees through the hotel will be like when they aren't in their sessions," says Hodapp. The convention services staff can then, for example, alert restaurant managers to track the flow of customers during certain hours, keeping an eye out for people with nametags.

Surprise, Surprise
Problem: You came to the negotiations with complete post-convention reports from the past five years. You compiled the most thorough meeting history anyone has ever seen. The hotel was thrilled. You and the convention services staff were sure you had all your bases covered. And guess what? Nothing turned out as expected.

Planner tactics: Don't overlook anything. There's more to a meeting than numbers. Have there been a lot of cutbacks in the industry your association serves? That could be why attendance is down dramatically. Do your convention dates run up against another big industry event? That could explain why more than 150 people skipped out on your usually well-attended final-night banquet. Is air service into the city limited? Maybe that's why attendees all hit the front desk at once.

Hotel insights: "We have to understand that groups do evolve," says Hodapp. "We need to ask the planner what has changed in your membership or your corporation since this meeting was held that would possibly impact these numbers differently. Sometimes people forget to ask that - they think the past is the future. For all of us, post-convention reports should be thought of as a directional tool."

WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR EVENT Exactly what information should you ask for when the meeting is over? The Convention Liaison Council has developed recommended post-convention report forms - both long and short versions - that planners can ask the hotel or facility to complete. (For information, call the CLC at 303-422-8522.) In general, here's what should be included.

Account Information
This covers the basics: your organization's contact names and numbers; hotel contacts; total attendance; attendance broken down by members, exhibitors, speakers and guests; headquarters hotel and overflow hotels; peak room nights; average length of stay; people-per-room ratio; whether bookings are commissionable and to whom; if a group rate is acceptable after the cutoff date, and whether rooms are guaranteed by the group.

Room Pick-Up
A corporation working off a set rooming list will want at least the number of rooms blocked, the revised block and the final number of rooms used each day of the event. This can be broken down by room type (single, double, suite). An association will need further detail: the six-month block, three-month pick-up, six-week pick-up, pick-up as of the cutoff date and the number of cancellations and no-shows.

Affiliate Group Pick-Up
If affiliated groups meet in conjunction with your event, you should get credit for those room blocks, revised blocks and actual rooms.

Group Food and Beverage
List each function by date, with the original number of attendees estimated, the final guarantee and the actual attendance. Get the total food-and-beverage figures. Include meals and hospitality suites hosted by affiliated groups.

Food and Beverage Outlets
Some hotels can track how much your attendees spend on room service and at in-house restaurants and bars. All should be able to provide a general profile of the traffic (light, normal or heavy) in each outlet at each time of day (morning, midday, evening and late evening).

Meeting Rooms
This details the number of people in the largest session, the largest number of concurrent sessions, how many concurrent sessions were held each day and a daily breakdown of room setups used (classroom, theater, etc.). If you have a 24-hour hold on meeting rooms, list how many and why.

Exhibits
If your event incorporates a trade show, tally the number of booths, gross and net square footage used and gross weight. Include the dates for setup, actual show and teardown.

Recreational Activities
Anything from which the hotel earns revenue is worth reporting: golf, tennis, spa bookings, and team-building or guest programs that the hotel arranged. This should include group events as well as individual usage.

D.N.




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