July 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions - Ready... Set... Meet - July 2002

Current Issue
July 2002 Ready... Set... Meet
How to plan with little or no lead time By Cheryl-Anne Sturken
 

If the weak economy has inspired a new trend in meeting planning, last-minute meetings is it. The years when planners booked three and six months out are all but over. These days, a one-month lead time is considered a luxury; two-week turnarounds for meetings of several hundred, once unheard of, now barely warrant a raised eyebrow.

In a May 10 conference call, Isadore Sharp, CEO of Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels Inc., told analysts it would be difficult for the chain to predict anticipated performance for the remainder of the year because corporate bookings were coming in just one and two weeks in advance. “In our discussions with meeting planners, there is a lot of pending business out there,” Sharp said. “They are waiting on the economy to trigger their meetings business.”

Four Seasons is not alone. Every major chain across the country is reporting a dramatic rise in short-term corporate meetings business. Among the biggest culprits, say hotels, are pharmaceutical companies. Faced with leaner budgets, planners are sitting on the sidelines, holding tight to their purse strings as they await official Food and Drug Administration approval before unveiling products and training their salespeople. A recent booking at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla., is a typical example.

“I just booked a pharmaceutical meeting for 582 rooms, for 800 people who will be arriving in less than three weeks,” says Joe DeMille, director of sales and marketing for the Westin property. “Next week I have another pharmaceutical company coming in. They booked 10 days out.”

For their part, meeting planners have learned that performing their jobs under current conditions takes nerves of steel, quick decision-making skills, strong negotiation tactics and a stomach for crushing deadlines.

Down to the wire
Planning on the fly requires strategy and resources pushed to overdrive. Following are some of the ways planners are meeting the challenge.

Relying on in-house services. With little time to spare ferreting out proposals from vendors, planners are looking to hotels to fill their production needs but not without some hesitation. “By using a hotel’s vendor you save time and sometimes get a better price,” says Susan Owens, meeting manager for Boehringer-Ingelheim, a Ridgefield, Conn.-based pharmaceutical firm. “But sometimes you wonder if the hotel might be spread too thin and whether they can do it all. With a destination management company, you have to pay a premium, but you do get all of their attention.”

Negotiating gingerly. Planners are finding that dangling a juicy piece of last-minute business doesn’t always generate an open-arms welcome. While it would be nice to fill a hole, the meeting might be difficult logistically for the hotel to pull off on short notice, and it might disrupt other groups in-house. Furthermore, the property might not offer a great rate, knowing the planner has few options at this stage in the game.

“When you are dealing with short-term meetings, negotiations are not as nice,” says Cheryl Geib, national travel and meeting manager for accounting giant Grant Thornton LLC, based in Chicago. “You are going into negotiations literally bargaining at the outset.”

For a recent hurriedly called meeting in Los Angeles, Geib discovered only two hotels were available to her group, because a citywide event was in town at the same time. Faced with a rate of $350 a night, which she found outlandish, Geib went into negotiations at full throttle: “I told the hotel rep, ‘You’ve been knocking on my door every week, asking me to give you my business. If I do, what can you do for me now?’” The hotel reduced the rate significantly, she reports.

Leaning on third parties. Rounds of downsizing and mergers have resulted in shrinking planning departments. That, combined with leaner budgets, has planners relying increasingly on third-party site selection companies to fill the void.

“Having a site selection firm to assist you is invaluable,” says Allison Harris, CMP, manager of conference services for San Diego-based LPL Financial Services. “Using them allows me to focus on creating a strong business agenda.”

Meghan Shea, manager of meetings and conventions for Liberty Corner, N.J.-based Reliant Pharmaceuticals, estimates she handled logistics for 72 meetings this past February alone. She expects to do 35 conventions in the next 12 months a brutal workload for a one-person meeting planning department.

“Third parties are a godsend,” says Shea. “They know our company and even attend our meetings. I have them handle all of our salespeople’s meeting inquiries. We have 850 salespeople out in the field I can’t have them all calling me with meeting questions.”

Forging new relationships. Less lead time has some planners turning to national sales managers to place their business. “In short-term meetings, you don’t have time. You are going straight to the national sales manager,” says Cheryl Geib. “Why build a relationship with a sales director at a local property when they are going to be gone in six months? Chains whose national directors are traveling and making contacts at the corporate level are on the right track. They will get the business.”

Hotels meet the challenge
Lean times make for eager players. Hotels, anxious to get meetings business on the books, are stepping up to the plate with a new can-do attitude.

Simplifying contracts. With no time to massage 27-page contracts and wrangle over minor clauses, hotels are sticking to the absolute essentials to seal the deal. “We keep contracts to a bare minimum, like rooms, dates, the space they are looking for,” says Randy Whiteside, director of sales at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. “While we are on the phone with the client, we e-mail the contract and discuss it right as we are speaking.”

John Flanagan, sales manager at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, estimates that 60 percent of the hotel’s business is short-term, generally defined as two months out or less, with the bulk coming in at 30 days or less.

“It is crazy,” Flanagan admits. “Our contracts are maybe two pages long. You have to be flexible on cutoff dates for registration. F&B attrition is not as strict.” Clauses that typically fall by the wayside, he says, pertain to last-room availability, complimentary rooms and even alcohol liability.

Designating staff. At the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, short-term business represents 25 percent of the hotel’s group bookings. Time-strapped convention services managers, once the meeting planner’s designated point person while on-site, have been replaced by “convention concierges.”

“Their job is to live with the meeting planner throughout the day, so the convention services manager can actually spend some time in the office planning the next meeting. The convention concierge becomes an extension of the meeting planning staff,” says Joe DeMille.

At the Palmer House Hilton, where short-term bookings have grown to 75 percent of the hotel’s business, return clients are paired with the staff members who worked their last meeting, says Randy Whiteside. “They know we can pull it off, and having the same staff makes them feel more comfortable.”

Communicating internally. At the Anaheim Marriott in California, Chad Sitkowski, director of convention services, focuses on getting information from the customer to the hotel staff as quickly and accurately as possible.

At daily preconference meetings, Sitkowski and his staff huddle with managers of housekeeping, catering and the front desk to discuss how an incoming group might impact a particular department’s performance. “These meetings are really valuable,” says Sitkowski. “The departments raise concerns we might have overlooked, and we then go back to the customer prepared with questions.”

During an event, the hotel staff is kept abreast of itinerary changes by daily briefings. Likewise, video screens in the employee cafeteria and other back-office locations list what groups are in-house and flag any special needs.

Shuffling as needed. Whether it is finding the right meeting space or working around meetings business already on the books, hotels are finding that they have to be flexible to attract and accommodate short-term meetings. Juggling meeting space is par for the course, says Jerry Rizzo, director of event management for the Marriott Marquis in New York City. “It’s like a giant puzzle. If we want the business, we have to first ensure there is space available. Sometimes that means we have to approach an existing piece of business and ask if we can be flexible with their space needs.”

Creating space. When one last-minute pharmaceutical group at the Westin Diplomat requested 85 breakout rooms, Joe DeMille was able to deliver by converting 64 corner suites. “What we don’t have in designated meeting space, we will create,” he says.

Making amends. “Sometimes you don’t know the program of the newfound business,” says Sue Prestegard, event manager for the Camelback Inn Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa, in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If they have loud music or a team-building exercise during another group’s breakout sessions, the two will clash. Many times we offer concessions, such as a complimentary coffee break, to the group inconvenienced by the last-minute business.”

Relying on technology. Increasingly, hotels such as the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin resorts in Orlando are loading their Web sites with virtual tours of meeting space, requests for proposals and sample banquet menus to help speed planners along in their decisions.

“We can turn around an e-proposal in four hours,” says David Bagwell, director of sales and marketing for the Starwood properties. “Everything the planner needs to market their meeting is there; photos, catchphrases about the hotel and the destination. It helps them pull together their promotional information quickly.”

Doing homework. When Chad Sitkowski of the Anaheim Marriott gets a proposal from a planner, he immediately logs on to the company’s Web site and compiles a profile. “When you have a short-term booking, you want bullet-point information, anything you can find out, so you don’t keep the planner on the phone, tied up with questions,” says Sitkowski. When possible, he goes to sister properties to obtain the group’s meeting history, which helps his hotel respond to their needs and cuts down on the paperwork the planner has to supply.

Reaching out. Some hotels have learned the value of solid ties with outside vendors. “Sometimes you have only a few days to pull a meeting together, and you really have to rely on your relationship with industries around town,” says Michael Monarca, director of event management for the Chicago Marriott.

“Today, clients are asking us to take care of things they took care of in the past when they had time,” says Randy Whiteside. “That means we have to multitask. We have developed closer relationships with talent agencies, transportation firms and off-site venues. They are becoming our partners.”

 

The race against time

Short-term corporate bookings of 50 rooms or fewer are keeping some hotels in the black. At the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, such bookings jumped from 10 percent in 2001 to 25 percent this year. Michael Darst, director of conference management and catering, recently talked with M&C about the trend.

How important is short-term business? We used to say short-term business was the icing on the cake, the business that finished off the month. Now it represents several layers of the cake.

What is the hotel doing differently? We have shifted people from working long-term meetings to the short-term area. We no longer develop an annual marketing plan; now we plan on a quarterly basis. It’s a direct response to the way meetings are being booked.

Are there new challenges? Short-term business often is handled by regional vice presidents or their assistants, not by meeting planners. You have to mentor them, because often they don’t know what they want. You have to ask questions like, “I see on your program you are dining out on this night. Did you know that very few South Beach restaurants have large private dining rooms?”

How has the hotel adjusted? The hotel has a new rhythm now. There no longer are two or three large groups in for four days. We are turning over five or six meetings a week. The banquet and event manager says short-term is harder. It is. The chef got spoiled with the big groups he could talk to for six months to work out a banquet menu. Now he has business that was booked two weeks ago.

• C.A.S.

Pulling it off in 5 days

One afternoon in May, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport got a call from an independent planner looking to book a group of high-level executives. The client requested total confidentiality, and meeting rooms had to have wireless capability. No problem.

Then came the bombshell: They needed 750 rooms, and attendees would be arriving in less than a week. General manager Bill Rizzuto and director of catering and convention services Tom Toomey scrambled to meet the group’s needs, which seemed to change by the hour as check-in time approached.

Toomey: When the call came in, the sales department came right to us. Right away we were juggling to make space available for them.

Rizzuto: How we responded depended totally on getting as much information up front as we could get about the group. But this was a third-party planner, and they had so little information of their own to go on.

Toomey: I was in constant communication with the planner via phone and e-mail. The schedule changed six or seven times in one week. The day before the group hit the hotel, it changed three times in six hours and each time it changed, it had to be e-mailed to all the operational departments housekeeping, food and beverage, security, the chef.

Rizzuto: The meeting had a lot of techni-cal components. We have a technical director who is certified by Microsoft and Cisco, so we had him speak directly to the client. They needed things like presentations downloaded from the Internet or broadcast from their intranet. One day alone, they had 14 breakout sessions with very technical needs.

Toomey: Before the group arrived, we had an internal pre-con meeting. We gathered the staff and told them, “There are going to be changes. Expect it when it comes. We all need to be patient.”

Rizzuto: Laying it out like that to the staff is the best way. It helps them turn on a dime.&It’s not uncommon to deal with executives or to have business booked one month out. But dealing with a short-term meeting of that size where everyone is a top executive certainly creates a lot of challenges.

• C.A.S.

In for the short haul

Short-term corporate bookings of 50 rooms or fewer are keeping some hotels in the black. At the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, such bookings jumped from 10 percent in 2001 to 25 percent this year. Michael Darst, director of conference management and catering, recently talked with M&C about the trend.

How important is short-term business? We used to say short-term business was the icing on the cake, the business that finished off the month. Now it represents several layers of the cake.

What is the hotel doing differently? We have shifted people from working long-term meetings to the short-term area. We no longer develop an annual marketing plan; now we plan on a quarterly basis. It’s a direct response to the way meetings are being booked.

Are there new challenges? Short-term business often is handled by regional vice presidents or their assistants, not by meeting planners. You have to mentor them, because often they don’t know what they want. You have to ask questions like, “I see on your program you are dining out on this night. Did you know that very few South Beach restaurants have large private dining rooms?”

How has the hotel adjusted? The hotel has a new rhythm now. There no longer are two or three large groups in for four days. We are turning over five or six meetings a week. The banquet and event manager says short-term is harder. It is. The chef got spoiled with the big groups he could talk to for six months to work out a banquet menu. Now he has business that was booked two weeks ago.

• C.A.S.

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