by By Cheryl-Anne Sturken | November 01, 2008

illo2One of the more challenging tasks for planners is to decide which destinations or venues to invite to bid on their meetings business. There are so many choices to be had, even within a single city, that to narrow the playing field takes an inordinate amount of expertise, research and time. Today, however, a number of planners are showing up at industry trade shows, requests for proposal in hand, and also posting their specs online at their organizations' websites -- two moves that come with surprising benefits.

Planners who hit trade shows intent on returning home with bids, rather than giveaways, find hotels equally eager to cut through the clutter and begin negotiations. Similarly, those who have taken their RFPs online have found that industrious suppliers are mining the web for potential meetings business and reaching out with enticing offers.

"Data mining on the web is a very smart use of time for salespeople -- it's how we uncover new leads today," notes Mike Williams, vice president, brand performance and sales, for Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Hilton Hotels Corp. He adds, "We want to see as much information as possible in the RFP so we can make a meaningful match."

Up and running

It's a tactic that's proven effective for planners such as Pauline Minhinnett, CMP, director of meetings for the Bethesda, Md.-based American Society of Human Genetics. Eight years ago, tired of calls from suppliers asking for her meeting specs and looking to cut down on the time it took away from her planning duties to respond to them individually, Minhinnett decided to post the society's annual meeting RFP on its website.

Mission accomplished. "The sales folks have commented that they have everything they need at their fingertips now, and they no longer have to come back and ask me question after question," says Minhinnett.

From her perspective, Katrin Madayag, convention sales research coordinator for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau in Madison, Wis., says online meeting specs are great for web prospecting. "I can filter through accounts that are a better fit for Madison, which saves me time searching out details," she says. This year, while researching online, she discovered that several U.S. Olympic teams had their RFPs posted on their websites, and some seemed a potential fit for Madison -- valuable information she was able to pass along to the bureau's sales team. At press time, the bureau was bidding on business from USA Badminton to host a future Junior Nationals event.

Laurie Lee Dovey, executive director of the Johnstown, Pa.-based Professional Outdoor Media Association, began posting POMA's annual meeting RFP online just 18 months ago as a means to save time and money. "We're still in the toddler process," says Dovey. "We didn't promote it, but already people are happening upon it and calling us."

POMA's online RFP has two versions, a PDF and a Word document that can be opened up, filled out and then submitted. Essential to this request are requirements for a host city, which are listed up front, before any meeting-specific details such as number of attendees, meeting space or transportation requirements.

"Our conferences are unique in that any site that ends up getting our bid gets close to 200 journalists who specialize in outdoor sports, who will end up writing about their destination," says Dovey. The RFP is valuable for potential bidders, she adds, because it lists required host-site facilities, such as a shooting range, and access to water for various product demonstrations. "I put those musts right up front, because I don't want to waste any CVB's time in responding," Dovey notes.

"We also request services from the host city, such as a welcome event and a daylong event showcasing a local park or facility," she adds. "Yes, it helps our budget, but they get to tell their story and have their day in the sun. The benefit to them is we have the potential to drive outdoor recreation travel to their region." This year's meeting was hosted by Sioux Falls, S.D., and next year's is set for Erie, Pa. Dovey now is soliciting bids for 2011.

Dovey says she is constantly tweaking the RFP and hopes one day to have the technology in place to have it be a completely interactive document, where she and suppliers can work together in real time.