Of the big three on every meeting planner's wish list -- rates, dates and space -- the money question has dominated most negotiations these days. For conference centers, attracting business becomes a bit harder when rate is all-important.
Why? The hallmark of the conference center concept, as outlined by the St. Louis-based International Association of Conference Centers, is all-inclusive pricing, wrapped up in the complete meetings package or CMP (not to be confused with the professional certification) that must be offered by all properties that are members of IACC. Therefore, when a meeting planner is comparing options strictly by rate, conference centers might not be considered because their costs look so high -- on paper.
But typically, that nightly price includes a whole lot more than what a hotel's base rate covers: all meeting space, three meals a day, continuous coffee breaks, basic A/V (including LCD projectors) and gratuities, among other pluses. And the facilities, in order to meet IACC's strict standards for membership, need to adhere to a list of requirements called the Universal Criteria. These cover a multitude of details including the percentage of a property's business that must be related to meetings (60 percent, and the meetings must average 75 attendees or fewer), the type of chairs used, the thickness of the airwalls, the kind of lighting, the available technology and the F&B setup.
Planners need to be aware of what these standards are, according to Washington, D.C.-based industry consultant and independent planner Joan Eisenstodt. "Know what you're supposed to get in the CMP, and make sure you are getting what is standard and what is strongly suggested, particularly with A/V and the furniture," she says.
General managers and directors of sales at these properties have worked diligently through the years to explain IACC's differences to their clients. In today's economic climate, centers are refocusing on what they do best and manipulating the contents of the CMP to entice planners.
IACC has been around for more than 25 years, and facility owners have fought through a number of recessions to stay relevant for clients. "I don't know that anyone has figured out how to react in a really novel way to this economy," says Dave Arnold, CEO East of PKF Consulting, whose specialty is conference centers. "They're trying to figure out how to hold rates and add value. But you don't want to do something that changes your business model." The Philadelphia-based expert warns conference centers away from selling rooms piecemeal: "If they get stupid and start selling just hotel rooms, they'll go out of business because they won't be able to support the high-quality infrastructure built for meetings. You can't have a facility designed at a 25 percent cost premium compete on the same level of a hotel that was built for 25 percent less."
Neil Pompan, president of IACC's global board, stresses that it's more important than ever for conference centers to differentiate themselves. Pompan, who also serves as vice president for EMCVenues, a Brielle, N.J.-based site-selection company, says his message to colleagues is: "Soberly approach your market, but be happy you have a product to sell that is better and more attractive."
To remain players, conference centers should emphasize once again how they were purpose-built for meetings and that their staffs are trained specifically to help organizations get top results from events held there, says Burt Cabañas, chairman and CEO of Benchmark Hospitality, which is based in The Woodlands, Texas, and currently operates 16 centers in the United States and Japan, with two more under construction.
"What IACC always has tried to identify with is the seriousness of our meetings and creating the perfect environment for a meeting," Cabañas notes. "As we've grown, we've kind of thrown an arm over the hotel and resort business, as we should, saying you get the same serious meeting plus the four-star quality of a hotel or resort. That can cloud the issue a little bit. Conference centers need to start reintroducing the fact that we are first and foremost built for serious meetings, where you want retention to be at the highest possible level."
In the Metroplex, planners can choose from every property type, including the Four Seasons Resort & Club in Irving, the urban convention center hotels in Fort Worth and Dallas and the sprawl of the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine. So how does the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center compete?
"We are working on such a short-term basis against our local competition, we have to look at our package and ask, 'Is there anywhere we can squeeze?' " says Gay Haynes, director of sales and marketing for the 393-room property. "We are customizing every single one."
Haynes says planners are shopping for later in the year but are not booking yet; every piece of business signs within a 60- to 90-day window. "We're still booking February, and it's already February," she says. "We're booking March and April, but we have nothing for May. We got one program for June -- that was exciting because it is so far out."
She notes that the conference center, which offers 63,000 square feet of space, has been dealing with tough times for a year already: "We started seeing cancellations back in April 2008. I hope that means we're going to come out of it sooner." -- S.B.