Organizations canceled an average of 4.1 meetings each in the second half of 2008, according to FutureWatch 2009, a report from Meeting Professionals International and American Express, the summary of which was released in January. As of the beginning of this year, 7 percent of all scheduled activity for 2009 already had been canceled, according to the 2,700 MPI members surveyed.
Such news, while troubling for the industry, can come with a silver lining: Canceled events equal available meeting space -- often at bargain prices.
Jason Johnson, vice president of corporate development for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based site-selection firm HelmsBriscoe, doesn't want to suggest that opportunistic planners "take advantage" of desperate hoteliers, but he agrees this distressed inventory presents golden opportunities. "Planners can really turn a potential negative into a positive," he says.
It's a concept several suppliers have seized upon. A number of channels have cropped up, all dedicated to advertising value dates, and more likely are on the way.
Last October, HelmsBriscoe developed a site for its associates that is devoted specifically to listing deals and promotions on distressed meeting space, often available due to last-minute cancellations. The site was geared to get the word out quickly and efficiently.
"A lot of times it's super short-term -- 60, 90, 120 days out," says Johnson. "When there's a cancellation, HelmsBriscoe can get an e-mail out to all associates instantly." They, in turn, can look for opportunities for clients who can fill space with short lead times. "We've been inundated with wonderful opportunities from our hotel partners and from our brand partners," Johnson notes.
Similarly, in late 2008, Philadelphia-based StarCite began publicizing its ability to broker a client's canceled meeting space to the entire StarCite Global Online Meetings Marketplace, a sourcing channel for meeting planners and suppliers. "It's always been a really big issue for our corporate clients to post their own canceled space internally," explains a spokesperson. When a corporate client signs on to the StarCite platform, she says, any canceled space within the company's inventory is highlighted. "What we're doing now is taking it a step further and allowing them to promote it to all StarCite users," she adds.
The more popular this feature proves to be, the larger the benefit for customers perusing StarCite's Marketplace for deals. As of last month, these deals also appear in StarCite's free sourcing platform, mpoint.com. Look for the "Canceled Space" column on the right. (Mpoint users, however, cannot post canceled space unless they purchase StarCite's canceled-space brokerage service.)
StarCite also is assisting its supplier partners in marketing distressed inventory, providing more opportunities for StarCite and mpoint customers alike. A supplier can post canceled space in the "Special Offers" section, so that it appears in both location searches and special offers. And by the second quarter of this year, StarCite hopes to provide a canceled-space icon that further highlights these opportunities.
More informally, many planners have posted canceled space or unused room blocks on industry forums and listservs. One industry group, MeCo (meetingscommunity.org), launched a forum dedicated to this purpose, called Hotel Rooms for ReSale. Several planners who posted room blocks here have expressed great enthusiasm for the tool, even when their use of it didn't result in moving any inventory.
"Just having the opportunity to list the rooms for resale with the cooperation of the property is a bonus for us as planners," notes Winneconne, Wis.-based Gloria Nelson of Gloria Nelson Event Design. Though Nelson wasn't able to reduce attrition with her post, she claims at least one benefit: "The client was extremely thankful that all stops were being pulled out to watch the bottom line," she says.
Hotels actively are spreading the word about canceled meeting space, too. Among typical channels, the first is the global or territory sales office, which should be able to provide planners with an overview of special opportunities.
"Marriott's global sales offices will help us to promote any offer that we have out there much more quickly than putting it in the newspaper, for example," says Cybelle Agostini, director of sales for the San Juan Marriott Resort. Within 24 hours of receiving information from the hotel, she adds, "they will spread the word and make people aware of what is going on here in our property."
The state of the market dictates that most hoteliers want planners to find these deals, of course, but HelmsBriscoe's Jason Johnson underscores the importance of working with suppliers to reach mutually beneficial terms -- while not appearing vulturous. "There's no harm in asking," says Johnson. "Ask questions about distressed inventory, but offer up a partnership. Ask, ‘Can I help you with canceled space?' The hotels look at that as a saving grace, when someone is finally coming in and bailing them out, because they are digging and prospecting and working hard -- but they just can't change demand."
Negotiations will progress more smoothly, Johnson adds, if planners understand the revenue stream of the hotel. Room rates might be far less flexible than other fees. "As a whole," Johnson explains, "they'd rather keep the rates at a certain category, because it does help the RevPAR." But when it comes to rebates, or extras, "hotels are getting super creative. Be as creative as you can get."
And don't be afraid to ask about cancellations, even at venues you've already booked. When the San Juan Marriott Resort receives a cancellation, according to Agostini, the first thing the property does is go over what business remains for the period in question. "We review the guests and events that are already booked during those dates in our property," she explains. "We might try to offer a cocktail reception after the meeting, using the space that just became empty."