September 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: What ever happened to OFF SEASON? - September 1998 Current Issue
September 1998
What ever happened to OFF SEASON?

Seasonal values still exist, but time of year doesn't mean what it used to

By Maria Lenhart

Finding hotel bargains in Arizona or Florida used to be a matter of knowing just one basic rule: When the mercury soars, room rates plummet. Five-star resorts, which gave the cold shoulder to budget-conscious groups in January, could be counted on to roll out the welcome mat in July.

While time of year still influences room rates, it's quickly becoming less of a factor in Arizona, Florida and just about everywhere else. In many locations, low seasons have been steadily shrinking and threaten to disappear altogether. With both room rates and international tourism on the rise, destinations and hotels are actively marketing their slow periods and finding ready customers among overseas visitors, local weekenders and even high-end corporate clients.

The result: Groups that could once name their dates and rates during certain months are discovering they now have competition. The old seasonal rule no longer applies. The scenario has changed so much that hotel analyst Robert Mandelbaum, director of research for PKF Consulting in Atlanta, says it often doesn't even pay to schedule meetings according to season anymore. "Hotels used to have high and low seasons, but now rates rise and fall by the day or even the hour," he says. "Hotels now have sophisticated yield management systems where it's a computer -- not the time of year -- that determines what the rate is during a certain period. General managers are making decisions on a daily basis about what rates to charge."

According to Mandelbaum, time of year is now far less important than when a hotel happens to have a pocket of availability. "If you book your meeting during peak season when a hotel has a hole in its calendar, you could end up paying less than you would during the so-called low season," he says. "A little flexibility really pays off in these cases -- just shifting your dates from the beginning of the week to the end of the week can make a big difference."

Filling a gap in a hotel's calendar may pay off even in destinations where seasons still do wield heavy influence on rates. While rates at convention hotels in Orlando are significantly higher in winter than in summer, William Peeper, president of the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau, says planners should not be intimidated by preconceived notions of high or low season. "There are always opportunities, even during our busiest season of January through March, for short-term bookings," he says. "If you can meet when a hotel has availability, the savings can be significant."

Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, says values are increasingly less likely to be linked to season. "It's much better to look for hot dates at hotels or the convention center rather than to go by season," she says. "In the past few years, we've really leveled out our seasons in terms of occupancy. In fact, we don't even use the 's' word anymore."

They can take the heat
Although it may be premature to proclaim the death of low season, it is definitely on the wane. Desert destinations such as Phoenix and Palm Springs have worked for years to market their summers as dry alternatives to the humidity in other regions -- and it appears to be paying off. According to Bob Lander, vice president of marketing for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, "People have gotten the message that dry heat is better than humid heat. May and June are now very good shoulder months for us." The low season, he says, a period in which rates at luxury resorts can drop by 50 percent, has shrunk in recent years, now extending from mid-June through early September rather than early May through late September.

While summer has long been a time for religious groups, state associations and other budget-conscious groups to meet in Phoenix or Palm Springs, many corporations are also combing the desert for low-season value. "We're getting a lot more corporate meetings in the summer," says Lander. "One reason is that many high-tech firms are now based in the area and we're encouraging them to keep some of their meetings at home."

Also a factor is that, despite economic good times, many companies have downsized and run leaner operations. "The early '90s mentality of being cost conscious has not gone away," says Gary Sherwin, spokesperson for the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention & Visitors Bureau. "As a result, corporate groups are now coming during late spring and summer."

In fact, at The Boulders, a 160-room luxury resort in Carefree, Ariz., that until two years ago closed for the summer, corporate groups comprise more than half of visitors between June and September, according to director of marketing Jimmy Stewart. Summer rates drop to $145 a night (from a high of more than $500 during winter), and the resort encourages corporate clients to buy out the entire resort with a summer meetings package called "Friendly Takeover."

Along with corporations, leisure tourists from far and near are another growing source of low-season business. "Summer has become a popular time for Europeans to come to the desert; they're not turned off by the heat at all," says Sherwin. "At the same time, many resorts offer attractive weekend packages to the Southern California market. Now it's not unusual for hotels to be sold out on summer weekends."

Similarly, destinations in South Florida are finding a strong market with Latin American tourists during the summer months. "Last year we had almost as many visitors in summer as we did in the winter -- 496,000 in July versus 507,000 in January," according to Fort Lauderdale's Grossman. "It was our strong Latin America business that really helped fill those summer rooms."

No shoulders to cry on
Of course, what's good news for destinations is not necessarily good news for planners. Among those feeling the pinch is independent planner Lynne K. Tiras, CMP, president of International Meetings Managers, Inc., in Houston. "The gap between seasons is getting smaller in popular places, and we're losing much of the shoulder season," she says. "In particular, we're finding very high rates in Arizona." Thomas Blackburn Rodriguez, director of special projects and events for the National Association of Community Action Agencies in Washington, D.C., says new competition from overseas tourists has forced him to change his strategy when booking meetings in Florida during the shoulder or low seasons.

"Hotels in South Florida have really tapped into the Latin American market, and it means that you have to move faster to get what you want," he says. "You need to book five years out rather than two or three. It also helps to negotiate a complete package -- factor in food and beverage, not just the rooms. That will give you an advantage over the leisure market, which is usually not very sophisticated in negotiating."

Despite the increasing challenge, both Tiras and Rodriguez agree it can still be worthwhile for planners to look for seasonal values. "Low or shoulder season can be a great time for groups to experience a luxury resort that they couldn't otherwise afford," says Tiras, who recently found good deals at resorts in Aspen and Bermuda during shoulder periods. "Not only do you get a break on room rates, but you can often get a break on amenities such as receptions, golf and health club admissions."

No matter how good the deal may look, however, it may not be worth taking if attendees balk at the idea of low season. "Some groups have no choice, but others will simply refuse to go where they would feel uncomfortable," says Ardyce Myhre, director of educational services for the International Meeting Network in Brookfield, Wis., and former meeting planner for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. "You really have to know your group and what they're willing to tolerate."

Should you go? Before booking an attractive off-season rate, consider this advice from seasoned planners.
  • Do your research. If a destination is really inexpensive at certain times of the year, it may be for a good reason. Hurricanes? Plagues of locusts? Find out the potential drawbacks.
  • Can they stand it? Make sure you know what your attendees are willing to tolerate in order to save money. If a particular inconvenience is a turnoff, they may not come.
  • Schedule for comfort. In hot places, allow time for golf and other outdoor activities to take place in the morning; schedule indoor business sessions during the afternoon.
  • Offer indoor options. If the weather is likely to be insufferable, compensate with indoor activities such as spa treatments, cooking demonstrations and museum visits.┬áM.L.
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