January 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Back to Basics January 1998 Current Issue

Back to Basics


Inspecting the Back of the House

If a behind-the-scenes tour raises concerns, choose another property

It's easy to choose a hotel for its elegant facade, perfect-size meeting rooms and ideal sleeping rooms for your group. But if the backbone of the hotel -- the staff and the how the property is run -- aren't up to snuff, your meeting will be a disaster. Too many times I have seen planners run through the inspection of the back of the house, a vital aspect of meeting planning, with just a cursory glance at each area -- no questions asked. Yet, to make the best decision on where to hold your meeting, a thorough site inspection is key.

Before scheduling a trip, make sure the properties you will see fit the objectives of the meeting and are accessible and within budget for attendees. Then follow these tips for an in-depth inspection.

  • If your short list has more than three candidates, split the trip over several days. This way you won't sprint through the hotels, and you'll be better able to distinguish between them in your mind.
  • Check references before you go. Track down planners who have held meetings at the facility and suppliers who have worked with the hotel. They can tip you off to areas of special concern that should be checked out when you're on site.
  • Make appointments at each hotel and allow plenty of time. Talk with managers from all key departments, including convention services and the rooms division, to see how they would handle your group. Have a set of questions for each area, and ask for ideas on ways to use the property.
  • Develop a site-inspection checklist that includes your criteria for each of the areas you will be examining, and leave plenty of room for notes. This will make it easier to compare apples to apples when it's time to make the final decision and will provide vital information throughout the planning phase. Include a special section noting the top five things that are important for this particular meeting and group.
  • Bring your camera and take shots of the meeting space and guest rooms to help you make a decision -- and to help you explore ways to use the meeting rooms when planning events.
    Armed with your itinerary, checklists, camera and white gloves, it's time to comparison shop. The purpose of the back-of-the-house tour is to get an overview of how the facilities operate and to be aware of any conditions or procedures that set off mental alarms. Examine the property from entrance to exit, starting at the front door. Interview in-house meeting planners during the tour and ask questions of the staff to test their knowledge.

    Following are suggestions on how to critique the main areas of the hotel.

  • Check the entrance. Is it in good shape? How does the doorman greet guests? Do you like his appearance? Does he monitor traffic and easily guide guests when they're lost or looking for specific areas? Is parking available? What is the charge for self-service and valet?
  • Explore the lobby and front desk, noting its condition, the lighting and whether there's room for group check-ins. How fast and accurate are check-in and check-out procedures?
  • Visit housekeeping. When do housekeepers come on duty? Are they employees of the hotel or subcontractors? How is their appearance? I know some planners who literally use the white glove test to check for cleanliness and thoroughness.
  • You get the picture. In every department check the condition of the area, the professionalism and knowledge of the staff members, execution of any procedures, safety and security elements, costs and appropriateness for your group.

    Develop similar sets of questions for areas of concern -- the bell staff, corridors, guest rooms, restaurants, room service, catering, meeting and exhibit space, availability of equipment, PBX, security, accounting and transportation.

    The quality of meeting rooms and staff are at the top of most planners' lists. In addition to the location, size, airwall quality and decor of the meeting space, you may want to note additional criteria listed in the self-published book The Total Immersion Learning Environment. Author Coleman Lee Finkel rates potential meeting sites, considering even the color scheme of walls and carpets and the shape of the meeting room, along with the presence of distracting elements. His point: Be detail-oriented.

    Finally, don't limit yourself to the standard departments and areas. Walk through the service corridors. Find the employees' cafeteria and search out shortcuts between floors. Take the opportunity to check out all the nooks and crannies. After all, that's why it's called a back-of-the-house tour. *

    Martha Jo Dendinger, CMP, is an independent meeting planner in Atlanta.

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