by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | August 01, 2007

When considering anything that you think you are getting for your meeting at no additional cost, start with the old adage: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Every meeting professional, whether planner or supplier, needs to be aware there actually is a cost for all line items necessary for an event.

Sure, we like to get concessions based on the value of our meetings. But look at the big picture: Meeting professionals need to build their contracts on potential revenue from the people who are going to attend the event. How much do members of your group spend? What products can your suppliers provide? Can you exploit the image of the property?

Most contracts include provisions for complimentary or sponsorship opportunities. People typically equate these with free rooms or upgrades for their VIPs or staff, but really just about any detail can be complementary, such as meeting space in the hotel when you block a certain number of rooms, or a free coffee break if you book during a low period.

“Free” Room

The paragraphs we see in agreements that outline complimentary services most commonly offer up a free sleeping room based on a set number of room nights picked up.

In the contract, look out for language saying that in order to achieve the free room, you must not only pay for the pickups but also occupy those rooms. Instead, specify that regardless of whether standard rooms are occupied by a regular attendee, if your organization has paid for the requisite room nights, you get credit for the money spent and receive the comped room or upgrade accordingly.

Other Freebies

No matter what service you are receiving at no cost, be sure a provision is included in the contract that describes exactly what your organization will receive and the conditions you need to meet. Spell out exactly how many room nights your group needs to use or how much money you need to spend in order to get that reception, meeting space, transportation, cocktail party or other amenity offered by the property.

More Details

In contracts, be sure to define the complimentary elements very specifically. For example, what do both parties consider a comp room? Is it a suite? A standard room? What exactly will the free cocktail hour entail?

In some instances, you might be better off negotiating certain basics such as a free coffee break instead of a comp room. Chances are, your organization is paying more for a coffee break, which gets charged back to the master account, than for a room, which might not be on your tab.

Buyer Beware

Many a planner has understood that an amenity will be free, only to be hit by hidden charges. To avoid such unpleasantries, anticipate and discuss all possible fees in connection with comps.

For example, would the hotel charge separately for setting up a free hospitality suite or meeting room? These fees can be substantial when you consider all the elements, some of which might be charged separately, such as audiovisual equipment. Does the hotel hire a third-party contractor for the setup? Are you allowed to bring in your own equipment?

When dealing with comps, the bottom line is to continue to recognize that you really aren’t getting anything for free. Your group is fulfilling set criteria in order to achieve certain concessions, and it’s best to be able to allocate precisely where you want those comps to be and how you want them presented.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at