Dressing Up the 'Ugly' Meeting

How to convince a hotel to take on a less-than-desirable event

illustrationHer search started off innocently enough. Judy Wander, director of conventions and conferences for the New York City-based International Council of Shopping Centers, had a 1,000-person conference she wanted to place in Phoenix or Scottsdale, Ariz., next February. But her request for proposal didn’t yield any results, so she expanded the search to January and March. Then April. She still couldn’t find any takers.

Part of the problem: Wander needed a lot of exhibit space -- 10,000 square feet -- but just 75 guest rooms, since most of the attendees were local and wouldn’t be needing overnight accommodations. Additionally, her convention committee wouldn’t let her schedule the meeting on a weekend or consider dates that overlapped with any of the association’s 60 other regional meetings.

One hotel found dates in early June, but ICSC’s convention committee deemed them too close to the council’s annual national convention, which is held in May, and directed Wander to find an alternative. She opened her search to the fall. Then the winter. The hotel identified some dates in December, but the committee exercised its veto again.

“I’ve been unable to place it, period,” she said in late July, after searching for four months.

What Wander had on her hands is an “ugly meeting,” a term some planners use to describe meetings that, for one reason or another, are a tough sell to hotels. Any number of factors can make a meeting ugly: The group has an undesirable ratio of meeting space to guest rooms, for example, or can’t guarantee any food and beverage revenue, or needs too many room nights during peak dates. As a rule of thumb, if a meeting would prevent a hotel from maximizing revenue, given the dates and the amount of space being requested, it’s plain ugly.

So what’s a planner peddling such a meeting to do? There aren’t any magical formulas. “It’s a time-consuming business,” admits Mario Bass, director of sales for the New York Marriott Marquis. “It’s not something you can solve in one conversation.”

Nevertheless, planners with this challenge have developed some useful strategies for finding the ugly meeting a home.

The grim reality

Hotel salespeople pledge allegiance to the maxim that no business is bad business. “There will always be a time when the business is desirable to us,” says Lisa Maggiore, director of sales for the Hilton New York.

Still, when confronted with an RFP that’s less than desirable, some salespeople “hope to have the fortitude to hold out for a better piece of business,” admits Jeff Gloeb, vice president of hotel sales for Wynn Las Vegas. “But you’re also potentially shooting yourself in the foot if nothing comes up. It’s a juggling act,” he adds.

The good news for planners is that ugliness isn’t immutable; a meeting that’s undesirable at the New York Marriott Marquis, for example, might be a peach in Detroit or Cincinnati, or even the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott Ñ or back at the Marriott Marquis the following week, depending on what holes the hotel has to fill.

As it happens, hotels aren’t always the bad guys. A group can hurt its own cause if it’s unwilling to consider alternate dates, venues or destinations.

State or federal regulations also can handcuff planners. Last summer, for instance, Carl Musson, program coordinator for continuing education, conference management services, at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, had trouble trying to place a meeting for the state’s Department of Education. Florida guidelines stipulated that Musson couldn’t pay for food and beverage, because the meeting was funded with grant money.

“When you take out a big chunk of business [such as F&B], it becomes increasingly harder to negotiate,” notes Musson.

And, in some of today’s ultra-hot hotel markets, groups are competing for a shrinking number of rooms Ñ rooms that fetch higher rates with transient travelers. “What’s happening in the market is hotels are limiting the number of rooms allocated to group business,” says Katie Callahan-Giobbi, senior vice president, sales, services and membership for L.A. Inc., the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Los Angeles. “The market mix changes as the economy changes.”

The industry, however, can be pleasantly mercurial. There’s no telling which meetings will or won’t be challenging to place. Sheri Clemmer, associate meeting planner for the world headquarters of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, based in Silver Spring, Md., recently sent out an RFP for a meeting that had all the trappings of a tough sell: a religious gathering requiring 16 guest rooms during the first week of January in Florida. But rather than dismissing the lead, hotels “were jumping at the business,” reports Clemmer. One property, in St. Petersburg, even waived the meeting space fee for her.

DeWayne Woodring

DeWayne Woodring

There’s a joke about religious conferences,” says Cindy Winter, conference director for the National Council on Family Relations in Minneapolis. “Attendees come with the 10 commandments and a $10 bill and don’t end up breaking either one.”

Both perceived and actual tendencies of religious organizations often give planners a built-in disadvantage when negotiating for hotel space. While it’s true that attendees of religious meetings tend not to run up bar tabs, “blessed are they who realize there is great diversity in the religious market,” says Dr. DeWayne Woodring, CMP, CEM, executive director and CEO of the Religious Conference Management Asso-ciation. “In many cases, sales of food go a long way to offset the loss of alcohol sales,” he adds.

The strong seller’s market has been particularly challenging for religious groups, who tend to require lower rates than corporate events, Woodring notes.

When placing religious meetings, planners should stress these points:

Long stays. Religious conferences can sometimes last up to 14 days, says Woodring. Sustained economic impact is a key selling point.

Family outings. The fact that spouses and children attend religious conferences generally means the city’s attractions can expect more revenue.

Community service. Religious groups often organize charitable projects to help leave the greater community better off than they found it.

Dependability.“When the corporate market shrivels, it’s the religious market that’s still going to be there,” Woodring says. Religious meetings are “recession-proof,” he adds, and tend to be reliable repeat business. -- T.I.

Get in line

The key to placing any meeting is flexibility. But there are some preliminary steps planners can take to help them when selling an ugly meeting.

“You need to know what the value of this meeting is,” says Anne-Marie Laderoute, manager of facilities and presentations for Toronto-based Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants. “A group might be a little light on rooms but spend a ton on F&B.”

The name of the game, Laderoute explains, is seeing “how many revenue buttons you can push.” If a planner has comprehensive spend data at the ready, he or she can present a meeting with undesirable physical specs as a vital piece of business to a hotel, based on a group’s strong penchant for room service, for example, or promises of high parking revenue.

The numbers only help, of course, if they shed a positive light on the meeting. If not, other tactics come into play.

Avoiding peak seasons in cities can at least save some headaches, says David Horowitz, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Los Angeles. And, even within sizzling markets, there will be pockets of properties that are less popular, he says, perhaps near the airport or a nearby suburb.

If the prime properties and seasons can’t be avoided, planners still can try to find a window for their meetings. A group that needs a lot of meeting space but not a lot of sleeping rooms should plan the meeting to coincide with a citywide convention or incentive program, suggests Nancy Murphy, vice president of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In those cases, hotels will tend to have meeting space available, but not many guest rooms. The ugly meeting can become a perfect fit.

Cindy Winter, CMP, conference director for Minneapolis-based National Council on Family Relations, says earning her Certified Meeting Professional credential gave her an unexpected edge in negotiations. “Suddenly hotels started looking at the organization differently,” she says. Salespeople were more accommodating when they knew they were dealing with a certified professional, especially if they had been unfamiliar with her group, Winter adds.

Be a salesperson

“See what other carrots you can dangle,” urges Gregg H. Talley, CAE, president and CEO of Mt. Royal, N.J.-based Talley Management Group Inc. If one piece of business doesn’t appeal to hotels, try booking the meeting for multiple years, or pair the ugly meeting with a more profitable piece of business.

Judy Wander makes a habit of asking questions after the initial “no” to discover where flexibility exists. “Is it really that the time is completely sold out? Or is the hotel just not accepting business of this type? That information is very helpful to have,” she explains.

E-mail is an ugly-meeting killer, says Laderoute. “If you fire off a request on
e-mail, it’s too easy for them to say, ‘sorry, no space.’ If you call, at least you can get them to look at it,” she says.

Other times, simply framing the
conversation the right way can help. Laderoute will call salespeople to say,
“‘I know you’ll groan when you see it, but I need you to take a look at it.’ You have to bring it to a personal level,” she advises.

Scott Gansl, conference liaison for the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Jews: Keshet Ga’avah, also finds himself carefully couching his pitch language to position the salesperson as a partner, challenging his contact to help find a way to make the business fit.

Taking the time to educating sales staff about the nature of the group and the attendees also can help dispel fears, assumptions or prejudices that occasionally lead to uncooperative salespeople, Gansl adds.

Forge relationships

When typical tricks of the trade don’t suffice, the result can be frustrating. “I feel like I’m nobody if I don’t have 100 rooms,” protests Kristine Beal, meeting and showroom supervisor for Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Steris Corp., a medical equipment company. “In Las Vegas, I’m nobody. If I call Vegas and say I need 15 rooms, do you know what they tell me? ‘Call reservations.’??”

Nancy Murphy of the Las Vegas CVA says complaints like that underscore for her the need for planners to develop stronger relationships with hotels as well as with convention and visitor bureaus. “We have three dedicated staff members for that size meeting,” she says, noting many Vegas hotels, and CVBs in other cities, have dedicated salespeople for small meetings, too. “Small meetings are our bread and butter. Eighty-five percent of our meetings are for groups of less than 500 people.”

Callahan-Giobbi, whose bureau, L.A. Inc., launched Direct Line Service, a program to help planners place meetings requiring between 10 and 50 rooms per night last year, touts the ability of CVB contacts to help planners, because bureau salespeople tend to have more possible venues on their radar screens than planners or hotel salespeople.

“What we need to do as a bureau is help to make sure enough creativity is built into the conversation,” Callahan-Giobbi says. “High-demand markets require extra flexibility, extra communication and extra creativity.”

Building relationships with salespeople benefits both the hotel sales staff, who stand to gain planner loyalty, and the planners, who will find their hotel contacts “tend to cut them some slack,” Gansl says.

Corporate hotel contacts also can help. A strong relationship with a contact at Starwood Hotels & Resorts saved Beal when she was trying to book meetings on New York’s Long Island for five consecutive weeks. She needed 10 to 15 rooms and wanted to have fees waived for Internet access, parking and breakfast. Thanks to an inside advocate, she got her wish. “I never signed a contract faster in my life,” she says.

Expect to tweak

There are times when a meeting, as initially conceived, just can’t be placed. In those cases, planners and salespeople need to get creative.

Alterations can start small. Using a hospitality suite for a breakout session or serving lunch in the same room as the meeting can help lessen the demand for meeting rooms, suggests the Hilton New York’s Maggiore.

Starting and ending early or late could allow a second group to use the meeting space the same day. Cindy Winter of the National Council on Family Relations says she’s often willing to juggle her group’s schedule, especially around the holidays, to allow a hotel to use a room for a profitable evening Christmas party, for example.

Another time-saving trick is using the same A/V company, and potentially the same equipment, as a preceding or following group. That cuts down on set-up and tear-down time, notes the New York Marriott Marquis’ Bass.

Hotels also appreciate willingness to shift day patterns. “A Sunday arrival is much more valuable to us than a Tuesday arrival,” says David Horowitz, of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Los Angeles.

Still more drastic measures might be required. Some hotels even are occasionally willing to split meeting space or a room block with other nearby properties, Bass says.

If a planner is forced to rule out his or her top hotel choice, planner Gregg Talley says it’s time to start “heading down the food chain,” adding, “Maybe
it’s a better Holiday Inn match than a Hilton match.”

Planners can escape brands completely, opting instead for an independent hotel or a dedicated meeting facility. “I will go to community colleges, and I have had wonderful results there,” Beal says. Last year, she organized a one-day training session for 130 people in a suburb of Seattle. The meeting ended up costing just more than $20 per person, including F&B. “I can’t feed someone continental breakfast at a hotel for $20,” she says.

Planners with a lot of flexibility have the option of waiting for off-seasons in top-tier cities -- or moving elsewhere. “It’s not as sexy to move [a meeting] from New York or San Diego to a Dayton or a Pittsburgh, but the economies are favorable,” says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services for Atlanta-based PKF Consulting.

Planners with ugly meetings also can be well-served by CVBs that represent a greater metropolitan area and can help place meetings in suburbs, adds Christopher Baum, senior vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. His region’s second largest hotel, the 772-room Hyatt Regency Dearborn, isn’t in downtown Detroit, he notes.

Understand the cycles

Perseverance eventually led Judy Wander to place her 1,000-person conference at the Phoenix Convention Center after an often frustrating six-month search for a hotel host failed to produce results.

“When I first came on board here, I had a lot of ugly baby meetings,” Wander says. “That shifted about five years ago,” after Sept. 11, 2001, when hotels were desperate for the business. Lately, she adds, meetings have again become more difficult to place.

Of limited comfort to Wander is the fact that the industry is cyclical.

“Just because we’re fat and happy now doesn’t mean we’ll be fat and happy in 2009,” acknowledges Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the Providence (R.I.) Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, voicing a widely felt sentiment held by hoteliers and CVBs.

Therein lies the moral of the ugly- meeting story, according to Wander. “I encourage suppliers not to take advantage of us,” she implores. “It does swing back. It absolutely swings back.”