Inside Track

The top 10 hotel departments every planner should know

IllustrationNothing can take the place of a good preconvention meeting but a productive precon is largely a matter of who attends. While a competent convention services manager will communicate your wishes to various hotel functionaries, sitting face-to-face with vital staff members will help you determine logistics, solve problems and even give you an extra friend or two in the clutch. 
    “Bottom line, any department of the hotel that is going to be active in your program has a place at the table,” says Renee Goetz, CMP, an independent planner (and Meeting Professionals International’s 2003 Planner of the Year for its Northern California Chapter), who recently relocated from San Francisco to New York City. “It’s the hotel’s way of saying, ‘We’re on board with you. This is our team for you.’”
    Read on for a selection of 10 hotel departments that are any planner’s valuable partners, no matter what type or size of event.

1) Accounting
The worst hassles often unfold after the meeting, when the bill arrives. All the communication in the world won’t ensure that the final bill exactly reflects the meeting that occurred, but a good relationship with the folks in the accounting department can make ironing out the discrepancies a simple, and maybe even pleasant, matter.
    “When we’re sending the client the bill, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing,” says Earl Nightingale, general manager of the Adam’s Mark Denver. Nightingale’s accounting team meets with the planner before the meeting
finishes to discuss any possible errors, and maintains friendly contact until the bill is paid.

2) Bell Captain
Often, the first face an attendee sees upon stepping into the hotel is that of a bellman. These uniformed professionals can be much more than luggage-carters; they should know the ins and outs of the convention, or at least know how to find the answers to questions about it.
    If bellmen are to perform room drops, discuss with the captain the nature of the material to be disseminated, along with when and to whom.
    In addition, if tips are included in the meeting package, it’s important that bellmen know not to accept them, nor to stand by the door with an open hand. “It does wonders with guests to say, ‘Thank you, that’s being taken care of,’” says Renee Goetz.

Dianne B. Devitt, CMPHere’s a list of things to cover and a few things to avoid at the preconvention meeting, provided by Dianne B. Devitt, CMP, president of the DND Group Inc., in New York City.

DO study the banquet event order before showing up. This is the hotel’s plan of action for your event, and it’s important that it matches your on-site worksheet perfectly. “Be very thorough, because that’s what the hotel operation and billing is based on,” explains Devitt. In fact, send your own worksheet ahead of time and bring it to the precon.

DON’T ignore minor changes to the plan. “There’s such a domino effect little things trickle down through many departments,” says Devitt. “If something has changed, no matter how small, a good planner will communicate it to all concerned parties.”

DO review the bill, and set up a plan to check it each day during the meeting. “You don’t want to forget what you’re paying for,” Devitt warns.

DON’T forget to get everyone’s name and phone number. Some will hand you a business card, but some won’t, so make a list.

DO discuss tricky production elements with the hotel, especially anything out of line with standard protocol.

DON’T discuss new themes and ideas for the meeting. It’s foolish to change major plans a day before attendees arrive.

DO ask about last-minute changes with other groups in the hotel. If another event has canceled or moved, you might be able or be forced to reconfigure your space. It may give a tightly packed event some breathing room.

DON’T leave important staff at home. Anyone who has decision-making power on the meeting should be introduced to the hotel staff. Include as well the destination management company and production company, if they are a part of the meeting.

DO bring photographs of VIPs. The hotel may have already met them, but it will help for everyone to study their faces.

DON’T announce how inexperienced you are. Says Devitt, “I had a friend who couldn’t attend a meeting she was coordinating. Her friend, who stepped in for her, started the precon by saying, ‘I’m not a meeting planner.’ Of course, the hotel will figure that out within the first five minutes.”

DO learn about the hotel’s emergency action plan. “Many times people are so worried about the kind of food they’re going to eat, they forget about emergency action procedures,” Devitt says. -- J.V.

3) Concierge
The concierge isn’t available just for individual guests’ needs. As an expert on the host city, this person can help groups avoid pitfalls in the world beyond the revolving doors. When 1,000 attendees will be descending upon the city streets for dinner, for example, letting the concierge know in advance can allow her to prepare recommendations and use her influence to set aside appropriate space at the busiest restaurants. Groups also can use this reservations whiz for setting up tours and activities, as well as transportation.
    Also, VIPs likely will be under the concierge’s care, as she usually oversees club-level services. If an important attendee enjoys candied orange slices instead of chocolates on the pillow, the concierge often will be happy to take care of it and take the worry out of your hands.

4) Garage/Valet
“A lot of times, the parking garage is your first impression at a meeting,” says Anthony Delgaudio, director of marketing for Loews Philadelphia. “The last thing you want is for the garage to be full and to send attendees away when they don’t know where they are going.”
    When meetings will draw a migration of vehicles, be sure the manager of the hotel’s parking garage knows how many motorists will arrive, so that spaces can be reserved. The garage manager should also know when many guests will be arriving or leaving, so enough valets will be available.

5) Hotel Operator
Hotel argot refers to this department as the PBX, or private branch exchange actually, the term for the computerized telephone switch that replaced switchboards decades ago.
    No matter what you call it, most people who phone or fax the hotel must funnel through this department, thereby falling under the purview of a potentially vital helper. If the hotel operator is not knowledgeable about the meeting schedule and attendee list, callers can be bounced through a series of voice-mail boxes before throwing in the towel. Equally important, the PBX department should have enough information to anticipate peak calling times and thus be able to provide adequate staffing.

6) Housekeeping
“We don’t want to be vacuuming the carpet at the same time 3,000 people are walking through,” says Jeff Hess, event manager at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis. “When the meeting is in session, the meeting rooms should already be clean.”
    In short, by keeping the cleaning staff abreast of attendees’ whereabouts at any given time, they can ensure that someone will precede and follow the meeting masses to keep things tidy. And if the staff knows about guests’ personal preferences concerning when and how to clean the rooms, attendees will be doubly happy.

7) Public Relations
Not long ago, when a group touting a variation of the low-carb diet wanted publicity for its annual convention at the Adam’s Mark Denver, Earl Nightingale invited the property’s public relations director to the precon. Subsequently, the meeting planners found themselves allied with a valuable expert on the local press. Indeed, thanks in part to the hotel’s PR department, both local and national news outlets picked up the story.
    For groups that aren’t aiming for media coverage, a hotel’s public relations also can help get the word out to potential attendees, to encourage room pickup and meeting attendance.

8) Reservations
Only a privileged few get a glimpse of the reservations manager, who works in the back of the house and knows the status of every room whether booked, occupied, clean, etc. If the rooming list changes at the 11th hour, it might be wise to give him a quick ring. For example, if some attendees will be arriving early, only the reservations manager will know if and when rooms will be ready.
    In addition, let the reservations manager know who the VIPs are, to ensure swift placement into the best rooms.

9) Security
“I’m seeing more of a demand for security, especially with financial firms,” says Christina Cabral, director of conference services at the New York Palace in Manhattan. “These clients don’t want party crashers.”
    Now more than ever, it’s imperative to take steps to keep attendees and information safe. For most large meetings, that requires hiring the hotel’s security team or a supplementary outside group.  Even for meetings without hired security, planners can take advantage of guards’ presence.
    At the Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis, for example, members of security often can be found in conspicuous areas of the hotel. “Security people at our meetings are there to provide assurance,” says Jeff Hess. “They can identify attendees and can provide directional assistance and quick safety tips, as well as CPR and first aid.”

10) Spa Director
An hour at a hotel’s spa can be a blissful addition to a stressful meeting, but missed appointments and confusion over the bill can sour any benefit that the health refuge might bring. To avoid such worries, build a firm rapport with someone on site at the spa, and keep lines of communication open to avoid very expensive surprises.
    “Sometimes folks forget about spa appointments,” says Deborah Goedeke, vice president of meetings and conventions for Guilderland, N.Y.-based Empire Travel. “If you know the people at the spa, you’ll have a go-to person when problems come up.”