Some elements of site selection will never change. The primary consideration for planners has been and will continue to be choosing a site that meets the needs of their company or clients.
In many cases, however, multiple destinations and venues can offer what’s needed in lift, space, budget, quality, experience and so on. And, as times change, new elements and options may be added to the mix in terms of what destinations and companies put on the table. It’s up to planners to negotiate terms that will make it all work.
SITE Foundation’s 2018 SITE Index includes data on various aspects of site selection and evaluation, and among the findings are two important elements:
First, buyers and sellers have similar views on what’s important in selecting a destination, namely appeal to participant audience, value for the dollar and overall safety.
And research indicates that even though budgets have increased, buyers are looking for ways to reduce costs, and that effort is led by selection of less expensive amenities and less expensive destinations and hotels. In addition, shorter programs and fewer participants also are part of the equation, which can affect site selection as well.
We asked four experts to weigh in on what drives site selection and evaluation today, how educating planners on what they need to know about site selection has changed and how things might evolve in the near future. While the experts agree on many of the issues, they have some differing opinions, too.
Alisa Peters, CMP, CMM, Illinois-based senior global account manager with Experient, a Maritz Global Events Company, puts her top trends into three categories.
She labels the first category Not the Usual Suspects. “Planners want new, interesting, memorable and sharable in a destination to attract attendees,” she says.
Next: They Weren’t Born Yesterday. “Planners know that room rate is not the headline anymore. Hidden fees are truly the name of the game when it comes to budget, and they are turning over every rock to find them. This isn’t a side gig for an admin assistant anymore,” Peters emphasizes. “Legal and procurement are typically a second line of evaluation. The details matter and the cracks will be uncovered. Finding them and addressing them in agreements is a must.”
The last top-three trend for Peters is Partners, Not Vendors. “Planners want to know that the ‘home’ they contract with will feel like home, with teams that become a part of their team throughout the planning. They don’t want to feel like they’re sitting across the table from a vendor. They want to feel like they’re sitting at the table with a partner (for a great meal, with interesting stories). Relationships matter,” she says. “Now more than ever.”
Scottsdale-based Maria Maddock, manager, global accounts, HelmsBriscoe, puts the top three trends today succinctly. “No. 1: Location is still most important. No. 2: Clients hate resort fees and feeling nickel-and-dimed. Value,” she says, “is important.” As for No. 3: “Clients want free Wi-Fi.”
Matthew Marcial, CMP, CAE, vice president education and events at MPI, is on the front lines in terms of what meeting planners have to know and learn, including about site selection. He has oversight of MPI Academy, which provides not only the CMM program and courses that qualify for CMP clock hours, but also education for WEC, among other things. His top three trends are shorter booking windows, less short-term availability due to greater hotel and venue demand, and a greater focus on venue technology capabilities.
Marcial is in a unique position to evaluate how educating planners about site selection has evolved in recent years. “I would say the fundamentals of site selection have not changed. The primary focus always has to start with understanding the stakeholder objectives, because that will drive the overall success for an event and those objectives impact every aspect of the site-selection process,” he says.
“What has changed in recent years are elements like supply-and-demand and other economic factors that have an impact on a planner’s ability to negotiate the most favorable rates and concessions. There has been a greater focus on some of the big-picture trends, including economic influences, that impact the site-selection process versus the more tactical and logistical elements you’d see on a planner’s site checklist.”
While he says the topic of site selection is less in demand by more senior planners, he notes that, “Across the board we have seen greater interest in hearing about the industry trends that can play a substantial role behind the scenes in the site-selection process.”
On the client side, Peters notes that as the makeup of audiences has changed, so too, have selection criteria. “For more senior executives, where time is money, the quickest journey with the least potential for travel interruption is king right now,” she says. “Finding markets that are affordable and don’t require a transfer in an airport is crucial. A flawless hotel experience with impeccable service is a must, and flexibility onsite, with meeting space that can be adjusted with air walls based on last-minute content drivers, is key.”
But, she continues, site requirements are different for corporate groups of mixed audiences and those with emerging talent, particularly millennials. “These clients want the new hidden gem. They know that millennials, who have been backpacking and transferring and traipsing through airports their whole lives, are not afraid to switch planes. Planners are leveraging that and are no longer afraid of booking destinations that require a transfer. These clients want markets that haven’t been explored, with unique experiences that can be captured on social media. They want to make sure that the event is full of moments that allow for true relationship building and connection.”
Heather Connelly, CMP, incentive travel manager with Gordon Food Service in British Columbia, says one trend she’s seeing that’s different than past years is that hotels today may be going a bit overboard in trying to attract planners.
“I feel that some hotels are trying to make the visit more of a wow to really get your attention and stand out,” she says, “with things such as special welcomes, personalized room gifts and hotel services offered to the planner. Some hotels are listening more and also asking the right questions, not just the standard, ‘What do I have to do to get your business?’ Selecting a hotel is not just about the room rate. There are many factors to look at, and smart hotels know how to show off their property. It is nice to be pampered a bit during the site visit. However, sometimes I feel I’m getting a better experience than what our guests would have when they’re in the hotel.”
Maddock says one change she has seen is increased attendance. “Participation seems to be up as I regularly encounter rooms blocks being filled and requests for addendums to increase room block or find overflow hotels.”
Additionally, Maddock says corporations today want “unique team activities that provide an authentic sense of place,” which influences where the meeting will be set.
In terms of how things may continue to evolve and change, Maddock sees her clients as willing to try more value brands to save money, such as hotels that offer a free breakfast or reception.
For his part, Marcial says, “As the overall landscape for group business becomes more competitive, I believe we’ll be seeing venues up their game in terms of upgraded accommodations, technology capabilities and overall flexibility in working with groups.”
“Business is booming, and with it, incentive events,” says Peters. “But at the same time, the world is growing ever smaller due to dramatic weather events, zika and changes in the political climate. Finding a home for incentives that will truly incentivize attendees has become more of a challenge if you have a reasonable budget.”
She believes planners no longer can rely on the destination alone to be the incentive, and may have to be flexible in terms of seasons. “Compression on ‘safe’ markets, those free of weather concerns, has increased, driving up rates in peak incentive months at the traditional beach-and-sand destinations,” she says. “This has created a climate of creativity, where planners are having to think about how they can ‘wow’ attendees and get them excited about urban destinations, or how they can sell their internal stakeholders on holding events during a different time of year.
“Incentive planners have become creative marketers. They must think about the entire journey, end-to-end, to make it something special, to make it marketable enough to make qualifiers walk the extra mile, make the extra call and put in the extra hours to win it. If attendees aren’t posting to Instagram and Facebook during the journey and the minute they arrive,” she adds, “you have failed a bit.”
Today, security impacts site selection in ways it never did previously.
“Now, it’s a topic I always try to discuss with hotels during a site visit so I can understand what their procedures are when a situation arises. In the past, it was a question I didn’t ask until the pre-con meeting,” Connelly says.
Given recent mass shootings and bombings here and abroad, Peters says security is more important than ever and has broad impact on meetings. “Political climates are ever-changing in our current environment. Keeping current on changing visa requirements, unrest and potential developments is a must now, and it’s a daily workload. That work doesn’t end when the contract is signed. Our company is constantly monitoring the globe for all force majeure events including earthquakes, weather-related ground stoppages or delays, fires, floods, hurricanes and any other crazy Mother Nature events. We’re also on the lookout for political unrest or security concerns so we can alert our clients the minute we know that we/they may need to ‘get out in front of something’ that hasn’t even hit the news yet.”
She says planners are now asking for emergency plans from hotels and convention centers, “and we’re building in the ability to access those into agreements. That’s something that we weren’t always doing 10 years ago.”
There are changes in terms of cyber security, too. “An attendee’s personal information, and how it’s managed by a hotel (and marketed to) is now a part of many of the contracts that I do,” Peters says. “European hotels were the first to address this in contracts, largely due to European Union laws, rules and regulations. But as U.S.-based hotels have had personal and credit-card information compromised, many corporations are outlining specific measures they want taken to ensure that hotels are handling attendees’ personal details with the utmost care, confidentiality and consideration.”
Moreover, Peters adds, “The term ‘security’ transcends what you would traditionally think of when you hear that word. Attendees need to feel secure knowing that regardless of their skin color, religion or sexual preference, they’re going to feel welcome in a destination and are not going to be subject to harassment or to overt or latent discrimination. And clients,” she adds, “are caring very much about making sure that 100 percent of their attendees are comfortable going to a destination. They want to make sure that all attendees feel included, at home and safe when they arrive.”
Marcial also believes planners must consider security in ways they didn’t previously. “Today planners are more conscious than ever about security concerns as they relate to their events, and they’re looking for greater insight into venues’ specific security plans,” he says. “Depending on the type of event being planned, organizers should look to their partners for security guidelines that can be communicated with their staff and attendees, if appropriate and in the event of an emergency.”
Maddock, however, says, “I don’t encounter security questions with my clientele aside from them avoiding certain destinations.”
Marcial notes that planners should always keep their group and stakeholder objectives at the core of the site-selection process. However, stakeholders don’t all want the same thing. When asked what corporate clients these days insist on or won’t compromise on related to sites and venues, the answers cover a range of elements.
Some are very specific: “Meeting room Wi-Fi charges seems to set off my clients,” Maddock says.
Connelly says flexibility with F&B is something her company requires and that impacts decisions on which hotels they will use. “Our guests work in food service so they’re passionate about food and know exactly which cut of protein is being served and what brand plate it is being served on. We have to work with hotels that are willing to do something different on the menu to satisfy them.”
For Peters’ clients, budget is key. “Now, more than ever, planners are measured either on attendance or on how they complied with their given budgets, and both hinge on the numbers. A meeting has to make financial sense and come in on budget. If it doesn’t, planners are risking their jobs in this current environment,” she says.
In addition to being a big-picture item, budget is also about the details, and Peters says her clients are noticing. “They’re sick of paying $8 for a soft drink and $150 for a gallon of coffee and aren’t buying into it. They want concession flexibility and creativity that helps them manage around some of the new and creative revenue sources hotels are using to increase their ADR.”
Peters says that staying on top of budget means having all the information. “Planners want to know every single potential impact to their budget, from the cost of a gallon of coffee to the hidden unexpected creative fees that hotels may come up with down the road to squeak out that extra bit of profit. Strategic sourcing truly is like firefighting now,” she adds. “Clients want to know that they have any and all costs factored into their budget and that they aren’t going to get hit out of left field with items that they (or we) never imagined. Half of my day is spent sourcing and contracting meetings, the other is pushing back on or trying to prevent attempts to impose unexpected fees in contracts before they get signed.”
“It is not just about price, there are many factors to look at such as room amenities, hotel location, spa/pool onsite, number of restaurants, the ambience/vibe of the hotel, what is within walking distance,” Connelly points out. “These all impact the selection. I have been to many hotels that on paper seemed to be the right fit but when I got to the hotel and walked around or talked with the hotel salespeople I could tell it was just not right for our group.”
For Maddock, it’s about a better understanding of third-party planners. “Using a third party is a complimentary service that will save clients time and money. It’s also in their best interest to use a third party who can advocate for them when they run into problems with the hotel. Our top priority is to set the client up for success.”
Peters’ take is looking at site selection as a two-way street. “The hotel or destination isn’t just selling to you. You must sell your meeting to the destinations you want because multiple groups may be vying for the same dates,” she says — and you must be accurate.
“You wouldn’t market your five-bedroom house as a two-bedroom house and expect to get the right price for your home. That’s essentially what you’re doing if you undersell your meeting by not disclosing your full F&B budget or don’t contract the proper amount of room nights or guarantee your shoulders accurately. It’s dangerous to under-guarantee your minimums and peak room nights as you’ll quickly find your attendees angry when you run out of the group-rated rooms, or your budget impacted when you have to pay more for the rooms you add in an addendum. You cannot be angry at a hotel for selling rooms or space you haven’t contracted as it is their job to fill their hotel and that’s how they’re measured and rewarded. You need to contract the rooms and space you know you will or may need, and protect yourself in the contract terms and/or with insurance in the event you don’t perform.”
Beyond that, she says, planning far out is more imperative than ever before if you want first choice of hotel and dates. “If you are looking for September or October, contract even further out or consider rethinking meeting dates. Holiday compression and weather-related issues in coastal areas have made these two months absolute insanity to attempt to contract. The larger your block, the further out you need to book.”
While the basics of site selection and evaluation do not change, planners must remain on top of trends and the specific but changing requirements their groups have based on the makeup of the group and the industry it’s in. Add to that volatile economic and security factors and site selection is anything but “same old.” It’s an element of planning that requires intelligence, vigilance, flexibility and creativity. C&IT