Regular group business is certainly of interest to hoteliers, and that’s just what small meetings offer, especially in recent years. Serving as a guest blogger for IMEX last fall, Sherry Romello, senior director, Hilton Meetings & Product Management, noted that meetings requiring a room block of fewer than 25 rooms “now make up more than 70 percent of (Hilton’s) market. While that doesn’t diminish the significance of large meetings, it does shed a new light on a market segment that deserves some special recognition.”
The common definition of a small meeting (i.e., 10–100 guest rooms on peak night) covers larger events than those Romello refers to, and a recent meeting planner survey lends further evidence that such events are on the rise. PCMA’s 24th annual Meetings Market Survey, published in March, drew input from 500-plus association, independent and corporate planners. Twenty-six percent of them (compared to 13 percent in the 2013 survey) said they held more small meetings in 2014 than 2013. In addition, 24 percent (compared to 15 percent in the 2013 survey) said they expected to hold more small meetings this year.
Phoenix, Arizona-based Avnet Technology Solutions is one example of a company where small meetings form the bulk of internal planners’ workload. “Approximately 95 percent of our meetings have between 10–100 attendees on peak night, on average using close to 50 rooms,” says Susan Morgan, event planner. The exceptions would be Avnet’s annual partner conference and annual incentive program, but these are vastly outnumbered by small meetings, many of which have a training focus. And in line with the trend noted by PCMA, Avnet’s number of small meetings is increasing, due to “growth in the business and the various initiatives that we have in play at a given time,” Morgan explains. “Our events are tied to our strategy. So if we have an initiative that’s best communicated in the form of an event, that results in more activity for us, and we are seeing some of that right now.”
Indeed, the content of small meetings is seldom of small importance, and may even be crucial for the segment of the company in attendance. “Regardless of how small the program is, the meeting content is just as important as a larger meeting,” says Jessica Menzer, account lead, Caledonia, Wisconsin-based Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. Menzer, whose focus is on corporate and pharmaceutical meetings, notes that about 50 percent to 75 percent of her events are small under the common definition (e.g., advisory board and investigator meetings).
“Regardless of how small the program is, the meeting content is just as important as a larger meeting.” — Jessica Menzer
In her IMEX blog post, Romello elaborates on the point: “Historically, our industry has viewed small meetings as high investment, low return. Unfortunately, that diminishes the critical role that many small meetings play in achieving business objectives. Just think about a board meeting focused on setting a company’s strategic direction or a sales meeting with a large new client. The attendee numbers really don’t tell the story.”
Of course, vital content does not necessarily justify going offsite for a small meeting, and oftentimes these events save on travel and lodging costs by being held at company facilities. Going offsite can have the advantage of removing participants from the distractions of the workplace (where they may be tempted to return to their desks during breaks, for example) and keep the meeting running on schedule. An offsite location “gives us the opportunity to keep people focused,” notes Ann Barker, director, event marketing, Avnet.
But the main reasons for taking a small meeting offsite — those that would offset the added cost — usually have to do with logistical convenience for attendees flying in, as well as group activity options. “If it’s not just a fly-in in the morning and fly-out in the afternoon, if it’s an overnight program, groups sometimes like to offer additional activities (more easily done in a hotel environment) such as going out to dinner as a group,” says Menzer. “And then they also have the convenience of staying overnight in the same place where the meeting is located.”
For Thais Toro, senior corporate event planner at Atlanta, Georgia-based Autotrader.com, small meetings comprise about 70 percent of the planning workload, and many of those events are training-focused. The reasons for taking these programs outside of company offices are similar to those Menzer cites. “If (nonlocal attendees) need hotel accommodations we prefer to go to a venue that is convenient, so it will depend how many days or nights the event will last,” Toro explains. “If it’s just one night, probably we will do it at the office; more than one night we will probably do it off-property. And if we want to add one factor to the meeting, either an activity or a nice dinner, usually we will do it off-property to go outside the conventional.”
With small meetings in particular, going off-property is typically a decision that calls for a planner to book hotel space within a matter of months, not years. According to PCMA’s Meetings Market Survey, 58 percent of respondents (compared to 67 percent in 2013 survey) said that they are booking their small meetings more than six months out. The average lead time is nine months, compared to 11 months for the 2013 survey.
For Morgan and Barker, the lead time is usually at least three to four months. “If there’s a regular group of people gathering we may have a heads-up as far as a year out,” Morgan says, “but generally, no, because the environment that we’re in varies. We can make plans, but especially for some of the smaller meetings, certain (key) participants can have a conflict in their schedules. So we can make (long-range) plans but end up adjusting them because of that.”
A regular flow of meetings that need to be placed within a few months of being approved can be quite taxing for an in-house planning team. Hence, third parties often “come to the rescue” with their numerous hotelier connections and knowledge of properties with “holes” to fill, properties that have had cancellations, and so on.
“Our sourcing department is very good at that. They’re able to reach out to all the relevant properties pretty quickly and get some responses,” Menzer says.
Avnet has been working with a third-party sourcing company for nearly 15 years, and will place about 70–80 meetings with the company this year. Morgan says, “Because of the longstanding relationship we have, they know our preferences, and they know our contractual terms.”
Some planners prefer to book small meetings in smaller hotels. “The reason why it does sometimes matter is that if the hotel has tons of meeting space, there may be several other large meetings in the hotel at the same time. Then they might not necessarily focus on your (small) meeting as much,” Menzer relates. “Focus” comes down to “service time and willingness to spend time with you to determine your needs, and meet and exceed them, instead of just giving you a cookie-cutter program.”
A planner who has had such an experience at a large hotel is likely to pair small meetings with small hotels going forward, when possible. But many planners have not experienced a lack of focus on their meeting at such properties. “I have never felt that the attention will change because of the (meeting) size,” Toro says. “The hotel should not treat me based on the number of attendees that I bring, but based on the future and the opportunities that I will bring to the industry.”
More often than not, hotels bear in mind this potential for repeat business, and treat groups of all sizes accordingly. Thus, “the size of the hotel doesn’t matter. First we see if it’s convenient for the people if most of them are flying,” Toro explains. “No. 2 we look for the concessions that the hotel is offering us, and the wow factor that the hotel will offer our attendees. At the end of the day, it’s going to be about the experience for the planners and the participants.”
Morgan echoes Toro’s viewpoint: “I can’t think of any instance where I feel like I’ve received less service because of being a smaller group. I feel the attention that we get from the providers that we use is always very good. Thus, hotel size really isn’t a consideration. Location is probably the key driver for us. It’s either a geographic need to serve a certain set of our business partners, or perhaps to place the meeting in Phoenix because we’re headquartered here and our resources for staff participation are more readily available.”
While a hotelier may extend the same quality and degree of service to its smaller group clients, concessions can be another matter. “For smaller programs not bringing in as much revenue to the hotel, they tend not to be as generous with concessions,” Menzer notes. “But small meetings from our perspective require the same sort of attention in that respect as larger meetings. So even though it’s a small meeting, we still need some suites at the group rate. They wouldn’t necessarily think we would need that since it’s a smaller meeting, but it has a lot of the same components.”
With a small program, it is challenging to gain the leverage needed to negotiate for concessions due to the lower revenue the event represents. But there are tactics a planner can deploy to make the business more attractive. For example, maximizing the amount of F&B revenue for the hotel by keeping group meal functions onsite. And when the C-level executives will be attending, that demographic should be communicated to the hotelier, who may perceive an opportunity to impress these individuals and perhaps draw a larger piece of business down the line.
Another negotiating hurdle may arise when a small meeting uses an amount of meeting space that the hotel feels is disproportionate to the number of guest rooms the group is booking. This may happen, for example, when some of the attendees are flying in but others are from the host company’s local office and not staying overnight at the hotel.
Menzer has noted that even small investigator meetings for pharma companies tend to use a significant number of breakout rooms, more so than hotels are used to allotting for the guest rooms being used. In such scenarios, “I have seen hotels increase the guest room rate,” Menzer says. In other cases, the hotelier might levy a room rental fee for the disproportionate space, a fee that is normally waived if the group meets its F&B minimums.
If the extra space usage does not inconvenience the hotel from a business perspective, the property may well not seek financial compensation. “I find generally they’re willing to work with us if they can, based on their space needs for other groups in-house. It’s highly dependent upon that,” says Morgan, who notes that Avnet groups sometimes end up needing additional breakout space beyond was what originally contracted. When there is some potential conflict, “we are as flexible as we can be with meeting space (needs),” Menzer says. “So we wouldn’t demand that we get the space two days ahead of time for setup, for example.” A planner might also consider using nontraditional gathering areas at the hotel for additional space needs, if possible.
While there can be challenges to negotiating the best deal for a small meeting, the good news is that the major hotel chains are generally well aware of the value of this kind of business. As Hilton’s Romello emphasizes, “Small meetings are particularly important to us at Hilton because, at our core, we believe in the power of personal connections through face-to-face interactions. Many times these interactions take place at the large-scale events like IMEX; however, we feel personal connections are at the heart of small meetings.”
Some properties within a chain will be especially suited to those types of gatherings. Menzer has found the 860-room Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel, for example, to be a great host for groups of fewer than 100 attendees, offering 40 pre-set boardrooms for up to 25 people. “They don’t have huge meeting spaces (the largest meeting room is 3,500 sf) so a lot of the concurrent meetings are going to be similarly sized,” she observes. “Also I like the fact that there is a meeting concierge located on level two.” The concierge obviates the need to contact the convention services department with requests, and ensures immediate service for all groups, no matter how small.
A recent development in specialized service to small groups can be witnessed at another major chain. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa’s new Griffin Meeting Experience is a specialized meeting and event concierge service focused on corporate groups using 10–300 rooms. A dedicated Griffin Meetings Specialist coordinates all the details regarding meeting room space, guest room reservations, amenities for VIPs as well as F&B planning. Guest rooms are blocked into one priority area of the hotel, keys are customized with the host company logo, and a complimentary hospitality suite as well as welcome amenities for up to five VIPs are all part of the Griffin Meeting Experience.
The fact that a mammoth hotel such as the JW Marriott, at 1,002 guest rooms and 256,000 sf of meeting space, has devised a program devoted to small meetings is an encouraging indicator that hotels of all sizes appreciate this segment of the group market. C&IT