The relationship between meeting planners and hoteliers is complex. Both groups want many of the same things, including a strong economy and a thriving meetings industry, to attract attendees and make each meeting memorable and successful.
But they have differences, too. Planners must stay within budgets and get the most in return for dollars they spend. Hoteliers want to attract business that positively impacts their bottom line — they need to make a profit on that same meeting for which planners are rightly scrutinizing each expenditure.
Given that perspective, planners and hoteliers should be adversaries. But that’s far from the truth and hardly optimal.
“The relationship between hotels and meeting planners is crucial to both parties’ success,” says Kimberly Miles, CMP, CMHS, vice president, industry relations for the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “AH&LA is a strong supporter of the Meetings Mean Business campaign, which showcases the importance of the meetings industry to hotels and the U.S. economy. The hotel industry values the strong partnership with the meeting planner community to create the most successful events and experiences for its attendees.”
We asked corporate meeting planners to give us their take on the positives and pitfalls of the planner-hotel relationship, which, as Miles points out, is a relationship that drives business for the U.S. economy, so getting it right is critical.
What do these planners want from hotels? What are their pet peeves? How can the relationship be improved? Some of their insights echoed those reported in STR’s “DestinationMap 2013” survey, highlights of which were published in January in Hotel News Now, a division of STR (Smith Travel Research).
But there were some very individual perspectives, too. And while having hotels meet basic meeting requirements is fundamental, the consensus on forging optimal relationships came down to two essential elements: partnerships and communication.
Like any relationship, this one is a two-way street. Planners bring meetings to hotels, hotels provide necessities for those meetings. Terri Crowley, vice president of event management at Photizo Group, a Kentucky-based consulting and marketing intelligence firm that organizes conferences domestically and abroad, puts it succinctly: “I want great service, updated meeting space, willingness to work with a planner, good catering services, and a friendly and knowledgeable staff.”
Blue Janis, an Ohio-based national account manager with Experient, references staff, too. “Onsite, I expect the event manager and banquet manager to try to anticipate needs rather than having to be asked when something has already run out. Of course, it’s much nicer when inventorying liquor or doing a room block audit to find that the hotel staff is helpful and agreeable.”
Edward Perotti, CMP, CMM, senior director global meetings, events and travel with VMware, a Palo Alto-based software company, adds cost transparency as an essential. “I know everyone needs to make money and hit goals, profit lines, etc. I just want to know what we are spending money on. For example, with regard to third parties, I want hotels to be 100 percent comfortable with sharing and/or providing invoices or documentation for me (the end client) to cross check/audit, and to document all charges and concessions related to my event.” Additionally, Perotti wants creative food experiences and true partnerships of the entire chain portfolio.
The concept of partnering up appears to apply on every level.
“Both parties need to look at the relationship as a true partnership,” Perotti says, “as the market flips from one seat of control to the other, the long-term vision is what is key to maintaining the relationship, the level of expectations and the service level.”
It helps when both parties have a shared vision of success. “I have always approached hotels with one simple, basic premise,” says Lisa Langford, corporate meeting planner for Finance and Resource Management Consultants, which works with the petroleum industry. “We both want our client to remember a great meeting, at their particular hotel, for a fair price.”
Of course, some visions and goals are not shared — but they can still be understood and respected. “I expect the hotel to treat me as I treat it…as a partner in accommodating the needs of my client,” says Janis. “Although I represent a very large third party and my job is to secure the best pricing for my client, I believe it’s very important to recognize that the hotel has fiscal goals and needs as well.”
Donna Patrick, CMP, CMM, associate director, global meetings and conventions for UnitedHealth Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota, has a similar perspective. She says planners need to see hoteliers “as true partners and go into discussions and negotiations with a balanced win-win for both sides.”
Miles says hotels must do the same. “Every event is different, and every hotel has its own approach to contracting,” she says. “When both parties negotiate with an appreciation of one another’s needs and goals, and with an understanding that they are entering into a mutual commitment to one another, they can create a contract that is fair to both the group and the hotel.”
Cindy Wilson, president of San Francisco-based Wilsonwest, a corporate-event marketing firm that plans C-level meetings for such companies as Cisco, Chevron and Samsung as well as nonprofits, adds another element to the mix. “Establish a true partnership from the outset,” she says, “then communicate any changes along the way.”
No relationship can work in the absence of effective communication. “I believe that fundamentally, it comes down to communication,” Janis says. “The better each party understands the goals of the other, the more likely there will be a successful meeting and a happy client.”
“The better each party understands the goals of the other, the more likely there will be a successful meeting and a happy client.” — Blue Janis
Says Patrick, “Planners should maintain open and honest communication always and follow up to let the hotel know why it did not win the business if it didn’t.”
Langford favors old-fashioned conversations between planners and hoteliers:
“Up until recent history, our frustrations would rate pretty low on the meeting planner’s version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We wanted sanely priced AV or greater flexibility on attrition — simple and straightforward, monetarily defined items,” she says. “Though those things remain, the more pressing frustration is higher on the scale: lack of conversation. Our RFPs have never had as many flat-out ‘no’ responses as we’ve seen in the last six months, with no real information as to why or suggestions for alternatives. I think part of the problem is RFP spam; hoteliers are inundated with e-RFPs easily bulk-sent with a click of a button. The time to think about how to work with us just isn’t there.”
As a result, Langford has resurrected what she calls the “retro practice of phone conversing.” This, she says, “goes back to my core belief that we both want this to work but need to strategize outside the box together. That doesn’t happen with short emails or choppy cell-phone conversations but with heavy, black, rotary-phone communication. Relationships built over the years have saved us several times recently, and all were fostered through conversations.”
Of course, as Patrick points out, the communication must be appropriate. She finds that some hotels over-contact planners or, worse, develop an attitude. “Let the process work, give your best offer and don’t get defensive if business isn’t won this time,” she advises. “Many times I have given another program to a partner based on how they handled an earlier situation. It’s okay to be disappointed and verbalize that; it’s not okay to be unprofessional and get angry with a client.”
One interesting part of the STR survey relates to site selection. One finding is that planners tend to return to places they’re familiar with. The survey also highlights six elements respondents considered most important when selecting a destination: good hotels, convenient airline service, travel costs to the location, food and lodging costs, ease of attendees getting to the location and good value for the money. It’s not surprising that three of the items are related to cost. In fact, the report notes that the average hotel room rate paid by planners for their largest meeting increased in 2013, with corporate planners paying an average of $189 per hotel room.
The planners we talked with say the survey provides an accurate snapshot but there are more variables than it suggested.
“The most important considerations are the ones that are unique to the client, the participants and the unique characteristics of the event, though service and relationship with the hotel sales and operations team are paramount,” Wilson says. “Specific meeting types demand specific considerations. For example, a C-level event would have less focus on value for the money and costs and more focus on excellence in service and standards. As far as venue details, if you know guest participation might be limited if the venue is not easily accessible for international travelers, you might rule out a property. If it’s a conference that is heavily reliant upon meeting space and technology, having access to multiple ballrooms with plenty of set-up time might drive the hotel choice.”
Janis agrees. “I think the choice of location varies depending on the makeup of the organization,” he says. “One group may feel more comfort in a familiar location while another actually prefers offering something new to its attendees. I think it’s incumbent on the planner to avoid letting his or her personal bias get in the way of site selection.”
Perotti offers insight into why many planners do return to hotels they have booked before. “We have been going back to the Hilton San Francisco Union Square for years for certain programs,” he says, “due, in fact, to the frontline employees. They know our culture, people and expectations and are generally excited to have us back. The attendees feel that energy, and it helps the overall experience.”
As the survey found, planners do not like to be nickeled and dimed, and Crowley pointed to a couple of areas where this is common. “I think hotels should update their Internet plans so that these are included in the price of the meeting space,” she says.
And then there’s AV. “The AV providers that the hotels contract with are always at least twice as much,” Crowley says, “and in many hotels, you are charged a fee if you don’t use their in-house companies.” Crowley rarely uses in-house AV because of the cost, and that complicates her job. “I would love for the hotel AV groups to be in line with outside providers and thus make my job easier,” she says.
For Wilson, a primary issue is turnover. “We are seeing a lot of movement with hotel staff, requiring us to start over with a new team,” she says. “For example, we spend two days on a site visit covering many details, then learn a week later our CSM has moved on. It would have been better to know this upfront. We might have chosen to change our site visit and/or have the hotel designate another staff member. The pet peeve is that there has not been a thoughtful transition to team members, and we are required to start over with the planning. We recently produced a meeting at a luxury property where we had three different catering managers in the course of three months.”
Another pet peeve: cut-off time. “Hotels expect us to have our room block full 45–60 days out,” Crowley says. “Most of my attendees haven’t even registered at this point.”
Contracts and RFPs are a challenge on both sides of the table, but there are solutions, including increased communication. “I try to be as detailed as possible with my RFPs,” Janis says, “and I appreciate it when the sales manager responds with alternatives if he or she is unable to agree to a specific concession request.”
Perotti would like to see more streamlining of contracts and better understanding of the big picture, especially when hotels are dealing with companies that run many meetings in many parts of the country and the world. “We have streamlined our procurement process to keep in line with our internal process,” he says. “The bottleneck occurs when a hotel has not and is still operating in antiquated ways, for example, if the hotel does not look at the global relationship with a client but instead thinks of each event as a one-off vs. a true global partnership and buy.”
Langford would like standardized contracts. “I think many of us dream of a standardized contract. I’ve got four on my desk right now, all for like-meetings. The first hotel’s contract is four pages long, the next is five, then eight, and the fourth is 20 pages.”
Two trends apparent in the STR survey suggest that the industry is back on track. The first is an uptick in attendee numbers.
Perotti is seeing increases at his events. “Our team manages in some form over 3,200 meetings and events globally. This number has been on the rise and, as our employee base increases, so do the event counts.”
Langford says her group has seen consistent growth of about 10 percent over the past few years, however, “Our events don’t fit the model the survey suggests. We have private member groups and expect (and get) near 100 percent attendance.”
That said, Janis cautions that there are many factors at play, and he sees variation in the numbers, a consideration primarily for association meetings in which attendees must foot their own bill for the most part.
Patrick believes the result is in part how meetings are managed. “I do think we’ve finally gotten past the 2008 financial crunch, and meetings are being managed with more strategic focus — measurement of ROI, not canceling meetings but changing them to leverage costs better,” she says.
Also trending is that corporations are exhibiting less reluctance to book luxury properties. While Wilson agrees without qualification, Patrick and Langford say yes…and no.
“I believe (the reluctance) still exists and will always exist on some level,” Patrick says. “I feel companies are careful not to lose sight of it and have their meetings looked at as boondoggles. I do agree there isn’t as much paranoia about it as there was after the 2008 financial crisis. It also helps that many companies took the stand that an incentive trip is a reward for a job well done, and they should not be punished for rewarding employees.”
Langford thinks demographics impact this trend and that certain groups simply don’t want to book luxury properties. “For our existing core owner groups with a demographic age 50–65, the luxury destination is still the priority value,” she says, “because of the high confidence in service and food levels — you get what you pay for, and they know that from experience. Our growth area, however, is with groups of a younger clientele who define the experience more by its community story: What did they do together after hours? For them, an evening of baseball with a great local craft beer can carry a higher story value than recharging on the beach at a luxury resort.”
Perotti also notes differences in demographics and industries, and how luxury hotels themselves are responding. “In the tech world, there is less fear of luxury brands; however, the luxury brands need to step up the experience for the attendee and update the experience for the new generation. Ritz-Carlton Hotels has done a great job of bridging from the retired upscale traveler to young, tech-savvy urbanites,” he says.
The return to more stable business and increased numbers speaks to the resilience of the meetings and hospitality industries. As they move out of survival mode, Langford hopes that planners will partner with hotels in even more profound ways for the greater good.
“Personally, I am looking ahead to the meetings and hospitality industries becoming a powerful voice in the critical issue of human trafficking, just as they have been for green meetings,” she says. “Hilton, for example, has adopted a corporate position on this, which all partners are supposed to sign on to. They are also implementing training to recognize (trafficking) on their properties and identifying how employees are required to respond.
“It’s at hotels where a lot of this happens, so raising awareness is a way planners can be influential. Add it into the contract process by asking, ‘Do you practice human-trafficking awareness with your staff?’ Enough people asking the same question will bring about change, exactly the way it did with the green movement.” C&IT