A meeting group’s ability to bring in an external A/V company can unfortunately be a source of friction between planner and hotelier. Typically, the hotel will charge a fee for the use of a third party, and the planner will attempt to have the fee waived or reduced. Additionally, the planner may have an issue with the expense associated with using the hotel’s in-house A/V, particularly when service fees are included or when the third party would be more affordable.
These negotiations not only hinge on costs; the attendee experience is also a factor. A/V is a crucial part of any presentation, whether the objective is education, engagement or entertainment. And the planner may feel that the use of his or her company’s A/V partner will ultimately deliver a sight and sound experience that is superior in terms of the technical details.
The Cost Factor
That being said, there are definitely circumstances when partnering exclusively with the hotel’s provider makes sense. Those scenarios will often be the meetings or breakouts with simplistic A/V requirements. “For the smaller meetings where we just need a projector and a screen, we usually use the in-house A/V company,” says Sharon L. Schenk, CMP, director of conventions and event management with Manchester, New Hampshire-based CCA Global Partners. “They’re reasonably priced for something that small if we buy a package, and it’s easier for us, especially if we don’t have someone from our office traveling with their own [projector].”
The cost-effectiveness of using the in-house provider for these types of meetings is enhanced by the fact that the fee for using an external company is avoided or, at least, the planner need not try to have that fee waived as a concession. Kim Hentges, CMP, event manager with Flower Mound, Texas-based IntelliCentrics, adds that “you do not have to pay air, airport ground transfers, hotel accommodations, sometimes single rooms for each A/V team member, meals, etc.” by using the hotel’s vendor. Further cost savings can result from not having to hire an in-house A/V supervisor “in order to watch/manage set-up and tear-down. Typically, this is required only when an outside A/V company is utilized,” she notes. Granted, the overall cost-effectiveness of using in-house A/V has to be assessed case by case; an external provider may well be able to quote a lower price.
In addition, the quality of the in-house service tends to be quite satisfactory. “I feel that these days with a few key players providing most of the in-house A/V across the globe, there is a very high probability that you are getting the best of the best,” such as PSAV and Encore, suggests Bonnie Cunningham, global meeting & event manager with New York City-based BC Global Meetings & Events LLC. Hentges highlights a variety of service advantages that these vendors provide, including faster set-up times given their immediate access to the meeting room and the additional inventory they have access to via their other office locations or local suppliers to utilize for any last-minute equipment/labor needs. And it’s not out of the question to utilize in-house A/V as a resource on presentation logistics, not merely to execute this function. “In-house A/V companies stay up to speed on current trends, meeting room layouts, etc.,” Hentges observes. “When I partner with any type of supplier, I look to them to be a consultant and not an order taker. My experience has been that in-house A/V companies have provided a consultant service.”
Some planners prefer to bring in their company’s own provider for large-scale productions with high stakes. An example would be CCA Global Partners’ convention. For six years, CCA has partnered with production company One Smooth Stone, based in Downers Grove, Illinois, to deliver the A/V and other event-design elements at the convention’s general session. “Production is involved in the theming, lighting and room set. They’re also involved in the rehearsals and the developing of the messaging. It’s more than just putting up a projector and a screen,” Schenk explains. “They bring their ideas and creativity to the table and give us an opportunity to say, ‘That looks great, let’s try it. Let’s try something new.’ They go much deeper than providing and installing equipment.”
Schenk distinguishes between production companies and A/V companies, and she only finds the former can provide the scope of service required for CCA’s general session. She regards in-house providers such as PSAV as being “in a tough spot because they’re trying to be all things to all people.” In contrast, One Smooth Stone has honed its services to CCA over the years. “They know our needs and our wants, and they know the people that are going to be using that equipment,” Schenk explains. “And there is a comfort level when we know that our guys are setting it up and testing it.”
When it comes to such a critical facet of the meeting, planners definitely don’t want to step out of their “comfort zone.” So understandably, many planners cite familiarity as the main factor behind their preference for third-party A/V, particularly with regard to general sessions or other large-scale productions. “The confidence of knowing who and what you are getting consistently is invaluable,” Cunningham says.
The “who” is especially important, as these individuals will be interfacing with presenters, including high-level keynoters. A planner will depend on those technicians to avoid any A/V mishaps, which are simply inadmissible for certain presentations. “The last thing you want is for your CEO to be on stage and halfway through his presentation his mic doesn’t work, or the slides won’t advance,” says Jennifer C. Squeglia, CMP, principal of Naples, Florida-based RLC Events Inc. “So the trust and confidence in your production team that things will go well and things will be double checked, triple checked, is very important when you’re producing a very technically advanced general session stage production.” She adds, “I’ve seen turnover in the in-house A/V companies, whereas when you use a production company, there is consistency with technical professionals, e.g., a PowerPoint graphic designer who interfaces with your executives.”
With the exceptions of rigging, electricity and internet — which remain exclusive to the hotel — planners can certainly negotiate to bring in their preferred A/V partner, beginning at the request for proposals (RFP) stage. In a typical RFP, Hentges would stipulate that the third-party can be utilized, sans fee, for the major components of the event. “For a hotel to be considered during the RFP process, the original RFP would state that no additional fees would be applied to bring in our preferred outside production company specifically to provide A/V equipment and labor for the general session and/or trade show and/or awards dinner relevant to that particular program/event,” she explains. “We would then partner with the in-house A/V company for breakouts and other miscellaneous meetings also taking place within this same program/event.”
There have also been cases where the third party provided A/V and labor for both the general session and breakouts, and where the in-house company provided all A/V services for the meeting. The nature of the program and budget dictates these choices, Hentges says. Whether the amount of in-house A/V support is sufficient for the meeting is an important factor that the RFP can also address. Cunningham, for example, inquires as to “What they have on-site for equipment inventory, backup capabilities, staff availability for support, etc.” in that document.
Plan to Negotiate
Just like negotiating for any concession, negotiating to have the external A/V fee waived or reduced is a matter of using the extent of one’s business as leverage. “If you’re doing a large-scale production in your general session, chances are that aligns with a very big piece of business for a hotel, including a lot of guestrooms and F&B,” Squeglia says. “So, I think when they step back and look at it as a whole, they’ll realize that if they’re going to get this business they have to let the client’s existing production company come in.” She adds that, in her experience, it’s rare the hotelier will insist on the fee in light of these considerations.
If the in-house service can be utilized for all or part of the meeting, another point of negotiation is the cost of that service. “I have found that there is always wiggle room in negotiating costs with in-house A/V,” Cunningham says. She gives an example from a meeting where both internal and external companies were utilized: “Recently, in the contract stage, as well as the planning stage, we were able to negotiate terms on reducing fees for load in, execution and adding equipment from the in-house A/V, but used by the third party. Additionally, we were able to utilize a couple of members of the in-house A/V team to help support the program.”
Schenk advises planners to be wary of the additional “service fee” when negotiating the cost of the internal service. “They’re not only charging you for the equipment and labor, but they’re also trying to charge a service charge on top of everything. But if I’m paying for labor, why are you charging me a service fee?” she points out. “And that’s one of the things I find unacceptable.”
Another source of leverage is to cite the lower cost associated with the third-party A/V company, if that is indeed the case. “I try to have a business discussion,” Schenk says, stressing that “It makes no sense for me to use your people if it’s going to cost more money.” The usual result is either that the hotel allows the use of the third party or comes down in price on the in-house service. “The in-house A/V company may not reduce their prices, but the hotel may be flexible in reducing their profit,” Schenk notes.
For Schenk, this negotiation only pertains to A/V for the convention’s breakouts or CCA’s small meetings. Using One Smooth Stone for the general session is a non-negotiable “must have,” because the quality of the attendee experience depends on that company’s work. “In the end, my participants’ experience is No. 1, budget is No. 2,” she says. For the basic A/V required in the breakouts and small meetings, she partners with Tucker, Georgia-based iGAD Productions. If I have five breakouts, I’d still like to bring my contractor in to do it. We can then leverage the costs of using multiple pieces of equipment throughout the convention,” Schenk explains. And iGAD Productions “has been a great partner for us. They try to find ways to save us money. For example, they’ll not charge us for the trucking and they reuse equipment that we order over the length of the program.”
Find the Right Company
Long before expending effort in securing the right to utilize third-party A/V, care must be taken in sourcing a great A/V company, one that will allow the group to take full advantage of that right. Ideally, that vendor will be suitable for a long-term partnership that creates the comfort level described earlier: more years of service mean a deeper familiarity with the group’s brand, meetings, attendees and presenters. “Always perceive your A/V supplier partner as an extension of your company and brand,” Hentges advises. While noting that the criteria used in vetting a third party will vary depending on the meeting and budget, she says her general criteria include “quality products and services, delivery dependability, cost and trust.”
One way to help ensure a company will deliver high-quality, reliable service is to seek referrals from colleagues. “Given that our industry is so connected, I would look for referrals from a couple of my colleagues who have a similar-scale program and even perhaps have worked in the same property,” Squeglia says. “It’s about having a peer say to you, ‘I used this company and they were excellent and I didn’t have any issues’ vs. having that company say to you, ‘We’re great, we don’t make any mistakes.’” The A/V company can, of course, provide its own testimonials and client referrals, and I think it’s important to speak with a referral source and even better if you already know them. In addition, Squeglia recommends looking at videos that exemplify the company’s production work, if available.
In the end, what matters most to any presentation is the ability of the speaker to engage and inform. But quality lighting, video, staging and, especially, sound are essential to the delivery of that content, and an outstanding, creative production even enhances its effectiveness. If an external A/V partner will best fulfill that vital role, a planner’s due diligence is to find a hotel that agrees to that proposal without insisting on a fee that stresses the budget. The more planners who insist on the option to use their own A/V company, the more hoteliers will realize how important that choice can be to the budget, planning process and attendee experience. In turn, internal vs. external A/V will become less of a sticking point in negotiations. C&IT