Once upon a time, planners submitted requests for proposal (RFPs) to hotels via snail mail and fax. Planners were selective about the number of properties they contacted because it took so much time to prepare the proposals and several days or more to get a response. As a result, hotels were confident that most eRFPs were good for business. But not anymore.
After eRFP technologies came into play in the late 1990s, planners began to bombard properties with proposals at the touch of a button. The overload, combined with limited hotel staff, prevents properties from reading most eRFPs, forcing them to triage responses and answer only quality leads. And those responses can be late or incomplete — often in a formatted reply instead of a competitive proposal.
Add to that to a seller’s market, with properties knowing they can fill rooms without responding to most eRFPs, and it’s clear that rampant distribution is self-defeating. Yet, the e-blasting continues, causing eRFPs to fall far short of their potential to make planners more efficient and productive.
“Narrowing the field initially demonstrates the value of your meeting to properties, and you get a better response.”
— Christine Shimasaki
There is a heightened awareness that eRFPs are becoming counterproductive for planners. “We haven’t had that perspective because the thinking has been that any eRFP is a good eRFP,” says Christine Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, chair of the Convention Industry Council’s APEX Workgroup on eRFP and managing director of DMAI’s empowermint.com. “However, the current market conditions of limited hotel supply and great demand make hotels much more selective. While it might have seemed like a good thing to send out a bunch of eRFPs, the potential business opportunities they represent aren’t as welcomed by hotels.”
The lack of responses is vexing for planners. “What I hear from them in seminars and other education settings is their frustration about not getting complete, competitive, timely responses,” says Shimasaki. “They feel like the hotels aren’t paying attention to their needs, and it’s all about the properties’ needs.”
Following are recommendations from experts and planners for preparing eRFPs that are more likely to get a response.
First of all, don’t scattershot eRFPs to see which hotels respond and then decide which properties fit best. Instead, first cull the list of hotels to three to five that are the best match. “People think if they check lots of boxes they will save time because they won’t have to go back and forth,” says Shimasaki. “But it may add time to the workload. The more boxes checked, potentially the more responses you get, which means more time to consolidate and present them to stakeholders. Narrowing the field initially demonstrates the value of your meeting to properties, and you get a better response.”
Provide detailed information about each group including its needs and goals. Send a profile of attendees, including demographic information. Also provide at least three years of meeting history that includes the number of attendees, the properties used, size of room blocks and spending on food and beverage. Such information is crucial because it allows properties to estimate the revenue they can generate from a meeting, and that increases the likelihood of a response. Hotels are more like to respond to detailed eRFPs that generate revenue.
Make eRFPs detailed but not long-winded. Experts advise using bullet points that cover the following areas: agenda; sleeping rooms, including suites, corner rooms and ocean rooms; offices; meeting rooms, including breakouts, configurations and rooms for pop-up meetings; AV and technology requirements; concessions needed; date flexibility; food and beverage; room pickup; and setup time.
The setup time requirement is a detail that planners often leave out of eRFPs. “If you have a tight turnaround time, include it and ask if the hotel can handle it,” says Kathy Miller president and chief creative officer of Total Event Resources, a Schaumburg Illinois-based meeting planning company. “I had a situation where a session ended at five and the reception started at six,” says Miller. “The hotel said it could turn the room around within an hour, but all hands on deck were needed at the last minute, and we barely made it.”
In addition, Miller advises planners to include whether they need pre-setup time before the meeting starts. “Tell the hotel if you need, say, two days of pre-setup because you have a 40 x 60 stage or extensive AV and you have to rig into the ceiling,” says Miller. “The hotel needs to consider how setup impacts its bottom line before answering the eRFP.”
When it comes to meeting space dimensions and capabilities, planners can’t be too specific. “We have to be very clear with them on the actual size we need, including the quantity and quality of AV that can be accommodated within a given setup,” says Jay Klein, CMP and COO of A-Plus Meetings and Incentives in Coral Gables, Florida. “We also include the types and number of tables and chairs available, the ability to split and combine rooms as well as change setups between sessions.”
Planners also must be as detailed as possible about another factor that heavily impacts eRFP responses — food and beverage requirements. “We give as much information as we can about food and beverage,” says Miller. “That’s how hotels evaluate whether a meeting is a good piece of business, because most of their revenue comes from food and beverage.”
Being flexible about meeting dates when possible is another key to encouraging timely eRFP responses. Some planners feel that flexibility weakens negotiating ability and encourages hotels to slot meetings into dates that best benefit the property.
Klein disagrees. “Let them know whatever flexibility you have upfront so you are not going back and forth on it,” he says. “I’m a tough negotiator, but I don’t want any surprises from a room-block standpoint. For example, I may tell them my preferred dates, whether I can move plus or minus two weeks, and if the pattern must be Sunday through Wednesday or Monday through Thursday. I ask if they have a better deal on those different dates or patterns.”
Before sending an eRFP, Miller may ask the group if date flexibility should be included, or she may include it on her own, depending on the group. “I don’t see the downside to being flexible,” says Miller. “What usually happens is that planners send dates they want, and hotels respond saying they can’t meet those times and ask if there is flexibility. So why not be flexible upfront? It saves time and you show hotels you are willing to work with them.”
Miller cites an example: “A hotel might say that, for your preferred date, the rate is $229 a night,” she says. “But if I say upfront I can go plus or minus two weeks and can shift the pattern by a day, they may say that if you can shift by a week, you can get $199. That means I’ve found value for my group and provided an option. I’m also helping the hotel because they can fill room holes by offering me a lower rate.”
Shimasaki offers the following advice on meeting-date flexibility: “What we say in the industry is that planners aren’t flexible until you tell them what you can’t give them,” she says. “If not being flexible works, that’s great. But if not, having some forethought about flexibility is important. It’s one of many levers that planners can use. Giving the hotel the ability to propose alternatives and give in on others is good communication. But if the planner holds all the cards close to the vest, it doesn’t develop trust.”
Selectively sending concise eRFPs helps establish good relationships with properties — a key to getting good responses over the long term. Klein finds that using an eRFP format helps conciseness. “It’s typically two or three pages,” says Klein. “They respond to us more quickly because we send something that’s well thought out and doesn’t get lost in the mishmash of eRFPs,” he says. “They know that we don’t randomly send it to 25 properties and are a serious contender for the business, so they pay a bit more attention to us.”
Finally, ask simple questions that can determine whether a property is right for a meeting. “Say you are running a tech meeting and the hotel absolutely must have a certain bandwidth in the ballroom. Asking in the eRFP if the company has that capability can rule the hotel in or out,” he says.
Shimasaki agrees. “Reviewing an eRFP is especially important when it comes to the number of questions planners ask and conditions they want to include,” she says. “I’ve seen eRFPs with 38 questions, which takes a hotelier more than an hour to complete. Take a hard look at what is critical that you need to know.”
Even when planners do everything right, the timeliness and quantity of eRFP responses vary depending on several factors. “The responses are property-dependent and seasonal,” says Klein. “If I send it to 10 properties, maybe in one to three days I’ll have six or seven responses. If a property that I really want to hear from doesn’t respond, then I follow up with an email or phone call. If I don’t get any response, then I assume it’s because of how busy they are or how they are managed.”
Planners don’t want to waste time sending eRFPs that get no responses. Likewise, hotels don’t want to spin their wheels reading eRFPs that are incomplete or don’t match the property. Culling the number of properties beforehand helps reduce the eRFP overload and makes it easier for hoteliers to review requests. In the process, planners will go a long way in improving relationships with properties. C&IT