Establishing and maintaining good relationships with suppliers and vendors is crucial because they implement so many visible and behind-the-scenes details that can make or break meetings.
In addition, sour relationships with suppliers can damage a planner’s professional “brand” within the industry.
It’s no wonder that every planner wants trusted suppliers and vendors who buy into the vision for a meeting, performs seamlessly as part of a team, and meets deadlines while providing top-notch service.
Creating successful short-term, one-off relationships with vendors can be challenging enough. However, building thriving long-term planner-supplier relationships can be even more problematic.
“There has to be a two-way dialogue to enable trust and commitment from each party.” Linda Nelson, CMP
Potential conflicts include work and contract disagreements, lack of communication, personality conflicts and poor performance. Navigating such pitfalls is a key to successful planner-supplier relationships.
The benefits of maintaining good relationships with vendors include valuable help they can provide to resolve emergencies. That’s especially true regarding hotels, which can become a planner’s advocate in time of need if the relationship is solid.
One such instance occurred during a meeting planned by Jennifer Collins, CMP, president and CEO of Silver Spring, Maryland-based JDC Events.
“We had an instance where we needed more equipment than was contracted due to changing needs and desires onsite,” Collins says. “We were traveling with our supplier, who brought with them what was planned in advance. Because we had good relations with them, and they were just as invested as we were in our client’s success, they rented additional equipment at no cost to us.”
Collins says the long-term connection with the vendor saved the day.
“Had we not developed a strong relationship with them, including using them on more than one occasion and being fair in our working relations, this may not have turned out the same way,” Collins says. “We believe that our vendors are partners and critical to the success of our events.”
Ashley Case, director of client services, Meetings + Incentives, for La Jolla, California-based based Cadence Travel, provides the following example involving a hotel renovation delay.
“Because of the delay, the hotel did not have enough rooms completed to host our group,” Case says. “We were notified that the group would need to be relocated just eight days prior to arrival. With some creative negotiation, the hotel relocated the rooms and events to a nearby sister property of a higher caliber.”
The hotel also covered several costs. “They paid to rebrand all signage, hosted client rental cars and spa treatments, comped the group’s welcome event bar and provided room credits with apology letters to guests,” Case says. “The hotel also added entertainment and lawn games to a reception and covered all additional transportation costs to the new location.”
Case says her relationship with the hotel helped sidestep disaster. “We were certainly thankful for our long-term partnership with this brand and their sales team for their willingness to work with our needs head-on and find the flexibility we required to make this near-catastrophe a success.”
Mary Sue Leathers, president, Meetings and Incentives for Savage, Minnesota-based ALTOUR, cites another incidence involving a group of 350 that booked a sales meeting at a five-star property owned by a company that she worked with for decades.
“We were able to cancel and re-book without penalty two times over an 18-month period,” Leathers says. “Then when the group had to cancel 60 days out, we were able to reduce the penalty from what was stated in the contract due to the relationship with the hotel.”
Some relationships with suppliers are so valuable that a planner will bail out vendors who have made mistakes.
Collins recently experienced a situation in which a vendor partner didn’t provide an accurate estimate for its services far enough in advance.
“This meant that we didn’t fully budget for their work,” Collins says. “However, because we had some cushion in our budget, and they were a good partner, we were able to make adjustments that didn’t provide full funding, but enough to make up some of the deficit. This approach is definitely an exception done on a case-by-case basis. In other instances, this may be a loss for the vendor.”
Creating and maintaining productive long-term connections with suppliers requires effort from planners on several fronts, including transparency about the upfront costs. Planners agree that providing thorough and realistic budget figures can set the tone for teamwork.
According to Collins, “Transparency is vital in establishing a good working relationship with vendor partners. It can also streamline the decision-making process by understanding priorities, highlighting areas of negotiation and knowing how to give and take. This creates a sense of fairness and trust, which is the lifeblood of any partnership.”
Case agrees. “Being upfront about budget requirements allows both parties to be consultants and make the best recommendations,” Case says. “It also shows trust and partnership, as it saves everyone time. Vendors aren’t spending time proposing items out of the client’s realm and the planner isn’t grabbing pieces from a lengthy proposal and desperately trying to negotiate down later.”
Case thinks developing a true partnership should be a planner’s goal. “If the goal of both parties is ‘How can we provide the most ‘wow’ with this number?’ then you’re not only going to have a fabulous event, but a great partnership going forward.”
Danielle Miles, manager of conferences and meetings for Minneapolis, Minnesota-based metroConnections, an event services and conference company, also thinks long-term relationships and valuable input from third-party suppliers can result from budget transparency.
“From a third-party perspective, budget transparency and accuracy are critical in establishing good, long-term relationships,” Miles says. “Through careful consideration of each line item, a third-party has an opportunity to use historical information to make highly impactful recommendations. Building trust will go a long way when the pennies shake out at the end of an event.”
Repeatedly asking, “Can you do better?” can lead to mutual frustration, prevent an agreement and forestall a potentially beneficial long-term relationship. Instead, offer a bottom-line number and say something like, “If the price comes down to the number, then we may have an agreement.”
Clarity in negotiating helps establish good communication, another key factor in creating productive long-term relationships.
Failure to establish open and frequent communication, especially about the details of services and deadlines, can result in big problems later. That’s why it’s best to communicate with vendors before, during and after meetings to make them part of the team and ensure they share its goals and vision.
Collins thinks planners should provide vendor partners with a full briefing of the event prior before it starts.
“This process would help the vendor fully digest the scope of what’s required and allow mobilization of resources,” Collins says. “During the event process, the vendor should be included in regular meetings and discussions on site visits and other interactions so that they are fully invested in the success of the program.”
Linda Nelson, CMP, president and CEO of Asheville, North Carolina-based To Plan Ahead, has a strategy for establishing good communications.
“I like to meet with them individually so I can better outline the bigger picture and what the various steps will be,” Nelson says. “There has to be a two-way dialogue to enable trust and commitment from each party. Once I have everyone on board, I set up a series of conference calls as a way of ensuring everyone remains on the same page and stays invested in the conference.”
According to Case, planners should communicate with vendors clearly, with detail and often.
“Start with the goals of the event, budget, timeline and an ideal agenda, but allow room for vendors to make recommended adjustments to enhance the program and meet goals,” Case says. “Hold a pre-conference meeting where the goals and the vision of the event are reviewed again, along with the usual run of show to ensure the details don’t overshadow the big picture.”
Leathers adds that it’s crucial that planners communicate early on that the goal of the vendor should be to exceed the planner’s expectations. Planners offer the following advice to improve communication with vendors before, during and after meetings.
Share meeting goals and expectations for service, work quality and improvement.
During planning, periodically check in with suppliers on their progress.
Introduce the stakeholder or client to vendors because it will make them more feel more invested in the meeting’s result.
Communicate by phone in addition to email to maintain a personal connection. That’s especially true for bad news. According to Case, “If there is a shift or change, tell them by phone. Difficult news by email doesn’t translate well and certainly doesn’t demonstrate strong partnerships. You can always send a recap email to have it in writing.”
Conduct post-meeting reviews of vendor performance. Discuss execution, budget, what succeeded, what didn’t and what can be improved. Also review how the relationship can be strengthened. Let vendors know that continued improvement is expected.
Case thinks a review is especially important if there is the possibility of a long-term relationship.
“A post-conference meeting with key vendors is important, not only to celebrate the successes but to identify the areas of improvement and how communication could be improved in the future,” says Case. “In a true partnership, a well-done program review will leave everyone feeling respected and excited about working together in the future.”
Even the best of supplier-planner communication can’t prevent disagreements and conflicts, which are often related to hotel contracts.
Conflicts with hotels often result from different perspectives.
“A planner may be reading something in the contract one way that may benefit the client,” Case says. “A hotel will be looking at it from a different angle or from a revenue management perspective. I always find that it’s best to prioritize the client’s needs and be upfront with the vendor.”
Case takes a balanced and direct approach to conflicts.
“If it’s a major hot button, then express that and look for something you can trade back that your client may not even use,” Case says. “Also, look at other elements your client may be bringing to the vendor post-contract, as the vendor may not be aware of additional opportunities with add-on items or future business.”
Her bottom-line philosophy: “I look at these situations as if the vendor’s business is my business and propose what is reasonable for both sides.”
Nelson cites an example of a contract conflict with a hotel.
“I had a hotel contact that clearly stipulated ‘No meeting space may be reassigned by the hotel without prior written approval from the client,’” Nelson says. “Two months from the meeting, the hotel contacted me to say they had double-booked the room we were scheduled for our general session with a large evening dinner which needed several hours set-up time.”
After some back-and-forth, Nelson settled the matter. “In an effort to maintain and build on the relationship we had developed with the hotel, we agreed to move our meeting to a different room even though we knew it was not as ideal as the room we had secured,” Nelson says. “Additionally, we received several concessions from the hotel.”
Miles says nailing down contract specifics before signing can help prevent serious conflicts.
“Be sure to spell out items in the contracting phase on how conflicts will be resolved,” Miles says. “Include clauses like a dispute/prevention clause and/or a clause outlining liquidated damages should the contract be breached by either party. Managing expectations on the front end of the contract is much easier to do than after a problem arises.”
Perhaps the ultimate challenge for planners is building and maintaining good relationships with vendors while demanding good pricing and service.
Collins acknowledges the dilemma. “We sometimes are faced with clients who want to squeeze vendors dry in trying to get as much as they can for nothing,” Collins says. “We are careful about these situations since we work with these vendors over the long term. We work hard to educate our clients on the overall value of vendors as well as industry standards and operations.”
Nelson offers the following advice:
“The best strategies for me are all about being fair but firm and also being well informed. Before I start negotiations, I find out what their ideal piece of business looks like, rooms to meeting space ratio, meeting pattern, time of year, size of group and so on. Then I can better determine how my piece of business will be received by them.” Nelson also seeks to determine whether the hotel’s bottom line is based purely on profit or something else.
Planners agree that a balanced approach works best, and offer the following advice:
Drive a hard bargain but don’t squeeze too hard. Even if high-pressure tactics result in record low prices, it doesn’t make the vendor feel good about the job, hurts the chances for a long-term relationship, and damages the planner’s “brand” among vendors.
Compare vendor proposals and show them to all parties to encourage competition. Don’t accept an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all proposal.
Recommend top-performing vendors to other planners and let vendors know it. This builds good will which may be useful in the future.
Thorough vetting is one of the best ways to increase the chances of having a good relationship with vendors.
Ask suppliers for references and pose the following questions:
Does the vendor provide planners with timely feedback on the progress of projects and potential problems?
Are there examples of the supplier anticipating the needs of planners or responding well to an emergency?
How does the vendor handle unexpected problems?
Is the person straightforward about prices and services?
Is there a reputation for submitting accurate proposals without lowballing or inflating prices?
Is the vendor transparent about prices and rates?
Planners say building good relationships with suppliers is about “give and take” without compromising meeting goals and standards and making them feel like part of the team.
Wendy Burk, founder and CEO of Cadence Travel, says the bottom line for a planner is doing business honestly and with respect for all parties. “We view our suppliers as partners, instead of a means to an end. When you refer to someone as your partner, you make a very clear statement about working towards a common goal. Transparency is just one key component of a successful relationship that also includes things like listening well, being open to new ideas, feedback and, of course, genuine caring for the other party.”
As Miles puts it, “Look to your suppliers as strategic partners. When you find good suppliers treat them well and they will do the same in return. By maintaining a good relationship, they become loyal and are more apt to negotiate price based on the good history of the relationship.” C&IT