Some say that in business, relationships are everything. Of course, that may not always be true in an age of electronic transactions, but most planners agree that positive working relationships are a key to successful meetings. When it comes to vendors, such a sentiment may be a no-brainer.
“Building relationships with vendors is critical to a meeting planner’s success,” says Leslie Wong, CMP, who plans meetings as director of new markets and business development for HoneyBook, a San Francisco software firm. “The success of the relationship relies on both parties wanting to understand the business of the client beyond the short-term need.” She notes that understanding the brand and long-term objectives is essential to make smart recommendations and discover solutions.
“When I create deeper relationships with vendors, we experience the mutual benefits of what I consider a partnership,” Wong says, adding that this is definitely the case with a firm that serves as an exhibit partner.
“We brainstorm prior to any big project in our office, which is key to understanding our brand, product, long-term plans and business objectives,” she says. “Because of this, they create unique solutions that meet my goals, and we benefit from building a foundation for long-term business.”
Wong says clear communication is a must in vendor relationships. “As a meeting planner, be clear about your business objectives with vendors from the beginning so that you’re speaking towards the same goal,” she says. “This will align everything from budgeting to execution.” It also pays to over-communicate and plan buffers in budget and time, if possible. If you can, allow a cushion so that you don’t find you and your vendors against a wall,” she says. This could include load-in and load-out times, delivery times and budget.
“When dealing with unforeseen circumstances and disruptions, we are in the trenches together, and we need to have confidence that we can really rely on our vendors as part of our own team.”
— Marty Doyle
Marty Doyle, senior director of travel experiences at Dittman Incentive Marketing in New Brunswick, New Jersey, sees similar value in fostering positive relationships. “From hoteliers to DMC representatives, the travel vendors we select must be able to act as an extension of our organization and deliver services we can count on,” he says.
Doyle explains that the stronger the relationship, the more likely the vendor will understand clients’ needs and rise to meet them. “We see our clients as our partners and are always working to establish the same sense of partnership with our vendors,” he says. “When dealing with unforeseen circumstances and disruptions, we are in the trenches together, and we need to have confidence that we can really rely on our vendors as part of our own team.”
He notes that before pursuing a vendor relationship, it’s wise to be rigorous in the selection process. “A vendor partner must not only be able to provide creative ideas and onsite support, but should also be financially sound, have good infrastructure and offer an experienced team,” he says.
Once a vendor is selected, being clear about program expectations and client preferences gets everyone off to a good start. “Let everyone involved know that you want and respect their ideas and recommendations,” he says. “But be clear about your own knowledge of the client, as well as the tone and scope of the event.”
He adds that developing the program collaboratively, with frequent check-ins to make sure everyone is on track and on the same page, will help in assuring everyone’s best efforts.
Positive relationships are important regardless of the size of the business, according to Jeffrey Cesari, CMP, president of Industrious Meetings, with offices in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. “As a small business, we realize we don’t have the power of a well-known name,” he says. “But because we have built relationships with other vendors over the years, we have a history and relationship.” He feels it’s helpful to have an existing vendor vouch for his firm when working with a new vendor. Similarly, it’s a plus to be able to rely on relationships built up over time.
“I can pick up the phone or text a long-time contact when I’m in jam,” he says.
Cesari relates a recent instance where a client who was hosting a board meeting had a last-minute equipment need, letting him know at 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening that it was needed Monday morning at 9 a.m.
“The hotel was wonderful to help us get in touch with their in-house AV company, but they only had limited equipment onsite,” he recalls. Along with the basic equipment, a Gentner box (telecommunications interface) was needed to allow the audience in the room and the presenter to have a dialogue.
Relying on a long-standing vendor relationship, Cesari texted the national sales representative for his equipment provider and explained the situation. Within an hour, he received confirmation that the desperately needed equipment was going to be delivered Sunday evening.
“If the relationship wasn’t in place, I don’t think that would have happened, and ultimately the content of this important meeting would have been compromised,” he says.
Even less dramatic situations deserve gestures of gratitude, Cesari adds. “I’m a big advocate of saying thank you and showing my appreciation,” he says. “After a meeting, we thank our clients and stakeholder, but we also make a point to send a handwritten thank you note to our key vendors.”
In considering the nuances of a great relationship, views from different angles of the planning process can be informative. Along with the thoughts of experienced planners, the perspectives of hotel contacts and others who work with planners can be revealing. That’s the case with tips such as those provided by Keryn Veripapa, director of sales at the Ritz-Carlton New York, Westchester.
“Anyone who has ever planned an event knows how important vendors are to its success,” she says. That makes fostering teamwork and a trusting relationship vital even if time-consuming, she notes. “Relationships need to be fostered and take time to grow and develop,” she says. When planners engage with the vendors, the vendors become more vested in the event and are encouraged to share responsibility in the success of the program.”
Veripapa says that establishing a mutually beneficial relationship is critical. If both the vendor and the planner see the benefit, they will be equally dedicated to the program. At the same time, mutual respect and appreciation go far in fostering a good working relationship. “Very seldom do people grow tired of hearing someone say thank you,” she says. “So it goes a long way.”
Veripapa recalls booking a program with a client who said upfront not to expect repeat business since the preference was to use a different hotel each year. But through the booking and planning process the two developed a positive relationship, while her team developed a similarly strong relationship with the host of the meeting. “Since we executed a very successful program for them, they’ve been coming back for five years now,” she says. “When you have common ground and understand the clients’ needs, you gain their trust and their loyalty.”
Elizabeth Nelson, director of catering sales at the JW Marriott Indianapolis, advises treating vendors like coworkers. She says that all the vendors you retain are an extension of your business and brand. “A vendor’s work or products are usually one of the first visual aspects clients come in contact with,” she says. “You want your vendors to care about your business and brand as much as you do, and having a good relationship with each vendor can make you stand out to clients more than the competition.
Nelson points out that there will always be some sort of last-minute need or client emergency. “Having those good relationships can help get you out of a pinch,” she says. “This also helps with referrals. We like to share clients that may be a good fit for a particular vendor and in fact make recommendations all the time.”
Nelson tells of a situation where the hotel’s catering manager was working with a third-party meeting planner on an event. During the contract development stage, the meeting planner failed to mention that there was a commissionable room rate. By the time this came to light, the event had already been contracted, and the planner was not able to collect the commission. The result, not surprisingly, was a strained relationship. Such problems can be avoided, she notes, if all parties read and re-read all contracts and make sure there is upfront discussion regarding any fees or commissions that might be payable.
Nelson says that the knowledge vendors bring can be a boon. “We are all experts in our field, but everyone hits a creative block sometimes,” she says. “Reaching out to vendors as a creative resource and talking through ideas can help everyone excel.”
Building great relationships with vendors and business partners is a must, says Alison Pearl Yassky, PR and marketing coordinator of the Castle Hotel and Spa in Tarrytown, New York. “They give us a support network to further our business. Partnerships with various business contacts encourage positive interactions that are mutually beneficial. In fact, we recently hosted a great relationship-building event between planners and our preferred vendors that was very well received.”
Staying in touch over time is also a good practice, according to Nelson. “Keep vendors as a resource and don’t just call them when you need something,” she says. “I like to stay in touch on a personal level, which I’ve found has led to some great business and wonderful events.”
Yassky also says that ongoing contact is a basic requirement. “Touch base with the vendors on a regular basis,” she says. “Take an interest beyond the business aspect by getting to know more about their personal lives. When you get to know one another better, you are better able to partner up on business pursuits.”
Offering value also is key, according to Yassky. She says that strong business relationships often occur when both parties are able to offer value. “Instead of only looking at how the vendors can help us, we consider the value that we offer to them,” she says. “In some cases, simply listening and offering business advice is the key value we add to the relationship. With a vendor, an opportunity for value is to provide new contacts or potential customers.”
Yassky notes that while a meeting planner can be extremely helpful as another person on top of organizing the details of an event, information can get lost in translation when multiple parties are involved. When it comes to pricing, she says, there are details where it is vital that the communication only flow through the venue and the hosts. “Information can easily get passed along incorrectly when it goes through a chain of people,” she says. “As a meeting planner, it would be helpful to make sure the client knows when it comes to specific details and pricing, that it’s best just to contact the event and sales manager directly.”
Yassky adds that good listening skills are also vital. “Actively listening to what vendors and other business contacts tell you is a large part of the communication process,” she says. “Show that you are willing to step back and let others speak while you take it all in.”
Even more important is building trust.“ Trust and honesty fuel a positive relationship with both vendors and partners in the business world,” Yassky says. “If you fail to interact honestly with your contacts, you develop a sense of mistrust that may cause vendors and partners to be guarded around you.”
While it’s obviously important to meet business needs, treating others with respect is an imperative with which everyone can agree. And besides being the right thing to do, it can pay off in the long run.
“The meetings industry is small,” Cesari says. “One day, that vendor may be a client or even a co-worker. So always be respectful, regardless if the contact is a vendor, client or peer.” C&IT