Technology is supposed to make all of us more efficient and productive, but it’s a different story when it comes to the electronic request for proposal. The efficiency is certainly there, as planners can easily send homogenous electronic RFPs to multiple properties at the touch of a button, but in reality, this spam-like exercise is often counter-productive. The time and effort it used to take to prepare and submit targeted, detailed proposals before the online RFP revolution, actually produced far better results.
From the hotel’s perspective, demand is up, it’s a seller’s market, so an avalanche of indiscriminately sent eRFPs is easily dismissed. Most of the electronic requests aren’t read at all or, at the very least, receive a cursory review. Planners are frustrated because hotels don’t reply or they return generic, non-competitive responses that don’t address a planner’s meeting needs. That’s why experts advise that planners send detailed eRFPs to a more narrowly targeted list of properties.
That’s the approach taken by Cynthia Tomei, CMP, CMM, FAHM, senior meeting planner for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. She is planning a two-day meeting for 75 Blue Cross employees in San Diego next year. “I’m not familiar with San Diego hotels,” she says. “So I called a local CVB rep and gave him key information such as the group’s demographics, type of property and amount of space needed, and the distance from the airport required. He gave me about eight hotels that fit. Then I sent an email with a detailed eRFP attached to the CVB and national hotel sales reps, asking to check only the hotels listed.”
All of the hotels responded. “A few asked if they could check another property within their chain that might be appropriate,” says Tomei. “I said okay. I compared the costs and made a selection.”
“We get a significantly high response rate from hotels — 90 percent or better. There are few properties here and there that we want and don’t get. But we do well because we are selective and the hotels are used to that. We tend to work with the same cities over and over.” — Cynthia Tomei
Tomei’s eRFP strategy yields results. “We get a significantly high response rate from hotels — 90 percent or better,” she says. “There are few properties here and there that we want and don’t get. But we do well because we are selective and the hotels are used to that. We tend to work with the same cities over and over.”
Researching and pre-selecting properties before sending eRFPs is efficient for planners as well as hoteliers. “People realize that we take a serious approach to RFPs and that we don’t waste anyone’s time,” says Tomei. “We never send eRFPs shotgun-style to properties that we really don’t want. If nothing comes back then we decide who else to send it to. We have a better chance of getting the business than somebody who checks many hotels in each city.”
Another key part of Tomei’s approach involves giving properties ample lead time to respond to eRFPs. “I give them plenty of time when I can and don’t ask for a quick response for the sake of it,” she says. “If you are realistic about giving them time to respond, then it’s effective. If not, then hotels learn to ignore you because they don’t want to jump through hoops to respond and then get an answer months later or not at all.”
Properties can’t keep up with the deluge of eRFPs from corporate planners, online meeting management platforms and independent planners. During a recent webinar on eRFP issues, a salesperson with a major hotel chain said they are able to respond to only about one-third of eRFPs.
Many eRFPs are redundant or represent groups that don’t actually end up having meetings suggests Christine Shimasaki, CMP, CDME, managing director of Destination Marketing Association International’s empowerMINT. Shimasaki conducts education sessions on eRFP best practices for meeting industry organizations.
Shimasaki observes that properties often receive slightly different eRFPs from different independent planners competing for the same company meeting. “They often send out eRFPs to demonstrate buying power to a client without first securing the meeting business,” says Shimasaki. An important point that hotels want to know is whether an independent is in bid for it or has secured the meeting business. In the corporate world, they sometimes anticipate that the meeting will be held and send out eRFPs, but the meeting stakeholder hasn’t decided whether to actually hold the meeting yet.”
Planners also contribute to the problem by sending incomplete eRFPs. The practice is all too common, according to Shimasaki. During her educational sessions, Shimasaki reminds planners that properties have a tendency to skip over poorly prepared eRFPs. “While they may be responding in low percentages, they respond to ones that completely paint the picture about a business opportunity,” she says. “If a hotel looks at an RFP with 70 hotels on it, they see it as a 1 in 70 chance of winning that business. They look at conversion likelihood. Hotel salespeople are busy, so they pick opportunities they have a greater likelihood of closing. They do triage.”
Shimasaki notes that the triage may be handled by an individual hotel salesperson or a group of decision-makers. “They may have an event strategy or team and take the business to a meeting for discussion,” she says. “When that happens, the worst thing a salesperson can say when asked about information in the eRFP is, ‘I don’t know.’ That diminishes the value of the meeting.”
That’s why Shimasaki advises planners to create thorough proposals when critiquing eRFPs during her educational sessions. “I get some seasoned planners in those sessions and the eRFPs range greatly in how well they are constructed,” she says. “Areas that are lacking the most are a detailed meeting history for at least three years; day-by-day room pick-up history; food and beverage spending; AV needs; hotel room rate history; an event description; and group demographics.”
Shimasaki also reminds planners that a big complaint from properties is the lack of flexibility on meeting dates in eRFPs. “Flexibility is extremely important,” notes Shimasaki. “Hotel books are busy, and they are trying to fit new business in with existing business. Planners often might have a Tuesday arrival pattern, which in some destinations is a deal-breaker. If they can’t demonstrate flexibility like coming in on Monday or Wednesday, then many properties will pass on the RFP because it would deter the hotel from maximizing on its inventory.”
Some planners would like to show meeting date flexibility in their eRFPs but don’t have the final word on doing so. “Usually a group wants to do it on a certain date,” says Marti Fox, CMP, CMM, CPECP, owner of Global Goals Inc., a corporate meeting and incentive travel firm located in Dallas, Texas. “When discussing a group’s needs, my question back to the client is, ‘Do you have any flexibility?” They may say no, or they may say yes, but I want to keep the same days of the week, or we need to do it before or after a certain date.”
Lack of meeting date flexibility in the eRFP can actually hurt a client. “Recently, a group was turned down by five hotels that met the physical needs of the client, but could not meet the exact date pattern,” says Fox. “Do not assume a hotel will take time to counter with alternate dates, as many times they are busy and/or read your request literally. In this case, it was the hotel’s prime season and they were booked for our requested dates. It is good to share flexibility up front when asking a property for space. It saves everyone’s time and may result in better alternatives for your group.”
Most of all, planners are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by failing to submit complete eRFPs. “Hotel occupancy and room demand is very high. It’s clear we are in a seller’s market,” says Shimasaki. “In such times, it behooves planners to make sure they have a well-constructed RFP.”
Some planners turn to third-party eRFP online services to produce more effective eRFPs, track results and cut work time and costs.
Jennifer Vecchi, director, meetings, incentives, conventions and events, for Atlas Travel Meetings & Incentives, located in Milford, Massachusetts, has been gradually transitioning her meeting staff to include online eRFP services. “One of the tasks I’ve put out to my team is to have some people use (two different online providers) and see if there is a different response rate from hotels.”
She believes that eRFP tools used correctly make a planning team more efficient. “If a meeting planner sends out seven eRFPs on a Tuesday, and is in meetings all day on Wednesday, somebody else on the team can be looking in the system to see if the hotels have responded,” says Vecchi. “They can send out reminders, if the hotels haven’t answered. They can download the RFPs received and scrub them for missing information.”
Sending out individual emails manually is more time-consuming. “Planners send an email to a hotel rep,” says Vecchi. “If the planner is out of the office on meetings or busy when the email comes back, then it isn’t answered right away. Furthermore, they have to take a Word document proposal that a hotel sends and start typing important information into an Excel chart to compare them apples-to-apples to other hotels.”
Automated eRFPs also can provide data and performance metrics more efficiently. “We can see how many hours we spend on RFPs and what the response rate is from the hotels,” says Vecchi. “We can track how many RFPs we send to hotels and hotel chains domestically and internationally, and the number of hotels versus resorts, which is important when we’re negotiating contracts on our client’s behalf.”
Here is some additional advice.
Compile a list of hotels that may meet the meeting’s needs. Contact the local CVB to help target the right hotels and get tips on customizing eRFPs to local properties. Narrow the list of hotels and send proposals to the top three to five properties that best fit a meeting’s needs.
Don’t ask too many questions. Some planners ask up to 100 questions. “Do you really need to find out if they will comp you a certain number of guest rooms or meeting space?” says Shimasaki. “Include the deal-breakers, and the rest of it can be negotiated in the contract.”
Make a list of “must haves.” Address areas such as the number of sleeping and meeting rooms, breakouts, seating format, meals, technology requirements and amenities.
Provide at least three years of meeting history. Include the properties, number of attendees and rooms used, and total spending by the group. “Let’s say you provide three years of history and leave one out, or don’t give a history at all,” says Shimasaki. “That plants doubts in a hotel’s mind.”
Don’t mass-produce generic eRFPs. This signals to properties that planners aren’t sure what they are really looking for in a hotel. However, avoiding the practice altogether can be difficult when planning a meeting on a few days’ turnaround, especially in popular destinations, says one planner. The problem is compounded when the meeting stakeholder insists on a particular hotel, she adds. In such cases, “planners almost have to send out many RFPs to get at least a few viable options.”
Tomei makes sure that she identifies her must-haves. “Be very specific about your hot topics or deal-breakers,” she says. “In my case, I want my meeting space to be as condensed as possible. I don’t want to be spread across a variety of rooms.”
Tomei also informs hotels upfront that she wants an agreement not to change the meeting rooms she has selected. “That’s a huge one for us,” says Tomei. “We’ve had too many instances where a hotel has promised something that fit and then wants to change it.”
Sending eRFPs to foreign destinations requires patience and careful attention to how words may be interpreted. “Don’t assume that some of our U.S. business lingo carries through to different languages,” advises Fox. “Allow more time for responses. I would say give up to a minimum of five days for a response. They don’t necessarily work at the same speed we do, and they may be translating your RFP. That’s important especially if it’s not a United States-based hotel chain that is used to meeting the same requirements as their stateside counterparts.”
Follow-up with a phone call after 24 hours. This is especially important for unique requirements. “Everything doesn’t fit neatly into an online eRFP format,” says Fox. “A meeting I’m planning now wants a U-shaped setup for 40 people with an additional 100 in a theater-style around them. I’ve found few eRFP formats that allow you space to further explain the details. For this situation, I will include in the RFP how much square footage the format will take, maybe include a diagram and follow with details in a phone call. A picture is worth 10,000 words, even a hand drawing.”
Fox cites another example: “I just received a client request on Wednesday,” says Fox. “The room set was missing for the general session for 250 people. I didn’t know whether he wanted it theater-style, classroom-style or crescent-style. Needless to say, I garnered a lot more information on the subsequent phone call with my client before I sent an RFP to the hotels.”
The experts suggest that planners should continue to educate themselves on how to improve the eRFP process to yield a high response rate and successful outcome. I&FMM