Small Meetings on the RiseJuly 1, 2015

How Planners Compete for Space, Dates & Rates in a Seller's Market By
July 1, 2015

Small Meetings on the Rise

How Planners Compete for Space, Dates & Rates in a Seller's Market
L’Auberge Del Mar in California

A group event on the rooftop Pacific Terrace at L’Auberge Del Mar in California.

Small meetings — those requiring approximately 10–100 guest rooms on peak night — are the bread and butter for many in-house planners in the insurance and financial industries. From a job security perspective, it’s good for planners that upper management understands the value of meetings, yet a strong appreciation can lead to a proliferation of small meetings with various objectives, thus increasing a planner’s workload.

Small Meetings on the Rise

Lisa Ramsay, CMP, assistant vice president, event and meeting management with Birmingham, Alabama-based Protective Life Insurance Company, notes that small meetings comprise 80–90 percent of the events she plans, and include “everything from sales meetings and product launches to board of directors meetings and senior management meetings.” And since the company’s senior leaders have wanted to increase their outreach to all levels of employees, small meetings have been on the rise. “They want to drill down and meet with employees that wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of contact with senior management,” says Ramsay, “and so have started scheduling small, impromptu meetings, maybe including a lunch, just to discuss ‘what’s keeping you up at night, what’s working, what do we need to change, what are you hearing from other employees?’ ”

A greater appreciation for the value of client-facing meetings also can fill the small-meetings pipeline. Melanie S. Kelman, vice president, event marketing at Atlanta, Georgia-based SunTrust Bank, notes that about 75 percent of the meetings she plans require under 100 guest rooms per night including networking events for private equity firm clients and commercial banking clients. “We have added (planners) to our team because we have grown in that our internal clients understand the value of having meetings and events as a part of their sales process and (establishing) touch points with the clients,” she explains.

Without the addition of new planning staff, a surge in small meetings certainly can create added stress, especially if they come along with short lead times. Such meetings are sometimes called for in the wake of new developments in the company or industry, and internal clients may not want to wait several months to gather the stakeholders.

Short Lead Times

Kim Sky, manager, strategic corporate meetings and events at Chicago, Illinois-based CNA Financial Corpora­tion, notes that a 30- to 60-day lead time is common at her firm. New meetings are scheduled because “the market fluctuates and we have to respond, or maybe some new piece of technology or service comes out and they have to get the word out from their business unit,” she says. “So it’s critical that we stay on top of things and turn (the meetings) around quickly.”

In some cases a planner may be able to obtain longer lead times by clarifying their value to internal clients. “I would honestly say that I have taught our internal clients to understand that in this day and age, we have to plan far in advance since it’s harder to find the space,” says Kelman. “So they understand that we need some lead time — at least six months — or we won’t necessarily find what we want.”

“I think (placing meetings) is a little more challenging because the market’s come back and the hotels are demanding higher rates,” Sky observes. “And the attendee numbers for conventions are back up again, so in major markets like Chicago during peak times, it’s very difficult to get rooms or meeting space.” And even for small meetings, Sky wishes to spare attendees the connecting flights that are sometimes involved in travel to lower tier cities: “If you have people coming from all over the country, you don’t want them spending a day in airports.”

Partner Hotels

The challenge of placing small meetings is typically met through reliable relationships with suppliers, particularly national hotel reps. They’re the first stop for many planners, often with the idea of increasing volume of business with a preferred hotel brand. “The more you send to one of the chains the more buying power you have,” Ramsay says. “So unless the customer that I am planning for says, ‘I want a conference center,’ for example, then I will go to one of my partner hoteliers, one of the three to four that we reach out to.” A good sales rep will not only quickly locate “holes” in hotels’ booking schedules that could accommodate the group, but also seek to reflect the group’s demographic in the property choice. Says Sky, “Maybe it’s a younger, hip group and they don’t care that it be a Ritz-Carlton, they’re not interested in that. They don’t need the chef that won the James Beard Award. They’re more interested in having all the technology they need and being able to hang out at some cool places outside the hotel after the meeting.”

Adapting to a Seller’s Market

The current seller’s market can be especially hard on smaller groups, which don’t represent as much revenue to hotels. The situation calls for planners to be as flexible and accommodating to hoteliers as possible, in terms of meeting dates, meeting space and line items such as F&B.

For example, a smaller group in some cases may be able to use informal meeting spaces on-property at certain times, freeing up formal space for other group clients. Using informal spaces, such as outdoor patios or dining areas, also can be attractive to the group. “Attendees feel more relaxed and I think that can segue into being more creative, as it doesn’t feel like such a staunch type of meeting,” says Ramsay, who often looks for hotels to be resourceful in providing spaces for her small groups.

Guest rooms and suites can serve this function in some cases. “In the financial services industry, we often hold one-on-one meetings using the guest rooms as meeting rooms,” says Kelman, “and so we have to find a property that is able to remove the furniture as well as understand how those meetings are run, because they are run on the guest room floors. There are hotels that specialize in those meetings, typically in your bigger markets like in Boston, New York and San Francisco.” Another option is simply to use the hotel for sleeping rooms and take offsite meeting space; Kelman currently is working on such a program, utilizing the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Trial Runs

Smaller programs have their own objectives of course, yet they also can effectively serve as “trial runs” for larger meetings that could be brought to the hotel. “You can see how your service and response is from the staff, and if they make you feel like you’re the biggest client in house at the time,” Ramsay says. That experience bodes well for future partnerships with the property.

Kelman, for example, notes that SunTrust has moved on to staging two larger programs at a hotel in New York after it successfully hosted a smaller event for the company. During negotiations for the smaller meeting, there may be occasion to mention the prospect of larger business, with the goal of obtaining leverage. “We explain that we are going to continue to come back (to the city), and we also might look at their hotel for other programs,” Kelman says.

Even more effective, of course, is to actually contract for several programs (even if they are all small) with the same hotelier and thereby fix rates. “We’re starting to look at how we can work on multiyear contracts,” says Kelman, “because prices go up every year. So I’m ‘teaching’ my internal clients that once we’ve been at a property at least twice, we should consider doing a multiyear contract so that we can save time and money, because it definitely is a supplier’s market.”

Smaller Hotels

Negotiating favorable deals for small events tends to be easier at smaller properties, where such groups represent a fair-sized piece of business. The onsite experience will tend to be better as well. “We like to use a hotel where it’s easy for our clients to find us. At a bigger hotel, it’s just more of an inconvenience for the client,” Kelman feels. In addition, some planners have experienced lapses in staff attention when meeting at an “oversized” hotel, or logistical challenges, when larger groups are in-house.

Perhaps attendees will have to navigate hallways with thousands of conventioneers in order to find their meeting room, or that room will not be available on schedule because it is still being reconfigured from a breakout that ran late. “And then you have managers that are apologizing to you, and quite frankly all I say to them is, ‘I just want you to do your job,’ ” says Sky. “This is our contracted space, and we are supposed to have it now.”

“As a planner you want to ‘own’ the hotel, you want your meeting to be the biggest fish in that ocean because then you know the staff there is going to focus on it.” — Kim Sky

Thus, she feels that “as a planner you want to ‘own’ the hotel, you want your meeting to be the biggest fish in that ocean because then you know the staff there is going to focus on it. So you don’t want to take 80 people to Las Vegas to a hotel that holds 4,000; it’s going to be tough to get any attention.”

Planning Primer

Apart from the challenges in placing small meetings and negotiating the best deals for them, the programs themselves are typically far less complicated to plan than, say, an annual meeting or incentive trip. Fewer vendors and ancillary activities are involved, and the meetings usually will not call for a significant marketing push, theme, accompanying microsite or app, extensive ROI measurement, and other components that often characterize large meetings. For that reason, small meetings can make suitable projects for junior planners.

Ramsay currently works within a team of three senior-level planners, but she does feel that “if you’ve got a planner that’s not as seasoned as others on your team, driving some of the smaller programs toward that person helps acclimate them and get their feet wet, (since those meetings) are not as intimidating or overpowering.”

As insurance and financial companies continue to call for small gatherings to fulfill various objectives, planning teams may well find more opportunities for junior planners to come in and take the reins.  I&FMM

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