Have you ever worked with a supplier or venue who meshes so well with your needs and requirements that it’s simply startling? You know the ones – they are organized, effective and deliver on their promises each and every time. They are the venues and suppliers you turn to time and time again because of their exceptional products and services.
Being a meeting planner often requires a person to be a project manager, emergency preparedness specialist and crisis management expert – all rolled into one. Even the most organized association meeting planner shudders when thinking of managing the details of the event alone, so many turn to a core group of vendors, suppliers and venues – people they know they can trust and who will do an effective job in facilitating an event. But what key elements go into finding that “perfect” supplier or venue?
Quite simply, securing a quality supplier or venue is part art, part science. And there are undoubtedly key characteristics – from quality and reputation to contract flexibility to accessibility – that meeting professionals look for in their chosen vendor partners.
According to Catherine Chaulet, president and CEO of Global DMC Partners, when securing a supplier partner for a program, the closer to the location this partner is, or the more connections this partner has, the better.
“This means they do enough business to be relevant and have all of the critical relationships necessary to ensure a program’s success. Our industry is all about connections,” Chaulet says. “Working with connected, on-the-ground partners is the way to ensure planners will have the best resources available to them.”
Once an association meeting planner establishes a comfortable, communicative relationship at the onset of the partnership with a supplier, they’ll likely prevent any issues down the road. Also making sure to thoroughly evaluate the supplier or venue organization as a whole, taking into account similar work styles, accessibility, company culture, transparency, stability and ensuring they fit into the budget, is paramount.
A mistake some meeting planners may make when trying to evaluate a supplier is conducting adequate research on the company. Without doing their due diligence and spending time researching the company, the supplier/client partnership can fall short of the planner’s expectations. That’s where “reputation” comes into play.
As far as the quality and reputation of a supplier or venue, there are some key aspects that planners look for in their chosen partner. How meeting planners obtain this objective information is key to ensure the overall success of an event.
Chaulet says that it is essential for planners to perform background checks on suppliers at multiple levels, i.e. insurance, finances, reputation and expertise, and to continue evaluations on an ongoing basis.
“Very often, a planner will work with a vendor once or twice, and then many months or years later, the planner will go back to the vendor,” Chaulet says. However, many things may have changed in the meantime that can make this vendor not as strong.”
Indeed, meeting planners should look at the level of expertise a supplier or venue has in their field. Are they fairly new to the event industry? What type of reviews have they received online? Most planners want to partner with professionals who have a deep understanding of event logistics, production and management of an event – from start to finish. It’s essential that they have experience in handling similar events and a strong track record of success.
A potential supplier’s reputation within the industry should reflect a team that consists of skilled, knowledgeable, and reliable professionals. This includes both their core team and any supporting staff or subcontractors involved. Be sure to ask other event professionals for recommendations of suppliers and venues in the area. Word-of-mouth referrals are often the best indicators of success.
Elizabeth Maddox, director of conference and events services at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and Kelly Frere, senior manager of contracts and event Services at ASCE, work diligently to secure suppliers and venues that exude professionalism and expertise for the events they orchestrate for ASCE.
“Planners look for vendors that can be good partners. They should have good communication, provide the resources requested and have transparent pricing,” Maddox says. “Information about vendors can be found through internet research, connecting with other planners in person, on message boards, etc.”
For Frere, communication and openness is key when assessing the quality of a supplier. “Your vendors should be able to answer any question that you may have and be able to explain why they can (or can’t) do something that you requested,” she says.
With that said, for many planners, timely and efficient communication on the part of the potential supplier is paramount. Seeking venues and suppliers that are quick to respond to inquiries, and proactive in their approach of contract negotiations is important. They also need to be responsive to any identified concerns or requests on the part of the planner.
One element Maddox and Frere evaluate when securing suppliers is their location and proximity to an event. As Maddox explains, location and air access are impacted by many factors: Who is the audience? What is the event’s purpose? What type of local support is needed? More prevalent now, is the airlift sustainable?
“An annual event often wants a location with a good airlift, it must be easy for attendees to get there, and even once they get there, what are the transportation issues to the venue?” Maddox asks.
Frere adds that local suppliers are better for certain items. As she explains, a local DMC can be a helpful one-stop shop for a multitude of services, including transportation and temporary staffing.
“Using a local printer can help cut delivery costs and are in close proximity to your event if an issue arises,” Frere says. “However, there are vendors that you have relationships with where location and air access aren’t a consideration. If you have a primary audio/visual vendor that you prefer to use, where they’re located probably doesn’t factor into your decision.”
You also need to evaluate where most of the attendees are traveling from. For example, if the majority of attendees will be arriving from the East Coast, then you may not want to select a venue in Southern California as the travel time to and from the meeting or event could be exhaustive for attendees.
Today, most meeting and event proposals (and their request for proposal counterpart) average a dozen or more pages in length and are often supplemented with association brochures, NDAs or other contract-type documents. From the event planner’s point of view, writing a request for proposal (RFP) can be one of most time-consuming and difficult challenges they face, but it is vital when establishing a cohesive contract with a supplier or venue.
“Planners need to be sure they have clearly defined their needs in the RFP. When they get to the contract, it is important to identify clear deadlines, timelines and make sure there are no hidden costs,” Maddox says.
In fact, for many planners, the type of contact that is put forth by a supplier and/or venue after they have received the RFP can often make or break a deal. Often planners find hotels or venues use standard “cookie cutter” contract/RFP responses and don’t take the time to prepare a custom response. That’s why it’s important to look for properties that are willing to take the extra time and respond with the same level of detail that a meeting or event team has prepared and requested in the original RFP.
“Contract negotiation is extremely difficult, especially if you work internationally. Ultimately, a good contract should be a win-win and a fair one for both parties,” Chaulet says.“If a vendor pushes back hard on some elements, review it and try to understand what their reasoning is. Very often, there is a way to balance risks and opportunities and ensure that both parties feel 100% confident with the contract.”
Also, Chaulet suggests using existing relevant contract templates as much as possible to avoid the unnecessary back and forth exercises around contract terms that are inadequate for specific programs.
“The biggest factors when moving to contract include meeting the requested needs and the overall cost. For many organizations good mutually agreed clauses, such as indemnification, deposit/payment schedule and force majeure are key,” Maddox says. Frere also suggests planners make sure the supplier or vendor is willing to negotiate the agreement.
“Your organization may have clauses that need to be included and a vendor should be willing to work with you to add some version of that language into the agreement,” Frere says.
For example, some meeting planners look for venues and suppliers who offer flexibility in payment terms such as staggered payments or the ability to negotiate payment schedules based on specific milestones or deliverables. This flexibility allows for better financial planning on the part of both the event planner and the association that is ultimately paying the bill. Associations often have budget constraints, so flexibility in payment schedules is often readily embraced by the organization.
And creating an extensive contract that clearly defines the role each entity will play is imperative. You need a firm understanding of what each supplier is going to do in terms of delivery, set up, cleaning and other labor involved. And thoroughly read through the final contract. Don’t leave anything to chance and don’t assume anything. Be sure the contract includes the unique specifications required, cancellation fees and payment terms within the contract.
In addition to conducting a thorough evaluation of a potential supplier by connecting with other meeting professionals for their opinions, it is vital to perform due diligence by thoroughly researching a supplier or venue via the internet, as well as turning to CVBs or DMCs for supplier and venue recommendations. Is the vendor capable of executing the scope of work in a quality fashion. What have other customers or planners said? Remember, the supplier’s logo, brand and other marketing materials, regardless of how well-designed, have very little correlation to high performance.
“Using planner communities, webpages and internet reviews can give you a good picture of services,” Maddox says.
Frere points out that some planners make their supplier and venue decision based on one factor (such as price) without looking at the whole picture. “For example, if you chose a vendor solely based on costs even though you’ve read a number of negative reviews about their work, chances are you’ll encounter those same issues at your event.”
And remember that a relationship with a vendor or supplier is just that – a relationship – and so both parties need to consider it as a partnership and work together to make a meeting or event successful.
While an association event or meeting may only last a few hours or a few days, it is important to strive for a solid relationship between planners and suppliers. Building a relationship between an event planner and a service provider, whether that is a hotel or a caterer, is an investment for both parties.
Planners agree that one way of accomplishing this is via open, honest and respectful communication between the all parties – the meeting planners, vendors, association staff, suppliers – on a frequent basis to identify continuous improvement opportunities throughout the event planning and implementation stages. Depending on the size of the event and how long the planning stage lasts, the team should communicate regularly and use tools such as MS Teams, MS Sharepoint or Slack to effectively communicate throughout the process. | AC&F |