If there’s one thing we’ve heard in a multitude of interviews about the work of planning and executing meetings, it’s that the job is made easier and better when planners have solid relationships and partnerships to rely on. But it’s not just true for planners. CVBs, DMCs, hotels and other venues also benefit from partnerships.
“Strong partnerships are essential to ensuring the successful outcomes we seek,” Clinton Harris, national conventions, meetings & travel manager with Ace Hardware, in Sandwich, IL, said. “We rely on the partnerships we build as an extension of our team to deliver the quality programs we create. For us, it starts with the CVBs but doesn’t end there. Our CVB partners are our first stop on the journey for our conventions. They’re the gateway to convention centers and hotel partners, as well as DMCs.”
It’s through his relationship with CVBs that Harris is able to forge new and lasting relationships, particularly with headquarter hotels and hotel brand partners.
“On the meetings side of our company, our national hotel brand partnerships are instrumental in exploring new and exciting properties for future events, and they act on our behalf when we encounter challenges,” he said. “It’s through those relationships that we develop additional ones with the DMC community.”
“Communication is an overused word but sometimes underutilized as well,” Harris said. “Whether you’re casting a wide net as in citywide events or more narrow specific locations, it all starts with reaching out and beginning a dialogue with the people you’re interested in. Most will be happy to set up meetings, lunches and dinners to understand your needs and where they may be able to fit into those needs. Once you establish that initial communication, you can then decide what course the relationship takes from there. Sometimes, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to get to the prince or princess but putting in the time will pay dividends down the road.”
Harris notes that follow-up is equally important.
“I think it’s important for your reputation, and respectful, to follow up accordingly,” he said. “If a venue or property is not a good fit, display courtesy in letting them know. It frees them up to pursue other opportunities, and it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition to communication, Harris said the way to develop and keep partnerships is to be yourself and to be honest. “Don’t window-dress the opportunity to make it seem more than it is. The other side of the coin is to not try and shoehorn an event into a space unless you absolutely have no other options. Hotels love loyalty. Don’t we all? That loyalty, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and get the best deal for your company. That’s what we’re all paid for. Often that loyalty pays dividends other than financial. Dividends, such as access, moving other groups around to accommodate yours or sneak peaks into what is coming next, should not be discounted. It’s not always about the dollars, although the dollars help too!”
Carolynne Broomhead, CEO of the Toplandi Group, in Gaithersburg, MD, works closely with many hotels and venues across the world but said that it doesn’t mean she has a close relationship with all of them.
“I don’t have a close relationship with every hotel in every city and salespeople in hotels tend to have high turnover in each city,” she said.
But, she added, the value of the relationships she does have begins with speedy response times.
“My clients are very busy. I always say that they’ll have a response from me within an hour and responses from hotels within 24 hours,” she said. “My clients like to make quick decisions and start the planning portion of the event. You can’t put a price on that, so definitely the speed to market has created a strong partnership with certain CVBs and hotels. There are certain hotels that I avoid completely because I know they will never respond. There are certain hotels and CVBs that I will recommend to clients and end up booking there.”
She has found the CVB in Arlington, VA to be very helpful and gets a response back within 24 hours.
She recommended Long Beach to a client because “it is a thriving, up-and-coming city,” and also because she likes working with someone she developed a relationship with that works at their CVB. She has known the woman for 20 years, working with her in various cities and, she said, when she moved to Long Beach, she knew that she would take care of her group during the site visit and gather hotel responses quickly and efficiently.
CVBs and hotels benefit from strong relationships as well.
“The upside for vendors to develop strong partnerships with planners is the number of meetings we can provide and the direct link to the client,” Broomhead said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to get your foot in the door with some clients; however, third-party planners have very strong relationships with their clients. I have around 20 clients and am not a large company. I love all of my clients and have personal relationships with each and every one. They trust me with their meetings and when I suggest a certain hotel or city, they’ll take my word and go with it first.
They know that I’ve been in the industry forever and a day and have developed strong partnerships with hotels and CVBs and wouldn’t steer them wrong. Second, I’m personally invested in my clients and their events, so they know, if I make a recommendation, there are a million great reasons why.”
In addition to CVBs and hotels, Broomhead said it’s also important to develop strong relationships with outside AV companies.
“In-house AV is pretty expensive, and we can typically get an outside vendor fee waived,” she said. “It’s good to get a quote from an outside vendor to either have the hotel match the bid or go with an outside company to save on costs. National representatives at each hotel brand are also a great partnership to establish.”
Broomhead suggests industry organizations as a great place to start developing partnerships.
“There are so many wonderful trade shows throughout the year, but I make sure not to miss IMEX in Vegas,” she said. “I’ve booked so many events through meeting people at IMEX. You make appointments over a three-day period with hotels, CVBs, national reps, venues and attractions. Through these meetings, I’ve met so many new people. Just being on the show floor is exciting because you run into people from all over the world that you’ve never met before, or you know them but they’ve moved on from their previous position. We chat about how we can partner again in the future. This is a regular occurrence during the show.”
Broomhead mentioned that once you have developed partnerships, you have to maintain them. Like Harris, she emphasizes communication.
“I think the best and most productive way to leverage strong partnerships is to schedule a temperature check every few months either via email or a phone call,” she said. “We’re all busy doing a million things but just to check in now and then to get updates on events and clients is so important. Keeping the line of communication open is key and I treat my partnerships with CVBs/hotels/vendors just like I do with my clients. I try to respond to all emails I receive before the end of the day because these partnerships are a two-way street.”
Partnerships, she added, always matter, even in times when hotels hold most of the cards.
“It helps to have conversations about what works and what doesn’t and what we can do to make it work,” she said. “Responsiveness is the most important part of my business and if a hotel or partner CVB said that they can’t make something work, I want to know why. Having a strong relationship is key to those types of conversations. If my group doesn’t fit, what can we do together to make it work and have it be a win-win for both the hotel, CVB and the client? There have been times when I’ve been turned down and I want to know why. The partner would say something along the lines of ‘we can’t make a three-day event work, but we could if you reduce it to a 2.5-day event or arrive on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday.’ In times of high demand and limited availability, it’s vital to have these partnerships so I can go back to my client with a tangible solution.”
There are also times when a good relationship can sour. For Broomhead, one of those times can happen if a hotel or CVB goes behind her back to try to build a relationship directly with her client.
“I’m open to sharing my client’s information and will even share the best way to communicate,” Broomhead said. “If my client is busy and doesn’t want the fuss of a hotel or CVB calling and prefers everything done through me, then I share that as well to avoid an awkward situation. I recently had a call with one of my clients and a hotelier. Unfortunately, this GM must have been new to the business. His sales team hadn’t responded to my leads for over a year, and I was so fed up that I scheduled a call with the hotel and my client, who had repeatedly requested this hotel for her meetings. I told her I’ve tried everything but maybe if they had her on the phone, they would change their tune and agree to start bidding on our programs. The General Manager (GM) came on the phone and said that I was the one who was difficult to work with and they’d prefer to work with my client directly. I was absolutely shocked. Little did they know how close I am with my client. She was disgusted by the behavior of the GM and promised to not work with that hotel. I reached out to my national sales rep and told her what happened. She was also shocked. I’ve asked to not work with that hotel until there’s a new sales team and general manager.”
Broomhead offers three tips on developing strong partnerships.
Sabrina Osheroff, director, account management at Unbridled, a corporate event planning company in Denver, CO, calls partnerships “everything” to meeting planners.
“Strong partnerships are the framework upon which meeting planners build successful event experiences, and we rely on our local experts for the best recommendations and local connections,” Osheroff said. “A planner is essentially a general contractor, and we rely on strong partnerships with CVBs, DMCs and hotels to help us deliver an exceptional final product for our clients. Unbridled recently partnered with the team from Banff & Lake Louise Tourism in Alberta, Canada, on behalf of SITE for a very successful Incentive Summit Americas (ISA). She said that the team “provided destination expertise and connections, and the Unbridled team provided the historical and logistical knowledge of the ISA program. Together, we created one of the best ISA experiences since the program’s inception.”
One example of the program was the Banff Member Showcase at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
The Banff & Lake Louise Tourism team did an exceptional job of “highlighting the local cuisine and culture for our attendees, ending the event with an impressive indigenous fashion show featuring the work of Stephanie Eagletail Designs,” she said. “It was such a unique and memorable evening that would not have been possible without our partners at Banff & Lake Louise Tourism.”
Banff & Lake Louise was an ideal destination for many, but especially those who like to support sustainability and CSR initiatives.
“Throughout the ISA planning process, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism taught our team so much about what the local area has to offer and programs they have in place to support the local community,” Osheroff said. “I was especially impressed by their Community Impact Program, which is a great selling point for clients who might not have previously had Banff or Lake Louise on their radar for meetings or incentive trips. As a third-party planner, this kind of insight is so important. It empowers us to consult with our clients and keep bringing groups back to destinations that we know will serve their objectives.”
Osheroff said that DMCs are also extremely important and are their ‘boots on the ground’ partners in each destination they visit with their groups.
“We rely on DMCs for local expertise on activities, transportation, entertainment, décor and so much more,” she said. “When planning in a new destination, it’s so important to have a trusted partner with reliable, vetted suppliers to bring our programs to fruition.”
For Osheroff, SITE is a fantastic organization in terms of connecting planners with suppliers around the world.
“There’s a great supplier-to-buyer ratio, so planners don’t have to worry about getting lost in a sea of suppliers,” she said. “SITE events in particular are where I’ve made some of the most important connections of my career.”
She added that other industry events, trade shows and FAM trips all present opportunities to connect with suppliers “and build your knowledge base of what destinations have to offer.”
“When you get down to it, this business is about people and relationships,” she said. “Ultimately, people want to do business with good people, so focus on building relationships with your key supplier contacts. That means creating a space for collaboration and honesty throughout the planning process, which lays the foundation of mutual trust and respect necessary for successful execution.”
Sometimes, though, relationships face problems. For Osheroff, the solution is honesty.
“Over promising and under delivering is the easiest way to sour a strong partnership,” she said. “It’s so important for suppliers to be honest about their capabilities and for planners to have realistic expectations. It’s OK to push the limits to some extent, but if you push too far there are inevitably consequences.”
Like others, she said that the way to develop strong partnerships is by spending time face-to-face.
“This can be done at industry events, in-office supplier presentations, informal breakfasts, lunches, dinners, happy hours and on FAM trips,” she said. “Nothing beats the face-to-face connection. Time is our most valuable asset, and it is so important to make the time to develop these relationships.”
Her tips to planners are to attend industry events and consider joining a professional association such as SITE or MPI, to connect with people on a human level, and to be open and honest about goals and objectives, which sets the tone for productive collaboration.
Angela Baer, CMP, CMM, corporate event coordinator at Caterpillar, Inc, in Peoria, IL, said that strong partnerships are a value for planners in multiple ways.
“In contract negotiation, you know what the venue’s points of contention are and they know yours,” Baer said. “They know what’s important to you and to your business. They understand requests that might not be ‘industry standard.’ For example, a lot of our meetings require space before an event, for setup. Without a good partner, that could cost $25,000 per day. With a good partner, they waive that fee. Another example is legal. With a good partner, they already are aware and have agreed to any legal terms and conditions we would consider deal breakers.”
Baer said, in terms of DMCs and CVBs, that’s also crucial. A good DMC can save you time and money as they have strong partnerships with their vendors. A CVB can give you a heads up about upcoming acquisitions or construction at venues that may not be published yet.
Additionally, Baer believes that sourcing partners are highly underrated.
“My colleagues and I have access to Cvent and can source ourselves and do all the things a sourcing partner can, but why?” she asked. “It saves us so much time letting a sourcing partner do that. Plus, if you have a good one with industry experience, they can pre-negotiate and vet venues before any information comes to you. Again, they know the sticking points and can alleviate all that stuff before anything is sent to us.”
As a planner for a team that does numerous meetings each year, Baer said what she also offers venues is exposure to others inside the company.
“Our company does hundreds of meetings a year,” she said. “Our team alone will do over 100 meetings a year, so there’s a good chance that venues will get repeat business.”
As far as meetings today, Baer acknowledges it’s been harder to negotiate with hotels, but partnerships still make a difference. “I recently had a situation where the hotel refused to budge on an attrition issue even though it wasn’t our fault. Because I had a good relationship with our national rep, we were able to get that hotel to credit us the money. That would likely not happen with a one-off property.”
Her tips for planners:
Bottom line, no matter the meeting, destination, economic climate or type of event, partnerships matter. C&IT