By Phelps R. Hope, CMP
When the Kellen Company began planning their 2008 Leadership Conference – a company-wide event in Atlanta dedicated to staff development and training – organizers immediately ran into hotel availability issues due to a bustling summer convention schedule.
However, after discovering the Marriott Atlanta Marquis Hotel would be undergoing extensive renovations until spring, Kellen meeting planners were able to capitalize on value dates created in the wake of the planned construction. Although the Leadership Conference was bumped up slightly from August to mid-July, Kellen received its desired rates and space needs – a significant achievement in today’s seller’s market.
For the past few years, market conditions have been squarely in favor of the hotel industry, with room occupancy rates high and meeting space in demand. In order to meet the challenge of satisfying rates/dates/space requirements, meeting planners are learning to look beyond traditional arrival and departure patterns, discover new locations and find holes and value dates in hotel calendars in order to fulfill demands.
Here are a few tips to finding value dates in the current seller’s market.
- Communication is key. Determining dates, rates and space information takes more than just a few phone calls. Be prepared to address factors including the room-to-space ratio, food and beverage costs and the potential for profit. You should also be armed with statistics detailing how much your group will spend on everything from on-site restaurants and bars to Internet usage and rounds of golf at the course. Then communicate these priorities to the various properties. It helps educate them on the value of your business while boosting your bargaining power.
- Do your homework. Research is necessary before starting negotiations. In addition to networking and reading industry magazines, utilize the Internet. Many Web sites can help direct you to properties you might not have previously considered. For example, search engines such as Hotwire, Travelzoo, Kayak, Booking Buddy, Expedia and Orbitz can help uncover hotels off the beaten track, as well as list which area hotels are selling value discounts. Once you’ve determined that information, contact the hotel’s sales representatives and begin negotiations. You might also call a hotel’s toll-free line or reservations desk to determine both rack and group rates.
- Find value in renovation. Hotels that have just opened – or are newly reopened – are more likely to provide contract concessions and value dates. Keep abreast of property construction schedules. However, if you do plan on booking a meeting at a hotel under renovation, make sure you determine how extensive the construction will be and communicate this risk to key decision makers to get their buy-in. In addition, always have a backup plan in case the renovations exceed their anticipated timeframe.
- Don’t waste space. Hotels calculate the value of your business based on a room-space ratio. They are more likely to consider hosting a conference if the number of requested overnight rooms is proportionate to the amount of meeting space required. So if you’re trying to block 50 rooms in a 400-room hotel – but also need the majority of the property’s conference space – consider reducing the meeting space requirements. This could be accomplished, for example, by narrowing the number of breakout sessions.
- Maintain flexibility. If possible, be flexible when it comes to dates and patterns. Your arrival and departure pattern should fit with that of the hotel. Demand is also contingent on the season. During high season, occupancy rates often surpass 90 percent. During shoulder season, however, there is less overnight demand leading to more meeting planner wiggle room and negotiating clout. And if your group is willing to meet over a holiday, you will most likely find little competition in many locations. Filling holes in a hotel’s calendar will provide more negotiating leverage, even if it’s changing your day of week patterns.
- The hub-and-spoke model no longer reigns. As low-cost regional airlines continue to ease travel budgets, more conferences are being scheduled in “second-tier” and “third-tier” cities like Indianapolis, Nashville and Baltimore, as well as suburban locations near major cities. Meeting planners willing to schedule events in these secondary markets can gain negotiating advantages and will typically find more availability, value dates and better room rates.
Either way, remember that your business will only be valuable to a hotel if it provides a profit. Plan on investing time and energy into researching various destinations and properties as well as determining the value of your meeting. Maintaining flexibility automatically boosts your negotiating leverage and the ability to find value dates.
Phelps R. Hope, CMP is Vice President of Meetings and Expositions for Kellen Meetings, a division of Kellen Company, an Association Management Company (AMC) with offices in Atlanta, New York City, Tucson, Washington, D.C., Beijing and Brussels. He can be reached at email@example.com or 404-836-5050.
Mr. Hope authored this article for republishing in Association Conventions and Facilities Feb/Mar 2008.