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Meeting magic

8 tips for negotiating the best deals when planning your next meeting

(page 1 of 2)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

The term “mission creep” is understood by any novice meeting planner who starts out with the task of negotiating room rates and soon realizes there is much more involved.

In truth, professional meeting planners negotiate many things with hoteliers, especially if the hotel also is the site of a meeting or conference, but that’s potentially advantageous in terms of the overall value that can be achieved. Whether it’s meeting or conference space, audio-visual needs, or the food-and-beverage spending, there are many balls to juggle and many opportunities to deliver value.

We spoke to a couple of “jugglers,” also known as meeting planners, in the person of Susan Kainz, a principal at Meeting Matters in Brookfield, and Carrie Jensen, event manager for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities in Madison. Both have years of experience in planning everything from small meetings and annual conferences, and our discussions produced these eight negotiating points.

1. Shift your strategy

When it comes to negotiating room rates, there are too many variables to rely on a set strategy. Your strategy is neither event dependent nor venue dependent; in fact, it varies from client to client and from hotel to hotel. The one constant is that even if you’re a corporate meeting planner, your boss is in reality your client. Before sending out requests for proposal to different hotels, a task that is usually done early in the process, you should identify his or her top five priorities for the forthcoming event.

In addition, any strategic approach should include probing the hotel’s flexibility on room rates, food-and-beverage spending, future considerations such as multiyear meetings, and every other aspect of negotiations. “If your top priority for the negotiation is just about getting a very good guest room rate, that strategy is totally different than if you are trying to make sure you don’t get hit with a cancellation fee or any other tangible or intangible term,” Kainz says. “Negotiations are really done on an individual basis, and hotels do vary, sometimes significantly, in terms of their flexibility. I won’t name any names but there is one hotel brand that has the mindset that if you want to do business with them, these are the [set] rates that you will accept. In that case there is very little wiggle room.”

Jensen agreed, noting that the best negotiation strategy is to be upfront with as much information on your program as possible. “Know the history of your group and be able to articulate that to your vendor,” she advises. “I think that it’s both event dependent and venue dependent. It isn’t one or the other. It is a combination of both.”

In the RFP, the hotel will want to know how many sleeping rooms you’re bringing in (i.e. how many total rooms are in your room block).

They also need to know how much meeting space you need and your projected food-and-beverage spending.

“Those are the key things,” Jensen notes. “The food-and-beverage spend and the room nights are their two main revenue-generating areas.”

2. Flock to early birds

Getting an early start increases your range of hotel choices and enhances the prospects for rate flexibility. If you have a smaller meeting, don’t assume you’re going to be shut out because while there are some hotels that won’t be able to accommodate you because you’re asking too far out and because there are advantages to landing the larger groups, the larger groups might not fill every room. Sometimes when a large group books a convention center and you have a smaller group, you might be able to get your group in early enough so that you get the last piece of it. That flexibility stems from the desire not to have any meeting space or hotel rooms go empty.

It also depends on the level of a hotel’s transient business — the everyday business traveler that comes and goes. Such hotels might be located near business parks and large employers like Epic that constantly house clients and bring in transient business travelers on a daily basis, so the key is doing your research on each hotel.

“Basically you just need to know if they can match your needs,” Jensen notes. “Are they a more transient business? What is their business like during the week? We [the League of Wisconsin Municipalities] actually tend to do a Wednesday-through-Friday business pattern, and a lot of hotels don’t have quite as much business during the week so they’re happy to pick that business up.”

3. Relationships rule

Even in negotiations, the planner should approach this not as an adversarial confrontation but as a partnership, because the more information provided to hotels, the better the initial terms are likely to be. Unless you build a good working relationship with your client and with the hotel industry, negotiations are not likely to progress to your satisfaction.

In addition, negotiations should never start on the first phone call or email to a hotelier. The first steps in building a relationship with hoteliers should be the subject of that initial contact. “You want to build a good relationship with the hotel because not only do you need them at the contracting phase of negotiations, but you need a good partner when it comes to the execution phase of the event itself,” Kainz notes. “If you’ve been having a good give-and-take with the hotel people and you’ve been open with your communications, then you know if something doesn’t go right on the execution side you have a partner that’s going to help you take care of clients.”

4. Markets matter

While room rates and room block commitments are the first thing clients look at, the local marketplace is no small consideration. That marketplace might be local entertainment, it might be other nearby hotels, and it might even be what’s happening at the chosen hotel, including the convention center facilities.

If your guests arrive on Saturday and do their opening session that same day, the hotel might have given you a good rate but it also might have booked a rock band, a loud rock band, to perform right next-door to your meeting room.

“When we look at the room rate, we need to understand all that went into that,” Kainz notes. “It’s not just about giving me $10 less than you’ve proposed in terms of the room rate. You have to know what’s happening with the hotel and whether it’s a good fit.”

The availability of local restaurants and entertainment options is another consideration in the rates. Hotels that are centrally located in large metropolitan areas can command a higher price for virtually everything because visitors have an expectation that these options will be available.


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