How to work with a hotel when planning your event

How to plan a kickass event, negotiate contracts, and know your stuff when working with a hotel

A few months ago, I was invited to speak on a panel with two other event planners, to start a conversation around planning events in conjunction with the hotel industry. Here are some of the questions that they asked (which I thought would be really helpful for you, as you are planning your events):

1. Within the event industry, what has remained unchanged over the years?

The need for honest, real, no-holds-barred conversation from a keynote perspective and also from an attendee perspective is something that won't go away and will not be replaced by internet courses, webinars, networking groups. Being face-to-face with someone is inherently different, which is why businesses (ESPECIALLY remote or online ones) spend thousands of dollars a year to either participate in or host a live event. 

Face-to-face will never go away, no matter how much we think the internet is replacing content sharing and knowledge.

2. On the contrary, what has been the biggest change?

The biggest change has been WHY people attend events. In the past, events have been very keynote heavy, since the only way to obtain wisdom or insight was in a classroom or keynote format.

Today, keynote speakers and nuggets of information are shared online in webinars, blog posts, live videos, Instagram's endless. Now, as people are more isolated in their learning, they are looking for ways to connect and to implement the information that they've absorbed. 

Going to events in 2017, you'll see more interactive sessions, more roundtable discussions, and more facilitated discussions in order to help build deeper connections that are harder and harder to make in an increasingly digital world.

3. What are some differences between planning an event in the United States vs. planning an event in another country?

If you're thinking about doing a retreat, conference or workshop in a different country and you're planning from the United States, I would be sure to research the culture and how different countries interface with clients. In my experience, some cultures are extremely respectful, but they aren't often as direct as Americans, meaning that if something is a problem, they may not tell you about it until the last minute, forcing an on-the-spot solution. Other cultures are extremely process oriented instead of solutions oriented, explaining to you the entire process they went through to find out the answer to your question, only to tell you it was impossible to execute in the end (which is usually all we, as Westerners, care about anyway).

Some of the biggest challenges with remote planning is ensuring that all of the changes that you make over email or Skype are getting translated to the right vendors in the right way. 

Also, time differences can account for delay in responses (especially between Asia and the US), so it's important to adjust your working hours slightly, and communicate your expectations to your venue or retreat center.

4. Please explain your search process. What is your go to resource for starting a search for a venue?

If you don't have an idea for a location for your venue, I think the best place to start is venues you've firsthand visited before, either for another conference or wedding. Most people, especially with their first event, think they have to find the PERFECT venue, when the reality is that there are plenty of lovely venues, and firsthand positive experiences is a good indicator that the venue will be easy to work with.

After I go into my "experience database," I turn to Google and do a keyword search on location, plus any relevant words I want to explore (boutique hotel, co-working space, event venue are my favorites). From there, I look for press articles or a "Top 10" aggregated list, not websites, so that I can see how someone else interprets that venue.

5. What is the most annoying thing about working with Hotel Sales Managers?

Hotel Sales Managers often have an impossible job, which is the sell the shit out of their property for as many days as they possibly can. Which means, they're going to do everything they can to try to lock you in, up to a certain point. Sometimes, this means concessions and amenities. Sometimes, it means not being transparent with you as an event host and forgetting to let you know about construction or extra surcharges on services or that their business center doesn't open for another six months when you've planned on basing your event HQ out of the business center.

Transparency and communicativeness are important and some hotel sales managers do this better than others.

6. What stands out for you in proposals? For example, is it the pictures, long intro letter or to-the-point bullet letter, selling the area versus the property?

While this is a pretty industry specific question, things that stand out to me are proposals that include concessions right off the bat.

Pro tip: A "concession" is a freebie that the hotel gives you as a "thank you" for buying in bulk. You usually get better concessions with larger hotels or hotel room blocks because you're taking away the leg work from the Sales Manager by booking lots of rooms for them.

Typical concessions include:

•Free meeting space (with any retreat or event, this should ALWAYS be on the table)

•Audio visual comps (lowering service prices for conference services like A/V a certain percentage)

•Room comps (1 free room for every 10 booked)

•Free upgrades to VIP guests

If you're booking a large group (or any sized group), ask for concessions, no matter what. They have them to give, but she who asks shall receive.

7. What do you NOT like to see in proposals?

I personally hate aggressive attrition clauses, because they don't serve any party. 

(Pro tip: An attrition clause is basically the hotel saying "We will hold X rooms for you until X date at a special rate of $X, which is $100 lower than our normal rate for that date. We will only give you this rate if you book 10 or more rooms. We understand that you may not get to all 10, but if you book fewer than 8 rooms, you'll still have to pay for them.)

These days, guests are making their travel arrangements later and later, and with the flexible cancellation policies of places like Air Bnb or other homesharing sites, it makes it a tough sell for clients to book their hotel rooms that far in advance when they know there are lots of other options.

8. Do you prefer package pricing or a la carte pricing?

If I'm working on the project, I like a la carte pricing because I know what to ask for and what to leave out. If you are working on a project and you don't know much about what you may need, I'd recommend package pricing. The last thing I'd want for you, my client, is to guess about where to save money, and thus, not have the right equipment or the right style of food at your event.

9. If your client had complaints about a property that they stayed at, what is the most common complaint?

Unclean hotel rooms. People are very particular about where they lay their head and, more than anything, they will notice nice hotel rooms over nice ballroom/conference space. If you have to pick one or the other, and the majority of your guests are coming in from out of town, pick the place with the nicer rooms.

10. Do you and your clients prefer proposals that are links or a bunch of attachments?

I like both, but attachments help me catalogue the information better. If there's a bunch of links, I have to save the email and constantly refer back to it.

(I feel like this is a personal preference question more than anything. What about you?)

11. Do you have a preference on booking an event with a hotel that has meeting space or a meeting/event venue?

I personally think, depending on the walkability of the venue, booking a meeting space with rooms atop it is important, as it makes the event itself more contained, it allows your guests the opportunity to take advantage of the on-site amenities, and it allows for more organic on-site networking.

We've all been to events where we've opted to stay at a different hotel to save money or because the host hotel was out of rooms and it's just...different. Creating a contained experience is as important as curating unbelievable content.

12. Would you rather have a venue that provides in-house catering or have the option to bring outside food in to your event?

Depends on the food. If we can avoid extra surcharges and fees by bringing in our own food, I'd rather do that, but remember: an event venue's staff knows the venue really well and they'll know how many people to staff to make sure service and food is well presented and managed. 

If you're very price conscious, I'd get an outside catering quote, however, there is something to be said about a catering staff that knows a venue so well that they can do it with their eyes closed.

13. What was your worst experience working with a venue for a meeting? How was the situation resolved and would you return to the venue?

This is a story for another day, but it has to do with poor communication and a huge swamp cooler.

Phew! Your turn! Do you work with hotels or properties when you plan your events? What is frustrating/amazing about it?

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Lauren CaselliComment