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Mastering Meetings: An In-depth Look at the Association/Venue Relationship

Part I | Series of III

By OSAE Member Tracy L. Vanneman, Sr. Manager-Business Development, Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP)

What does it take to make an association meeting a success? Energetic attendees and engaging speakers go a long way, but a foundational feature of the best meetings is a healthy relationship between the association and its meeting venue. Both sides have a lot to offer, and a lot to lose, when it comes to providing a memorable experience for attendees.

To further explore this unique relationship between an association and the venue with which it contracts, I sat down with Patty Kealy, CDS, Director of Global Accounts with ConferenceDirect. With 30 years of experience on all sides of the meetings equation – hotel sales, third party site selection services, and onsite association conference staff, to name a few – Patty has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in the meetings industry. Here she shares her perspective and helps us to navigate the critical relationship between association and venue.

Part 1: Site Selection
Q:  Site selection is about so much more than location, location, location. In your experience, what is the primary feature of a successful site selection experience? 

A:  The basis of a site selection process is a well-authored request for proposals. This document should include not only known logistical needs, but also what is important to the association in terms of location, food outlets, and general likes/dislikes. Showing flexibility, particularly in acceptable guest room rate parameters, will help to maximize the number of hotels that will respond to your RFP. 

When preparing your RFP, be realistic about your space needs, with your room history for the past three years at the ready. If you over-hold space that you really don’t need, you may receive fewer offers. Guestrooms, not food and beverage, are where the hotel makes their money. The whole reason hotels have meeting space is to help them fill guestrooms. The less meeting space and more guestrooms your association utilizes, the more attractive your business is to a hotel, garnering you more negotiating leverage.

Additionally, it is vital to create a competitive atmosphere. Even if you know which hotels or cities are your association’s top choice, always have a backup. The first bid from a venue will almost always be reduced in price later. Bottom line – be realistic and build flexibility into your RFP to make your association an attractive client for hotel business.

Q:  Think about the popular home-buying shows on TV, where the clients seem to weigh their decision on easy-to-change features like paint color while paying too little attention to the important aspects of a home. What are the most frequent culprits of distraction during this process that lead associations to make poor site selection decisions? 

A:  A site inspection visit can be quite a show. The pomp and circumstance that some hotels will put on for a client can be very distracting, making it difficult to really focus on what is important. Avoid the emotional buying trap. Instead, look at the space to make sure it works for your meeting, scrutinize the location, observe the cleanliness. Pay attention to the details as you are escorted, wined, and dined. Are the employees happy? Is everything from the public space to the guestroom clean? Does the venue have everything you need?

Remember, too, that you are communicating to the sales team during a site visit. The sales person is asking questions in search of buying signals. It may seem like light conversation, but if you are giving buying signals, then they know they hold the negotiating power later. For example, if they hear you planning menus and envisioning one of the rooms as perfect for your opening reception, you are now moving into planning details during the site visit and therefore are giving off a buying signal. Hold your feelings close to the vest during a site visit, lest you show your hand and lose all negotiating power further in the process. While you may think a certain venue is perfect, outwardly demonstrate only your interest in considering the property for your meeting, not a willingness to immediately sign on the dotted line.

Q:  Not everyone enjoys or is skilled at negotiation. What tips do you have for association management professionals who may not be particularly adept at negotiating contracts to make the experience less stressful and lead to good outcomes for both the association and the venue?

The most important part of negotiating is to know that you have options. Always have a first choice and second choice hotel or venue, and be clear and honest about it. For example, you might say to your sales contact “Your property is our first choice, and XYZ hotel is our second choice. We will make our final decision based on contractual terms.” And, this seems obvious, but bears overtly stating it - never give the hotel a verbal definite until you have read the contract.

In years past, hotel sales representatives made decisions related to the business terms of contracts. That is no longer the case, as revenue managers now play a key role in all business decisions. Data is your friend or foe here, in that the stronger your association’s guestroom pickup, food and beverage, and ancillary spending history, the better the deal you may expect to receive. Strive to make your business appealing to the hotel. All revenue factors are measured now, and if you are bringing value to the hotel, it will show in the contract the property hands you for consideration.

About the authors:
Patty Kealy, CDS
Director of Global Accounts, ConferenceDirect

With more than 30 years of hotel experience ranging from small independent hotels to large convention venues and Hilton National sales, Kealy's vast industry experience informs her understanding of the profit margins at hotels. This background allows her to better serve her clients, helping them find the right venues for their events while saving them money through fair negotiations that are a win-win for the client and the hotel. Celebrating her eighth year with ConferenceDirect, Kealy works from Minnesota but travels the world to serve her clients. 

Tracy L. Vanneman
Sr. Manager-Business Development, Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP)

As an association professional with 14 years of association, nonprofit and sales experience, Vanneman’s primary work is building and managing relationships with corporate partners, including development and delivery of SIOP sponsorship, exhibit and advertising opportunities. She also works in many aspects of the SIOP membership and event attendee experience, including managing the administration of the continuing education program and event planning for meetings from a few hundred to more than 5,000 attendees. In 2008, Vanneman joined the SIOP administrative office staff.

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