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All Together Now

by 1185308 Elaine Pofeldt | Mar 01, 2011
As the global economy reacted to one crisis after another, meeting professionals have found that working together more closely to overcome major challenges leads to better financial stability for all.

The final in a three-part FutureWatch 2011 feature series.

Mandi Kobasic remembers the heartbreaking moment all too well. While working as an account director for a San Diego hotel, she got a call from a client in the tech industry. Eight days before a big meeting that would have filled the property for two-and-a-half days, the tech firm had to cancel.

“It was a perception issue,” said Kobasic, who is now vice president of global accounts at the Hospitality Performance Network, a third-party meeting procurement specialist that focuses on securing meeting and convention space for its clients. 

While she understood the reason for the abrupt decision, she was crushed. 

“The hotel had put a lot of effort into it,” she said. “I was personally invested in it.”

That situation in late 2008 could have sparked behavior all around, but by Kobasic’s account, all parties took it in stride. It helped that representatives of the technology firm understood that it had to pay the cancellation fees.

“They knew the hotel had staffed for it and ordered special food and wine,” she explained.

On top of this, the tech company, at her request, posted a note about the situation on its internal website, asking its employees to refer future business to the hotel.

“The hotel ended up booking two or three meetings as a result,” she said.

The bumpy economy of the past couple of years underlined something that smart meeting professionals have always known: relationships count. As the global economy reacted to one crisis after another, many planners and suppliers found that working together more closely to deal with challenges—from tight budgets to last-minute cancellations—led to better financial stability for all, according to MPI’s FutureWatch 2011

“It’s an attitude of collaboration,” said Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County CVB. “I think we’re going to see much more of it in the industry. I think there’s going to be a lot of focus on enhancing collaboration with key stakeholders.” 

Smart meeting professionals aren’t just assuming this attitude for the short term.

“They realize that a customer has a piece of business or a number of meetings for each year for the foreseeable future,” he said. “If you can help a customer in 2011, the customer can give you opportunities in 2015 or 2018.” 

As FutureWatch found, there are many different ways that planners and suppliers are teaming up today, from crisis collaboration when an event fails to attract enough attendance to the development of best practices for working with shorter lead times.

Often, this happens out of necessity.

“Right now, the new short term is two weeks to six weeks,” Kobasic said. “In the past, short term was 90 days to 120 days.”

To help one hotel client capture more short-term business, Kobasic, who does sales coaching as a side business, suggested that the property simplify the booking process. Instead of sending potential customers a proposal after assessing their needs by phone, the hotel began to send a contract right away to ease deadline pressure a bit.

“The customer was breathing fresh air,” she said. “They didn’t have to go through all of the different steps to secure the venue.”

Hotels that make extra efforts like these to accommodate short-term bookings are likely to continue scoring points in the year head. Ask Tammy Zacks, owner of Sourcing Solutions, a firm that creates and manages customized business events. When one of her clients, an insurance brokerage, decided to cancel an event in Mexico last year, Zacks needed to help the company find a new venue—pronto—while also smoothing the relationship with the hotel that lost the business. Fortunately, a Florida property made the situation easier on her. Its team welcomed the event, despite a turnaround time of about six weeks.

“They completely embraced us,” Zacks said. “They made sure we had great events on site. They gave us things for the spouses to do. It was just flawless.”

To keep relationships with hotels thriving, some planners are booking several meetings in one location, the survey found. There’s a double benefit: It also helps them achieve better economies of scale, which helps their budget-sensitive clients. Zacks, for instance, worked with a company that was planning two meetings for different groups of employees. Although the meetings took place at different properties, Zacks booked them together and the hotel chain came down on its rates for both events. 

Karen Shackman, founder of destination management firm Shackman Associates, has found that it’s also possible to achieve economies of scale on other fronts.

“We’ve found it is worthwhile to see, if a meeting is taking place in a hotel or venue that might have a previous group in the same space, if there is a way we can piggyback on any of the F&B or audiovisual costs,” she said.

For instance, a client in the insurance industry recently was “a little skittish” about the cost of a fancy meal at an event.

“We determined there was another group dining in house in another portion of the hotel,” Shackman said. “Our client agreed to abide by the same menu items, so the hotel didn’t have to order a bunch of different types of food.” 

That helped keep the budget in check. 

Of course, there’s a flip side to an environment where relationships matter more. Not everyone has reacted to the turbulence in the industry by running off into the sunset with those on the other side of the negotiating table, singing “Happy Together.” When something goes wrong in planning a meeting and one of the parties overreacts, it’s being noted by the others involved, who are inclined to do business elsewhere.

“People remember the bad experience,” Kobasic said. 

That said, many in the industry aren’t taking any chances. They’re putting relationships front and center. Catherine Mullen, president of Meeting Logistics LLC, says she has always devoted time to attending events to build new relationships and isn’t planning on slowing down any time soon. She travels everywhere from her local chamber of commerce meetings to the global meetings and events exhibition EIBTM to build her professional contacts.

“The more relationships I build, the more valuable I am to my customers,” explained Mullen, a 17-year veteran of the industry. 

That idea is likely to stay front and center for many meeting professionals in 2011. One+

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