I've been linking to him a lot lately, and today we have a guest post from Andy McNeill, principle and CEO, American Meetings, Inc. His topic du jour is finding the right venue for your event. Take it away, Andy!
It only takes one bad experience at a hotel to know that a site inspection at a property is essential. Even then, ensuring that you ask the right questions while on that inspection can save you a lot of headache and extra work. On one program, our staff actually had to prepare and set a breakfast due to the fact the kitchen and banquet staff did not show up. Needless to say, we were not told of the hotels labor issues prior to our arrival on-site. After that unthinkable experience, we always had a meeting with the food and beverage manager at the site inspection!
Site inspection is more than just visiting the property to view sleeping rooms and meeting space. Visually, a property may look great and fit your meeting needs, but if you scratch the surface a bit more, your expectations in their level of service or food quality may leave little to be desired. During your site inspection remember to verify and be comfortable with the five basics of meeting planning: Location, Facility, Hotel Staff, Meeting Space & Food and Beverage. Follow these tips and your property selection will be a success.
Start with the location. How close is the property to a major airport, and what type of recreational activities does the area afford? Is there shopping nearby and what are the latest hot restaurants? Is this a location your group will enjoy? More importantly, does it fit the overall strategy and objectives of the program? Also, think ahead about the hook you can use for your attendees during the recruitment process. Request the top ten most popular activities to do in/around the hotel from the Concierge before you leave.
Another very important step in the process, before you get to the site inspection, is making sure there are no city-wide programs happening during the same dates as your program. A city-wide is when another group or association is taking over a large block of the hotel rooms in a city. If you find yourself, as a smaller group, competing with a larger group, you will always lose. Stay away from a city-wide situation if you can. If you can’t, then make sure you choose a hotel that is not part of the city wide event. This will ensure you will get the attention you deserve. Make sure you ask about any other groups in-house during your stay. If there are groups other than yours, how will they impact your group?
Next, really delve into the creature comforts of a facility. If the property has thought of the little things, you can bet they have thought of service. What is the availability of guest services, for example how many ATM machines are there, where is the concierge desk, and are there safes for valuables in every room? Are the bathroom fixtures updated and are the rooms comfortable and clean? What types of room amenities are offered? HINT: Ask to see the best room on the property and the worst. A good sales person will show you both. Also always ask for free upgrades for your VIP’s and free rooms as a percentage of your total room block. These are standard negotiations and good to request during the site inspection process.
The hotel staff is critical to ensuring a pleasant experience for any hotel guest. Take the time to notice if you were greeted with a smile and by name either in the valet or at the front desk. How long did you wait before getting your rooms keys? Did you get escorted to your room and given an explanation of the hotels amenities. HINT: Call the operator from your sleeping room and see how many rings it takes until they answer the phone and the tone of the operator upon answering.
A key element of this is a strong concierge’s program. A concierge that is knowledgeable and helpful will make your stay and your attendee’s stay truly memorable. They will know the latest hot spot, how to get on the best golf course at the last minute and always knows how to get to a 24-hour dry cleaner. Remember, we are talking about experience here, and experience is perception. Let me give you an example. A recent trip to the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Nigel in California quickly turned into a nightmare for one client. His luggage got lost and he arrived on a Sunday evening when everything was closed. You can imagine the stress of having no business clothes and an entire conference to attend. The concierge was able to call a local suit shop and arranged to have it open that Sunday evening to get the client a suit, shoes and shirts for the next day. You can imagine the smile on his face when he walked out of that shop. The concierge saved the day. A happy staff makes for happy guests.
Nothing will ruin a meeting quicker than bad meeting space. Are there columns or other obstructions on the meeting rooms that may obstruct viewing? Discuss with your meeting planner how your meeting room set-up fits into this room. Should you arrange classroom style or theater seating? Will table rounds work better for your meeting or half rounds? Make these decisions during the site inspection and take advantage of visually of being on-site where you can imagine and get a true sense of the space. Is there an accessible thermostat in the meeting rooms to easily make temperature changes? If the thermostat is not accessible to your on-site staff, what is the anticipated reaction time for the hotel staff to address and rectify the situation? Are there additional rooms available in the event that the meeting planner needs to provide for last-minute that break outs? HINT: Always negotiate free space and additional rooms for breaks in advance.
Finally, be very comfortable with the property’s ability to offer quality food & beverage service. Review the catering department’s standard group offerings. Confirm tax and gratuities, which will be 26%-35% of your base bill. Challenge the food and beverage staff to come up with unique menus and venues around the property. Also, make sure the room in-service menu meets your specifications for your attendees. HINT: The best way to an attendee’s heart is through the stomach. Offer quality food and suburb customer service for a great experience.
Run through your site inspection with these five areas in mind and you are on your way to a great program. Good Luck, and Happy Planning!
Andy McNeill is president and CEO of American Meetings, Inc., a global event marketing and meeting management company.