Small Meeting Myths and Realities

Thomas J. Carrier, a former senior government meeting manager, crafted four “myths and realities” of negotiating a small meeting at a typical hotel property — from a planner's perspective. We asked a hotelier, Keith Biumi, brand marketing director, Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts, to respond from the hotel's perspective (albeit a chain perspective, which will differ from an individual hotel property).

Myth #1: There aren't many small meetings being booked and that explains why hotels charge so much for them.

Carrier: Actually, about 80 percent of the meetings industry is composed of small meetings, when the definition of a small meeting is 100 attendees or fewer. Hotels find that large conventions bring in greater short-term profits for the energy expended in booking them. The staff has to work harder to bring in smaller meetings, which lowers the overall profit margin.

Biumi: The hospitality industry has been seeing a trend in which organizations across the country are holding three or four small regional meetings per year rather than the traditional national conference. With smaller, more frequent meetings, there is an opportunity for the planner to leverage his negotiating power by booking all regional meetings with one hotel brand. It is possible with many hotel companies to book these multiple meetings through one point of contact — a benefit to both the meeting planner and the hotel company.

Myth #2: You can't negotiate a small meeting.

Carrier: That depends. If it's a typical small meeting of 100 attendees or fewer reserving fewer than 10 guest rooms (my definition), and you use a lot of meeting space and little food and beverage, then you probably can't negotiate to save money. You can, however, negotiate extras such as extra wait staff for a reception, or the use of hotel flowers for the stage, or even a few free parking passes for conference staff. Use your imagination and then ask. Naturally, if you have several small meetings, then negotiate all of them, all at once, at one property. That's even better.

Biumi: The following negotiating tips can be useful when booking a small meeting. First of all, guarantee multiple meetings with one brand. Secondly, guarantee repeat business (making a commitment to hold next year's meetings with the same hotel brand is a powerful selling point). And lastly, let the hotel company know that you will encourage employees to select their hotel brand as the brand of choice for individual business travel. That can be a powerful incentive.

Myth #3: Even though I'm not booking many guest rooms, I'm using lots of food and beverage and audiovisual equipment. That should count for a lot.

Carrier: Hotels make most of their money selling guest rooms. Period. Having meeting space in the hotel is only an added value to get people to stay overnight. A typical full-service hotel can have a profit per room of about 60 to 85 percent. For food and beverage, on the other hand, the profit margin is about 35 to 40 percent. The meeting space rental, though, is 100 percent profit. That is why a suburban hotel would want access to its meeting space for weddings and other special events at night and on weekends, which limits the space used for small meetings, and restricts the use of 24-hour holds (unless you pay for it).

If you book most of the meeting space with few or no guest rooms, then the hotel might have to turn away business that requires guest rooms and meeting space. On the other hand, if you need meeting space within a month or so, many hotels will be glad to rent you any leftover meeting space rather cheaply — and you might not even need to book any guest rooms to get it.

Biumi: Hotel business is based on guest rooms because that's what is most profitable for a hotel. But this doesn't mean that hotels will not accept meetings that do not represent a good space-to-room ratio. A short-term booking — less than 30 days' notice — provides the best opportunity for planners to book a one-day meeting at their hotel of choice.

Myth #4: So, hotels would rather not have small meetings at all.

Carrier: Nonsense. Small meetings help fill holes between large conventions, called shoulder periods, and during traditional slow times. With the right information, you can be just as adept, too.

Biumi: Crowne Plaza, along with the other hotels in its competitive set, are designed to accommodate up to 200 to 250 guests on peak nights, both guest rooms and meeting space combined. Their focus remains on regional meetings held in suburban, airport, and city hotel locations.

Myth #5 If I'm priced out of hotels, there are no alternatives for me.

Carrier: So many meeting managers are conditioned to hold meetings in inappropriately large convention hotels when they should be thinking about smaller properties or properties that are a bit out of the way, such as airport hotels. Ideally, your guest rooms should take up about 15 percent of the entire hotel. If that's not possible, consider using other sites, such as conference centers, universities, and public buildings.

Biumi: The best thing to do is consider holding a meeting during a hotel's “need period,” when hotels can be more flexible, because any business at that time will help the hotel's revenue. Hotels often know when these periods are as far out as six to even 10 months in advance.

Being flexible on attendee arrival and departure dates can also help. Certain hotel brands will continue to make a concerted effort to attract and cater to smaller meetings. After all, not every brand or individual property can accommodate large meetings.