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Corporate Planners Talk Pain Points

Issues such as difficult negotiations, training novices, cost-saving measures, and pre-meeting attendee communications came to the fore in planners’ roundtable discussions at Pharma Forum 2023.

Among the nearly 220 life-science event professionals gathered at the Marriott Marquis in New York during the third week in March, there was plenty of commiseration to go along with idea-sharing as planners rebuild their organizations’ event portfolios in an environment featuring several challenges that are unique to the moment.

For example, one issue that planners agreed is a drag on their productivity right now is inexperience both at hotels and among the new hires within their own departments. “Virtual site visits are being encouraged internally in order to save costs, but there are so many novice hotel salespeople, and they aren’t able lead a virtual site tour the way we need it done,” said one planner.

On the flip side, another planner noted that besides delivering meetings-related training to new internal hires, veteran planners increasingly must make sure that other topics are covered before throwing novices into their tasks. “We need better training for things like using basic software such as Excel and PowerPoint, and even for writing effective e-mails.” In fact, some planners around the room nodded when one planner noted that something as basic as the dress code in office and on site should not be left unaddressed. “Because of the pandemic, many young people have never been in a professional environment until now,” the planner said.

As for negotiations, the relative inexperience of many hotel sales reps—and a reliance on revenue-management software algorithms—means that the nuanced back-and-forth that planners and reps once engaged in is largely gone. For instance, one planner sent an RFP to a hotel in southern California and was given a price of $399 per guest room per night. “My RFP said we needed a rate in the mid-$200s, so their number was way out of the realm of possibility,” the planner said. “They came down to $359 and that was it. But just when I was about to walk away, they offered us $249.” The planner’s new approach: “I’m telling them: ‘I can’t do more than $269; can you do that?’ I might need to do some more on-site F&B spend to get that, but it can work a lot of times.”

In areas such as food and beverage as well as audiovisual and production, the same sales approach is common right now. One planner was quoted $75,000 to conduct two consecutive half-days of general sessions in the ballroom, but when she balked at that figure the AV provider asked, “How much can you spend?” When the planner said $25,000, “the provider said, ‘That’s fine’ and kept 90 percent of the production elements in the package,” the planner recalled. It’s key for planners to find out these elements’ costs for recent events held at a given property so that they understand a reasonable starting point for negotiation.

One other issue that’s challenging planners is communicating to attendees about changes to a meeting that are happening because of cost. “We have added another free evening to the agenda, and on two of the three mornings we are sending people to Starbucks for breakfast with gift cards,” said one planner. “But when attendees see that, they might start getting doubts about the quality of the meeting as a whole.” The planner’s solution: “We get both senior leadership and individual department managers involved in our pre-event communications, so that attendee expectations are set properly. They’ll know why we are doing these things but we are not apologizing for them, and we are sure the meeting will achieve what it needs to achieve.”

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