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preplanning

You’ve contracted with the perfect venue for your next big gig. Let’s be honest, in this hot market, that contract was signed years ago. Now it’s next up on your calendar and it is time to get serious. With countless details to organize, a running list of questions to ask, decisions that are best made in person and a myriad of fresh ideas that can only be brought to life by seeing a space live – do yourself a favor and setup an in-person pre-planning meeting with the various key players that will be instrumental in the success of your program. After many productive site visits, here are my top tips to maximize this face-to-face time and promise a smooth planning process when you return to the office.

  1. Budget for pre-planning meetings. Make this an automatic line item in your meeting budget!
  2. Pick a date when all parties are available and focused. Give your Convention Services Manager (CSM) plenty of advance notice to ensure the dates you are considering for your pre-planning trip also work well for your key contacts. After all, what good does it do if your CSM has another group in house and isn’t able to be attentive to your needs?
  3. Communication is key. Paint the overall picture for your CSM. Describe your meeting goals and objectives. Discuss the profile of your attendees. Are they a social group or are they all business? What are the takeaways they expect by participating in your program?
  4. Have a set agenda of things you would like to review and share it with those you plan to meet with well in advance. Allow your meeting partners to prepare ahead of time so that everyone is fully equipped to tackle the big stuff!
  5. Create a grid of contracted space — or as I like to do, color code the venue floor-plans and identify the functions that will take place in each meeting space. Whatever your method, develop a system that will allow you to make informed decisions about room assignments, because odds are that your meeting has evolved since you contracted the venue several years back.
  6. Share your meeting specifications well in advance. This includes audiovisual, food and beverage, a program outline, etc. The more your partners know prior to your arrival, the less time you'll spend explaining the meeting basics. For instance, review the banquet menus prior to your site and share your top selections with your CSM. If you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for and want to consider a custom menu, your CSM can engage the chef and the three of you can select the best meal options for your group during the pre-planning meeting.
  7. Checkout a current onsite event. If there are any events taking place at your venue during your trip, set aside some time to scope them out. Seeing how others use the space can go a long way in helping you visualize things like your registration setup, signage plan and more.
  8. Put yourself in the attendee shoes. Use the same transportation system that your guests will as they travel to and from the airport. If your event involves offsite activities or tours, sample those same happenings during your pre-planning meeting to guarantee that it fits your attendee’s expectations.
  9. Review all types of sleeping rooms, not just your upgraded rooms. Of course it’s important to inspect the VIP suites, but these spaces only reflect the experience of a small percentage of your attendees.
  10. Take notes of action items. What do you need to do and what follow-up items do your planning partners have?
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I just came back from Tampa and New Orleans where I did site inspections for our association’s inaugural 2016 annual meeting.

I saw two very different properties in Tampa: one was a magnificent 300-acre resort hotel away from the city; the other was five-minutes from the airport and sitting on 35+ acres overlooking the Old Tampa Bay. In New Orleans, I visited three properties: a historic hotel located right in the French Quarter; a 2,000+ guestroom hotel with views of the riverfront, connected to a convention center and an outlet mall and across from a casino; and a new 1,600-guestroom property located in the Central Business District. As expected, the properties who hosted me had sales team members who were generous, welcoming and enthusiastic.

Just like many of the site inspections I have done in the past, the visit was quick and a whirlwind. You have three-to-four hours to spend in a property, perhaps two-to-three hours more if you’re sharing a meal with their sales managers. If you’re lucky to stay overnight in the hotel you’re considering, you have overnight through the morning-after to get an actual feel for service, the check-in/check-out experience and the state of the upkeep of the hotel and its amenities.

Successful site inspections start with a thoughtful pre-work. In our case, we had our executive committee share with staff their desired cities to host the meeting. The committee first identified over a dozen possibilities. To narrow down the list, I went back to the committee to provide general city information such as a sampling of flight arrival times from major nearby airports (access), weather probabilities on the chosen month (comfort), and the number of association meetings held in the city (experience and attractiveness). From there, the list was narrowed down to eight. Then, I sent out an RFP to all the cities’ convention and visitors bureaus and a few of our chain hotels’ national sales office contacts asking them to forward the RFP to properties they thought had the capability to host a meeting of our size and budget.

The RFP was written with background information of the association, the goals of the meeting, the expected number of attendees, the projected F&B expenses, the detailed program, sleeping room requirements, square footage of and when each meeting room was needed, the concessions requested and the decision factors. I also added custom questions that determine ancillary costs of AV, Wi-Fi and transportation, including questions asking for marketing and sponsorship sales ideas should their hotel be chosen.

I received over 80 responses. Two thirds were declines. To me, this was a good sign. It meant the RFP was thorough enough to weed out properties that didn’t meet the criteria and our budget. In the end, 11 hotels from five cities submitted a bid. After a comparative analysis of the hotels that proposed in each city, I recommended three cities for consideration to the committee. Two of the three bubbled up as choice cities. This led me to pursue hotels in Tampa and New Orleans, the top two cities voted on by the committee.

After four days traversing two major cities, walking through five properties with a combined meeting space of over 600,000 sq. ft., I returned to the home office in Madison with an informed recommendation. The recommendation will be presented during our upcoming program committee and executive committee calls in a couple of weeks.

How did I arrive at my conclusion? What are the factors that a planner might want to consider to suggest a future meeting venue for an association meeting?

Does the venue meet the program goal and match the attendee type?
Yes, the chef’s food sampling could be the tastiest, the property is magnificent and a meeting planner might have been given the chance to sleep in one the hotel’s grandest suites. But does the hotel offer an atmosphere that meets the program goal of the meeting? In our case, the goal was to provide networking, mentorship and collaboration to young, up and coming specialists and researchers. It’s an inaugural meeting for attendees who have a formal work nature. Is the venue conducive to continuing education or would it be distracting? The choice of venue dictates the tone of the future meetings. There are two sayings: Do it right the first time. And, first impressions last. I believe these two apply.

Does the property offer a meeting space that is fluid?
On paper, a property might say they have all 30,000 sq. feet of space you need. But onsite, you discover the meeting rooms suggested require close to 400 steps to navigate between them. If you only have a 20-minute coffee break, the time spent going from and to distant rooms is a time-waster and the opportunity to network is lost.

Is the property accessible?
Access here includes having a good number of fly-in options from various airports, the affordability of the flights and the amount of time it takes to get from the airport to the conference hotel. If the flights your attendees will likely take don’t arrive in the city until noon and your conference opening session is at 1 p.m., going to a property that is 30 miles away and needs to beat noon-hour traffic might not be a good meeting venue choice.

Are the costs within the budget and what’s the value for the money?
Unlike incentive travel or private corporations, an associations’ budget is not unlimited. The hotel must be able to offer costs that meet the budget. A planner should consider not only the big bucket costs, like sleeping rooms, meeting room hire and F&B, but also ancillary costs, like transportation, Wi-Fi and room amenities. It’s possible that a hotel might quote a slightly higher sleeping room rate. But if the hotel offers an all-inclusive rate that covers the guests’ Wi-Fi, access to the fitness center and airport shuttle services, or gives you a complimentary room of 1 to 40 instead of 1 to 50, the extra $10-$15 might be better for the over-all bottom line.

Are there other meetings taking place while your meeting is ongoing?
While it is not reasonable to expect yours would be the only group at a large-sized property, it’s good to know how busy the hotel is going to be while you are holding your meeting. Onsite, you can casually probe hotel staffing levels and preparedness. Their answer will give you a glimpse of their capabilities to handle multiple meetings with the level of service you hope to receive.

Are there renovation plans on the dates you plan to hold the meeting?
While renovation plans aim to please hotel guests in the end, holding a meeting in a property while it is undergoing renovation is not ideal. Find out the gravity of the renovation and how it might affect the meeting and sleeping rooms. As a general rule, I don’t recommend choosing a hotel that has planned renovations, regardless of their extent.

What is the state of the upkeep and maintenance?
The website pictures are breathtaking. The descriptions are superbly written. But is the actual state of the infrastructure and maintenance up to par? Nothing replaces a personal site visit to see and imagine for yourself. In one to two years, will this hotel stay the way you’ve seen it, be better or worse?

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