Lessons Learned: Conference Planning

A great many years ago, I worked at a reasonably upscale hotel. During my years of employment with this establishment, I had several different positions. I waited tables, tended bar, helped out in catering, worked at the front desk, and served as a manager in both the dining room and the front desk. Because of all this experience, when it comes to dealing with hotels, I feel like I’m smarter than the average bear.

I left the hotel for a career in academia. In the intervening 25 years, I’ve been involved with the planning of many state, regional, and national conferences. On numerous occasions, my hotel experience has really come in handy. Even so, compared with conference planning professionals who organize dozens of conferences every year, I’m still a rank amateur.

I’m learning. Right now I’m looking for a hotel to host the 2014 conference of the small association for which I serve as the executive director. The group voted on a city at our last conference. Savannah came out on top…by a landslide. I happen to love Savannah. In fact, next to Washington DC, Savannah is my favorite city in the U.S. If you’ve never been, go–preferably sometime between Halloween and Mother’s Day, before it gets too hot.

But I digress. One day I’ll do a post about why I love Savannah. In the meantime, here are some helpful tips for anyone who might need to plan a conference.

Work with the local convention bureau. Tell them what you want and when, and they’ll communicate your needs to all the area hotels. This is MUCH easier than trying to find a hotel on your own. If the folks at the convention bureau are anything but warm and welcoming, go someplace else. Seriously. Had I known this two years ago, we never would have held our conference in Charlotte.

Be flexible. Rather than asking for specific dates, I told the convention bureau that we were looking for a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday event in February 2014, and that I wanted to avoid any big events going on in Savannah (like the basketball tournament that caused tons of problems for our Charlotte conference). Two hotels contacted me to ask if we’d be interested in a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday conference. The rate for lodging rooms dropped from $149 per night to $95 per night. Are we interested? Hell yeah!

Ask for concessions! That’s my big lesson this year. You have to ask for room upgrades, free rooms based on the number of rooms your group uses, parking discounts, free wireless access (if it’s not already provided), and other amenities. They might say no, or they might not. It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask. I figured this out when one of the hotels asked me what kind of concessions we wanted because that section of our request for proposals was blank. Oops!

Play hotels against each other. I talked with the convention bureau Monday and as of today, have received dramatically different bids from eight different hotels. The lodging rates range from $95 to $159, with minimums for food and beverage costs ranging from $6000 to $12000. The freebies offered by each hotel vary from none to a lot. Once I narrow the field down to the top two or three, I’ll be asking the hotels to match the lower rates offered by their competitors.

Give desirable hotels another chance. The hotels that offered the Monday through Wednesday deal weren’t on my short list of desirable properties. One of them I thought was out of our price range, and the other I frankly didn’t know about. Still, I plan on going back to the top two choices on my original short list to request another bid for the Monday through Wednesday option.

Challenge everything. Be nice about it, but check to see if there is any wiggle room in the terms BEFORE you sign the contract. Once you’ve signed, the answer to any request for concessions will be an apologetic no.  That’s why I had to pay $90 per day for an extension cord in Charlotte. Also, make sure the contract you sign contains the same information as the bid you reviewed. This was not the case with the Charlotte hotel. We got screwed because I didn’t catch the differences until we got our bill for the conference. Live and learn.

Plan a site visit. I can already tell choosing from the top three hotels will be difficult. Looking at pictures on hotel web sites is not a reliable indicator of how nice (or dilapidated) the property might be, the neighborhood it’s in, and the quality of the service. Unless you want to buy a pig in a poke, visit the hotels.

One of my top picks has already invited me down for a free stay. When the other hotels find out I’m coming, they’ll want me to tour their facilities and will likely provide lunch or dinner.  I guess my partner and I will have to go down and check things out.

Being the unpaid executive director is a tough job, but somebody has to do it. We’ll endure the inconvenience of a quick trip to fabulous Savannah. That’s just how we roll here in…

My Glass House