Small Group, Big Space Needs, No Problem

By: Jeff Waddle

Meetings that have a low number of attendees but require lots of meeting space can be seen as "ugly ducklings" by many hotels. But as some Texas associations have learned, a little advance planning and flexibility can make for an event that charms everybody. (Titled "Sitting Pretty" in the print edition.)

It's never been easy for association meeting planners to find the perfect meeting venue, in the right city, on the dates that will generate maximum participation. Add a weak guest-room-to-meeting-space ratio and a struggling economy to the mix, and you've got a challenging situation.

Finding the proper home for so-called "ugly baby" meetings—high space demands and low guest-room needs—can be particularly challenging in Texas, a state so large and diverse that its economy ranks second in the United States and 13th worldwide. The problem is especially pronounced for Texas state associations, which often rotate their conferences around the state, meet in a certain pattern, and deal with members living in the host cities who don't need overnight hotel accommodations.

But both planners and CVBs report that the relative beauty of many meetings can lie in the eyes of the beholders. Here's how some Texas-based associations made their meetings appealing to venues and advice for how you can overcome the ugly-meeting challenge when you meet in the Lone Star State.

Anatomy of an Ugly Meeting

For Jeni Leans, CMP, CAE, director of meetings and education for the Texas Physical Therapy Association, TPTA's annual conference was so unattractive to one major city that its hotels wouldn't consider it until the recent recession. "In that case, I was just persistent and kept going back to them. And when the economy turned down, all of a sudden I was being courted," says Leans, who needs to rotate the event around the state.

TPTA's room block is a modest 350 guests over a four-night span, with a peak night of 150 to 160 guests. Leans says she needs an exhibit hall large enough to hold up to 115 exhibit booths along with a minimum of 10 meeting rooms, two of which must be large enough to hold approximately 250 people in a classroom-style setting. "I have a large student population that will triple and quadruple up on the room, and they'll also book outside the room block," says Leans. She says pricing limits venue options as well, "because if I start getting in the $200 range, my group's not going to go for it."

Janet Morrow, CMP, CAE, can sympathize. As executive director of the Texas Association of Nurse Anesthetists, she also must accommodate a large student population at TXANA's education conferences—especially when it meets in the Dallas area, where many of its members attend college. "When we go to the Dallas area, we can have up to 200 students, and since they tend to live in that area, they drive in and out," says Morrow. "Even the ones who stay overnight will stay multiple to a room, and we only charge them $75 for conference registration, which will barely pay for one day of food now. So we had to cut back [on the food-and-beverage budget]."

Morrow says that the problem is compounded by having to book around several national conferences while also being required by association policy to book at least three years out. TXANA's two continuing-education conferences each have a peak night of 125 guests in its room block and require meeting space for up to 500 people and approximately 35 exhibitors. "That makes it even more difficult, because if I could find an area where they have a hole closer in, it's easier, and I can get better rates and all of that works," Morrow says.

It's Not Ugly to Everyone

Given the diversity of Texas destinations and venues that host meetings, not everyone views or values meetings the same way. "Being from a resort city like Galveston, the ugly baby becomes a pretty baby in the summer because we want to fill up the convention center but not fill up the hotels with too many group business rooms," says Dottie Bossley, regional sales director for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. Bossley, who's based in Austin and works closely with state associations, says tourists coming to vacation in Galveston in the summer pay higher room rates than group business.

But Galveston doesn't want its meeting facilities to sit empty all summer, so it offers incentives for high-space, low-room meetings. "We have an incentive fund that we can request to offset meeting-room rental at the Galveston Island Convention Center in the summer, but come the fall and winter timeframe, the booking guidelines are more stringent because we need to fill the hotel rooms as well," she says. "It's all about placement and understanding your destination, because every city has its peak time and low periods, some more than others. In Houston, for example, they're desperate for booking rooms on weekends in the summer, and that's the exact opposite for us even though we're only 40 minutes apart."

Morrow says that TXANA often has trouble finding space in San Antonio hotels for its Friday-Saturday-Sunday pattern because the city has a strong weekend tourism business, whereas it often helps to have that pattern in other major cities in Texas.

Felicia Madison, CMP, director of meetings and conventions for Visit San Antonio, says that tourists can fill up some hotels along the city's popular River Walk downtown, but there are plenty of choices if groups expand their options. "A lot of people say they want to be on the River Walk, but we have so many other hotel options, and many of them offer transportation downtown," she says. "We've got lots of amazing properties near the medical center, and some of our hotels near the airport have meeting space they can offer in a nearby entertainment complex that has a comedy club and theater with smaller meeting rooms."

Madison says Visit San Antonio has added sales staff this year to help smaller hotels combine meeting space and accommodate more groups with space-to-room-ratio issues. "One thing that's really nice is that sometimes our downtown hotels will work off one pattern while our surrounding area hotels will work off a completely different pattern, so we're able to make adjustments for several groups," she says.

Dana Williams, CMP, assists groups that have room-to-space-ratio challenges with the right facilities and dates in Dallas. "I have fabulous hotels that have great room-to-space ratios, like 100,000 square feet and 500 rooms, and that's a solution especially if you're willing to book a hotel that's not necessarily downtown, although one of them, the Fairmont, is downtown," says Williams, regional sales manager, south Texas regional office, of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Also, if we can marry you with another group, perhaps a citywide that's in town, that's a good way to solve a space-room-ratio issue as well," she says, adding that weekend patterns tend to work best most of the year in Dallas.

Williams says that using the CVB as a search engine and being as flexible as possible with dates and patterns is the best way to overcome the ugly meeting stigma. "I also think planners just need to realize when they have a bad rooms-to-space ratio, because if they just pretend it's not, it's really difficult to work with them," she says. "You should be flexible and tell your board, ‘Look, this is a bad rooms-to-space ratio, so we should be flexible.' It's hard because hotels aren't going to give up prime dates and prime space for a group that has a bad ratio and no flexibility."

Making It Work

"I'm just extremely honest and up front about what I have, does it fit, and can you give it to me at rates my members are willing to pay? I also don't have a lot of hot buttons, I do as much food and beverage there as possible, and I try to do multiyear contracts and maybe stick with one brand in order to show them that when you're looking at the next three to five years, I'm meeting here, here, and here. It helps to stay in their family," says TXANA's Morrow.

Leans finds that being a loyal customer to vendors that are willing to work with her is key. "I also would advise you to really know your group and know where you can bend and where you can't," she says, adding that she's willing to pay more for meeting space at her space-intensive annual conference. "I also let them know that my group is very social, and they will be hanging out at the hotel having drinks and eating after the meeting, so I try to play up the ancillary money that can be made, not just the rooms and meeting space."

Morrow says that knowing your group is important. "If you know your group, you can enhance the value of your overall piece of business," she says. "For example, my members will use the health center, and they don't mind paying for it, because that's their daily routine. I also can tell the hotel things like, ‘Here are the number of people who will likely utilize your fine-dining restaurant.'"

Clair Jordan, executive director of the Texas Nurses Association, has a large student population that attends TNA's education conferences. One way she works with the room rate is by booking a less expensive hotel near the headquarters property where the conference is taking place. She also reduces meeting-space requirements by cutting the number of breakout sessions in lieu of a well-known national speaker, which has generated higher conference evaluations.

Additionally, Jordan tries to find ways to boost her food and beverage spending at the hotel, and she seeks out hotels that are willing to discount certain costs in exchange for booking well in advance. "We have one hotel that we use that if we book our meeting two years out, they'll give us a discount on all the coffee served or something like that," she says, adding that being a loyal customer has helped from both a cost and service standpoint.

Williams says one way an association can enhance the attractiveness of its meetings with room-to-space-ratio issues is to do everything possible to ensure its room block represents its true value. "Some of the groups have bad room-space ratios because they're not capturing all of their rooms, because some of their people book outside the room block," she says. "So, educating their members on why that's bad for their organization may help. You can try to get them to use the room-block with incentives, like you can enter a drawing for an iPad if you stay in the block or a lower registration fee. Some groups don't allow people to attend their conferences at all until they're booked in the room block. If everybody helps their attendees be more accountable, their rooms-to-space ratio definitely would be better."

Sidebar: Top Texas Trends

Houston-based Benchmark Hospitality International recently released its "Top Ten Meeting Trends for 2011" as observed by the 30 hotels, resorts, and conference centers it manages nationwide, including hotels in San Antonio and Houston.

1. Business is on the move again. Business travel, group and individual, is up in 2011. Customers remain highly rate conscious and value focused.

2. Planners want choice. Planners still see the value of all-inclusive packages, but they want packages customized to the needs and budget of their particular meeting.

3. Heads in beds is a priority. Increasing occupancy while maintaining rate integrity remains a priority. To win business, properties are negotiating added-value options, such as complimentary internet access, cancellation and attrition flexibility, and forgiving resort fees.

4. Pace is positive. Booking pace for meetings may finally be turning the corner. More companies are projecting increased business needs. Along the way, meetings are increasing in quantity but not size.

5. Social media is not yet dominant. Social media usage is not dominating communications at meetings as it has for the general public. The exceptions are LinkedIn and YouTube, with groups videotaping sessions and posting them online to use in various ways.

6. Cost still trumps green. Being green remains important for many planners who look for properties to have these initiatives in place. But, if asked to choose between being green or providing maximum cost savings, budgets still take precedence in 2011.

7. Team building is back. Demand for team building is back, though unevenly so throughout the country. Where there is demand, planners want unique programs delivered within tight budgets.

8. Recreation is returning. Properties are seeing the return of recreation and entertainment as part of the meeting experience. Inquires for entertainment options are coming from groups interested in offering more than a strictly serious meeting experience.

9. Some industries are coming back. After a deep retreat in 2009 to 2010, insurance, financial, consulting, technology, healthcare, and education are rebounding. As companies within these industries step up hiring, training-related meetings are becoming more prevalent.

10. The internet is the resource for information. Planners learn about locations, destinations, and individual properties mostly through surfing the internet.

Jeff Waddle is a freelance writer and editor of ASAE's Meetings & Expositions newsletter. Email: [email protected]