Checking in with a bargain

Most conferences and events are run with a tight budget secured, not allowing for much wiggle room. Therefore, it is up to a savvy organiser to ensure they get the most from their suppliers, even when knowing the supplier can’t break even. In the end, a relationship must be retained for future contracts. 

Hotels take an enormous share of the UK’s meetings business by providing delegates with both their event spaces and bedrooms. Before organisers embark on the to-ing and fro-ing of Cold War negotiations with this or that supplier they need first to take stock of how valuable the event is to the hotel, their past history with the supplier and consider some wider economic truths. In the end, the scenario needs to be a win-win for both parties; building trust between supplier and organiser will ensure the event is a success.

“It is really important that we add a great deal of value to our clients’ venue searches so we will always ask a venue if the price originally quoted is the final price on our first approach,” says Director of event management agency Accomplished Events, Jenny Pink. “After contacting various venues for the brief we look at the most competitive rates and go back to the venues that are over this threshold and ask them if they can beat the most competitive prices so the overall rates get further driven down.”

Pink says this is beneficial for both the client and the venues themselves, as it gives venues who are over budget and not in line with others, a chance to make their rates more competitive.

“We find that venues appreciate us providing them with this information so that they can fairly pitch for the business,” says Pink.

Venue Search UK’s MD, Katherine Buchan, says the best negotiations with hotels are those done face-to-face during a site inspection. “The inspection gives the client an opportunity to sell their event to the venue and to encourage the venue to appreciate the value of that particular piece of business.

“By the end, the organiser should know how much the hotel wants the event and how far they will go to accommodate it,” she adds. “It important that the site inspection is with someone able to make those decisions.”

Event management agency Top Banana believes having an experienced in-house venue team working alongside its bespoke event experts helps it negotiate to get the most for the client. Helen Silvester, Top Banana’s Venue Geek (sic), says having as much information as possible in place about an event’s footprint and scale from the outset allows for clearer negotiations, rather than adding a stream of changes along the way.

“Knowing minimum delegate numbers from the start is important, too, as numbers can drop at the last moment,” says Silvester. “We always lower our minimum booking number to account for this drop, and we’re always looking for flexible environments with numerous breakout rooms.”

Holding rooms on an allocation basis, meanwhile, means Top Banana has a month or so to release from the deal, which avoids a cost should it decide not to use them. The agency always looks to get the same price across the board for rooms and negotiates for a hotel to promise no late rate rises.

From the hotel side, Alice Brunel-Cohen, Head of Supply Management for serviced apartments group, SilverDoor Limited, a member of the Hotel Booking Agents’ Association (HBAA), says it can sometimes take some persuasion for SilverDoor’s newer property partners to accept a reduced rate for extended stays of more than 90 total nights.

“On highlighting the benefits of securing a long stay, which include lower operating costs, consistent occupancy and less wear and tear, we often hear the penny drop. Our clients are happy to have met their budgets and our partners can feel secure in the knowledge that their occupancy figures will be much higher at the end of the year. A great result all round.”

If a venue won’t negotiate for whatever reason, such as there being a lot of interest in the date, Accomplished Events might ask for added extras such as an upgraded catering package, a more extensive AV package, or an upgrade on bedrooms so that the client is able to get the best value from their event spend, even if this does not alter the overall rates.

“Another method we employ is like-for-like comparisons between venues that have a similar offering,” says Pink. “So, if a client has a non specific brief such as requiring a rural venue in the home counties we will negotiate with competitor chains that meet the brief, advising each that the client has a number of options and therefore venues sometimes will reduce rates to try and beat their competitors in order to win the business.”

Accomplished Events also helps maximise clients’ budgets by communicating clients’ thoughts to the venues, such as advising them that the client is keen and ready to go to the contract stage but that the rates are still not where they need to be. This allows the venue to review the overall quotation knowing that the client has shown keen interest and therefore gives them an opportunity to win the business through reduction of rates or implementing added extras.

“Knowing the etiquette globally also helps,” says Silvester. “In Europe, we find that a lot of hotels offer free rooms when you pledge large numbers and we try and get London and the UK to offer the same. In Lisbon, for example, we got six free rooms thrown in over 23 bed nights.”

There are a huge number of variables when booking a venue, so it is always best to try and batten down as many of the requirements as possible, keeping you in the driving seat of the negotiation, says founder of event management and brand engagement agency, Crescendo, Russell Allen. He says booking an extra syndicate room for 100 delegates the night before the event can often be at the mercy of the venue, even if they can do it at short notice.

Allen suggests that rather than be daunted by the many choices, make them work for you. “Perhaps look at upgrading some of the food and beverage elements, rather than just focusing on price.

“If, for example, you have people travelling from afar for a morning meeting, they would appreciate fruit and croissants, or something substantial on arrival rather than simply a biscuit. So, the more information you give to the venue, the more they can build something that is right for you, as well as them. ”

Madeleine Heimers has had a long career as an event organiser and has recently launched a new marketing and event organising company, Red Box Communications. She says that for large events she would appoint an agency to block book an allocation of rooms and, hopefully, leverage their buying power. For smaller events, she would go direct.

“I do miss building up relationships with the general managers like we used to in the early days of working at the event organising company, Blenheim,” says Heimers. “They ensured our needs were remembered.
“At the end of the day, if you can build a relationship with the hotel for your event, nine times out of 10 it should benefit all parties.”

Event requirements

Allen suggests looking at exactly what the event will require. Could any breakout rooms be discounted or included in the rate? What about staff accommodation? No one likes to see a line item for crew rooms if possible.

“Once you have all the facts,” he says, “and share with them what’s important to you and your delegation, then you are in the best position to get their full attention, and hopefully the right deal for you and them.”
Ben Booker, the GM at Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club in Sussex, says it is prudent for organisers to plan well in advance.

“It is a myth that last minute bookings reap the greatest financial rewards. The sooner you book, the better the relationship with your contact at the hotel, giving you a more bespoke event, which in our experience always provides a better day for the delegates. 

“Another thing to bear in mind,” he adds, “is the more flexible you can be with your dates the more flexible venues tend to be with their pricing and availability, which comes back to booking and planning well in advance.”

Allen says to be fair to hotels, even if you don’t want to disclose specifics of the other venues you are looking at, give them a time-frame for your decision, and try to stick to it.

If hotels try and charge you for Wi-Fi, remind them which century you are in. If they don’t budge, then tell them to include it in any individual rate, e.g. DDR, so you can both clearly see they are creating a commercial disadvantage to their competitors.

“But remember the golden rule,” adds Allen. “Don’t be too harsh in the negotiation. When the event occurs, and you require that extra syndicate room at late notice, you will want the venue on your side.”

As venuefinding agency Hotel Desk’s Jo Egan says, perhaps the hardest part of event planning is abiding by that all important budget, a budget that’s getting tightly squeezed in this economic climate.

“Conquering this minefield of meeting rates can prove a confusing and, often, frustrating process for those who aren’t sure exactly why there’s such a price difference in venue rates for what appears, at first glance, to be the same offering,” she says.

“Consequently, some event organisers grossly overpay and others underpay by negotiating too hard, which can result in their delegates receiving lower quality service in return.”

This was first published in the March issue of CN. Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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