Smart Strategies for Site Selection

Here are factors to research and questions to ask before signing a contract.

The process of choosing a venue is riddled with questions. Over the course of a career, every planner eventually develops a list of large and small considerations that must be addressed before a contract is signed. For every meeting professional, that list is different, forged by the tides of trial and error. But given the multiplicity of details that go into the mix, even the most seasoned planner can find that it was a question she didn’t ask that proved a crucial missing link to a meeting’s success. 

Lisa Sommer Devlin
Lisa Sommer Devlin

“Remember that every hotel is different with its own policies and procedures,” warns Lisa Sommer Devlin of Devlin Law Firm P.C., an attorney who represents hotels in contract-related matters. “You can’t assume that because your last event was at Brand X, which allowed you to use an outside A/V company, that all Brand X hotels will do the same.”

Mastering the art of site selection takes time, but constantly refining the process will only benefit your groups. 

First Gather the Numbers

Before committing to hosting a conference, create a realistic budget that identifies all expenses and offsets, says Joan Eisenstodt, founder of Washington, D.C.-based meeting consulting firm Eisenstodt Associates LLC. You need this information before you can choose a site.

In the budgeting process, you must carefully forecast revenues. Be sure to talk to all partners, suppliers and potential sponsors to see if they would be interested and willing to sponsor your event and find out what type of budget they have. Use the results from your survey and your own knowledge of the market to forecast expected attendee revenues. Determine what type of cost offsets you can negotiate with the hotel and other vendors.

You might want to consider co-locating with another program to share costs. It’s also advisable to create a couple of different scenarios with must-haves that are essential to making all attendees and other stakeholders happy, and nice-to-haves that aren’t as key, so you can get a feel for what to ask when evaluating destinations and venues. This can function as a cushion in your budget in case any unexpected expenses arise.

Also get a clear understanding of what the target dates of the meeting are. When determining this, it is imperative to seek the advice of key stakeholders. Does the event have to take place by a certain date? Do you have any flexibility that will help you avoid high-rate times? Many planners forget to get early input from speakers and possible sponsors, so make sure your potential dates do not conflict with their schedules. Check your potential sponsors’ calendars to make sure that your event is not too close to their own events, and that they have revenues available in their current budgets. 

Competitive and industry events that pull attendees away will have a negative impact on your group size, so find out when these events are being held so you can plan accordingly. 

During this initial phase, you should also identify potential cities that would be a good match for attendees. Factors to consider include participants’ budgets; if people are driving or flying in; sleeping-room-rate threshold (what is the highest they will pay?); and the concentration of industry companies, clients and prospects in the area that could improve or even support the potential attendance pool and your overall numbers.

“I urge my clients to send a survey to their known potential attendees to get a better understanding of interest and if they will be attending,” says Dana Toland, founder of the IT Exchange Group, a Marshfield, Mass.-based meetings management company. “Surveys are especially key if it is a first-time event.” 

Budget and meeting dates are closely related. When selecting dates, if your budget is limited or attendees need a lower hotel-room rate, consider holding your event in the shoulder or off-peak season in a city where properties will offer more attractive rates.

“Creating a full budget up front and carefully selecting dates are the most important initial stages of site selection,” explains Toland. “If you don’t forecast costs, revenues and offsets properly, or the dates don’t work, a meeting can turn disastrous. You also need to have a strong grasp of registration and sponsors’ revenues to identify the right property, as low attendance numbers can result in hefty attrition fees.”

People and Spaces

If you do a survey, or know from your own in-depth understanding of your attendee base, consider: Will it be a drive-to meeting or will you need airlift? If the latter is the case, do you require nonstop flights? Based on past events, the current state of your organization, your industry and the overall economy, what is the expected number of attendees? How many guest rooms will you need? How much square footage of meeting space will you require? How much exhibit space? Breakout rooms for smaller sessions?

Would a resort environment work best for your group? If you want a captive audience, a remote property might be best. If the group is young, a downtown city location with multiple restaurant options and a hopping nightlife could be ideal. 

Joan Eisenstodt
Joan Eisenstodt

Early on, Eisenstodt provides hotels and other venues with an RFP that gives the basics noted above, plus the history of the event. In the case of a new meeting, she sends information concerning a similar meeting the group has had that includes where it was held, when it was held, how many rooms were contracted for and what the final room pickup was. Eisenstodt also puts in how much was spent on the previous event’s F&B, and what she expects the new event will require.

One of the ways Irving, Texas-based Brightspot Incentives & Events makes sure they aren’t overlooking anything in the site-selection process, says Genny Castleberry, CMP, director of sourcing for the company, is by adhering to a checklist compiled from several entities, including the Events Industry Council.

Eisenstodt has created an incredibly detailed site-selection checklist of about 24 pages for hotels to complete if they are planning to provide a proposal. “The reason to do this is that most hotel websites do not contain detailed information. To decide whether to include a property in the next steps for consideration, one must know far more than rates, dates, space,” she says. 

A carefully crafted site-selection process and checklist can even prevent embarrassment later on. Eisenstodt recalls a company that was trying to cut expenses by requiring its senior people to share rooms. What wasn’t asked during the decision-making process was whether there were enough two-bedded rooms to meet their needs. “The number of guest rooms is simply not enough information,” she says. “Occupancy and the type of sleeping arrangements are critical factors.”

Go for a Visit

Toland and her team ask their clients to identify and weigh which criteria is critical to achieve the event’s goals and objectives (see sidebar, “Weighting Your Options,” far left). They use this data to create an RFP that will identify the best venues to meet their clients’ needs. “If there are numerous potential properties or multiple cities being considered, my clients often will have us do an advance visit to narrow the list to those that are most appropriate,” Toland says.

During site-selection visits, Toland brings a comprehensive checklist of all areas that must be inspected and data that must be gathered. For example, one often-missed detail is the loading dock and the route from the dock to the main session and exhibit spaces. A show can become complicated if suppliers are not able to get their wares to the staging area in their original containers, she notes. Another critical part of the inspection is verifying that the meeting-room occupancy numbers set by the fire marshal and posted in each room match the numbers on the hotel’s meeting-rooms spec sheet. If occupancy numbers in a room are not adhered to, there is a chance your group won’t fit, and the program could be shut down by a fire marshal, warns Toland.

When communicating with potential hotels, be sure to find out if there will be other groups in-house. Although the hotel will not be able to release specific company names, your contacts at the property can tell you which industry these groups are in. You can, in turn, give the hotel a list of competing companies to ensure there are no conflicts.

“My clients want to be a big fish in a little pond rather than a guppy in the ocean,” says Toland. “They prefer to be the only program in-house and to own the hotel. Often, if a similar-sized or larger conference is in-house at the same time, your conference and attendees may not get the same attention as if they were the only group in-house.”

Crafting the Deal

After final site inspections are completed, and the client has rated each venue based on the predetermined criteria, Toland does a comprehensive evaluation of all possible properties, including venue costs, marketing costs, operational costs, room rates, liabilities and risk exposure, concessions and credits, and sponsor and attendee revenues, if applicable. Toland then sends the report to the client, who chooses which properties to take to the negotiating step. 

At that point, a customized hotel contract of up to 25 pages is drafted by Toland for each hotel selected by the client. Before signing the final agreement, Toland advises her clients to have it reviewed by an attorney.

But Castleberry advises planners to move fast during this contract-creation/review process. “In today’s sellers’ market, time is of the essence, and you can’t expect hotels to hold space and rates for very long,” she says.

At this final stage, Eisenstodt examines laws that might impact taxes that could be levied on everything from hotel rooms to food and beverage served, and she checks the hotel’s “standard contract provision” to see if what the hotel uses as its standard contract is in line with the what her client must have. “My contract language is provided in the must-have category. It’s a waste of everyone’s time to go through a process without a disclosing from all parties of the conditions under which the meeting can happen,” she says.

Sommer Devlin has some final words on the agreement: “Remember to make sure all the items on your checklist that are critical to your event are included in your contract. All your pre-contract discussions are just that: discussions, not commitments. If you discussed that you need to have all of the hotel’s 200 rooms with double beds, but the contracted guest-room block states that the rooms reserved are ‘run of house,’ you aren’t necessarily going to get all the double rooms. The written contract controls each party’s obligations, regardless of what they may have discussed or assumed, or understood before it was signed.”

In the end, you should have a venue and a contract that makes everyone happy. And after all has been signed on the dotted line, don’t forget your runners-up and the work they put in to try and win your business. 

“Communicate your selected destination/property with all vendors involved, and remember to thank them for their time and efforts; there is always a next time, and you want to ensure they remain interested and willing to bid on your next program,” says Castleberry.