Hotel Liaison

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Hotel Liaison is the function of presenting an abstraction of the Convention Committee to the facilities the convention will use. This abstraction avoids conflicting data that might arise by using multiple channels, and prevents conflict between the committee and the hotel by allowing the organization to select a spokesman or spokesmen who can present their interests calmly and knowledgeably. Basically, Hotel Liaison takes all the internal turmoil of the ConCom and becomes the con's Single Point of Contact to the facility. Typically each facility will also select a single point of contact from management or the sales or catering department, and most interaction between the hotel and the convention will occur between these two people. The hotel or the convention may choose to make other staffers available directly, especially for technical topics, but this should be under the control of the hotel liaison.

There are many pieces of information that a Hotel Liaison must keep track of: function room setups and room turns, hotel room assignments, food requests, ... some of these might be part of the Resume, and some might be separate lists or documents.


Selecting Venues

Every hotel is different. Finding the "right" venue for the convention is an involved task, and should be begun as early as possible. Typically, the liaison or chair will search through the websites of local hotels, examine floor plans, and build a short list of hotels that can provide the space the convention will require. Some questions you can answer from the floor plans - others will require a phone conversation and a visit to the site.

Considerations include:

- Are there enough rooms for each function within your event?

- Will there be a place you can set up registration?

- If you have a special event, such as a dance, is there a room large enough to hold it in?

- Do locked doors separate the function space?

- Will attendees require keycards to get into certain places?

- If you are planning on catering, does this hotel meet your budget?

- Is it likely the room rate will match the budget of your guests?

- Are there enough rooms to hold all of your guests? Some hotels will already be at 50 to 80% capacity.

- How accessible is the hotel? Is it close to transit? Or out in the middle of nowhere?

Timeline

If you are an annual convention, you will want to have the contract in hand at least a year before the previous convention so you can publish the date and location of the next convention.

This is not a complete list. Some of these deadlines may be set in your contract with the hotel.

Timeline
Begin Hotel Search Two years before convention
Begin Contract Negotiations 18 months before convention
Sign contract 14 months before convention
Hotel Tour Tour hotel with Staff before doing space allocation and again before Schedule of Events deadline.
Space allocation 10 months before convention
Open up rooms reservations 5 months before convention
Deadline for Room Setups, schedule tie-down meeting 1 month before convention
Catering orders, VIP list, room assignments 2 weeks before convention
Schedule post-con meeting with hotel 1 week after convention

Request For Proposal

From there, the convention will send an RFP, or Request For Proposal, to each hotel. When you prepare the RFP, you should include the number of hotel room nights you will require, the space you need for your event, the dates of the event and the nature of the event. There is no point proceeding with a hotel uncomfortable with hosting special interest conventions like science fiction conventions. You need only include relevant details; it is best to leave the little stuff to contract negotiation.

The hotel may decline to host your event. If it does not, it will send a proposal to you outlining what they can provide, at what cost. Remember: the hotel is bidding to host your event. That means they should be presenting a competitive offer that is in line with other offers you have received. If the function space is too expensive, or the room rate too high, bring this up with the hotel. When necessary, let them know what other hotels have offered. Five star hotels will be more expensive than four star hotels; and luxury hotels will rarely be able to provide a cheap offering (to get an idea of pricing ask them what it costs for a gallon of coffee).

It is not necessary to be confrontational. If the offer does not work and the hotel cannot provide a better deal, thank them for the proposal and move on once you have found a proposal that does work. In smaller towns, do not be too quick to disregard an offer - it may end up being the best one you can get.

Proposal and Due-diligence

Before you start negotiating, read the offer carefully. Search for hidden clauses that expose you to financial risk and be aware of them. Most larger hotels now employ sales managers to directly handle RFPs and contract negotiation. They will be experienced saleswomen and salesmen. You may have several rounds of discussions before you begin negotiating the contract. You should speak at least once over the phone to suss out any misunderstandings. Save any email conversations you have: they may promise you something that isn't in the contract. If you are working with a sales manager, once the contract is signed you will be transferred to services manager who will help coordinate the fine details of the event.

Room Blocks

See Also: Blocking

Typical proposals will offer you a "room block," which is a commitment by the hotel to hold a certain number of rooms for your attendees to book at a discount rate. This is analogous to reserving tables at a restaurant. The room block will have an expiration (where unused rooms are released back to the hotel) and will often include an attrition clause. The attrition clause will require you to pay for unused rooms, up to a certain maximum. 60% to 80% is common. Do not accept offers where the room cost is higher than what the hotel offers or where Travelocity or other such discount sites can offer a better deal. Almost always, the room block will be expressed in terms of "room nights," which is "each night a room is booked." If your attendees have no incentive to book rooms there, they will not do so, and you will be left footing the bill. Cheaper, nearby hotels can also affect how many rooms you will book.

Remember: you are providing a bulk guarantee of rooms, you should be offered a discount. When sending the initial RFP, the importance of correctly estimating the number of rooms you will book cannot be understated. You should find out historical room bookings from past conventions, including the rate that was on offer. If you are uncertain, err on the side of caution if an attrition clause is involved. You may wish to consult members of the committee and find out how many of them will be getting a room. The majority of local attendees will not require a room, since they have a perfectly functional home near by. Out-of-town attendees, invited speakers, dealers and other professionals without a place to stay will often book rooms, but may not do so at your chosen hotel without incentive to do so.

Overbooking

Be wary of overbooking a hotel. The hotel will internally forecast how many rooms it would normally book on its own. If you eat into the normal (better paying) bookings, you are affecting the bottom line of the hotel. This will increase the cost of hosting your event, and an intelligent sales manager will try to tack on added costs to function space or catering to cover this. Booking the hotel right out of rooms will not only disappoint your attendees, it will strain relations with the hotel and give you very little flexibility.

It may not be you that overbooks the hotel. The hotel might get flooded by a surprise visit from tourists, or a cruise ship might need lodgings for their guests. This is very serious and can have financial ramifications for the convention. To protect against this, ask for a Guest Relocation clause that will provide any attendee with a guaranteed booking that cannot be placed in the hotel the following guarantees:

1) Accommodation at a comparable hotel within reasonable proximity

2) A complimentary round trip for transportation between Hotel and the alternate hotel

3) An offer to relocate displaced guests back to first available room, and an offer to upgrade accommodations

4) Credit for any displaced guests toward its room block pickup for purposes of the contract, and for calculation of the Group complimentary room credit

The fourth item will protect you from financial obligations in relation to the room block attrition clause.

Sliding Scales

If your convention typically books a large number of hotel rooms, you can use this in your favour to negotiate a discount for function space. At 100 dollars a night, 200 room nights is $20,000 in potential income you are bringing the hotel. As such the hotel may be satisfied with an out-right discount to the function space cost.

On the other hand, it may offer you what is called a "sliding scale," which is a commitment to offer you a discount based on how many room nights you book. You should expect a large discount: 80% to 100% pickup of the room block should typically get you between 50% to 75% in discount. The percentage of the discount is not important; hotels often inflate the price of the function space to seem like they are giving you a good deal, when in fact 50% off may actually be their average price. What is important is the end cost and your confidence in fulfilling the room block obligations. If this is in addition to an attrition clause, the financial risk can be very high. If you lack confidence in fulfilling this room block, seek insurance.

Catering Minimums

Some hotels push their catering very strongly. With rare exception, this will be very costly for very little food. Try to avoid any talk of a catering minimum. If you do find yourself with a good offer that contains a catering minimum, try to set up an event that sells tickets to a well-catered meal and offload the cost to people who actually want the food.

A/V Pricing

Some hotels may have an exclusive contract with a company for providing A/V equipment (speakers, mics, video protectors, ...). You may want to add a clause to your contract that allows you to bring in and setup your own equipment (or rent from someone else).

Drayage and Union Labor

If you're going to be transporting and setting up your own displays, you might want to find out if the hotel has a union and if they will be okay with your staff or volunteers working in the hotel.

Hotels will receive packages for your, but there may be a fee for the drayage service. It may be cheaper to arrange for packages to be shipped to a nearby Mail Boxes Etc (if they have compatible hours).

Parking

Is parking free? If not, how much does it cost? Is there a different rate for valet parking? Is there a discount for overnight guests? How many parking spaces are there? Do they own the parking facility? It's more likely you can negotiate a lower rate for parking if they own and operate it.

Are any of your attendees likely to bicycle to the event? If so, is there bicycle parking? Some hotels may have a room for bicycles that locks, but they may not advertise it.

Financial Risk

Calculate the maximum possible financial risk that the convention will be exposed to in the event of the cancellation or failure to meet attrition minimums. Knowing the risk will help set priorities for the convention, and ensure actions are taken to prevent it. Not knowing the financial obligations the contract has runs the risk of bankrupting your organization.

Contract negotiation

The underlying cost of function space varies by location but is often usefully approximated at $1 per square foot, including tables and chairs and such, for a multi-day event. Function facilities often build the cost of the function space into profit they hope to make elsewhere, such as guest rooms or catering. Particularly for new events, a typical contract therefore assigns much of the financial risk to the facility, which may in turn want to assign the risk back to the convention in the form of catering or room block minimums or attrition clauses. Attrition clauses in particular can be the death of conventions, but when negotiating with a facility it helps to understand their need to manage their own risk. Paying for function space in cash or partly in cash may put them at ease and you might get better room or catering rates out of the deal. To balance this, hotels are often willing to tack on a surcharge to the room to be given back to the convention, or you can raise your membership rate. This doesn't make the risk go away, of course, but it can limit the downside for the convention.

If the function space cost is being covered by guest room revenue, you may be able to negotiate more favorable rates for hotel catering -- useful if you want a banquet or the like as an event.

If a hotel asks for a cancellation clause, ask for it to be mutual. If negotiating with multiple facilities ensure that cancellation by one facility will not leave the convention owing a cancellation penalty to another one.

A hotel may offer a better rate (or add extra goodies such as a free shuttle) if you agree to a multi-year contract. You'll want to make sure the multi-year option can be voided without a penalty if both parties agree. You'll also want a clause to adjust the block size based for the following year (if you grow you may want to add more rooms).

It's nice to have a contract before the convention begins selling memberships. But an option, or even a handshake, may suffice depending on the relationship with the hotel.

Contract enforcement

Your goal is not a rigid enforcement of the contract. Your goal is for the convention and its members to get what they need at a price that fits in their budgets, and secondarily for the facility to be happy enough to want you back. Hotels double-book space all the time and may be willing to give you something compelling in exchange for giving up what's in your contract. Sometimes the sales department makes promises on behalf of other departments that the departments can't deliver but are often willing to give you things that you're not entitled to if you ask nicely and they know you've been accommodating elsewhere.

Whatever promises have been made to you, make sure you get it in writing.

Rooming

Guest room arrangements can be a lot of work, and this aspect of hotel is well-contained. Consider delegating it to an innkeeper function. If you have financial obligations to book a certain number of rooms, push hard and push early to meet those minimums by promoting the rooms that are still available. Get the hotel to update you frequently on your current uptake of rooms, and know how many you have left.

Reservations

Once the contract is signed, getting reservations open is the first order of business. You will need to set up room blocks. If you have any control over placement at all, you will want to have some distinction between "party" (or "active") and "quiet" areas. You may need additional blocks in order to accommodate convention functions, kosher/shabbat rooms, handicap access, smoking, and suites. Chances are good that the first step is to get a room map from the hotel. Beware: Most such room maps are at least slightly inaccurate.

Consider noise propagation in the hotel, vertically as well as horizontally. Elevator lobbies generate noise, as do parties and convention functions such as the Con Suite or Staff Den. Natural features of the hotel may work to propagate or insulate noise. Most attendees will want the Quiet block, so take advantage of noise breaks such as fire doors or a bank of service elevators.

Some hotel reservation systems can deliver on room preferences and some can't. Most are a mix: Passkey, for instance, can guarantee the right number of King vs Double/Double reservations made but handicap access and smoking vs non-smoking are best effort. Hotels with a wider variety of room types than the hotel's reservation system can understand will have to have blocks for each type.

Don't make a special block for convention functions. Hotel chain central reservations phone operators won't understand and will book general attendees into the block. And when you change your mind about how the con is using guest rooms, you'll have to go through a block adjustment with the hotel. Put those rooms in the appropriate block for if they weren't being used by the con instead, and make ordinary reservations for each room you're using.

Room assignment

Assigning particular rooms is a nice touch, and it's often the only way to guarantee things like requests for connecting rooms. But it's a lot of work. Some hotel reservation systems can assign room numbers to reservations as they come in, from a list of rooms in each block. Setting up connecting rooms in a system like this is a simple matter of swapping reservations.

Program of Events

Room setups use a lot of labor and hotels will be more able to perform them correctly if given enough time to schedule their part-time staff appropriately. Ideally the hotel should be given at least six week's notice of the general shape of room setups including any major room turns that have to happen quickly, and at least two week's notice of the specifics so they can enter them into their labor scheduling systems. Don't deliver this document too early, though, or it will be fiction.

It's OK to use 24-hour time internally (it makes it easier to sort times in a spreadsheet) but check with the hotel before you give it to them. Some hotels prefer AM/PM.

If you use 24-hour time, you can be creative with it. If you have an event that runs from 11pm to 3am, you can list it as 23:00 - 27:00.

If you use AM/PM for time, be careful to use 11:59pm instead of 12:00am (Midnight).

Resume

Try to tie every hotel detail that's not a guest room or a function room into a single place, for easy reference. This is the place to collect random little things like warning the hotel to expect heavy use of the ATM in their lobby. This is also a good place to put things that affect multiple rooms, like requesting that incidentals be turned off for all guest rooms in which convention functions (like ConSuite or Babysitting) will occur.

For example, you might include:

  • Contact info for the hotel liasons
  • Who can sign on the master bill
  • Who can make non-financial changes to the rooming list or program of events, if this is not the same list
  • Front desk procedure and a description of how you'd like them to interact with Innkeeper
    • Including a reminder not to give out the room number for babysitting
  • Security procedure and a description of how we'd like them to interact with our security and medical staff
  • Engineering procedure including that you're likely to want them to correct setup errors or make changes outside business hours
  • Rekeying requests (if you bother with this)
  • Housekeeping procedures, including reminders about do-not-disturb signs and that many guests will want towel-refresh-only
  • Contact info and location for Ops and Security
  • Escalation procedures on both sides for if a first level contact point can't handle a request
  • Any special blocking requests that can't be described in the rooming list
  • Furniture removal requests if these are not in the rooming list
  • Expected arrival profile, so they can plan staffing (even if you get this by asking the hotel for it, it's good to feed it back to them)
    • Including a warning that there will be heavy use of bell carts
  • Expected load-in profile including when we will be making heavy use of their loading docks
  • Ice delivery requests if these aren't in the rooming list (and they're probably not)
  • Details for how you want to use their shuttle bus
  • VIP parking details including who gets a VIP space
  • Reminder about unlocking stairwells
  • Reminder about the free wifi, if you get that
  • Reminders of any other changes of procedure we get (for instance, extended hours at their restaurants, at the pool if you get that, etc)
  • Menu requests for food service
  • Who is allowed to use the service elevators and how to recognize them
  • Requests for data feedback from the hotel
    • Hotel room pickup
    • F&B reports
    • arrival profile info for next year
  • Suggested charity for their internal charity program, if they have one
  • Reminder about the blood drive and parking needs there


Tiedown

Typically, the facility will want to have a meeting or meetings a week or two before the event. These meetings serve two purposes: first, to introduce all the hotel's department heads to the people who will have authority to sign on the master bill, and second, to take care of any unresolved details. Sometimes you will discover that your hotel had an entire category of details that they expected to work out with you, and even if that's not the case the department heads typically only stay for the first few minutes, with only the hotel's contact and one or two other people staying behind for the rest of the meeting. For this reason it's important for the convention staff attending this meeting to be prompt, and for people not authorized to sign on the master bill not to attend.

Make sure you take notes about the hotel staff at this meeting; you will need their names later to provide feedback (and tips or gifts) for the hotel. A staff list is also useful, though not absolutely necessary.

Ideally, the Pocket Program will have gone to press by this meeting. Give the hotel a copy, if possible.

Runtime

"Plans are useless, but planning is essential" -- Dwight D. Eisenhower

At runtime, hotel will be mostly reactive rather than proactive. Choose staff who can resolve issues quickly. Don't try to use technology to keep track of runtime issues; a whiteboard or clipboard is fine.

Tip early and often. A tip budget of at least 25 cents per convention attendee is a bare minimum; 50 or 75 cents is more typical and if this is your first year in a hotel or you are trying to repair a relationship, $1.50 per attendee is not too much. Housemen who know to expect tips from you won't lollygag when they see you around, and they may be motivated to come up with creative solutions to problems the convention may have. Tipping in $2 bills is fun because it makes it more clear that the tip is coming from the con and not any mundane guests who may also be present, but don't just tip one of those at a time. When I say "early" I mean it; preparations for the convention's arrival may begin days ahead of time and that is a good time to have someone on site handing out cash. It is far better to run out of tip money 3/4 of the way through the con than to have any left over afterwards. You will probably need to get tip money from Treasury before the con begins, and certainly before Treasury has set up their at-Con operations.

Have a staff of people you trust to be the face of the convention to the hotel at con. Ops will need to know your duty schedule. Covering late night hours as on-call is fine so long as the hotel isn't scheduled to do any critical room changes during those hours, or if you have someone else (like the department that requires the room change) who will be around to verify its correctness and tip the housemen for you.

Most hotels distribute tokens (usually pins called "frogs" by meeting planners, because they make hotel staff jump) for the master bill signers. Hotels also typically distribute a Nextel or the like to use to contact them. If you can only have one it should go to the duty hotel liaison. Having one for the primary liaison and one for the duty con chair is a good idea. Having one for ops should only be done if you are clear what they are to use it for. Ops will benefit from being able to hear the traffic and from being able to resolve problems if no one else is reachable, but they're unlikely to be the calm face the convention would like to present. Find out if the hotel has a direct dial number that is a backup for the radios (sometimes the radios don't work in certain parts of the hotel).

Give the hotel other runtime contact info for you, your team, and Ops, in case they can't get you on the Nextel. Consider giving them contact info for the Con Chair, or telling them where and when your at-con operational meetings so they can bring any pressing concerns there. Hopefully they won't need any of this.

Invite the hotel to the Gripe Session(s). Make sure that hotel issues are brought up first so your rep can go back to doing their job without having to hear about the non-hotel gripes.

Most hotel departments are good at going through the liaison. Some, particularly security, may not be used to having a qualified counterpart team and may need encouragement to bring their issues to the convention.

Billing

Schedule the Master Bill reconciliation as early as possible, and pay in cash or equivalent. That way the hotel is less likely to bill you for small things they notice later.

It's tempting to put convention staff on the master bill and have them pay you back. But this is a coordination issue with Treasury and often results in never getting the money. Don't do it. You can, however, often ask your hotel to transfer *part* of the room cost to the master bill, and this can be nice way to reimburse expenses.

Be sure to allocate comp rooms from the hotel in a way that's advantageous to the convention and also easy to understand. A master bill that's randomly missing rooms makes it hard to tell where your resources went.