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Featured Article - Blocking
Blocking is the preparatory step, before opening hotel reservations, of allocating rooms to two or more blocks so that the hotel's reservation system will accept the correct number and type of reservations that will allow each hotel guest to be placed in a suitable room.
One challenge to blocking is that the hotel probably thinks of their inventory along different lines from the way the convention will think of them. Most hotels have between two and six different bed configurations, and within each bed configuration a small number of fanciness levels, with rooms of each bed configuration and level scattered through the hotel. In ordinary operations, almost all hotels will consider these rooms to be equivalent and will exchange guests between them at will to satisfy room readiness constraints at check-in time. Some hotels even consider different bed types to be equivalent, or consider smoking and non-smoking rooms equivalent, caring only about (say) how nice their view is when allocating rooms to reservations. When constructing a blocking, making sure that the convention attendees' needs *can* be met is only half the battle. Making sure that the blocking works with the front desk agents' training and not against it will ensure that the attendees' rooming needs are *actually* met.
The rest of this article lays out the blocking process for a typical hotel.
Before you begin
Get an accurate hotel room inventory from the hotel, showing every single room, its type and subtype according to the hotel's reservation system, whether it connects to any other rooms in the hotel, its handicap access status (many hotels have multiple access room types), any special features like doors to a patio that might not be reflected in the hotel's idea of subtype, and anything else you can get out of the hotel. Put this all in a spreadsheet, one row to a room.
Also, figure out how noise propagates in the hotel. Most modern hotels have pretty good sound insulation between one floor and the next. In older hotels, especially those with steam heat, sound travels a little better vertically. Hotels with separate wings will usually have good sound separation between the wings. Hotels with an overloaded single central elevator bank will propagate sound horizontally not through its actual transmission, but because the people getting to and from the parties will accumulate in the halls making noise. Your problem isn't just whether someone can sleep; if a quiet room is down a long, twisty hallway from a loud party that the quiet room residents have to walk past, they will still be upset that they were "put on a party floor".
Choose a number of blocks
Blocks for bed types, or not?
Some hotels can easily put, say, 80 Double/Double and 60 King rooms into the Quiet block, and have their reservation system actually sell that many rooms and tell attendees when one of the room types in the block is sold out. Some hotels can't do this and take the King vs Double to be a request, not a promise. Answer this question and do not let *any* other consideration drive whether you have separate blocks for, in this equation, Quiet Kings and Quiet Doubles. If the hotel uses Passkey, it is the former kind.
Blocks for set-aside rooms, or not?
Some hotels will easily allow the convention organizers, without providing a credit card and usually through a back door to their reservation system, to make a large reservation, or a few such reservations, as a way to set aside guest rooms that will be needed later (for dealers, for instance, if the dealers' selection is done after hotel reservation opens, or for convention functions or guests of honor or late-added program participants or late-recruited volunteers), and can easily transfer a room (or better yet, allow the convention organizers to transfer a room) from this set-aside reservation to a specific reservation when more information is known about who will be in it, or reduce the size of the reservation to make rooms available to the general membership when the convention determines that it does not meed them. If the hotel uses Passkey and gives you access, it is of this type.
Other hotels will allow convention organizers to set aside a block from which the general public are not allowed to make reservations, and can easily make or allow to be made a reservation in this block, or move rooms out of this block when the convention determines that it does not need them. Be careful! Many hotels claim that they will not let the general public book rooms in the restricted blocks, but their national-chain telephone agents might not get the memo, or might prefer to make a room reservation they shouldn't than make someone on the phone angry.
Hotels can be in zero, one, or both of the above types. If they are in the former type, combine your set-aside rooms with the ordinary rooms of the appropriate type and use hotel reservations to set aside reservations. If they are not, but they are in the latter type, make a special block (or blocks, if you need one per bed type) -- but be sure it will really protect your inventory. If they are in neither type, you are probably better off making a large number of small reservations and transferring them as needed, all using whatever mechanism is available to the attendees.
Blocks for rooms on the master bill, or not?
Some hotels will allow the convention organizers to identify rooms from the general reservation list to be put on the master bill. Other hotels can easily move reservations into a special block for this purpose. It is fine to do this whichever way the hotel prefers, but if you have a Master Bill block it should start out empty and have rooms added to it, because there is no way you will ever correctly predict how many and what type of rooms will be on the master bill.
Blocks for Smoking and Access
Most hotels can't track requests for smoking or access vs. inventory. However, that doesn't mean you necessarily need separate blocks for these. There are few enough requests for either that they can be handled by putting them on the rooming list.
Making this a block makes it clear to people who're reserving a smoking room after all the non-smoking rooms are gone that that is what they're doing, especially since the reservation system probably does not make it clear to people who say 'no preference' that they might get smoking. So if the non-smoking rooms are likely to sell out, this is worth doing. But if you don't expect non-smoking rooms to sell out, or if you can assign any smoking rooms you don't need to non-convention guests and make assigning those the hotel's problem, then having a block might stick you with more smoking rooms than you want.
The problem with Access is that people requesting an Access accommodation might need any of a large number of actual accommodations, which might or might not line up with the features present in the hotel's Accessible guest rooms. People will request Access when what they really need is a low floor, or proximity to the elevator. Even among people requesting Access because they need a wheelchair-accessible room, their needs for (for instance) a roll-in shower or a tub with handbars will differ. No joy will come of making a separate Access block. Just tell people to make whatever kind of reservation they want and request Access from you so you can figure out their actual needs. Warn them that accommodating their Access needs might mean moving them into a different block (for instance, all those low floor rooms might be noisy if they're right over the ballroom in which the late night dances are held). If you think you will run out of Access rooms even after moving people who just need a low floor into ordinary low-floor rooms, it might help to save aside a couple of rooms in whatever blocks the physical Access rooms wind up in, to make moving people between blocks easier. This might also be useful if you want to be able to get people into the main hotel instead of an overflow hotel for access reasons.
Blocks for Staff, Shabbos, etc
Don't make separate blocks for these. There are too many other variables -- you can't assume that everyone in the Shabbos block wants a Quiet room, or that everyone on Staff actually wants to be near the Staff Den if they have to choose between that and proximity to function space.
Choose particular blocks
In most North American hotels, you will need a Quiet block and an Active (or Party) block at the very least. You will probably want to put all the suites into a block to be allocated by hand. If you have a party host area that you want to be 100% party hosts, you'll want a block for that, because being in the one room out of 20 on that floor that's not a party is a very different thing than being in the rooms directly above or below as a noise buffer.
Figure out block demand
The best method is to look at recent historical data for your con. On the day Doubles sold out, how many Kings were reserved? On the day the Quiet block sold out, how many Active rooms were reserved? If you don't have this data, you can make something up. All other things being equal this might be 60:40 Double/Doubles vs Kings, and 2:1 Quiet vs Active.
Choose a room assignment strategy
Which rooms in the hotel will house convention guests? Chances are you have some particular rooms that absolutely must go to the convention -- the Con Suite, at the very minimum, and a few rooms around it in your Active block to serve as a noise buffer. Chances are the hotel will have some particular rooms -- long-term guests, or any very fancy suites they're not giving you, for instance -- that they will want *not* to go to the convention. Some hotel rooms, in quiet blocks typically, could go to convention or non-convention guests equally well. Allocating more particular rooms lets you make more use of party suites if these are spread among floors. It also lets you separate non-convention guests from quiet-block convention guests if your hotel is concerned about its image. But the more rooms you allocate, the more work you will have later putting together a rooming list, and the more work you will have at runtime to cope with guests who want to check in before their room is ready.
Allocate particular rooms
If you don't have the whole hotel, consider the hotel's propensity to put people into rooms they think are equivalent. If you can, place your party hosts and the immediate party host buffer in an area that contains only some of the room subtypes in the hotel, and make sure every room of those subtypes is used by convention guests. If the hotel has subtypes for rooms with a nice view, or puts their fancy rooms at the top of the hotel, then this will be pretty easy and get you the bonus of a short elevator ride or stair-climb from the function space to the parties.
If you can put every room on the Con Suite floor in a convention block, you should. Likewise floors with parties on them should not have non-convention guests if you can avoid it. In most hotels these floors should be all Active -- sound from a party that's spilling out into the hall, or from people waiting for the elevator, will definitely travel down the hall and be audible ten or twelve doors down.
If you're in a hotel with an atrium you can put a disclaimer on your web site saying "This hotel has an atrium and that makes all the rooms loud. When we say 'quiet' we only mean 'not quite as loud'." Paradoxically this gives you *more* flexibility in assigning 'quiet' rooms because they don't have to be quite as far from parties as they would be in a hotel where guests have more of an expectation of how quiet it will be in their room.
Go through your list of guest rooms and mark each one "must be convention", "must be non-convention", or "OK for convention or non-convention guests". For the ones that might be for convention use mark them with what block they're in. "OK for non-convention guests" should obviously not be in an active block unless you're sharing your hotel with another convention that also has room parties. Then total up the room types according to your blocks and the hotel's idea of room types. Finally, fill up your blocks from there according to your demand and what the hotel will give you out of their inventory. You're almost ready to open hotel reservations!
Set up set-asides
There is no One True Way to organize your committee into departments. Often times a convention will run for a few years one way, and then combine departments that share a lot of the same resources or purpose into a single department. Or a department may split, as the needs of the convention grow. Do what works for you, and recruit reliable department heads. Create, publish, and maintain a clear set of objectives and methods to document continuity of what works, what doesn't, and why. Check on the senior staff regularly to make sure they're getting whatever support they need from you and the rest of the committee, pre-con and at-con. Department heads then recruit what staff and at-con volunteers they need to accomplish the goals of the department.
Have your department heads document the procedures of running their department, and train people under them so that you have a pool of people ready to be future department heads, and you are capturing knowledge from one year to the next.
A common way to split a science fiction convention into departments is like so:
You can easily see how Volunteers might also go under Operations, Masquerade and Dance under Programming, etc. A small enough convention may not have a person dedicated to publicity separate from their publications head, or an information desk, or whatever. And of course, some conventions don't have Art Shows, or Charity Auctions, or whatever. Try to pick a structure that best supports what you do and how you want to do it.