By Lorie Lambert, vice president of engagement, Groups360
Though the pandemic has created a whole new set of challenges, there are perennial issues that have long plagued event professionals while sourcing for their meeting programs.
In early 2020, Groups360 commissioned research based on in-depth interviews of meeting planners from corporations, associations and trade societies across the U.S. Our goal was to better understand their sourcing journeys to augment ongoing product development. Groups360 began in 2014 with the mission to make booking meetings as simple and direct as possible for both planners and hoteliers.
The planners in our study shared a number of frustrations that have workable solutions, whether through technology or the intentional efforts of hotel sales managers. Here are five particular challenges to sourcing meetings as expressed by our industry colleagues, as well as ways hoteliers can stand out from their comp set by addressing their needs.
Challenge 1: Planners have to send an RFP just to get an idea of pricing.
“I look at the most important piece in our proposals, which is usually our hotel room rate. I am up front in our RFPs. I tell our brands to not even send proposals if it’s not going to be within $20. We can’t negotiate that down. But sometimes they will come in $50 to $100 over our room rate and those just go in an automatic ‘No’ pile.” —Corporate event planner
“You have to contact the hotel to get more information, but what I don’t get is a good comparison. Each hotel sets its own pricing, but maybe we could have a price range, something where it says, ‘This is four money symbols, this is two money symbols.’” —Corporate event planner
The lack of transparency in pricing isn’t just a pain point for planners — it’s a source of frustration for hotel associates as well. Hotels have typically been inundated with RFPs, many that do not meet the hotel’s rate structure or meeting space, creating RFP spam. Even if a potential group isn’t a good fit for the property, the sales associate still has to respond, which takes time. According to certain brand policies, some sales staff have to build out the entire meeting in their system with time-consuming manual data entry before pricing an opportunity.
The solution is to provide market rates according to industry data, such as the market analytics provided by Smith Travel Research (STR), in a way that’s understandable to meeting planners prior to their sending an RPF. Groups360 has contracted data from STR and other sources for the GroupSync Market Estimate tool, which shows planners during the sourcing process what rates and occupancy trends to expect in a given market over a certain set of dates based on historical data.
With tools like Group360, planners know in advance whether a destination or property suits their budget — before sending out a single RFP.
Challenge 2: It’s difficult to figure out meeting space capacity.
“Some tools ask you what size rooms you need in square feet, versus asking you how many attendees you’re having and what kind of AV you have. We can have 90 people in the room or 180.” —Corporate event planner
“I have to calculate square footage because I don’t know how much I need. Do we need 2,500 square feet because I have 50 people? It’s just a lot of math. I would love if something just did that for me.” —Corporate event planner
Every meeting comes with its own logistical intricacies, and only the meeting planner understands the extent of those details. An RFP may state that the meeting is for 500 people but should also state any extensive audio-visual requirements or elaborate staging needs.
If possible, hotels could ask qualifying questions to guide the planner toward an accurate assessment of square footage. Otherwise, the best approach is to acknowledge that the RFP is drafted with the hotel’s best understanding of the group’s staging and A/V needs. Planners have also expressed a desire to see 3D or virtual tours of hotel meeting space, as well as photos of previous events held in the same area.
Planners who source through tools like GroupSync have access to a meeting space calculator that allows them to select the room configuration — such as banquet, classroom, theater or reception — and input the number of attendees. Tools exist that then calculate the minimum square footage needed and eliminates properties that can’t physically accommodate the group. Space calculators now include features to allow the planner to add space for social distancing as well.
Challenge 3: The ongoing pandemic has forced planners to change their meeting strategy.
“The pandemic has been an absolute nightmare, a circus. And a big monetary loss for so many companies. There’s also the fear of liability. No one is comfortable making decisions at this point. Everyone’s erring on the side of caution and going day by day.” —Corporate event planner
“As far as events and meetings we’re having to date, some are still moving forward, and some have been canceled. For future events, senior management is continuously monitoring what’s happening before making that decision. They’re doing it meeting by meeting pretty much day by day regarding what we may need to postpone or cancel.” —Professional society meeting planner
Given the risks inherent with large gatherings, many event planners who once planned several events of substantial size are now faced with producing multiple simultaneous meetings in different regions.
What this means for your hotel brand is an opportunity to bring business into not one but several of your properties at a time or in quick succession. The challenge, however, is managing resources for the time-consuming tasks related to booking these smaller, less complex meetings with staff teams that have been reduced by the fallout of the pandemic.
Planners have long been asking for a direct-booking option for group business to view real-time availability and secure meeting space online instantly. Direct booking capabilities now exist between online group search tools and hotel property management systems.
Tools like GroupSync Book Direct can automate small and simple bookings, including meeting space, food and beverage, and A/V, freeing up hotel staff to spend more time on higher value events. The result is reduced costs and increased revenue for hotels and an enhanced customer experience for meeting planners.
Challenge 4: Planners want to keep their favorite NSOs in the loop.
“Some intermediaries and RFP services take away from our relationships with NSO reps and CVBs. folks don’t feel the need to do all the sourcing, they just need to be in the loop. My partner should know about all my relationships and copy all my people, doing it through a single platform, instead of sending six different emails to six different people with the same RFP.” —Corporate event planner
Many meeting planners have long-standing relationships with preferred hotel brands and properties that have successfully hosted previous events. Part of being a successful salesperson in today’s market is continually developing these important business relationships over time.
Relationships still matter, but the fallout from the pandemic has unfortunately resulted in devastating losses to GSO and NSO teams. With reduced staff levels, hotels need advanced technology now more than ever, but without the duplicate entries created by planners, legacy sourcing systems, CVBs and hotel lead routing all entering and sending out the same RFP.
Hotel sales organizations should look for lead generation partners with insights into account production and performance, the ability to identify overperforming and underperforming accounts, provides account-specific promotions and incentives, and identifies booking windows so GSOs can propose venues prior to an RFP being sent.
Challenge 5: RFP responses aren’t accurate or thorough enough.
“What’s frustrating is I get back a proposal and I think the person was just trying to quickly get the proposal done. I require that meeting space be assigned. Well, he assigned all the same meeting space for every single function. Yes, it allowed them to get the proposal submitted, and I was able to see the rate, but it doesn’t tell me everything else that I need to know as far as being able to evaluate the space.” —Trade association meeting planner
One of the most repeated frustrations from meeting planners on the sourcing process is that responses to their RFPs are robotic and lack attention to detail. From their perspective, they are receiving a standard sales packet that hasn’t taken into account the specific details they listed in their RFP.
While a rapid response is appealing, a thorough response is even better. Given an event planner’s busy schedule, the more you pay attention to detail, the more you will endear yourself. Answer their questions. Read the additional notes section. Bullet-point the things about your property that differentiate it from your comp set.
Drafting group sales proposals can sound daunting. It requires creativity and stellar writing. It is time-consuming. That’s why it’s also vital to separate the highly qualified proposals from the rest.
Read more for insights on additional planner pain points.