In the April print and digital editions of Meetings Today, I wrote about the "10 Areas of Site Selection to Question and Learn" and spoke more about site selection on the April 27 webinar, “Site Selection: Finding the Right Fit.” It all ties together with this Friday, May 6, blog and the Friday With Joan interviews about site inspections.
This blog focuses on hotels. It is a fraction of the items on checklists I use. The same principles, and many of the questions, apply if you are looking at a convention or conference center, restaurant, museum or other venue.
1. In Person or Virtual Site Inspection
Not everyone can afford to visit every destination (city/country) or site (property/venue) under consideration before making a decision and contracting. Every meeting professional has had to book "sight unseen" and hope that the RFP questions and responses—and the contracts—cover all thoroughly.
Just like experiential meetings are best, so are physical site inspections. Technology does not yet allow us to experience a site as we would if we were there. There are things you won’t know—an airwall’s ability to block sound; whether room service trays are left out overnight; the flow of people from entry to front desk to elevators to meeting space and through the meeting space; using various means (wheelchair, electric scooter, blindfold, ear plugs) to check accessibility—unless you do a site inspection in person. One day, maybe, virtual site inspections ... though I wonder about the privacy of cameras in all areas!
2. Prioritize and Allow Adequate Time
List who and what are critical to your meeting and its participants, speakers, vendors and others, before you schedule a site inspection to help you and the venues make the most of the site inspection.
With priorities in mind, consider the time you want and need to thoroughly see and experience each property. The amount of time depends on what’s most important to and for your group and meeting. For example, if you have a one day meeting that, unless an emergency occurs, won’t use sleeping rooms, your priorities may be meeting space, audio visual support, food and beverage, and access.
If you require guest rooms, what’s most important: view(s)? quiet? amenities? cleanliness? (Do you check under and behind beds, other furniture? Check bathrooms for mold? Ask about how they clean and replace drinking glasses and bedspreads/comforters?)
3. Schedule or “Surprise” Site Inspection
Some planners believe a more realistic experience is achieved if they just show up, unannounced, for a site inspection.
Better: schedule your site inspection in advance to ensure people with whom you need to meet are available (see No. 4), and your priorities can be achieved. You can take time, unaccompanied, to sit in a lobby, walk the halls at night, use room service or eat in the restaurant to observe areas you believe might have otherwise been staged just for you.
If you’re looking at multiple hotels or hotels and a convention center, ask the DMO (Destination Marketing Organization also known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau, or CVB) for assistance. They can help you schedule appointments.
Whether to go when there are groups occupying the space (see No. 5) or when it is empty will depend on your availability, that of the property(ies), and your needs. Ideally, you would conduct two inspections: one when the hotel is occupied, another when it’s not.
Usually we don’t have that luxury.
4. People You Should Meet
Schedule, at the very least, meetings with a sales manager assigned to your account, the director of event services (aka convention services) or a convention services manager, representatives of the in-house AV company and of the unions, the director of loss prevention (security), front office manager, director of housekeeping, the chef and catering manager (note: in some properties, event/convention services and catering are a combined position), the general manager, and if on site, an owner, and any others who may help you learn more about the property, its staff and service.
After a thorough RFP is sent and responses received, you’ll have evaluated and ranked your choices and then schedule site inspections. I like to start a site inspection with a meeting with all parties to explain the meeting for which the site inspection is being conducted, and ask them to tell me and the client more about the property from their department’s perspective. Asking questions and listening closely and asking follow up questions allows you to learn more than you might on a walk through with sales alone.
Allowing time for this plus the walk-through means inspecting a site may require a minimum of three to five hours per property. Don’t scrimp on the time and rush through it. You may want to record your comments and take photos or videos as you go—seeing more than one hotel a day can cause them all to seem alike! Take time to gather accurate information.
5. What to See and With Whom
Like my industry lawyer friends say about industry legal issues, “it depends” on your meeting, its complexity, the participant demographics and on your priorities.
Usually a sales manager accompanies the planner and/or group conducting a site inspection. I strongly recommend being accompanied by an event service professional (aka CSM) and someone from the in-house AV provider. They use the space daily and will be able to best answer questions. You may also have with you others from your or your client’s organization, vendors (AV, decorators) with whom you contract, and volunteers. Prepare all of those who will accompany you on what specifically you want to see and experience. It’s easy to be "wowed" by amenities when those may not be most important to your group.
Representative Guest Rooms and Suites.
All Meeting and Public Space.
Audio Visual (or AV)
Sustainability or “Greening”
6. Food and Beverage
Some planners like to conduct “test” meals or “tastings." I’m not a fan of doing so because they are meals prepared for a small group and will not be like those prepared for your meeting of 25, 50 or 1,000 or more people. Better, if you conduct a site inspection when another group with similar demographics is in house (see No. 5), ask to see and sample the meals they are served. These will be more representative of what your group may experience and you will get a better sense of the hotel’s capabilities.
I’m also a fan of eating in the employee cafeteria after a large group meal when leftover meals may be served.
Meet with the chef to learn about the hotel’s capabilities and the chef’s preferences, if and how they serve locally grown and produced food, if they have and use their own garden for herbs, produce; if they are beekeepers. Find out what they do to prepare requests for vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, Halal and other meals that may be needed (Patti Shock’s webinar on food and beverage will be helpful).
7. Staffing and Service
Years ago, one of the best comments I ever heard was in meeting planning training conducted for a client’s staff: over three days, one of the lunches was in the employee cafeteria. After lunch, I asked about the experience. One person observed “The suits ate with the uniforms," meaning management and line staff sat together. And one of the worst site inspections I’ve ever been on—one I cut short after 15 minutes—was when the director of convention services who was guiding me through was acknowledged by name by all the line and management staff we encountered. He addressed only management staff by name, not line staff. When asked why, he responded “They work for me; I don’t need to know their names.” The site visit ended right then.
In your RFP, you’ll have asked about employment longevity of management and line staff, how many staff are full or part time, and how many positions are outsourced and not direct employees of the hotel. When you meet the hotel GM, get a sense in what ways this person is engaged with all staff.
Talk with staff in different positions to learn their experiences. Sit in the lobby and observe the front desk, bell, valet, and concierge staff. Walk the back (or heart) of the house to observe both cleanliness and storage, and how all staff are treated. If you eat in the employee cafeteria, you’ll observe how employees acknowledge each other and the relationships among individuals and departments. When talking with union stewards or department heads, ask about labor contracts and negotiations with management and owners to determine any red flags that may impede your meeting (and about unions: some planners automatically dismiss their usefulness.
When it comes to sustainability of human beings, they are often one of the strongest advocates. Consider a different view from one you may have).
8. Paying for the Site Inspection
Whether it’s a "three hours and a walk through locally with a meal," or "a trip involving a few nights," there are costs involved in a site visit: transportation, parking, and meals among them. Often, coordinated by a DMO, cities, hotels and other venues will pay for meeting planners to come to their cities, experience what they have to offer, and pick up the tab for all expenses.
FAM trips have been abused and an ethical cloud often hangs over those who go to destinations that they know they will never use in their current job, sometimes justifying that one day, in another job, they might. If you can’t otherwise go to see a city and hotels, you can ask a DMO if they are scheduling trips to which you could be invited provided that during the time there you see and meet with those that will be pertinent to your group and meeting.
If your company or client prefers to pay for your trip to ensure there are no real or perceived obligations, pay for your trip and if you contract and hold a meeting, consider negotiating that amount being deducted from the master account.
Help your employer or client understand the importance of experiencing the properties and build into their meeting budgets transportation, accommodations, and meals.
9. VIP or ‘Regular’ Treatment
Sometimes if a DMO helps you schedule appointments, your contact may offer to arrange and even pay for or provide transportation to and from the airport and the appointments. If the convenience is helpful, review the schedule to ensure it will provide the time you need to experience everything on your checklists. If all your meeting participants are to be “VIP-ed”, consider upgrades (better rooms), special check-in, and even in-room amenities.
Remember: you’re there to experience what your meeting participants will experience. It’s best to set parameters for your stay from arrival to departure and to say “thank you but no thank you” to VIP treatment.
10. What if …
Better Room sets: “Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements"
As always the views expressed are my own and may not reflect those of the publisher, Stamats, and the publication, Meetings Today. For comments, do so below or to me at FridayWithJoan@aol.com. And be sure to check the interviews with CSMs, sales, and a meeting planner in the Friday With Joan newsletter.
Posted by Joan L. Eisenstodt
Follow Joan on Twitter: @joaneisenstodt
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