In the interviews that accompany the blog for each edition of “Friday With Joan,” I like to find and highlight different voices and opinions. Each of those interviewed works in a different area of the meetings and hospitality industry. For the Event Service Professionals (aka CSMs), I relied on colleagues active in Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA), formerly known as ACOM, an organization founded in 1988 by the late (and great) William H. Just, CMP, CAE.
As a bonus, I asked Keith Sexton-Patrick, longtime friend, former colleague with whom I served (he for ACOM, I for MPI) on the Convention Liaison (now Industry) Council Board, and now retired from our industry, about his experiences. Mitch Biersner graciously agreed to be the meeting planner interviewed, and Melissa Lipton, the salesperson. I am grateful to each of those who gave their time and input.
The opinions they expressed are their own and may not reflect those of their employers. Their comments have been edited for clarity or space and if I missed the mark, I ask their forgiveness!
Note: Here and in the related blog “site” is often used as shorthand for “site inspection”; and “DMO” and “CVB” are used interchangeably. If you’re unfamiliar with the organization or other acronyms, click here for a list of the Convention Industry Council members.
Who was interviewed:
Mitchell Biersner, M.T.A., CMP, DES (MB) - Event Planner, American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT), Albuquerque, N.M.
ASRT represents more than 153,000 health care professionals who perform medical imaging procedures or plan and deliver radiation therapy. The meetings in which he is now involved range in size from 50 to 1,000 people.
Mitch has a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and a master’s degree in tourism administration, both from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a Certified Meeting Professional and a Digital Event Strategist who’s worked in the national events office of AARP; as a marketing and event coordinator for a Main Street Iowa community; and in community, economic and tourism development for his Iowa hometown. Active in the meetings and events industry for 15-plus years in ASAE, PCMA and MPI, he’s served two terms as vice president of finance for the MPI New Mexico Chapter. He is also a New Mexico State Fair blue-ribbon winning coconut cream pie baker! He can be reached at email@example.com and www.linkedin.com/in/mitchbiersner.
Paola Bowman (PB) joined the Fort Worth CVB in 2009 as Tourism Sales and Fort Worth Herd Coordinator. She has a 16-year background in the hospitality industry, from front of the house to sales and services. In her current role with the FWCVB, Paola works with the executive meetings team in sales efforts and provides convention services. Paola works with event planners to build attendance, select partner services such as transportation or other vendors, and assists with marketing efforts to promote and welcome the group for the event. The FWCVB Services Department manages and serves a plethora of events and conventions ranging in multiple sizes and genres.
Paola is active in ESPA, currently serving as the chair of its Marketing Committee, and on the Board. Paola’s favorite role is that of wife and mother to two energy-packed boys and enjoys scrapbooking, music and spending quality time with loved ones. She can be reached at PaolaBowman@FortWorth.com or on Twitter at @PBinTexas.
Melissa Lipton, CMP (ML), National Sales Manager, Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, Destin, Fla.
Melissa has been in the industry for 25 years, five as a meeting planner and 20 as an hotelier. Currently, she is the group sales liaison for Northwest Florida’s largest year-round resort to its Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic-based customers. A CMP since 2007, she’s involved in MPI, PCMA and Association Forum of Chicagoland.
Keith Sexton-Patrick (KSP) was in the industry for 34 years, working with the Pick Congress Hotel, Playboy Resort and Country Club, Chicago Marriott, Scanticon Princeton (conference center), Disneyland Hotel, Mackelowe Hotel, New York Sheraton, Pinehurst Resort and Mohegan Sun Hotel and Casino. He was an original board member of ACOM and its third president. He believes ESPA membership gives professional training and support, especially to those CSMs who are the only ones at their property. [I concur! if your CSM is not an ESPA member, suggest to them and their GM that they become one.]
David Raymond, CMP (DR1), Meetings & Event Manager, The Westin Charlotte, Charlotte, N.C.
David has been in the industry more than 30 years and with this hotel 13 years. In 2006, he was named Successful Meetings Convention Service Manager of the Year. He is a 20-plus-year member of ESPA and a two-time Board member and ESPA Annual Convention Hotel Track Chairperson.
Daniela Rindler (DR2), Conference Manager, The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Va.
Daniela has worked at the Jefferson since 2009 and in convention services since 2011. During her time in convention services she has been instrumentally involved in implementing a new Diagram System (Social Tables) and a Service Optimization System (HotSOS). Daniela has a German diploma in Tourism Management from the Munich School of Applied Science. She is a member of ESPA and enjoys the great networking opportunities the association offers, especially during its annual conference. She serves on the ESPA Sustainability Committee. The Jefferson, is currently undergoing a complete renovation. Once completed (estimated in spring 2017), it will offer 180 guest rooms and 26,000 square feet of meeting space.
Denise Suttle, CMP (DS), Assistant Director of Convention Services, Albuquerque CVB.
At the CVB since 1991, Denise spent several years in convention sales before moving into convention services, where she found her professional passion thanks to the education provided by Event Service Professionals Association, the only professional organization dedicated to elevating the event and convention services profession. Denise had the honor of serving as ESPA’s 2015 president. Recently, she was the subject of a one-on-one interview in ConferenceDirect’s Meeting Mentor, and was thrilled to be named in the inaugural group of Meetings Trendsetters by Meetings Focus [now Meetings Today] in 2014. You can connect with Denise at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @denisesuttle.
And now, the questions!
To prepare for a site inspection, what information do you wish a group would send to you--dates and space--and what else?
MB: I learned early in my career that to be successful in the site selection process, I had to send the information the property. I asked several national sales reps for sample profiles and combined all of the information into one template. It includes dates and space and requested concessions (room upgrades, discounted AV, waiving third-party vendor fees, etc.), audiovisual needs and billing expectations.
It also includes an attendee profile that includes dietary needs, points of travel and free-time interest. I try to make clear the business I have to bring and express our expectations so that when we arrive on-property for a site inspection, the property knows as much as they can about the group to help make sure there’s a fit for both of us.
PB: A detailed RFP is always best so we may share it with our hotel and venue partners. I also like to ask planners, whether booked or tentative, what their goals are for the site visit. Other than a standard tour, I ask about what the group wants to accomplish, with whom they want to meet, and any special requirements.
ML: Once a site has been requested, dates and space are held. With destination resorts, if a site is requested, I find that 85 percent of the time we have made the group’s shortlist. I obtain a group’s history and ask the planner about the group’s hot buttons. Hot buttons and historical stories need to be freely shared by the group–the good, the bad and the ugly about previous programs. Because there tend to be more elements to operating a program at a resort (transfers, on- and off-site leisure activities, pre- and post- program needs, et al), knowing what has worked well and what may not have worked in the past for that particular group is key to a successful site inspection and, accordingly, the success of a group’s program. I emphasize “that particular group” because I have found often a generalization is presented to a hotel or DMC based upon experience of past meetings or incentive programs for other organizations that a planner may have operated.
If it is a first-time program, a profile including demographics and program goals are helpful.
DR1: I like to know the purpose of meeting, the demographics of the group, “hot buttons” from prior meetings, and who the contact or contacts are. If there are opportunities for ICW’s [“In conjunction with” events], it helps to know the approval process. [And, of course] the AV or F&B budgets. There’s nothing that starts the planning process off on the wrong foot like when the client looks at your menus and says “Your menus are too expensive for us; I need discounted menus,” and you had no idea!
DR2: I want to receive their “hot buttons”; their worst and best experiences with this meeting or a similar one. I need to know what they want to accomplish at the site visit so I can prearrange better. Often I have clients that, while they are here, inform me that they are thinking of changing their program and now they need to see more space than what I originally anticipated. I like to know how far along they are in the planning to understand if looking at the space is all they need or if they want to get into other details. Knowing who is attending the site visit and how many people [will be there] adds to the information I need to ensure preparation by the hotel.
KSP: The International Dance Exercise Association (IDEA) [was going to bring] 4,000 people to the Disneyland Hotel. They required no tables or chairs. During the site, I had to mentally calculate where we would store tables and chairs since we could not have them in the event space. At one of my first hotels, we had three guest rooms that had no windows. I insisted that each site visit show one of those rooms. I knew when the hotel was sold out some guest would be sleeping there.
DS: As a CSM, I’m involved with two different types of site tours: as part of the sales team when a prospective client is considering our city; after city selection when the client is considering off-site venues, headquarters and overflow hotels, or other logistical planning. We typically refer to the first as a site inspection and to the second as a planning meeting. The methodology is ultimately the same, just with a different focus. I’ll focus on the second type. For a successful outcome for the client, we wish the planner would provide:
Goals of the convention
Size of group and demographics of the attendees (male/female, age range, number of accompanying guests)
What does the group like to do? For example, leisure activities, tours, pre or post trips, active outdoorsy types or relax by the pool types? Shopping? Cultural immersion? Foodies?
What kinds of venues have been successful in the past? What setting lends itself best to the desired outcome of the event?
Does the venue have to be within walking distance of the hotel(s) or is a shuttle program acceptable?
Budget parameters for the event, including F&B, entertainment, decor, transportation, etc.
Anything that we should avoid? Challenges in the past such as not incorporating casino activities?
Each of you approaches site inspections from the needs of your industry segment. Tell readers how you prepare for a site inspection, including why you think a site inspection is important to information gathering to determine if a group will use a destination and a site? Or do you think that viewing what’s on the Web is enough to make a decision about where to hold a meeting?
MB: In a previous job, we were evaluating several properties in a destination. All looked beautiful from the websites. One property, a top contender, was older and historic--a characteristic we really liked. It wasn’t until we started walking the property that we learned there are a LOT of steps! You either had to step up or down two or three steps to get to the main ballroom, back to the breakout sessions. Nearly everywhere we would meet required using steps. Even elevators and lifts were extremely inconvenient for those that may not have been able to navigate even a few steps. It was a deal breaker. We didn’t finish the site inspection once we realized the site was not a good fit.
In another position, we co-located with another organization and were assigned a property. We still tried to visit a year in advance to evaluate the space and see how we needed to adjust our program. [In one situation] it was a similar to the above scenario--our main exhibit area was a flight of stairs higher than the meeting space and the main ballroom was a TREK from all of the breakout sessions, [none of] which we realized until we were onsite because all we had was the website floor diagram. After that site, we learned we’d have to invest in a lot of signage and increase the length of the breaks between sessions to allow people to get where they need to go. Without conducting a site inspection, we’d never have known that.
PB: I work closely with our two executive meetings sales managers, and help them prepare for pre-booking site inspections. It is important to do your homework on the group needs and the planner’s preferences. Doing your homework ahead of time can ensure that the destination/venue and the planner are making the best use of their time on the site inspection. Depending on the type of meeting and the length of planning/leeway, it is possible for some planners to make decisions based on what is on the Web, or on videos and 360-degree tours provided in lieu of [physical] sites.
ML: I’ve always believed information is key for a successful site inspection.
I would not invite someone into my own home without knowing anything about them, so I need to learn as much about the group and their needs as possible before “inviting them” to the resort. I research company information: meetings history, their product or service, perhaps something notable. This information is communicated to our entire management team, providing detailed specifics to certain departments (CS, culinary, activities) applicable to the site inspection. I like to know anything about the site’s attendees that will help our team make them comfortable during their stay.
It is essential to show the site visitors what their group will experience but not to overload a site with unnecessary information unless a group’s insistent on seeing it all. For example, if they are not planning a catamaran outing or fishing trip, there’s no need to walk the marina. If they are planning a golf tournament, they need to visit the course and to meet the golf staff contact.
During the site inspection, the information the visitors are able to gather is crucial. The Internet does provide a world of information and can lead to assumptions about a venue or destination. [See previous comments from Mitch Biersner about what it also may not show!] It does not provide a “real-life” picture of how the group can work in that property or how a property operates. In-person site inspections are invaluable to bridge that gap.
DR1: I look on the company website to learn about the group and check their prior year’s convention. It’s amazing what you can gather from that. Then I meet with the sales manager [assigned to the account] to gather any information on the group, learn who is attending the site and then go back to the website to gather any helpful information on that person (if available.) [It also helps to learn] what the group on the site likes for amenities for a personalized welcome. If I can customize the site [inspection] with props, associates welcoming the group by name as they tour the property, it goes a long way.
DR2: A site inspection is important to ensure the site works well for the intended purpose and to make sure the limitations of the space are known. Working in an old historic building, I know there are some challenges I’d rather be clear up front and make sure there’s a good understanding of what can and cannot be done.
DS: I think it’s always preferable to have a client come for a site visit to “kick the tires” before making a decision. A website and videos can be helpful in telling the story, as can consumer opinions to some extent—bearing in mind that a leisure visitor who leaves a rating on Trip Advisor or Yelp has a different filter for experiences than a meeting planner.
Crucial to having a client come for a site visit is the opportunity to create a bond that is the beginning of a great working relationship. The convention outcome benefits when the planner and suppliers are in sync from the beginning.
Not all groups are able--because of time or budget--to conduct site inspections. Some groups rely on volunteers or a third-party company to conduct their “sites.” Other than a FAM trip, what can those who don’t personally see the destination and site do to gather the best information about the destination and/or property to help them decide when they are unable to go to the city or property?
MB: Pictures. Always pictures. And not sales pictures—I want someone to get their phone out, take photos and send them to me. Maybe a group currently in-house is using a room set that I want to use. Take a photo and send it!
If I can get a volunteer that lives near the property, or a staff member who is traveling for a different conference or even on vacation, to visit the property, I’ll ask them to do so. It may be unofficial but, with a checklist from me, they’ll be able to report back.
If I can’t travel and there isn’t a volunteer or staff member who can go, I’ll send out an all-points bulletin on the industry discussion boards to learn others’ experiences others.
I usually look at TripAdvisor reviews, and though all are read with a grain of salt, I can still get a feel for the destination, not just the facility and what other things there are to do in the area. I’ve found, for the most part, they’re reliable and trustworthy.
PB: A big portion of the meetings I service and planners I work with book meetings/events without site inspections (due to smaller room peak size). For information gathering purposes, planners can rely on industry reviews and other tools available in the market to evaluate locations. For example, DMAI’s Meeting Planner Tool empowerMINT provides a robust database that connects the planner to DMOs to begin to review various destination profiles with images, videos, etc. Additionally, organizations rely on local support or local chapters/offices to conduct site visits. I once did a site with a client that had her iPad dialed into a Skype call, and took the main planner on a “live virtual tour” of a hotel.
ML: When someone is unable to go to a city or property, we ask very detailed questions in order for the venue to provide a clear picture of the meeting and to address specific concerns. Groups should ask for references from similar sized groups to get feedback from others who have managed meetings at that hotel. Gathering general information from a CVB or DMC may provide a good snapshot; asking detailed questions will help determine a good fit. In the case of a volunteer or a third-party conducting a site inspection on a company’s behalf, the individual conducting the site needs to be given “A to Z” information about what the group wants to learn at the site inspection. This is especially important if the site attendee is not connected to the company.
Planners should ask me about the strengths and weaknesses of the property in terms of both group and leisure/business travel guests. Ask about very successful groups and also about service recovery stories. If you have a special event or unusual set up, ask about similar experiences the venue has had handling such requests: what worked, what didn’t and why. We all have these stories, regardless of geography, “star” ratings, the brand or size of hotel!
DR1: I refer them to our website [where] there is a virtual site tour which is very helpful in giving the client an overview of the space and the hotel. If a third-party planner is conducting the site have them find out from their client what the hot buttons are or I will call the client to find out specifically what they want the third party to see.
DR2: Pictures, diagrams, floor plans and a good phone conversation with the CSM on-site all help. Ask every question they can possibly think of. We are all always “very busy” but it is helpful if the planner doesn’t assume something. An after-the-fact situation: I had a client who ordered a break set on a buffet. Turns out they always set their breaks on the meeting tables because their guests never get up during the meeting; otherwise the food goes to waste. She told us that 15 minutes prior to the meeting’s start v. at any time during the site inspection or during the pre-meeting preparation. Don’t ever assume that every location/hotel/venue is the same or can do the same things. The better the client knows the program/group and they convey that, the better we can assist in making the event a success.
DS: A third-party company can do a great job of site inspection, working with the DMO or hotel management to document all the details required by the client. Take videos on-site. Conduct a virtual walking tour with the client via Skype or Facetime. Ask venues to provide all the necessary floorplans, and customized CAD drawings of the meeting spaces. Post questions to trusted peer listservs and online forums to garner input from colleagues who have used particular destinations or venues. Ask local members of ESPA, MPI, PCMA or IAEE to do a walk-through with your needs in mind and a good checklist.
It’s great when a meeting planner asks our help to find ways of enhancing the attendee experience with cultural touches—local music, food, decor, speakers. I wish more meeting planners would ask for a CSM’s advice on innovative use of spaces, local F&B trends, risk management or accessibility concerns. Those of us in CS who stay current by attending our own continuing education sessions, like webinars from ESPA and other CIC providers, have a wealth of information that planners can tap into.
I’ve always taught, in meeting planning classes, and practiced with clients, that in addition to the salesperson, the CSM and someone from AV should be part of the inspection. Who do you think should accompany the planner and/or group and why?
MB: I don’t like or need an entourage on a site inspection. A sales rep, the CSM, an AV rep, maybe someone from the banquets and/or facilities team are those I like to involve. Depending on the group or meeting, I may need a security team member to accompany us. It all depends on the needs of a group. I try to send as much about my schedule and program in advance as I can so everyone has a chance to review and offer suggestions.
PB: I agree with you, Joan. I definitely recommend whenever possible (sometimes assignments don’t get made too far in advance for hotel CSMs) that the hotel CSM be available to answer questions and meet the planner ahead of their program. Depending on the complexity of the program and location, it is important for a client to meet with other vendors that have an impact on the event: AV, decorators, IT/telecom (Internet services). As a DMO, one of our services managers meets the clients on the site visits for a service presentation. We use this time to inform the client in detail about our services, and to get to know the client and program better, and to mutually ask and answer questions.
ML: Most definitely the conference service manager; they steer the ship for the success of the meeting’s operations. I think the “who” from the property or destination should match a group’s needs. If they are using AV, a representative from that team should attend. If the group has teambuilding activities or a golf tournament, the activities manager or golf tournament coordinator should attend. If they have a group arrival with a need for private check-in, the front office manager should attend. If the group is setting up off-site activities, DMC representative(s). At a city property, if the planner wants to make sure the attendees have expert knowledge of what to do/where to go on their free time, the planner should meet the chief concierge. The internet can provide a ton of information; the hotel’s staff can provide useful insights.
DR1: I don’t always agree with a large party on the walk-through. I think it depends on the scope of the meeting. If the focus is the general session and that is where the group will spend most of their time then yes, and an AV representative would be great to have along to share ways that the general session could be set and material presented.
DR2: If it is feasible, the CSM should always be involved; AV only if there are extensive needs for the meeting or event. A good CSM should know the AV basics. I often join in at the end of the site-visit. Let the salesperson take them to lunch and then sit down afterwards for a little more detailed discussion.
DS: I agree it’s a “best practice” have the convention services professional present for the site visit—whether at the hotel or the city visit. On our team, we enjoy the opportunity to meet the client at some point during the visit. Our goal is to spend time getting to know their team, their needs and wants, any services that have been beneficial in the past, and learning more about how we can complement their efforts with our support.
There must be stories of site inspections “gone wrong!” As an example, my worst was when the director of CS started the site inspection and about 15 minutes in, after a number of line staff referred to the CSM formally as “Mr.” and his last name, and he, who’d been there many years, didn’t use their names, I asked why. He said “They work for me; I don’t have to know their names.” I ended the inspection believing that the relationships and cooperation might not be stellar among the staff.
To protect privacy, no attribution is provided. At the end of each is a “lesson learned.”
Story 1: Best Arguments for an In-Person Site Inspection
My best argument for the importance of a site inspection involves a property the group had been to and with which it was familiar, or thought it was. The facility was about 95 percent complete with a renovation. The group thought it knew where all of the rooms were and could re-use room assignments with a quick graphic/color update for the directional signs. The floor diagrams/maps, sent by the facility, were the same as before.
It wasn’t until after the pre-con that the group realized the permanent signage outside of the meeting rooms didn’t match the facility’s directional signage, which also didn’t match the floor plans that had been sent. Each room had three different names it could be referred to, and not a singular way to direct anyone. Luckily the group could update some signs and use a mobile app, but the confusion was a problem.
Lesson Learned: Check and double-check, even if there hasn’t been a renovation, that all printed and electronic information syncs and that it does so with reality!
Story 2: Customizing Arrival for a Site Inspection
As one of the largest hotels in the city, this hotel often served as headquarters for citywide conventions. For sites for large meetings, the hotel rolled out a red carpet, often had live music for site arrival and liked to do “clap lines” (comprised of the management team members standing in two parallel lines for the guests to walk through) as they came in on the red carpet. Usually, this was well received.
One site inspection was for a 50,000-person citywide that would have been held in shoulder season, a time everyone really wanted this business. The planner and the CVB rep arrived and were escorted out of their car, into the lobby and onto the red carpet and through the clap-line. At the end of the line was the hotel’s GM and the sales manager to officially greet the guests. The planner was so stunned and mortified by the attention, she burst into tears, turned around and went back to the car.
Lesson Learned: Know your group and enough about the individuals attending the site inspection to ensure everything that is done is appropriate to them. Check with their colleagues, check their ethics policy (regarding amenities) and do what is appropriate.
Story 3: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare for “No Surprises”
Hmmmm, how about a hotel site tour where the sales manager neglected to knock on the door to a guest room before opening it? Yes, the room was occupied, and yes the couple inside had been enjoying their privacy…until we appeared.
There are those rare times when a venue has not prepared for the site visit, and it’s painfully obvious to the client: managers who have not glanced at the file, including the history and program until the client walks in the door; guest and meeting room door keys or cards that don’t work; room service trays on guest room hallway floors; meeting rooms in a jumble from the last meeting. In a client’s eyes, a succession of missteps like these makes a difference between getting the business and wondering why it was lost.
Lesson Learned: CSMs who are proactive and work side-by-side with the sales team/s to prepare all people and departments for a site visit show a client the attention to detail the client expects for their meeting or event.
7. What’s the most important advice you have for planners, sales people, event service professionals/CSMs and others (AV vendors, association volunteers, social event planners, etc.) about site inspections?
MB: Even if it’s a facility you’ve used year after year, it’s so important to still conduct a site visit AND walk the space like an attendee.
PB: Plan ahead…in detail. Don’t rush. Planners should provide a detailed RFP with all needs and specs. Sales and service professionals should read and listen!
ML: Knowledge is power! All parties should provide as much information as possible prior to a site and gather as much information as possible before and during the site. Ask questions! We all want the group’s program to be a success and that, after the thorough RFP and proposal, continues with a thorough site inspection.
DR1: Know your prospective client--do your homework prior to their arrival. Nothing shows a property better than knowing the purpose of the meeting and what the planner is looking for to make that meeting successful. Don’t sell all the F&B upgrades and presentations if you know the focus of the meeting is the general session and breakouts. Try to learn about the people [by using LinkedIn, other social media, the group’s website] siting the hotel so you have conversations beyond just a meeting’s needs. And as you walk around the hotel and see a fellow associate on a tour, know about their group so you can greet them, too. Nothing sells your hotel like communication!
DR2: Come prepared! Don’t look at the venue right before heading there and on the hotel/venue side; don’t look at the group profile while you are walking to meet them. Take the time to write down five to 10 questions you have specifically for the group or the venue.
KSP: Honesty is necessary in every site visit. The site should view the property from an operational viewpoint. I insisted that our staff ask two questions of the client prior to a site: 1. Why are you holding this event? 2. Why are you considering holding this event at our property? Understanding the purpose of the event is vital to knowing if that purpose can be achieved at your property.
DS: Question, question, question, then be quiet and listen. Question some more. Approach all partners from a place of respect, and from that, a level of trust will grow. It takes trust among all the parties involved to sell, service, create and deliver the successful, memorable experience for the attendees.
Final note from Joan: if you haven't yet, don't forget to check out my related blog, "10 Tips for Better Site Inspections."