Given today’s increasingly complex and turbulent world, it’s little wonder if site selection has also grown increasingly complex.
It’s a multi-faceted process in which concerns over safety, technology, attendee engagement, ethics and rising costs can all come into play when choosing a destination, hotel or meeting venue.
Here are tips for addressing some of the biggest concerns.
Safety and Security
Possibly more than any other aspect of site selection, it’s safety and security that have taken on new significance among planners.
According to security consultant Jonathan Wackrow, managing director of Teneo Risk, the tragic October 2017 mass shooting at an event held at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas has been a major factor.
“The Las Vegas shooting was a real wakeup call for the meeting industry—it made things personal,” he said. “People became aware that a mass shooting could happen at any event.”
Meeting with security officials and learning about the venue’s emergency plan should be part of site selection during the first walk-through, according to Wackrow.
“Safety and security need to be addressed with the venue early on,” he said. “You need to ask what the emergency procedures are if an intruder comes in. How can I coordinate communication in the case of an emergency? Many venues have their procedures written out, but you may have to ask for it.”
Along with learning about the venue’s emergency plan, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t conflict with the emergency plan of the organization holding the meeting, he added.
“For example, if we’re meeting at a convention center and there’s an active shooter, our plan may be to have everyone run across the skybridge and back to the hotel,” he said. “The venue’s plan may be to lock everything down and have shelter-in-place. Any potential conflicts like these need to be addressed.”
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When it comes to the destination, seasonal weather conditions such as blizzards, tornadoes, heavy rains and hurricanes can be an important part of the selection process, he added.
“You have to really look at the weather patterns of a destination and how that might affect your meeting,” he said. “It might be cheaper to meet in Minneapolis in February than in Miami, but does it offset the possible flight delays? You also need to look at the track record of how different cities and airports handle conditions like heavy snowfall. Some are much better equipped than others.”
In sussing out whether or not a hotel or venue has the technological infrastructure required to handle the complex demands of today’s events, meetings tech consultant Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball & Associates said it’s crucial to come prepared with a comprehensive checklist.
“Wi-Fi capability has become the life’s blood of event communications, so a lot of questions have to be asked in that area,” he said. “How much bandwidth can be allotted to our specific network? Is there backup in place should the bandwidth go down? Can the bandwidth be allocated to different networks—for attendees, speakers, exhibitors and so on?”
Regarding the meeting space, Ball said it’s crucial to ask about how many Wi-Fi access points are in each room and how many devices can be connected in each room.
“It’s also important to ask the hotel when the network was installed and who maintains it,” he said. “If it’s five years old, it may be outdated. Those are dog years in terms of technology.”
Guest room technology is another important consideration, given the fact that attendees may need to get work done during the meeting, have multiple devices to charge and expect in-room technology to match what they have at home, Ball added.
“Is there a desk with multiple outlets, an ergonomic chair, and do the side tables by the bed have at least two outlets?” he said. “No one wants to have to crawl under the desk to find an outlet. Can you plug your computer into the TV for video streaming? These are becoming basics, but hotels don’t always have them.”
Site selection in the midst of today’s robust seller’s market means asking comprehensive questions about cost; questions that go beyond room rates and food and beverage minimums, according to Renee Radabaugh, president and CEO of Paragon Events.
“You have to take in the whole picture and the whole cost because it’s often the seemingly little things that turn out to be big problems,” she said. “How far is the hotel from the airport and what’s the cost of transferring? Are there resort fees and can they can be waived? Get price lists for audiovisual.
"Make sure there aren’t any attrition fees you’re not aware of," Radabaugh added. "Preparation before the visit and getting answers to the right questions are necessary to make a smart decision.”
Jessie States, manager of professional development for MPI, recommends that planners share their goals and objectives for the meetings and events with the venue hosts when inquiring about rates.
“Your venue may not be able to host your initial ask within your budget, but if they know what you are trying to accomplish, they may have even better and cheaper options to help you get there,” she said. “Be honest and look for win-win scenarios where everyone comes out ahead.”
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Mary Smith, event director for SmithBucklin, said that coming to the site visit with comprehensive data on meetings history is essential for keeping costs down. She recommends including such facts as actual room block pickup, previous years’ hotel rates and total F&B spending.
“Data helps with negotiating contracts for the site selection and also helps you make the case for lower rates or fee reductions,” she said. “Provide all relevant data so the venue has a clear picture of your event.”
Perhaps the touchiest of all site selection considerations has to do with whether or not the destination or venue will raise ethical concerns among the organization conducting the meeting.
According to States, 96 percent of respondents in a recent MPI Meetings Outlook report said their organization’s ethical stance impacts their meetings-related decisions.
“Evaluating your audience’s and organization’s priorities will help you make decisions based on the types of places and spaces to hold events,” she said.
Radabaugh agrees that planners need to address the concerns of the organization when considering a site.
“It’s particularly crucial when a destination has a policy in conflict with a certain segment such as immigrants or the LGBT community,” she said. “Then it also becomes a safety and security issue for the group. You have to make decisions based on the group dynamic and the attendee experience.”
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Another key ethical issue has to do with the site inspections themselves, she added.
“We always have to keep in mind whether or not we should accept a fam trip or amenity if we don’t really need it for personal growth or to benefit a client,” she said. “You shouldn’t accept an invitation to Costa Rica if you never plan international meetings.”
When it comes to looking at meeting space, square footage is far from the only consideration, according to States. She advises planners to look for flexible spaces conducive for networking and engagement.
“The top reason by far that people come to meetings is to meet other people, be it for education, networking or business connections, so consider the way you can use space to help people connect,” she said.
“Ask the venue what unique seating opportunities are available," States added. "Check the quality of the broadband, meeting room acoustics, collaborative spaces, flexibility to change layouts, new and unique decor and seating elements, natural light (which is key to learning) and even outdoor learning spaces.”
Ceiling heights are another important factor to take note of, according to Radabaugh.
“You want to watch out for the noise level—and high ceilings help mitigate this,” she said. “You also want to make sure there are no columns blocking things and there are nice white spaces for your messaging and branding.”
Food for Thought
With so many dietary preferences to consider these days, the food and beverage aspect of site selection is no simple task, according to Radabaugh.
“You have to look at how the hotel is addressing dietary elements, while still delivering an interesting food and beverage experience within the budget,” she said. “People have higher expectations about food these days.
"Do a tasting, but also remember that it’s different to serve four than 4,000," Radabaugh added. "You have an honest conversation with the chef—can you replicate this for a large group?
"If he says no, accept it as fact. Don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.”
With local experiences and a sense of place a bigger factor at meetings these days, States recommends looking at how the destination and venue will deliver on this.
“Participants want to know why you have asked them to come to a specific place, and incorporating local experiences is crucial to answering that question,” she said. “Consider local attractions and what makes the destination unique. Ask about local traditions and customs as well as ingredients and dishes.
"Look for local shops and specialty stores where you can make purchases in lieu of shipping items to the meeting destination," States added. "Ask your venue or CVB for subject matter experts who live in the community and can contribute content and context for your attendees.”