Joe Cappuzzello, president and CEO of The Group Travel Family, has three criteria when it comes to site selection.
First is a good qualified bid from a venue. Second is whether the destination will be of interest to people. Third — “and we mean it — do they want us?” he said. “How do we feel when we go there?”
The Group Travel Family puts on five annual conferences that range from 250 to 450 attendees, and “we go to medium or smaller markets, so when we go there, we’re an important partner of theirs,” Cappuzzello said. “If we go to an Orlando or Las Vegas, they won’t even know we’re there.”
Site selection can be challenging for small to medium-size meetings, but those events can also make the most of their size. We spoke to meeting planners with decades of experience in choosing locations for smaller events. Here’s what they said.
Know your event.
When an association plans a meeting, a committee often passes along three or four destination suggestions to the planner, which can be helpful in narrowing down options. But sometimes, the meeting planner is responsible for the entire destination selection. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) puts on 30 to 40 events a year ranging from six people to 150. ASPPB works with psychology boards across the U.S. and Canada, which makes it difficult to find destinations that work for all attendees, said Anita Scott, director of meetings and events.
She tries to vary locations, but whether she has a short list or a blank slate, choosing a city is about “knowing your attendees, knowing who’s going to be there,” she said. If a February event will have a lot of Canadian attendees, “they want to go to Florida” — or anywhere they can shed the cold and their coats.
It’s also about knowing your event so you know your needs. Having a tentative agenda before they dive into site selection gives planners an idea of the day, the flow, the meals and the receptions, which will make the process easier down the road, said Natalie Lundstrom, principal and co-founder of SweetPea Meetings and Events.
Use CVBs to help with RFPs.
With three or four destinations in mind, enlisting CVBs to help with RFPs is a critical step.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t use a CVB,” Cappuzzello said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a great experience, and it’s free. And they have the vast knowledge of the area.”
CVBs will ask hotels to bid on your business, and getting the first round of bids back helps further narrow the field. If Scott has a group of 10 for a two-day event, and the hotel sets a $5,000 minimum for food and beverage, “there’s no way that can happen,” she said. “Then I know they’re not really interested in me.”
During the RFP process, planners should say if they’re willing to fit into a certain time period and take unused space; doing so may get you a great rate and better concessions, Lundstrom said. Or a hotel may have sold a bunch of rooms but hasn’t sold any space, so your event could get more meeting space — especially if most attendees are local or driving in and don’t need as many room nights, she said.
Be flexible and innovative.
Being flexible with meeting dates or destinations can bring big benefits for smaller events. Maybe the program starts Tuesday and ends Friday, but a property can fit your small group in Monday through Thursday. Planners can also consider offseason dates, such as an August meeting in Tucson, Arizona, or an early December seminar in Columbus, Ohio. “You are more likely to get closer to your ideal room rate and better concessions because it fits what the hotel needs,” Lundstrom said.
Being adventurous about the venue can also lead to benefits. In the past, The Group Travel Family required a convention-type facility with an exhibit hall and a formal ballroom. Now, the company thinks outside the box, and a destination’s desire for the business can almost, but not entirely, override facility constraints. Holmes County, Ohio, in the heart of Amish country, didn’t have any formal meeting space and had no full-service hotels, but wanted the 2017 Going On Faith Conference. So, after Sunday service, the large Mennonite congregation removed its seating so the church could serve as the exhibit hall, and the multipurpose basketball court became the dining area. Long tables, which Cappuzzello said are usually “a sin in conferences,” worked well as Amish women served family-style meals.
“There’s an example of options and thinking outside the box,” Cappuzzello said. “We had 300 people, and they were able to have a great experience because the host worked their fanny off and got the whole community involved.”
When selecting sites for smaller meetings, planners don’t have a lot of bargaining power because they’re not bringing a lot of revenue to the table. If the venue is hesitant and inflexible up-front, that’s likely how it will be through the entire meeting, Lundstrom said. You want to work with a venue that understands your goals and is willing to help you achieve them. If not, keep walking because another venue wants your business.
During site visits, Scott also “walks the halls” after her official meeting with sales and food-and-beverage managers. She’ll sit in the lobby to see how smoothly the front desk runs. If an event is happening while she’s there, she seeks out the planner to ask what it’s like working with the hotel.
“You’ll always get an honest answer from a meeting planner,” Scott said.
Venues may sometimes relegate small events to less-desirable rooms. Planners should ask for a specific room they like so they don’t end up in a basement corner with no windows, Scott said.
Play up advantages.
Smaller meetings have several advantages over large events for site selection. Small meetings can go almost anywhere, and they can book in much shorter windows. A 2,000-person conference has limited venue options and has to book at least two years in advance. Scott can get one of her one-room meetings into the tightly booked Austin market only a month out. The larger the meeting, the longer the lead time.
Though shorter time frames are a bonus, “we also feel like it allows us to boost it a little bit,” Scott said. “Sometimes the quality of the resort or the event will be a little bit better because you can afford to do it for six people rather than for a big group.”