Saturday, October 9, 2010

It's Broke, So Fix It: The New Normal and Meeting Contracts

It is a beautiful and sunny Saturday morning. I should be outside doing fun things like biking or golfing. Yet, here I sit in my office managing conference registrations and hotel rooming lists for a conference coming up in just 17 days.

As I write to conference attendees asking why I can't find them on the hotel's rooming list, I already know what most of the answers are going to be: "I used [insert favorite discount travel site] but I am staying at the hotel."

We all talk about the generational shift and how we need to do things differently to engage younger people. Yet, we are still using the antiquated contract clauses for our meetings at hotels and other facilities. Attendees not only 'know' about websites like Expedia,, Orbitz and so many6 more, but they use them. The why is very simple. Increasingly, the money to pay conference expenses is coming out of their pockets and not their employers'. Recently, I have seen proposed hotel contracts with clauses stating that only rooms booked 'within the block' will be counted towards the room block.

The typical conference charges $400-$500 (much more for some conferences I attend). Add to that three or more days lodging and travel expenses. Because we as conference organizers are trying to juggle our budgets, we have also eliminated some meal events or dramatically cut them down to meet the food and beverage guarantees we've agreed to. We hope attendees won't notice, but we know that they do.

I understand that hotels and other venues need to cover their costs and make a profit but have we not reached the point where suppliers and planners need to sit down together and start working on the 'new' contract for the new normal?

Everyone is scrambling to balance their budgets and I get that. But if our attendees are increasingly booking outside the block, why do we persist in insisting that they book inside the block at a rate much higher than they can get using one of the travel sites? It's time to stop 'doing that dance' and find a new one that works.

We see our industry associations moving more and more towards co-location because the trade show model as we know it is seeing fewer and fewer attendees in the hall and more and more attendees using that time as 'free' time. How many still think the way to draw attendees into the exhibit hall is by placing lunch/breaks in there? At a recent conference I attended in southern California, the aisles of the exhibit hall were nearly empty at lunch. How can we continue to expect exhibitors to pay the costs attendance with exhibiting at a trade show when attendees are not venturing into or staying in the exhibit hall except to grab their food and go?

We pack attendees into sessions from the first hint of daylight until sunset, even overlapping what should be exclusive trade show hours, while at the same time placing our meetings in scenic settings the attendee might never else get a chance to visit. It's also time to revamp session scheduling and give folks not only a chance to absorb the knowledge they've acquired but also to enjoy the environment we've brought them to. Probably the most productive and rewarding conversations I've had at recent conferences are those outside the formal sessions. Perhaps that says something about the quality of the content; perhaps not. That's for an entirely different conversation. For now, it would be really nice to start a conversation about contracts and how to rework them so that all sides not only achieve their goals but also the satisfaction level of attendees and exhibitors skyrockets because we are finally listening to the wants and needs of our participants.

Let's make the 'new' meeting/hotel contract the best 'next' practice. I'd even volunteer to chair that committee!