The paradigm has shifted – the Internet has changed meeting attendees’ travel buying habits. It has squeezed out the inefficiencies and has given buyers a greater choice of product at lower prices.
However, this has become a major problem for meeting planners. Attendees are finding accommodations outside the block. Hotels are offering web rates lower than the group rates, undermining the group rate integrity and encouraging last-minute bookings.
Consequently, planners are having difficulty forecasting attendance and are faced with unfilled room blocks with the ensuing attrition charges. If planners can’t demonstrate attendance, they can’t even book meeting space where availability is often based on past booking history.
So what can be done? What are the tech tools that can help?
Tom Walker, Passkey’s VP of Alliances, contends that attrition is often caused by structural reasons – people book outside the block because of difficulty booking within. The reasons include: the cutoff date has passed; early arrivals (the shoulder dates) are not captured because these dates have not been reserved, or simply that integration with the online registration systems is too difficult.
Walker feels that advanced online housing systems, such as Passkey, can reduce many of the problems. Hotels can manage and track their blocks much more efficiently enabling booking right up to meeting start date – thus allowing the traditional “cutoff” date to be eliminated. Hotels managers who wish to exercise cutoff and charge a higher rate have the ability to do so and still track the bookings within the system. Shoulder dates are easy to set up and capture. Integration has been built with most of the online registration products allowing online registration data to link directly to and pre-populate the online housing form, eliminating keystrokes and making it much easier and, therefore, more likely, that attendees will use it. As this housing data links to the hotel’s reservation system, it also makes it easier for hotel to conduct an audit of hotel guests to the registration list, which, with paper-based system is very labor intensive and have privacy issues as well.
When it is easier for the attendee to book within the block and for the hotels to track and manage this block, it becomes easier for the meeting manager to get credit for the bookings.
There are several online registration companies offering good room block management tools as well, including StarCite/RegWeb, SeeUThere, b-there.
ResQuest, uses the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach, offering an online tool urging planners to “forget about unfilled rooms, attrition, and lost revenue.”
Michael Foster (ResQuest’s President/CEO and former president of Wyndham Jade) encourages planners to reserve the smallest block they can, perhaps for only staff and VIPs, and turn the rest over to their system. What planners may lose in increased meeting room rental costs can be offset in decreased liability from attrition penalties.
Once contracted, ResQuest will contact the hotels asking them if they wish to participate, but with the condition that there is no liability to the meeting host. The hotels can set a top and bottom room rate and can manage online at will. The ResQuest system, a combination of b-there and the TravelHero products, has the appearance of many of the consumer travel sites such as Expedia.
Meeting-related tweaks are being implemented: a map and distance from the hotel to the meeting facility, tracking rooms taken from inventory for meeting related purposes, and productivity rebates to the meeting host similar to the 1:40-50 comp rooms deal in most hotel contracts.
A challenge with this system, however, is being able to secure the meeting space with a significantly lowered sleeping room block reserved.
A significant advance in this effort is the DOME project, a web-based travel data collection initiative. I have just returned from AIME -The AsiaPacific Incentives and Meetings Expo in Melbourne Australia. This is the first meeting having tracked hotel and airlift using DOME for two consecutive years and the results are impressive. This year’s data collection achieved a remarkable 92.5% capture rate for the over 2,700 buyers and 650 exhibitors attending the meeting. The data include a full breakdown of the hotels used, the length of stay, the airlines used into Melbourne, the number of legs flown and the class of travel.
Data capture was achieved with an additional page on the registration form asking for the airline and hotels to be used. I found this version, with the support of Amlink Technology, to be easy to use unlike an earlier version of the program I tried two years ago in Cancun.
This high capture rate, however, took some cajoling. A strong privacy statement was made; the data fields were integrated with web registration form; and “nag-ware” email repeated the request to those not filling in these fields. If attendees still resisted giving this personal travel info, they were asked again onsite at badge pickup where self-serve input stations were provided.
These data can be very powerful for negotiation. For example, sponsorship from airlines and hotels for the meeting was solicited and the results tracked. Singapore Airlines’ lift into Melbourne jumped from 2.9% last year with no sponsorship to 32.8% this year with sponsorship. It was DOME data that provided these results.
These three contrasting approaches, of course, do not solve all of the issues. A hotel with a meeting in-house, for example, doesn’t really care about tracking rooms outside of their hotel – the bottom line is filling their “beds with heads.” But these are steps in the right direction and solutions for some of the issues. Internet technology has helped to create the problem, and technology solutions can help solve them.