According to our survey, 28 percent of respondents’ room blocks increased from 2011 to 2012, 51 percent stayed the same, and 21 percent were reduced in size. (See table 1.)

For 2013, the numbers are roughly the same with 27 percent projecting an increase, 62 percent saying their blocks will stay the same, and 11 percent anticipating smaller blocks. (See table 2.)  Readers are more optimistic for 2014, with 34 percent expecting blocks to increase, 53 percent staying the same, and 13 percent decreasing in size.

“What we have been seeing from the convention and visitors bureau side is planners becoming more risk averse and blocking fewer rooms,” said Christine Shimasaki, CMP, Destination Marketing Association International’s managing director at EmpowerMINT, DMAI’s site selection database, during a recent MeetingsNet housing webinar.

For some, it’s a “once bitten, twice shy” scenario. “Many were hurt financially during the downturn and hit with high attrition,” says Susie Townsend, senior vice president of visitor experience at Visit Indy, citing feedback from a recent customer advisory board meeting. And many are still wary of an unstable economy. She’s seen blocks that are 10 to 25 percent smaller even with the same or higher attendance. Lisa Nguyen, director of event management and registration at onPeak, a housing service, says her clients are beginning to increase their blocks, but in more strategic ways, paying more attention to what attendees want and where they want to stay.

During a city’s high-demand periods, some hotels want to offer smaller blocks because they know they can get higher rates from transient business and other guests. In other words, the hotels can take advantage of “compression,” according to Shimasaki.

Booking Outside the Block

“As much as things have changed, some things have not. There is still a lot of activity that goes on outside of the contracted room block, especially when you are contracting with multiple hotels,” said Shimasaki. It often depends on the city you have selected and the time period, she added.

The American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery has about 53 percent of its attendees booking through the official housing block, said Paula Schneider, director of meetings and conventions, ASCRS. But according to its post-show survey, the association found that a little over half of those who didn’t go through the official housing company booked online.

The use of third-party online sites like Expedia took off during the recession, and the trend hasn’t gone away, despite the return to a more robust economy and stronger attendance. “As people become more tech-savvy and are carrying computers around in their pockets, they are booking online and looking for the best dollar value,” said Brian Rubin, client services director of exhibitions and conferences at Penton, and a panelist for the MeetingsNet housing webinar. A post-show survey for one Penton show, WasteExpo, held in New Orleans, revealed that 16 percent of attendees booked through online sites; for Penton’s International Wireless Communication Expo, held in Las Vegas, it was 17 percent.

“People tend to do a search of all the third-party sites before they make a commitment,” says Nguyen. Her company includes a “lowest rate” clause in its hotel contracts to say that the hotels within the block can’t offer lower rates over the contracted block dates.

Planners responding to the MeetingsNet/association survey listed the top three reasons they see delegates booking outside the block: 1) better rates found elsewhere; 2) booking at the last minute or too late for the block; 3) the delegate’s desired room-block hotel is sold out. The first two were also among the top three responses planners gave when asked why exhibitors book outside the block. (“Mandated by corporate travel policy” was the third reason.) 

Better Late than Never?

The survey supports a trend Nguyen has seen emerge in the past five years—many attendees are waiting until the last minute to book their rooms. She notes a variety of reasons for the shift: They could be facing a longer budget-approval process, tighter schedules, or they could be holding out for a lower rate, knowing that in the final days before a conference, hotels often release available rooms to online companies at a discount. For example, about 7 percent of WasteExpo attendees said they booked outside the block because they came in at the last minute.

Going forward, however, it could be difficult to find better rates without staying farther out than anticipated, as occupancy rises and demand increases. “It’s supply and demand,” says Townsend. “If the city is open, great. If it’s not and demand is higher, it’s more difficult.”