"Eternal vigilance may well be the price of liberty, as the old saying goes, but it also is the price meeting planners pay if they want to come in on--or even under--budget." So says Rodney Abraham, president of the Professional Meeting Planning Network and its full-service division, R.E. Abraham & Associates, in Durham, N.C. Whether you're a seasoned professional planner or someone new to the field, says Abraham, whose company provided meeting manager staff for nearly 1,000 events last year, you can avoid being hit with unforeseen expenses if you know your facts, ensure that all parties are communicating clearly and regularly, and pay strict attention to the details and fine print.
Meeting planners may not want to admit it, "but almost all of us have been surprised by the basics--taxes, labor, gratuities, and the like--at some point early in our careers," notes Sandi Lynn, CMP, an administrator with the Illinois Department of Human Services, Chicago, who also represents the Society of Government Meeting Planners at the Convention Liaison Council. "These costs may not be hidden, but if you don't know what to ask, they'll be a surprise--and probably not a pleasant one."
costs that often surprise planners:
* Taxes. Because they vary from site to site and city to city, taxes often can trip up the unwary meeting planner. For example, in some jurisdictions, there may be a county, city, and state tax attached to the lodging bill. Make sure you understand what taxes will be applicable, and include all of them in your budget," Abraham cautions.
Taxes also can apply to a group's food and beverage gratuities in some areas, and can be a factor in your audiovisual bill. You need to find out if labor or AV equipment rental (or both) are taxable in your meeting's location. Some states include tax in the rates, and some charge the tax separately. "If you don't know, ask," says Lynn. "You have to know your meeting, know your supplier, and talk with your budget or accounting people in order to get a bill that is clear and accurate," she says.
* Labor. For conferences and conventions, labor often is controlled by a union, so it's important to determine when the rates will be billed as regular time, and when overtime kicks in. This is particularly important for events that have their setup times over the weekend, which usually counts as double-time for labor. In today's seller's market, hotels don't often provide cost-free labor for unusual setups, so be prepared to pay for those charges. Also, there may be a surcharge in addition to the cost of renting a projector or other piece of audiovisual equipment. Unanticipated labor charges associated with an AV company may be buried in the fine print of the, so scrutinize it carefully.
* Entertainment.for labor and other costs associated with entertainment also should be carefully reviewed. If the entertainment isn't local, will they need first-class travel accommodations? What will the staging and lighting costs be? A musical group may need the concert area for a rehearsal and sound check prior to the performance. This takes the room out of the hotel's inventory for that period of time and could limit the ability to sell it for a dinner later that day, which might carry some additional costs.
* Equipment. Let's say your general sessions will be running Monday and Tuesday. It's easy to figure your equipment costs: daily equipment rental times two, right? Not necessarily. If you set up a day or a half-day on Sunday, you may be charged for it, says Abraham. "Also, you may think you need just a 35 mm projector, but you have to remember that it requires a cart to sit on, and that's usually extra," he says. While this is generally a small charge, if you're doing 30 breakout sessions over three days, it can become a substantial cost.
Fortunately, AV equipment tends to be highly negotiable, according to David Lutz, CMP, vice president of sales with Conferon, Inc., in Twinsburg, Ohio. "Give a good overview of what your needs are to at least two companies, and let them know they're competing for your business," he says. "Ask them to come back to you with pricing, applicable discounts, and any union contracts that might be involved. If you're not getting a 30 percent discount, you probably didn't ask," says Lutz.
* PowerPoint and data projectors. A new subset to basic equipment costs is the ever-more-popular PowerPoint presentation. These days, almost every speaker wants to do one. Unfortunately, says Tammany Buckwalter, manager of conference operations for American Association of Health Plans in Washington, D.C., "This means renting a $650 to $1,000 piece of equipment that they'll use for only 15 minutes." Then you have to determine in advance which speakers are planning to do a PowerPoint presentation so you can try to arrange the schedule so that they're all using the same room, which can be almost impossible, she says.
"It's almost at the point where it's worth purchasing some of the equipment yourself," says Buckwalter, "but then you have to deal with maintenance, shipping, and servicing it on site, because the hotel staff is not going to take care of it for you." Particularly for smaller meetings that don't warrant the expense of a data projector, she recommends that speakers be told to print out the PowerPoint presentation on slides or overheads and use the old-fashioned method. "They may not like it," she says, "but unless they have video clips attached to the presentation, there's really no need to use PowerPoint."
* Shipping and handling. Hotels often will charge a handling fee for packages shipped to a hotel. Associations usually can get this fee waived if they arrange it ahead of time. In addition, Buckwalter says, ship five days out instead of overnight or two-day.
* Ground transportation. Pay close attention to the minimum number of hours the shuttle company requires. If, at the last minute, you need to add another bus, try to schedule it in such a way that you can stay within your minimum. "If you have people using the shuttle show up too early or stay too long, the costs can devour your budget," says Abraham. (See sidebar on right for more on shuttle issues.)
* Food and beverage. In addition to learning whether the arranged price includes taxes and tips, keep in mind that most hotels change their restaurant prices in the first quarter of the year. To avoid a surprise increase in restaurant charges, says Conferon's Lutz, "if your meeting is going to be held in the summer, you may want to get the restaurant prices guaranteed 10 or 12 months out to lock in the lower price."
All Talk, No Action "The best way to keep those hidden costs out in the open is to ask if there are any additional charges attached to the service," says Lynn. "If you keep asking this question, there shouldn't be any surprises." Hotels often provide certain services, such as AV, as package deals. Talk with the supplier to itemize what you're paying for, and then talk about a package rate. Some hotels will break out AV and meal charges for you so you know exactly what you're paying for. Others have to be asked. "Most suppliers are very willing to work with you," says Lynn. "They want your business, and will work with you to keep it."
Abraham suggests that, rather than just accepting the three- or four-course luncheon offered on the menu, you sit down with the catering manager or food and beverage person and try to start a dialogue with them. "Tell them what your F&B budget is, then ask, 'What can you do for me that won't embarrass us or the hotel?'" he suggests.
It also is important to ensure that everyone within the association is giving the pertinent information to those who need it. If someone on the committee has extended special concessions to a speaker or an official in the organization, you need to know so that the expense can be put in the budget. "To quote an old saying, 'Victory finds a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan," says Abraham. "The person who's responsible for the budget and the person promising concessions have to communicate. Otherwise you get a lot of 'Who agreed to that' and 'Why are we so over budget.' "
Likewise, the treasurer and the person responsible for promotional and printed materials need to communicate and coordinate their efforts. Otherwise the financial person may budget for last year's four-page promo, while the new publicity or publications chair has decided to jazz it up into a four-color eight-pager, which could result in an unexpectedly large increase in postage and printing costs.
It also can pay to coordinate with the shipping company, particularly if your association holds many meetings. "If you get on board with one shipping company for all your needs and accumulate a lot of business with them, you can get volume discounts on your shipping orders all year," says Buckwalter.
"Even though you've negotiated all these agreements and have everything planned, things are bound to come up," Lynn adds. She says that the closer you get to your meeting dates, the more closely all involved should communicate. "That way, the pre-con meeting will be what it's designed to be: a confirmation of what's going to transpire, and not a scramble to deal with a whole new set of issues."
It's All in the Details Before you even begin to think about contracts, take the time to craft your request for proposal (RFP) carefully, because it will set the tone for what's to come. "We almost always include in our RFP wording like: 'Our client requires the following provisions,' and list what we want, such as five round-trip VIP airport transfers, 10 upgrades to concierge-level rooms for the committee, or whatever," Abraham explains. "Some of them we get, some we don't, but it doesn't hurt to ask." He also suggests stating your minimum requirements in the RFP, and requesting that the supplier not respond unless they're comfortable those needs.
Once you get to the contract, be very careful to check all provisions that will affect your costs, such as. "Attrition clauses aren't necessarily hidden, but if you're not expecting them, they can knock you out," says Buckwalter, who recently came up against an attrition clause that caused her much frustration. Buckwalter says that she's fortunate to be with a large association that holds lots of meetings, because it gives her leverage to work with the hotel's national sales group in trying to resolve this particular attrition charge.
Attrition clauses often aren't applied just to failing to pick up your room block, but also to the food and beverage dollar volume or number of people. These clauses used to be fairly negotiable, but they can be tough to negotiate in today's market.
Ask questions if you find a discrepancy or a charge that's different from what you think it should have been, advises Lynn. She suggests doing this every day of your meeting, even if you have to get someone who can do it for you. "When you do your post-con review with the hotel or service provider, some of the charges may be foggy, coming at the end of a two- or three-day meeting," she notes. "Daily review can help keep those charges in check."
"You have to remember that the meeting planner function involves a lot more than logistics," Lynn notes. "It covers the entire planning spectrum, and you have to be prepared for just about everything."