As experienced planners of international meetings know, there is less room to negotiate rates and services when it comes to events held outside the U.S. But today's market conditions have changed that situation in many countries.
These days, hammered by a poor economy, war, and the SARS virus, overseas vendors know they have to deal generously with groups from the United States if they're going to remain viable in the future. And because of the crises they've weathered in the past few years, many are rising to the challenge.
“Starting in February, Shangri-La adopted a very liberal policy,” says Carolyn Blackburn, director of sales for the Eastern U.S. and Canada for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, which has 39 properties throughout Asia and the Pacific. “Basically, if something happens that causes a group to cancel, we'll just return the money, shake hands, and part friends. We're keeping our fingers and toes crossed that planners will remember that and return to us when things have settled down. We've always been in it for the long haul. Our clients are our partners, and you don't tell your partner, ‘Times are bad, take a hike.’”
Asian destinations have been hit hard by the SARS outbreak, coming on the heels of terrorism and war threats that have kept most U.S. meetings closer to home, and as a result, they're being as flexible as possible just to stay on planners' maps for the future. “The response here has been mainly to waive cancellation charges, or charge nominal amounts,” says Benjamin Cassim, director of new business at East West Executive Travel, based in Singapore.
“Fees are waived for re-bookings at later dates, and even without conditions at some properties. The main sentiment among the tourism industry here is that we all recognize what is going on and that we have to accept cancellations. We are more interested in encouraging those who cancel to re-think the decision and in working with them to find win-win solutions.”
European destinations, which have experienced fewer threats, are responding to U.S.-based planners' concerns, but less dramatically. “No destination that we work with has a general policy,” says Michel Coutourier, president of Marketing Challenges Inc., which represents destinations including Barcelona, Vienna, London, and Sydney. “For the destinations we work with, regional and European business has remained fairly strong. So there hasn't been the need to aggressively discount or seek business from the U.S. It's up to each hotel and. Some hotel chains — Marriott and Hilton — have implemented more relaxed and cancellation clauses for their hotels in international cities, and to some extent that will prompt other hotels to be more flexible in . I'm not seeing major, drastic cuts in prices, but more on a one-on-one basis.”
London's Tourist Board and Convention Bureau has organized a large group of hotels and meeting venues into the “Totally London” package of discounts and special offers, such as discounted day-delegate rates, DDRs that include more amenities, reduced room rates, waived meeting room fees, and discounted rates on future meetings. “In general, London is trying to be as flexible as possible towards business enquiries, and rates are certainly responding to the current situation,” says Alex Brannen, of the London TBCB.
Basically, throughout the industry, there's a sense that times have changed, and a willingness to work together with planners to survive and rebuild in the new environment.
“The business is different, and it will be different from now on,” says Blackburn. “But we have to become accustomed to working this way — to be willing to work on somewhat shorter notice, and to develop our partnerships.”