Clearly, finding hotel space at a reasonable cost in some downtown areas is a daunting task. We spoke with religious meeting planners, and the following are some strategies that they are employing.

Apply Pressure

Talk with the local hotel manager to discuss room availability and possible rate adjustments. If that's not getting anywhere, take up the issue with the hotel chain's national sales representative. If you strike out there, don't hesitate to phone the city's convention and visitors bureau. Don't be shy about putting pressure on a hotel, especially if you're bringing a large number of people to a city.

Let Them Know You Will Walk Away

One planner whose responsibilities include planning 12 one-week, 1,200-attendee conventions a year says that he always lets properties know that he is shopping for the best combination of rates and facilities.

He gives hotels accurate historic information about his meetings up front, but he doesn't give away all his information at once. His last piece of information is the ceiling price of what he can afford to pay, and he typically doesn't bring that up until later in the negotiating process.

Ultimately, though, he knows that the agreement has to make sense for both his groups and the properties.

Seek the Off-Peak

Ask a high-demand major-city convention hotel about room availability during its shoulder season. For example, consider meetings around Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, or Labor Day. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Consider Other Markets

When the allure of first-tier cities is offset by stratospheric room rates, consider nearby suburbs. Meeting planners may get significantly better deals by, for example, booking hotels in Rosemont, a Chicago suburb, or in Fairfax and Alexandria, Va., suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Leverage Your History

Loyalty still counts, even during these fiercely competitive times. Stress your group's history of using a hotel through the years, which may help you to cut a deal, particularly during an economic slowdown.

Present as much documented information as possible on your use patterns, including overflow hotels. It will reinforce your credibility and perhaps persuade a fence-sitting hotelier.

Do Your Homework

The more you know about the downtown market, the better off you are in negotiations. So consider checking a targeted city's calendar of events to see if there is a citywide convention on the dates in which you're interested. If so, you may have difficulty securing rooms, and you probably will lose negotiating leverage.

Before checking in with a downtown hotel, consult with the city CVB about the facility's occupancy and room use patterns. Confer with planners who have booked the city.

Team Up

If you really like a certain first-tier venue but don't have the clout to command a larger room block or reduced rates, consider pairing with another organization. As for finding a complementary group, contact a city's CVB for assistance.

Seek Multiyear Deals

Consider signing a contract with a hotel for two or more years in a row. Some groups get more attractive deals by inking a pact with a hotel chain enabling members to meet in the same city for several consecutive or alternating years.

Negotiate at Quarter's End

Smart planners have discovered that major-city hoteliers sometimes are more flexible on room rates near the end of a company's fiscal quarter. Reason: They need to book business to meet a quarterly, or annual, revenue target.

Go Straight to the Top

Deal with the person in charge of a hotel's sales team. That way, you can negotiate terms directly with the person making the decisions, instead of having your demands filtered through a lower-ranking sales representative.

Competition is keen

Don't like a deal in one city? Take your business elsewhere. That's what some planners are doing.

Pelted with incentive offers from CVBs around the country, associations find themselves in the catbird seat. Consider the American Library Association. The ALA recently canceled its 2010 meeting in Orlando after delegates complained at last year's meeting there that the hotels were too far from the convention center. ALA was able to switch the meeting in Orlando from 2010 to 2016, when several new hotels near the center are scheduled to be ready. ALA is working with the Orlando CVB to eliminate the cancellation fee because the meeting was rescheduled.

When ALA put the 25,000-attendee meeting out for bids, offers flooded in, including one for a 40 percent discount on convention center rental rates in New York, while Dallas said it would pay the cancellation fee in Orlando and give a discount on convention space. The ALA board picked New York and is hammering out the details.

Paying the cancellation fee is not something Dallas would have done a few years ago, admits Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas CVB. But times have changed. “For a group that size it made sense for us,” he says, adding that the city didn't win the business, but it's now in the running for future meetings. “We're going to be as aggressive as we need to be and take nothing for granted.”

Reint Reinders, president, San Diego CVB, agrees that the landscape is changing. “We don't give it [the convention center] away, but what is the pressure going to be down the road when more and more people are?”

Whether it's deep discounts or free rental space, paying off cancellation fees, beefy rebate programs, even cash in the form of payment for program costs, everything seems to be fair game. Even poaching booked business? Michael Gehrisch, president and CEO of IACVB, says, “It's the exception, but it happens.”

One thing is for sure — collegiality among CVBs is sometimes strained these days. Case in point: The Organization of American Historians moved its March 31 meeting to San Jose from San Francisco because members didn't want to risk crossing hotel picket lines. “We have a bump in the road at the moment with … our hotel situation,” says John Marks, CEO of the San Francisco CVB. “Somehow neighbors always want to come to the rescue.”

“We are being more more aggressive, and we're listening perhaps more than ever to ensure that we know what it is the customer is looking for,” says Chris Bowers, CEO, Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. “Consumers have several choices, so we have to be in the range on a cost basis.”

The large, privately owned hotel/convention centers that have emerged in recent years, such as the Gaylord properties, have helped to alter the competition between Vegas and Chicago, as well as other destinations. Because they have rooms and other revenue drivers on-site, they can afford to be more flexible with convention center costs, says IACVB's Gehrisch.

“I've been at this 38 years, and it's a whole different world the past three years,” says Al Sears, vice president, meeting services, National Fire Protection Association. “The competition for conventions is unbelievable now.”

He is booking sites for upcoming meetings, and one city came in significantly higher than the others. “I just went back to them and said, ‘Come back with better prices and a better package,’ and they're doing that now.” His group of 6,000 has always gone to second-tier cities because the large cities were too pricey. Not anymore.