WHEN IT COMES TO scheduling day meetings, Cheryl Geid has just about seen it all. Geid, national travel and meeting planner for Grant Thornton LLP, a Chicago-based financial services firm, has booked space in hotels, conference centers, sports facilities, restaurants … even a bus.

Yes, a bus. Directed to find space for an executive brainstorming session, Geid got creative and hired a motorcoach.

Participants “took the bus up to Lake Forest [30 miles north of Chicago] and spent the time brainstorming,” she says. Once in Lake Forest, they adjourned the meeting, had lunch in a restaurant, got back on the bus, and resumed their session on the ride back to the Chicago office.

“It went great,” she says. “Very productive.”

While day meetings can provide planners such as Geid with an opportunity to show their savvy, innovative side, the reality is that many facilities just don't want to bother with meeting business without sleeping rooms attached. In that way, they can be the hardest type of meetings to place.

“You've got to know your vendors,” Geid says. “You're often talking about a last-minute favor. When all else fails, you've got to grab your Rolodex and pick up the phone.”

Don't Be Offended, But …

Geid's observations provide support for the adage that the day meeting is the “ugly baby” of the meeting family. Because it lacks the financial firepower of its multiday, overnight meeting sibling, many meeting facilities simply aren't interested in the business.

For example, day meeting business at the Chaminade Executive Conference Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., accounts for just 5 percent of the center's group business, says Sherrie Huneke, Chaminade's director of sales. While day meetings “are very important,” she says, Chaminade will not book one more than three weeks out. “It's just not the thrust of our business,” she says. “We only have 150 rooms on property, and most groups come in for things like five-day training programs. We don't want to take up meeting space [for day meetings] that will prevent us from booking the complete business package.”

Sherri Hoy, director of sales for the Edith Macy Conference Center in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., agrees that day meetings are a challenge. “If we still have guest rooms to sell, we don't want to sell all of our meeting space. It really all rides on one fact — you have to build the highest occupancy rate you can.”

Hotels are in the same situation as residential conference centers. “In good times, hotels are jammed,” says Eric Baron, CEO of the Baron Group, a sales consulting company out of Westport, Conn. “Some places, it will depend on the state of business. Other places are completely off the table.”

What can planners do to make their meetings more attractive to hotels? It helps, Hoy says, if a planner is flexible about the date, or even about the meeting locations within a property.

Baron says that hotel day meeting space is more likely to be found in the summer, and on specific days. “In my experience,” he says, “if you are going to book a one-day meeting, look at Mondays and Fridays.”

Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt Associates, a conference management and consulting firm in Washington, D.C., advises planners to seek situations in which a hotel is dealing with a short-term buyer's market. “For instance, look at conventions that are in town and the hotels that book guest rooms, but not meeting rooms [for the conventions],” she says. These are the ones that would have available space at a reasonable price.

There's always room for negotiation, says Hoy. Although she will “add value to packages,” such as an enhanced AV package or an end-of-the-day reception, rather than negotiate rates, she has negotiated cancellation and attrition clauses when clients have booked a series of meetings.

Day Meeting Packages, or DMP's, can include a variety of options, including full meals, breakfasts, breaks, beverage, AV items, and Internet access. The International Association of Conference Centers' latest survey of the conference center industry (Trends in the Conference Center Industry — North America), pegs the average day conference rate at $66.55 per person. The meeting room itself accounts for 29 percent of that total, while lunch takes up 23 percent. AV and other services make up most of the balance.

Finding Room at the Inn

Like them or not, day meetings are becoming an important slice of the total meeting pie. “We are booking a lot of business in day centers,” says Jody Wallace, vice president of sales and marketing for Brick, N.J.-based EMCVenues, a national sales and marketing organization for independent conference centers that provides meeting planners and training professionals with one point of contact to book meetings at multiple centers. EMCVenues has received so many inquiries about day meetings, Wallace says, that it plans to use “We Love Day Meetings” as an upcoming marketing slogan.

Conference centers, particularly those that cater specifically to day meetings, are becoming the facility of choice for executives and planners. John Potterton, director of the Summit Executive Center in Chicago, argues that these centers provide clients with an “all-around better experience” for purposes of a day meeting. And Coleman Finkel, president of the Coleman Center in New York, believes a properly designed center enhances the meeting experience. “It's important that clients can come to a place that's quiet, pressure-free, calm, and be able to concentrate, interact, and participate in their programs,” he says.

Bob Dean, chief learning officer for Grant Thornton, uses Summit for day meetings as well as multiday meetings, even though Summit has no guest rooms. “They are in a prime office area in Chicago,” he says. “They have a full-service staff for everything from your audiovisual needs to your catering needs. Everything you might ever need is available there, so you don't have to do a lot of customized planning. You can do a short-notice meeting there and know that you can have the food and the AV services you need.”

One challenge facing day centers is making the meeting public “aware that there are day centers around,” says Potterton. Another challenge is that not too many are to be found in the country's major cities. But residential conference centers do provide day meeting opportunities. “Most conference centers do a lot of day meetings,” says IACC Executive Vice President Tom Bolman. According to Trends in the Conference Center Industry — North America, local meetings account for 81.5 percent of the market for nonresidential conference centers.

Hotels are also viable day meeting destinations, even with their mandate to sell guest rooms. Geid of Grant Thornton suggests that small boutique hotels that are trying to draw transient business are good bets to have available space. And brands such as Marriott Courtyards are “all about day meeting space,” she says. “You'd be surprised at the kind of space you'll find, and they'll charge you half the price and let you bring in your own food!”

A Different Animal

Attendees have a certain mind-set when they take a day off from work to attend an off-site. “People go to a day meeting with the mind-set of ‘this better be worthwhile, I'm taking time away from work for this,’” says Dean. “It had better be well-planned and worth everyone's time. The facility helps a lot with this. Boy, it can make a big difference when the facility can almost read your mind about what you want to do.”

Can the facility provide the appropriate AV services? Does it have high-speed Internet access? This will be important for companies such as Dean's that have “a bunch of knowledge workers” who are looking to hook up their laptops “Service is also important,” Baron says. “When it's not there, that's when you'll notice.”

Finding the right fit is important for every meeting, but perhaps even more so for this kind. There's a lot to be accomplished in a short amount of time, and there's no opportunity to extend the meeting message into after-hours activities or events. As Dean says, “We're making a big investment to take people off site.” It needs to pay off.

From Arenas to Steakhouses

Alternatives for day meetings

Hotels and conference centers are the obvious choices for a day meeting. But what else can you do?

Universities or colleges often build conference centers for continuing education courses being taught at night, which leaves these centers open for potential clients during the day, suggests John Potterton, director of Chicago's Summit Executive Center. Museums offer the opposite kind of situation, he says, and can be used in the evening after normal museum hours.

Civic arenas are beginning to dedicate particular areas as day conference centers. Cheryl Geid, national travel and meeting planner for Grant Thornton LLP, a Chicago-based financial services firm, has used the latter type of facility, booking space at Chicago's newly renovated Soldier's Field, which, she says, “is now loaded with meeting space.” Geid also says that convention centers can be a great place to book a day meeting, particularly if a large group needs to be placed.

Boutique and second-tier hotels, as well as private clubs — especially if an employee is a member — can make for available and affordable meeting space. Also, in Chicago, “restaurants like Gibsons Steakhouse are attracting more day meetings,” says Geid. “You would be surprised how a private dining room can be changed into a meeting room. And the food is always great.”

Art or Science?

Meeting room yield management

Although there is evidence that more hotels are applying yield-management techniques to meeting room rental fees and charging higher fees at certain times, meeting room yield management remains “more of a pseudo-science,” says Carol Verret of Carol Verret & Associates in Greenwood Village, Colo. Verret has written extensively about hotel yield-management practices.

When it comes to something like a day meeting, “You can do the research … evaluate demand from other sources at the same time,” Verret says, but revenue management strategy will, in many ways, remain “a judgment call.”

Verret recounts a discussion she recently had with a customer looking to book a banquet in a hotel function room. The customer, Verret said, did not understand why she had to pay for a room rental when she was paying for food, beverage, service, and other items associated with the event.

“I challenged the general manager [of the hotel] to tell me what the assumptions were behind the setting of the rates for the meeting room,” Verret says. “He couldn't.”