What about, say, Mercedes-Benz automobiles?
“If you talk to people who do car shows, they're used to negotiating for cars all the time,” says Rob Hulsmeyer, senior partner at Empire Force Events in New York City. “But for those of us doing more typical trade shows at smaller convention centers with less experience, getting cars into a center is more difficult. It's new to most of the centers. They want us to drain the gas, drain the oil, take out batteries. Put plastic down, plywood. Load limits also come into play.”
Hulsmeyer should know. While helping to launch the Mercedes-Benz ‘S’ Class a few years ago, he found himself negotiating a variety of conditions to bring up to six new automobiles onto the premises.
“Convention centers are used to strange requests,” he says. “It's just that a lot of times, what they think you can't do, you can do. You can't always take their word for what you can't get in there. Many centers don't understand how flexible a car can be. They'd say, ‘You can't get a car in here.’ But we can take off mirrors and side panels. Sometimes we take off the front and rear bumpers to get it into a freight elevator.”
OK — luxury cars are negotiable. What about price per square foot? While it might not be negotiable with publicly owned convention centers, private centers are sometimes willing to dicker. Even managers of government-owned facilities have some wiggle room — if you ask for the right concessions. Prices may be set in stone for exhibit floor space, but flexibility over extra meeting rooms, move-in/move-out time, or even helicopter landing rights may keep them competitive.
Try this bit of attitude adjustment: What's negotiable is what's important to you.
For example, Jaclyn Bernstein, president and partner of Empire Force Events, finds that some of her corporate clients are sensitive about sharing a convention center. “You might not want to put AT&T and MCI in at the same time,” she suggests. “Or take Kraft Foods or Philip Morris. Each owns so many companies, they wouldn't want another company's beverage or snack company in the center at the same time. Some corporations might not want to be in a building with the NRA or some other controversial group. You might want to write something like that into a.”
In other words: Know your group and what matters to them. As with any, you will have giveaways, the things you have to have, and the things that are not important. Some centers might give a little, others might be inflexible. And you have to be willing to walk away.
Make It Happen
Leverage, of course, makes many things negotiable. The bigger you are, the more events and dates you book — and the better the chances of nonnegotiables suddenly becoming negotiable.
But if your event's size or frequency doesn't muster any clout, date flexibility almost always gets attention. “The February through May and September through November time slots are the ones most in demand,” says Peter Nathan, president of PWN Exhibicon International in Westport, Conn. “Negotiations for those times are more difficult. But if you wanted to host a show in New York City between Christmas and New Year's Eve, they would probably kiss your rear end in Times Square.”
Or consider Florida. The value of the event diminishes to the convention center if you want space in, say, Fort Lauderdale in February. In midwinter, chances are good that the convention center and surrounding hotels are full. But in July, chances are equally good that they aren't.
Remember this: The planner always has the advantage. The information you need to negotiate is always available; it's almost always public. You don't need to ask the convention center director what groups are in town during the week you're planning your event. Just look online, or check a newspaper. With solid research in hand, you can say, “I know the building is empty from July 15 to 18, and I can fill it. Are you interested in talking?”
“We do look at each individual customer and group and assess them in each time of year,” confirms Kevin Lewis, vice president of convention center sales for the Minneapolis Convention Center and the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association. “Is it good for the city of Minneapolis and our hotels?”
Rate Ain't Everything
Negotiations don't need to — and shouldn't — exclusively focus on the bottom line. You may get a miraculous rate, but that doesn't guarantee service or cooperation.
The most common mistake is to focus on what you need, to the exclusion of the other party. Instead, say to a facility: “I would like to create an event that leaves an impression on everyone in attendance. Tell me how you can make my event spectacular.”
That's a lesson Kelly Cook Marcavage, principle of Casey Enterprises in Collegeville, Pa., learned while serving as vice president of meetings and planning for A/E/C Systems International in Exton, Pa. Two cities and their convention centers were competing for her business. She was leaning toward one. But when the other center, which was in a downtown area, realized it was about to lose the business, it came up with an offer she couldn't refuse. And she didn't.
But she should have.
“In the citywide package, we saved $400,000,” Marcavage says. “It was almost like giving us the building. This was a city desperately trying to get pieces of businesses.”
So what was the problem? “The perception was that it [the facility] was difficult to get to. Our attendance went way down. It got to the point we reimbursed our attendees for parking, which we've never done,” she says.
“Unfortunately, we were trying to put a round peg in a square hole.”
With a publicly owned convention center, it's difficult — if not impossible — to negotiate an indemnification provision. But the degree to which the show must indemnify the convention center is highly negotiable.
“Whether you are going to indemnify someone against their own negligence is something you can do, but it's something that I recommend you not do,” says Jed Mandel, a partner in the Chicago-based law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg and a CMI columnist. “Provide indemnification, but limit it to something that makes sense. Indemnify your own negligence, but not theirs.
“Don't assume that a form contract is intended to do anything but protect the person who prepared it,” he warns. “The big convention centers all have model agreements that they developed over the years. They [those agreements] are designed to cover everything that might come up. If you're doing a privatethat will have public events, things in there will need to be stricken.”
Most, for example, say that no food may be served as part of the event, but when a restaurant company goes into a facility, it's going to get that clause modified. And what if a blood drive, using a bloodmobile, is part of your mission? The “no vehicles in the convention center” provision would need to be discussed.
And there has never been a better time to negotiate more favorable cancellation terms than right now, because of September 11 and the sluggish economy.