Planning small meetings is a challenge. When I'm trying to place a small meeting (under 50 people), some hotels quickly qualify the business with a flat "no space" and some hotels will only take the business if it's 30- to 60- days out. If your small meeting is new, and therefore has no history, or if your small group is space intensive and you don't need a significant amount of sleeping rooms to justify the meeting space, your challenges could be even bigger.

Getting to a win-win situation in these cases can be exhausting. Time, tenacity, and the ability to negotiate are the skills you will need to obtain that vanishing resource--hotel meeting space. These simple guidelines can help.

THE CHALLENGES Technological advances, training trends, and the explosive growth of global business has influenced the increase of small meetings. When time is money, more companies are bringing their senior management teams together at off-site meetings for intense planning with fewer distractions. A two-day business meeting combined with social activities for a management team at a remote site can help maintain the team's cohesiveness and generate innovative ideas. Small meetings can be a viable revenue source for the hotel and the meeting planner, but there are some challenges.

1) No Previous History Some hotels will give you meeting space even without a meeting history. But be prepared to put down a hefty deposit, have a strong credit reference, and a credit card to pay the final balance. Your negotiating skills will be very helpful here. If the deposit is hefty, try to lower the room rate. If that doesn't work to your satisfaction, try to break up the deposit into smaller amounts and extended due dates.

If you are confident that the sleeping rooms being blocked will be used, have the deposit held with a credit card against a percentage of the hotel room revenue. Identify in writing how you want the deposit to be credited. (In a large organization, one department may be responsible for paying for the sleeping rooms and another department for the meeting rooms.) Negotiate the deposit return, in case of cancellation, with a sliding scale depending on the date of cancellation.

References don't always have to be previous hotel business. If you are an independent planner, for example, and you have a good relationship with the hotel, you are one of the best references. Others can be the personal credit of the person authorizing the contract or the company's vendors. Your best credit reference will be a Dow Jones rating, so if you are fortunate to work for or with a company that has one, use it.

2) Space Intensive Meetings Sleeping rooms are one of the hotel's largest revenue sources. So if you don't have sufficient sleeping rooms to compensate for the meeting space, the meeting room price can be quite costly. The price of one room for a small meeting of 15 to 20 people in rounds can be as high as $800 and as low as $150. Here is where effective negotiation skills come in handy.

If you are having meals and breaks, use a guarantee of food as leverage to lower the meeting room charge. My rule is that if I have to pay, I'd rather spend the money on food for my attendees than on meeting room costs. Keep in mind that some of the costs built into meeting room rates are for setup and labor, so, if you don't need the hotel's pens and paper, flip charts, or service to refill water, then don't absorb these costs.

When all else fails and the meeting room charge is still not within your budget, you may have to walk away. At this point your tenacity must come into play: Keep calling other hotels to find viable options. Even though it is a seller's market, we as buyers do have clout and are in a strong position.

THE SOLUTIONS 1) Give the hotel as much information as possible about your meeting. This helps get your business in the door. It also allows the hotel representative to understand meeting objectives, participants, and service expectations. Any information that helps qualify your meeting as good business is beneficial. For example, senior executives of major software companies meeting to strategize the future of technical support can be valuable to a hotel for new business or long-term relationships. A new product being introduced with a major publicity campaign, along with the associated media in attendance, can offer excellent visibility for the hotel.

2) Explore venues that cater to small meetings. More and more hotels are establishing small meeting service departments and facilities for smaller meetings (see listing of chain services, page 31). One or two professionals plan and manage the meetings rather than five or six. This works well for me because I prefer to work with one person from beginning to end.

If you organize a number of small meetings or events, establish a relationship with a few hotels and work with them for a majority of your meetings. You have more negotiating power if you present a long-term business arrangement with a number of small meetings that add up to many sleeping nights during a specified time. By offering the opportunity for future business rather than an occasional visit, you can cut a better deal.

Consider boutique-style or independent hotels and non-hotel venues. These properties are eager to hold small meetings, are more flexible in the negotiating process, and can be very attentive in assuring your objectives are met.

3) Understand the challenges. Be flexible. Be prepared with alternative dates or sites as well as different meeting formats or venues. Understandably, with small meetings, you may not always have a lot of flexibility, especially when you have time constraints. Considering that all organizations have constant change and growth, small meetings will continue to be an effective communication vehicle. To successfully negotiate your next small meeting with a new sense of confidence, aggressively select your meeting site by providing each hotel with as much information as possible, examine properties providing facilities for small meetings, and remain flexible with dates and sites.

You need to plan a small meeting on short notice. You know you'll get a better deal if you can fill a hotel's guest rooms when it most needs the business. Voila--hot dates, hot rates. Even the busiest hotel in the busiest city has some off nights. One great new source for late-breaking deals is the World Wide Web. As Web announcements can be made quickly, easily, and globally, sites for hotel hot dates are sprouting in cyberspace.

Here are some of the better sites available:

Adams Business Media (publishers of Corporate Meetings & Incentives, Medical Meetings, and Insurance Conference Planner) has MeetingsNet (www.meetingsnet.com/net/dates/).It lists thousands of locations worldwide and allows searches by month, city, state, or country.

PCMA's Open Dates Discount Rates page (www.pcma.org/dates/search.htm) has one of the best layouts and can be searched by date, geographic region, room block, rate, and type of property. More than 250 hotel subscribers are listing information there.

The Hot Dates-Hot Rates page (accessible through Meeting Professional International's Web site at www.mpiweb.org or directly at www.hotdateshotrates.com) allows you to search by city as well as region. Once you enter your name, phone, and e-mail address, you can search by a similar set of criteria. This site links to the extensive TravelWeb site (www.travelweb.com), which has detailed information about the properties listed. Site visitors can also be put on an e-mailing list to be notified of new deals. Once you find a property that you're interested in, you can make an on-line RFP. An estimated 500 hotels list via this service.

Another option is Event Source (www.eventsource.com/cf/hotdates/hotdates.htm).It does not contain search capabilities for hot dates. Instead, a number of hotels offering deals are listed, some with links to hotel chains' hot-date pages. This includes the Hilton's Value Rate program (www.hilton.com), directed toward the leisure traveler. Many other hotels, including Sheraton, have similar programs in development at their sites as well.

As record numbers of planners come on-line, expect to see more sites and more options as hotels work to maximize their yield. Two excellent hotel information sites, Plansoft (www.plansoft.com) and the Meeting Industry Mall (www.mim.com) have announced plans to open hot-dates sections before the middle of 1998 and should be excellent sources as well.