Where can you find the best contractors? When should you involve them in your planning? What do they charge? In other words, where do you start?

SITE SELECTION FIRMS

What are they?

The pure site selection firm of today is akin to a travel agent: It collects a commission from the hotel when it books and negotiates room nights for a meeting. Roger Helms and Bill Briscoe set up a unique business model in 1992: They licensed a nationwide network of former hotel executives who work essentially for themselves sourcing meetings.

At first, the world's HelmsBriscoes got a bum rap because planners looked at them as usurpers. They also wondered how a third party could get the best rate if it was taking 10 percent off the top. By the late 1990s, however, site selection firms were negotiating good rates with a large number of hotels because of their overall purchasing power.

What do they do?

Site selection firms help planners search for the right destination and property and help negotiate contracts. At HelmsBriscoe, an associate will 1) negotiate the entire contract until it is signed; 2) procure the hotel rooms and space but have the client negotiate the contract; or 3) negotiate the entire contract and manage the meeting (at HB, meeting management costs an additional fee).

What will it cost me?

In most cases, a site selection firm's fee is paid by the property. Typical commission is 10 percent of the room costs, although some firms collect fees in the 15 percent to 20 percent range.

Usually, the firm is paid when the event is over and the client pays the bill.

When are properties researched?

Research happens online via the industry's many hotel databases, by calls to national sales offices and individual properties, and through on-site inspections. Some companies have full-time research departments.

When should I make contact?

As soon as you know where and when you want to book a meeting, call. Some suggest calling before you pick a destination so that options aren't limited. For large conferences, contact a site selection company a year or more out.

What do they need to know?

Gather data on the region, the number of guest rooms needed, arrival/departure patterns of your group, the meeting schedule, meeting room needs, food and beverage requirements, location preferences (airport or downtown, for example), personality of the meeting (e.g., informal, refined, high-tech), previous meeting locations, and any prior experience your company has had with that property and destination.

What questions should I ask?

Find out the site selection company's bargaining power, the relationships it has with hotels and resorts, and how quickly it can respond to your needs. Some may have agreements with certain properties to promote their hotels or destinations. At the outset, ask if such arrangements exist, and find out what they mean when it comes to negotiating the best rate and contracts.

What size company should I go with?

Many reputable “mom and pop” site selection firms do good work, offering personalized service. The big guys have far more people working for them. Theoretically, the larger the company, the greater the purchasing power.

Who signs the contracts?

In most cases, you or your representative (the planner or a higher executive, depending on the company) signs a contract with the hotel.

What if I have to cancel?

Ask a site selection firm about its cancellation policies. Since most are not paid their commission until the meeting takes place, they will miss out on income when meetings are canceled.

How can I find them?

There is no association for site selection companies, but most of their staff are members of the major meeting planning organizations. Check references and reputations by asking for names of a company's clients.

INDEPENDENT PLANNERS

What are they?

Different independent meeting planners specialize in different niches.

What do they do?

They do whatever you need, including site selection, logistics, billing, on-site management, tour or partner program planning, working with suppliers, negotiation and planning of F&B events, contract management, program design, negotiation of airline costs, registration, and housing. Most independent planners say that they usually work with an in-house planner; hiring an independent frees the in-house planner to focus on the content of the conference, rather than on things such as logistics and site selection.

What questions should I ask?

Is the independent planner active in industry organizations? What was his or her most interesting contract negotiation? What about the most challenging experience on site? Does the planner have crisis management experience?

What size company should I work with?

Larger meeting planning companies offer volume benefits: larger potential discounts because they book more room nights and events each year. However, smaller firms may offer more personalized service.

What should the contract specify?

The contract should outline the responsibilities of the in-house planner and the independent, timelines, fees, payment schedule, and cancellation clauses for all sides.

What if I have to cancel?

Be sure not to sign contracts that contain one-sided cancellation clauses.

What credentials do I look for?

Check independent planners' qualifications and credentials to see if they have worked with comparable clients of the same size/type of meeting; find out about reputation and relationships with properties and suppliers.

Many independents earn the industry's most recognized meeting planning credential: the Certified Meeting Professional designation from the Convention Industry Council. And Meeting Professionals International offers Certification in Meeting Management, for advanced planners.

Where do I find them?

MPI has an independent meeting professionals directory online (www.mpiweb.org), and the Alliance of Meeting Management Consultants offers a member directory at www.ammc.org.

PRODUCTION COMPANIES

What are they?

If you need someone only to hook up speakers and lights, hire an AV technician. But if you want to add pizzazz, call a production company. Of course, production companies take care of the AV details, making sure your event sounds and looks as you envisioned. But they also do a lot more, right up to designing the theme and oversee every detail.

What do they do?

It varies. Some companies even do speech coaching. Others specialize in creating CD-ROMs and Web sites for attendees to access before and after your event.

What will it cost me?

This depends on what the client wants to accomplish. Most companies bill on a line-item basis and collect fees in increments based on when payments are due to vendors, with the balance due upon completion. For example, the bill might be broken out by speaker, entertainment, AV, etc. For something such as entertainment, the mark-up would likely be about 10 percent. For most other services, the mark-up is 15 percent to 30 percent, depending on the item and whether it was billed on a per-day rate or a per-event basis.

When should I make contact?

Production companies like to be involved at least three to six months in advance. Of course, thanks to technological advances, Tele PrompTer copy and graphics can be tweaked moments before a speaker hits the stage.

What do they need to know?

A production company needs to know what you want attendees to walk away thinking. Is the audience clients, for example, or top producers? The specific goal of the meeting is important. After that, give the company the details: the location specs (Is there room in the ballroom for the staging? Hook-ups for sound and light?); local union restrictions; budget; audience demographics, and so on.

What questions should I ask?

Find out a company's reputation, its length of time in business, if it has produced similar events, if it owns or rents equipment, how it charges, what the company considers its core capabilities, and if it sends freelancers or full-time employees on site.

Whom will I work with?

An account executive will likely oversee your project. Others involved depend on the project and company. Jack Rouse assigns a staff writer and designer to each team.

What if I have to cancel?

Cancellation policies vary. Most production companies base their refund policies on what work has been completed, as well as on terms of the agreements with subcontractors.

What credentials should I look for?

There is no industry certification. Many staffers have theater degrees.

Where do I find them?

Individual companies' Web sites feature sample projects.

SPECIAL EVENT PLANNERS

What are they?

Particularly in the corporate arena, special event planners are much more than party planners. They help you choose the theme, decor, and entertainment for your event, and then produce it. Some companies operate locally; others work with clients nationally, planning events from formal galas to arena concerts.

What do they do?

Event planners do everything from decor, entertainment, sound, lighting, and transportation to booking speakers, purchasing gifts for VIPs, planning and negotiating F&B, and even designing invitations and signage. Some are also destination management companies.

What will it cost me?

The industry standard is 18 percent to 20 percent commission based on total event cost. This can be billed in various ways: a flat management fee or a built-in mark-up fee on line items, for example.

When is payment due?

A 50 percent deposit is usually due at the start, with another 25 percent due before the event.

When should I make contact?

Venues fill quickly, especially in big cities, so the more lead time, the better. But there is no standard.

What do they need to know?

Tell your planner the event's purpose; preferred dates and flexibility; number of guests; format (e.g., black tie, informal); budget; event history; and what other events are on the agenda.

What should I ask?

Find out the event planner's background, client list, references, and places he or she has done business; do a credit check, and ask for case histories of similar events. Consider the level of creativity, fee structure, insurance, and memberships in industry associations. Does the planner own his or her props? Has the planner won industry awards?

Who will I work with?

Most planners appoint a team leader or executive producer to the account, who coordinates the event with you.

What if I have to cancel?

It depends on how close the event is to the cancellation. Many fees are nonrefundable because the event planner has already done the contracted work. Policies also depend on what is in vendor agreements — if talent is booked, you're likely to have to pay whether the event happens or not.

What credentials should I look for?

The International Society of Event Specialists offers the CESP (Certified Special Events Professional) designation.

Where can I find them?

Convention and visitors bureaus as well as hotels can provide suggestions. ISES has a finder service on its Web site (www.ises.com), along with our sister magazine, Special Events, (www.specialevents.com).

INCENTIVE COMPANIES

What are they?

Incentive companies, also called “incentive houses,” create award trips for qualifying sales executives but also develop entire programs: setting goals, creating the promotional campaign, and managing the trip. Some focus on incentive marketing, some specialize in trip delivery, and others provide the full spectrum of services.

What do they do?

Incentive firms can prepare pre-trip promotional materials; develop program web sites; recommend properties; hire vendors on site; coordinate f&b events; and even plan awards shows and special events. Some companies focus solely on incentive travel, while others also provide merchandise and debit card programs.

What will it cost me?

Every company charges differently. Some incentive trips are billed on a commission basis; others are based on a flat fee. If the firm is handling the entire trip, it will usually bill a management fee; services purchased à la carte are typically priced per person. Many incentive companies collect commissions from hotels.

When is payment due?

Schedules differ depending on the timing of the meeting and other variables. A deposit is typically required, followed by a schedule of payments.

When should I make contact?

To get preferred dates and destinations, book 18 months in advance (longer for a particularly large group).

What do they need to know?

Know the size of your group, group demographics, your goals and objectives, previous and preferred destinations, preferred activities, and anticipated challenges.

What questions should I ask?

How many people from the company will work on the event? How many staffers will be on site, or will freelancers be used? Has the company produced similar events before? How is the fee structure based? Can references be provided?

Who will I work with?

Usually, you'll be assigned a salesperson or account executive who will coordinate the event with the other departments in the firm, including hotel registration, airline booking, and operations.

What if I have to cancel?

Most firms follow the policies of hotel and airlines contracted for incentives and incorporate vendor contracts into their own contracts. As for their own fees, they would consider what work has already been done as well as the reason behind the cancellation.

What credentials should I look for?

Are they members of the Site and have they earned their CITE (certified incentive travel executive) designation?

Where do I find them?

Meeting Professionals International and Site (www.siteglobal.com)offer online searchable membership directories.

DESTINATION MANAGEMENT COMPANIES

What are they?

Destination management companies serve as local liaisons for meeting planners. Once thought of strictly as transportation providers, DMCs orchestrate events, find off-the-beaten-path event venues, and handle a variety of details from props and staging to entertainment. The main benefit of using a DMC is in-depth local knowledge. They may also have more negotiating leverage in the local market. Although DMCs typically work only in the city in which they are based, many belong to national and global networks.

What do they do?

Destination management companies find venues; find and hire entertainment; arrange tours, F&B, theme parties, sporting events, props, and transportation; and help to purchase welcome or spouse gifts. They basically do everything a planner wants to do outside the hotel.

What will it cost me?

DMCs work on a fee basis. Depending on how a client prefers to be billed, some can quote a net management fee that is broken down by the number of attendees, or a line-by-line itemized account with a built-in management fee, usually in the 20 percent range and negotiable. Most DMCs require a deposit up front. Usually, 75 percent to 80 percent of payment is due in installments before the event.

When should I make contact?

It depends on the complexity of the bookings. If you want to hold an event at a venue such as the Smithsonian, which allows a limited number of bookings per year, you will need much more notice than, say, a dine-around.

What do they need to know?

Tell your DMC what you hope to achieve. Is this an incentive, a sales meeting, or pure entertainment? Considerations include budget, F&B needs, and attendee demographics.

What questions should I ask?

Does the DMC know the right subcontractors? Does it have good relationships with local vendors? Can it ensure that vendors are insured? What is its bargaining clout? Can it provide bank references? How long has the company been in existence, and how much of its business is repeat business? How large is its full-time staff? What are the cancellation policies and payment terms and schedule? Is it involved in industry associations? Is it considered the preferred local partner of other industry firms, such as incentive houses or independent planners?

What if I have to cancel?

Policies depend on how far out you cancel. Vendors' contract policies play a huge role.

What credentials should I look for?

The Association of Destination Management Executives offers the Destination Management Certified Professional designation.

Where do I find them?

Convention and visitors bureaus can give you the names of DMC members. Associations such as MPI and Site can also direct you to member DMCs, as can ADME (www.adme.org), which has an online directory.

FINANCIAL & INSURANCE INDUSTRY HOTEL SELECTION SPECIALISTS

An alternative to site selection firms are hotel selection companies with insurance-industry — niched specialists. These businesses typically act as a national sales office for hotels and other facilities, and work with planners to find locations for their events from the list of properties they represent.

This class of hotel selection companies get their payment directly from the properties they represent, and do not charge planners for their services.

The advantage to using a hotel selection firm is that hotels view them as an extension of the sales force rather than a third party, and their hotel contracts specify the lowest rates possible. Intimate knowledge of the properties they represent — including hot dates and renovation schedules — is another benefit.

And while smaller than the Helms-Bricsoes of the world, there is still significant buying power.

Cancellation policies and how far in advance one needs to book depend on the property, type of event, and season. Networking with colleagues is the best way to find the right hotel selection firm for you.