Many insurance and financial services meeting planners found their programs canceled or put on hold for 2009 and 2010. For those who kept on booking, meanwhile, there was plenty of availability and a nice amount of negotiating room. That was then.

The meeting professionals who are looking ahead now see the market tightening up, and they’re shifting their strategies accordingly. “We see the writing on the wall, and are trying to lock in hotel rates for 2012 and 2013,” says Eldon Gale, director, meeting and event management, at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio, who is in the middle of site selection for the next several years. “So far, rates for 2012 are good—but clearly higher than they were this time last year.”

Corporate Meetings Comeback: Check the Stats

37 percent of corporate meeting professionals will hold more meetings in 2010 than in 2009

43 percent of corporate meeting professionals will hold more meetings in 2011 than in 2009

Source: PCMA/AMEX/Ypartnership Meeting Planner Intentions survey of 505 planners, 44 percent of whom were corporate, incentive, or independent planners or procurement execs

9.1 percent: Year-to-date increase in occupancy in the luxury hotel segment (including Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton, Fairmont, Four Seasons, InterContinental, St. Regis)

7 percent: Year-to-date increase in occupancy in the upper upscale hotel segment (including Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Westin, Sheraton, Kimpton)

7.4 percent: Year-to-date increase in occupancy in the upscale hotel segment (including aloft, Hyatt Place, DoubleTree, Crowne Plaza)

Source: Smith Travel Research/STR Global

Another strategy of Gale’s is to gain negotiating leverage by booking more than one program at the same property. “We’re running programs back to back at the same hotel, for example,” he says. “And where audiences don’t overlap, we are planning incentive programs at the same hotel in different months or different years. If the speed at which our meetings have been coming back is any indication, I would say we are well on our way to recovery. It might still take a year or so to show up, but it’s coming. If planners haven’t started thinking ahead and planning for increases, they’ll be caught unprepared.”

At NCCI Holdings in Boca Raton, Fla., James Wolfe agrees—and has just booked a multiyear contract at two properties with what has turned out to be “perfect timing,” he says. As director, administrative services, Wolfe was already in negotiation with two Orlando hotels to alternate hosting his annual 700-person program when he started seeing news about strengthening rates.

“It’s not a seller’s market yet, but my sense is things are hardening,” he says, commenting that at a supplier event over the weekend “everyone was saying that things are starting to come together again.” With his multiyear deals—which go through 2018—he notes, “we locked in a preferred location, we locked in nice rates, and we got some very attractive concessions.” It’s a nice piece of security in an economy that has been anything but secure over the past two years.

“I have been booking further out,” says Cameo Kuklinski, CMP, manager, meetings and incentives, Bankers Life and Casualty Co. in Chicago. Traditionally booking two years out, she signed a contract last November for her 800-person program in 2013. “One of the reasons we jumped on booking was to capture better rates.”

She believes working with her meeting hotels remains the key to success. “There needs to be give and take from both sides. I have not had much trouble receiving the concessions that I have asked for to date. I may have had to give up something to receive something else, but the overall cost savings to the group was there. At the end of contract negotiations, both parties should walk away feeling good about the coming event and not feel taken advantage of. It really should be a partnership.”