"Exhibitor salespeople don't have a clue how they affect us if they cancel," says Pam Husk, manager, housing and registration services, for the American Association of Family Physicians, Kansas City, Mo. Rusk shares her exhibitor housing angst with numerous medical conference organizers. At the 2000 annual meetings of both the Professional Convention Management Association and the Healthcare Convention Exhibitors Association, the perennial problems of exhibitor housing generated heated debate. For years, planners have complained that they can't maximize their room blocks or get accurate pickup histories because of late cancellations, no-shows, and people booking outside the block. The chief offenders, planners say, are exhibitors.

Exhibitors, meanwhile, protest that they can't get adequate rooms in good quality, conveniently located hotels, or that their people are scattered among so many hotels that it's difficult to coordinate meetings and transportation. So they feel justified in making changes in their hotel assignments.

And hotels are unhappy because rooms blocked at a group rate go unsold. Exhibitors add to hotels' frustration when, due to last-minute staffing shuffles, they change the names on room reservations, making it impossible for hotels to generate accurate rooming lists.

"I'm discouraged hearing planners talk about exhibitors as a problem," says Eric Allen, executive director of HCEA. "There are legitimate reasons why exhibitors make name changes, but some hotels treat that as a cancellation. And exhibitors book outside the block because they can't get the rooms they need from the planner. I think the system is at fault."

The Blame Game While some planners, like Rusk, attribute the problem to lack of awareness, R. Russ Ruston doesn't buy that. "Exhibitors book hotel rooms 52 weeks a year," says Ruston, former meeting coordinator, American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, Arlington Heights, Ill. "I have a hard time believing they don't understand. There's somebody else out there who doesn't understand what their needs are." Planners contribute to their own problems, Ruston says, by blocking too many rooms.

"A lot of planners still feel they need that cushion. If associations manage their blocks well, these issues aren't there," he insists. "I get all wound up because this issue has been on the table for so long," he says. "It shouldn't be a problem--I don't know why it is."

But exhibitor housing is most definitely a problem for associations. And planners are taking charge, implementing solutions ranging from cancellation penalties to education to rewards.

Put Your Money Where Your Reservation Is Requiring a first-night deposit with a reservation is one strategy planners have found effective. "We were having problems with exhibitors blocking 30 rooms in the main hotel and then going down to 10 rooms," says Cindy Wood, meetings manager for the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, Park Ridge, Ill. "Now that we require a one-night deposit up front, they have less of a tendency to do that."

First-night deposits are usually refundable anywhere from seven days to 48 hours before the scheduled arrival. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in Rosemont, Ill., is tougher. The deposit becomes nonrefundable unless AAOS can resell the room. "We hold onto it till 60 days out to be sure we can cover our costs," says Karen Schneider, meeting services and travel coordinator.

The North American Spine Society, Rosemont, Ill., is tougher still. For its meeting this fall, it's requiring total prepayment 90 days out. "We were seeing major slippage," explains Pamela Delli Kleinman, manager of educational programming. "Some exhibitors would book 100 or more rooms, 10 or 11 months in advance, then drop some rooms too late for hotels to resell them. Exhibiting companies know 90 days out who they'll send," she maintains. "That's why we ask for full prepayment then." At press time, NASS hadn't yet sent the mailing announcing the new policy, so there's no exhibitor feedback yet.

But Ruston feels that requiring prepayments only makes things worse--and he places much of the blame on hotels. In one recent instance, he says, an exhibitor booked 12 rooms for three nights. The hotel wanted one night's deposit for each room when the reservation was made, plus prepayment at a specified date for all the room nights. "I don't like the statement that makes," Ruston says. "It's a reputable pharmaceutical company and a reputable hotel. I think we're better professionals than that. Taking prepayment 45 days out and levying attrition fees isn't managing rooms effectively. It's just making sure you have revenue."

Rewarding Good Behavior Husk at AAFP says that educating exhibitors about the consequences of their behavior has helped reduce attrition: "We really hammered it home." And she requires a one-night deposit at registration. She's also getting results from a reward system implemented five years ago. Companies that book more than 10 rooms and pick up 85 percent of their rooms get "preferred status": the following year, they receive housing information two weeks before other exhibitors.

Another option is a cancellation fee, which some convention and visitors bureaus are recommending. The Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, for example, recommends a fee of $25 for cancellations between 45 and 31 days out, $50 for cancellations between 30 and 15 days, and one night's room rate for cancellations 14 days out or later.

"Historically, exhibitors haven't done a good job of managing their room blocks," says Jane Chaney, CMP, vice president, convention sales and services. "If people read about this fee online and in their association newsletter, and they know the consequences, it'll change their behavior. Look at the models the airlines use--$75 to modify a reservation. This amount isn't as harsh, but it makes people think."

The cancellation fees are linked with Orlando's use of the online housing service Passkey.com, which both recommends such fees and makes it possible to track cancellations. "We found that a flat deposit doesn't make any difference if the money isn't at risk until 72 hours out," says Rick Dobson, regional manager for Quincy, Mass.-based Passkey.com. "We tested a cancellation fee in Boston, and it had a dramatic effect. The cancellations peak moved from one week after cutoff to three days before."

E-housing Eases the Burden Apart from the fees, some planners are optimistic about the overall potential of online housing services such as Passkey.com, b-there.com, and the just-announced Expoconnex, developed by Galaxy Information Services in Frederick, Md., as a result of its merger with ITS. The services offer password-protected access to planners, hoteliers, exhibitors, and attendees, and permit real-time reservations, confirmations, and pickup reports.

"Everyone is looking at real-time inventory, so there's no lag and there are no surprises," says Teri Jarvie, senior account executive for meeting planning firm Conferon, based in Twinsburg, Ohio. "You can have as many sub-blocks as you need. Human error is minimized because information is directly downloaded from the housing company to the hotel. And with Passkey, the cancel fees transfer liability to the individual [exhibiting] company or attendee, which is where it should be."

Wood at the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists used Passkey for her meeting in Boston last summer. "It's a wonderful system--so user-friendly for the planner," she says. "I can pull up the information by company, and if a company has reserved 30 rooms, I can ask if they're really going to use them all. If not, they should give them back."

This year, Wood's meeting is in Chicago; the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau uses ITS as its housing service. "ITS is very behind," says Wood. "We're using them with great struggle. Our members can reserve online, but I can't connect into their system."

Another online-booking enthusiast is Steve Gardner, partner and vice president of meeting planning company Global Interactive, New York City, which works with b-there.com. "This system confirms reservations online, real time," says Gardner. "Hotels are more apt to believe what we tell them and give us close-in cutoff dates. We've had a number of meetings where hotels take the cutoff down to seven days."

Or Does It? Not everyone is sold on e-housing, however. "This is our first year with Passkey, and I'm pretty unimpressed," says Husk at the American Academy of Family Physicians. "I rely on the additional services provided by a housing company, for example, assigning people to work with my VIPs. They are a true staff extension of my department." Her housing company? ITS.

Also skeptical is Louise Owen, director of meeting services for the American Academy of Ophthalmology in San Francisco. The new online housing companies "claim to be cutting-edge and different," she says, but with her housing company, Ambassadors Services Group Inc. in Atlanta, "we have phone, fax, mail, and online booking. I've been able to monitor my group online for a couple of years. I could always get a pickup report by fax in five minutes." About the only difference Owen sees with the newer companies is that she can now go online at, say, 10 p.m. "But would I want to?"

Even as that debate goes on, "We're probably on the edge of changes that will require us to completely rewrite the way we do housing," warns Cheryl Nordstedt, acting executive director of the American Academy of Dermatology in Schaumburg, Ill. A housing reform pioneer, Nordstedt foresees two critical changes: attendees' increasing ability to make their own hotel reservations on the Internet, thereby ignoring housing blocks, and the possibility that, particularly with the Internet becoming more popular among consumers, "hotels will discover they can do better by not participating in housing blocks. We think we have trouble now tracking impact, but we haven't seen anything," she says. "Everything we've done has been based on room blocks. I think associations will be scared and hotels will be happy as clams."

More aspirin, anyone?

Chicago Battles the Attrition Blues The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau outsources convention housing to third-party company ITS. But CCTB and its One-Stop Chicago service partner with planners to help them maximize their blocks and avoid attrition penalties. Here's how: * Deposits. One-Stop collects a first-night deposit on each reservation. The planner determines the dates on which the deposit is fully refundable, partially refundable, or forfeited. "The planner uses those fees to address the attrition penalties," says Andrea Thompson, manager, One-Stop Chicago. Groups that have had serious attrition problems might also require a last-night deposit.

* Attrition grid. Six months before the meeting, One-Stop reviews all hotel contracts for the meeting. Using an Excel spreadsheet, it creates an "attrition grid" that shows, hotel by hotel, pickup requirements and the date on which block adjustments are allowed. The grid helps planners track pickup progress.

* Block reductions. "If pickup is slow at certain hotels, we recommend contacting them to see if they'll take some rooms back," says Thompson. Some planners ask to have blocks reduced at the hotels where they don't have attrition clauses, in order to improve pickup where they do have them. In either case, "It's the client's decision, but One-Stop implements it," says Thompson.

* Telemarketing. A telemarketing staff at CCTB calls people who have registered for the meeting but not yet made hotel reservations. For one group, it picked up 75 reservations in two days. This procedure also can identify people who have booked outside the block.

* On-site tracking. To be sure the planner gets credit for all rooms booked for a meeting, wherever they are, people picking up badges, as well as those who received badges in advance, are asked to fill out a form indicating where they're staying, and why. People who complete the form qualify for a prize--offered by the bureau.