ARGUABLY THE BIGGEST issue meeting professionals face these days is attrition and its accompanying penalties, which can add up to thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars, in some cases. Even meeting planners book outside the block — more than 800 of the 2,400 attendees at Meeting Professionals International's recent annual meeting booked outside the official housing block, according to D. Bradley Kent, vice president, national sales, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, in a Professional Convention Management Association audioconference with 120 participants held in August. How are medical associations faring?

The prognosis looks pretty good, if Karen Malone, director of meetings, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, Chicago, is a representative example. “We saw our pickup drop 15 percent from 2001 to 2002, and we realized we needed to nip this in the bud,” she said, during the same audioconference.

“We hadn't paid any attrition penalties, but we were concerned about the potential for a decline in the perceived value of our business in negotiating,” explains Malone. “So we zero-based how we did everything” and took a hard look at all the factors, from marketing and education to exhibitor management — then made some changes.

Combatting Online Rates

With 52 percent of her attendees preferring to register for the annual meeting through the HIMSS Web site, her tech-savvy group is especially likely to use Internet housing discounters, one of the major poachers of meeting attendee housing. “We actually go to the Internet sites and buy the rooms they are selling to our attendees,” she said. “We use them for our VIPs and speakers to start with, and if we need to, we release them to our attendees for overflow.”

She also monitors the sites on a weekly basis and contacts the hotels regularly to see how their transient rates stack up to her group rate. In addition, when negotiating hotel contracts, she asks hotels not to release rooms to the Internet sites on HIMSS dates, or, if the hotel isn't willing to do that, to give her first options on the rooms and rates that otherwise would be released on the Internet. “We also ask the hotels to give us a list of the sites they work with on a contractual basis, so we can monitor those Web sites,” she said in the audioconference.

HIMSS also researched what motivates attendee housing choices. “Do they book early or late? What incentive could change that?” she asked. She found that fully 70 percent of her attendees registered for the meeting in the last six weeks. “That was a red flag — what if they also don't register for their hotel until then?”

Now, when attendees register for the meeting online, a screen pops up that says, “Click here now and make your hotel reservation so you get your choice of hotel.” “It's important to get to our attendees before they go to another site,” she says, adding that they also do a push-e-mail encouraging prior attendees to make their hotel reservations well ahead of time, even if they haven't registered for the meeting yet. As soon as attendees register, they get a housing e-mail, then regular reminders to follow up until they register within the block. Once they book their hotel, HIMSS's housing company takes them off the list of those who require further e-mail reminders.

In addition, HIMSS asks attendees to put their hotel information on the tickets it sends in the advance badge mailing. Attendees trade the filled-out tickets for their conference materials on site. “During down time, our registration staff enters the hotel information in their registration record and run reports by hotel for auditing purposes,” Malone said, adding that getting an audit clause in the hotel contract is vital. “Last year, we found 4,800 additional room nights by doing an audit,” she said.

Exhibitors on the Lam

Exhibitor housing control is key, said Malone, whose annual meeting is a citywide convention with a 700-exhibitor show. After surveying its exhibitors to find out their needs and wants, HIMSS instituted some new practices and procedures. “We educated them on why they should stay within the block,” including the convention-center-space — hotel-room ratio, Malone said. “Because they told us they wanted to stay where their clients stay, not with other exhibitors, we carefully proportion our block to give them that contact with attendees.”

HIMSS also elevated its level of exhibitor service. “If we want them to stay in the block, we have to make it easy for them. We contacted every exhibitor as soon as a contract was received. Our housing company starts to book room reservations the year before, when we start to contract booth space. We sell 70 percent to 75 percent of our booth space the year before, so it's important to have our housing company taking reservations at that time.” HIMSS's housing company also sits in on the exhibitor site visit it holds one year out.

But that's just the start: “We provide extra priority points for exhibitors that book their rooms early, which helps us gauge where we are with our rooms reservations. We also provide extra priority points for exhibitors who actualize 90 percent or more of the rooms they book,” Malone said. “It's a great bonus if they book within your block, but it's even more beneficial when they use the rooms they booked — your actual pickup will be close to where it needs to be,” she said during the audioconference. HIMSS also requires that exhibitors block a certain number of rooms, the number being determined by the amount of booth space they buy.

But the big shocker was HIMSS's new policy requiring all exhibitors to stay within the block and use the organization's housing company. While HIMSS did ponder whether this restrictive policy would cause exhibitors to pull out of the show, “we figured that if they do, we have a larger issue with our show than housing. And we're not asking them to incur any cost they wouldn't normally be incurring. They need hotel rooms; we just ask that they book them through us.” While two or three “were really irate” about the policy, the other 698 or so exhibitors went along with it seemingly happily. “We're an in-demand show, and we didn't get much pushback when we instituted this policy,” she said.

How are all these new policies and procedures working? “We had 28,500 room nights in 2002, and 41,600 room nights in 2003,” she said. “And we ended up actualizing over 98 percent of our block.”

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