YOU CAN'T DO IT ALL YOURSELF

More than ever, you need to make outsourcing work for you. 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?

How about right here? In the following pages, we cover the “5W's” of outsourcing site selection, meeting and incentive planning, special event planning, and production — everything you need to know to plan the Greatest Show on Earth: your event.

Site selection firms

What are they?

Researching destinations and hotels that fit your group's specs is time consuming. You may know the kind of destination you want, perhaps even the type of property — resort, city hotel, conference center — but you don't want to do all the legwork to find it and book it. Site selection firms sprang up more than 10 years ago to fill this role; their forerunner was the hotel representation firm.

While a rep firm's sourcing agents are paid a retainer by the hotel to represent them, 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. It can be likened to a buyer's agent in the real estate industry. Although a site selection firm makes its money from the seller (the hotel), it represents the interests of the buyer (the meeting sponsor).

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; each sourced meetings for 10 to 12 clients. The model was so successful that many imitations followed.

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 had proved their mettle; they were negotiating good rates with a large number of hotels because of their overall purchasing power.

What do they do?

Based on a client's specs, site selection firms help organizers search for the right destination and property and help negotiate contracts. At HelmsBriscoe, an associate will 1) negotiate the entire contract — room rates, meeting space, food and beverage — until the contract 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 the client 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.

When is payment due? Usually, the firm is paid when the event is over and the client pays the bill. HelmsBriscoe's preferred hotels pay the site selection firm half the commission at the time of booking. Conference Direct has similar arrangements with certain properties, while Conferon does not have preferred arrangements with hotels and receives payment after the meeting takes place. HB associates are self-employed and may not earn any income until after the meeting.

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, such as Conferon, have full-time research departments. Conferon also researches properties using its plansoft software.

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. Large conferences obviously need more time for sourcing, so 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, the meeting schedule, meeting room needs, food and beverage, location preferences (airport or downtown, for example), personality of meeting (informal, refined, high-tech), previous meeting locations, and any prior experience with that property and destination.

What 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 rates and contracts.

Why should I go with a big company?

Why a small one? Many reputable “mom and pop” site selection firms do good work, offering personalized service. HelmsBriscoe, Conferon, and Conference Direct are considered the big guys because they have far more people working for them. Theoretically, the larger they are, the more purchasing power they have.

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 miss out on income when meetings are canceled. At HelmsBriscoe, where associates are paid half at the time of booking when working with a preferred hotel, Helms says they return the money to the hotel if a meeting is canceled.

How can I find them?

There is no association for site selection companies. However, most people who work for these companies are members of the major meeting planning organizations. To check references and reputations, ask for names of a company's clients before deciding to work together.

SOURCES

Conferon Inc.
(330) 425-8333

Conference Direct
(877) 262-2076

HelmsBriscoe
(480) 718-1111

Independent planners

What are they?

Independent planners are used not only by companies without full-time meeting planners but also by companies with planners on staff. These professionals can handle every aspect of planning an event, from site selection to setting up tours for spouses to making sure attendees get to the airport at the end of the event.

Conferon — the largest independent meeting planning firm in the country — was also the first, having been founded 31 years ago. The company, which books between 1.3 million and 1.5 million room nights per year, paved the way for a slew of smaller firms, some of which specialize in specific niche industries.

What do they do?

In a nutshell, these companies do whatever you need, including site selection, logistics, billing, on-site management, tour or partner program planning, work 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, says a conferon representative.

What 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's the advantage to working with a big company?

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 if not the clout. It all depends on your organization's needs and preferences.

Conferon, for example, negotiates for 1.5 million room nights each year. The company says its standardized contracts offer more protection than planners could get on their own. That gives planners more time to build, promote, and direct the meeting so that they receive better recognition for getting the job done well.

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?

“Cancellation is always spelled out with all the details of dollars,” says Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt and Associates. Eisenstodt strongly recommends to her clients that they not sign contracts that contain one-sided cancellation clauses. “We also in most cases negotiate that if the facility cancels, they will pay for a new site inspection, consultant fees (if applicable), etc., and put caps on the dollars. That's for hotels. There are other provisions for other vendors.”

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.

SOURCES

Conferon Inc.
(330) 425-8333

Eisenstodt Associates
(202) 543-7971

Professional Meeting Planners Network
(919) 419-8242

Production companies

What are they?

If you only need someone 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 exactly as you envisioned. But they do much more. John Slack, CEO of Media Design Group, likens what his company does to “business theater.” Working with planners, production companies can design the theme and oversee every detail.

What do they do?

Production companies help planners conceptualize the theme and then make it a reality, doing everything from designing the staging to creating customized video. Some offer other specialized services: Production Group International, for example, will help coordinate dine-arounds, while Jack Rouse Associates offers speech coaching. And Media Design Group can create 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, 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, teleprompter 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. 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, etc.

What 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, size experience, staff skills, and if they send freelancers or full-time employees on-site.

Who will I work with?

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

What if I have to cancel?

Cancellation policies depend on timing and reasons. 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 for production companies. Dale Tesmond, senior vice president at Jack Rouse, says many of his staff have theater degrees. Additional education often takes place in the form of classes from equipment manufacturers for some specialties, while others might take seminars from the Media Communications Association-International. Be sure to check references.

Where do I find them?

Listings categorized by specialty are available on MCA-I's Web site (www.mca-i.org). Individual companies' Web sites may also feature sample projects.

SOURCES

Jack Rouse Associates
(513) 381-0055

Media Design Group
(407) 628-1755

Production Group International
(703) 528-8484

Special event planners

What are they?

In the corporate arena especially, 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 everything 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 wear other hats; Empire Force in New York City is also a destination management company, for example.

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 (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 the client.

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 and hotels can provide suggestions. ISES has a finder service on its Web site (www.ises.com).

SOURCES

EventWorks
(323) 321-1793

Empire Force Events
(212) 924-0320

Extraordinary Events
(818) 783-6112

G/M! Productions
(312) 397-9100

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 sites; 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 World Travel BTI is handling the entire trip, it will usually bill a management fee; services purchased a 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?

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

What 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 Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (www.site-intl.org) and have they earned their CITE (certified incentive travel executive) designation, awarded by SITE?

Where do I find them?

Meeting Professionals International (www.mpiweb.org). and SITE offer online searchable membership directories.

SOURCES

McGettigan World Class
(781) 584-5600

World Travel BTI
(404) 728-7800

Carlson Marketing
(763) 212-4520

Maritz Travel Co.
(636) 827-2445

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 do “everything a planner wants to do outside the hotel,” according to Chris White, CEO of Global Events Partners, a network of 50 DMCs (20 of which are national, 30 international).

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. Smaller cities — such as Nashville, where Helen Moskovitz & Associates is based — have a limited number of top attractions, so early bookings are essential.

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 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 recently introduced the Destination Management Certified Professional designation.

Where do I find them?

Convention and visitor bureaus can give you the names of DMC members. Associations such as MPI (www.mpiweb.org) and the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (www.site-intl.org) can also direct you to member DMCs, as can the Association of Destination Management (www.adme.org), which has an online directory.

SOURCES

The DMC Network
(312) 726-5060

Global Events Partners
(800) 206-9005

Helen L. Moskovitz & Associates
(615) 352-6900