Corporate cancellations bring new opportunities for last-minute association meetings.

“Economy-related meeting cancellations are creating bargains in many unlikely places.”



Do you handle short-notice task force, committee, and board meetings — you know, those pesky little two- and three-day pop-ups that need fewer than 25 room nights and just one meeting room, but can consume an inordinate amount of your time to place? While today's softening economy is causing many corporations to scale back or outright cancel some of their internal meetings, training sessions, road shows, and product/services launches, it's bound to have a positive effect for association planners whose pop-up meetings are a good fit with hot dates/hot rates promotions.

As Michael Payne, senior executive vice president with full-service association management company Smith Bucklin & Associates, Washington, D.C., says, “It just makes sense for our folks to take advantage of the hot dates syndrome, especially for board meetings and shorter-term meetings. If a hotel is having a fire sale going on because a big cancellation opens up some hot dates, you usually can come out pretty well on the pricing structure.” Plus, he adds, “Sometimes it's easier to negotiate a contract for a hot dates space because the hotels tend to be hungrier to fill that space.”

Kellee Magee, director of meetings and business programming with the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C., agrees that taking advantage of a hotel's white-sale rooms can mean both better rates and better concessions. Sometimes, she says, it also can result in less ‘traffic’ at the hotel, making for a better experience for the group.

But should you care what makes these dates so hot? “Sometimes they promote the dates for specific reasons, like it's low season,” says Payne. “Sometimes they indicate that it's because they had a major cancellation and they have some space to sell. The only time the reason would matter to me is if someone canceled because of a construction problem or another issue along those lines.” Bob Talley, president of full-service association management company Talley Management Group, Mount Royal, N.J., agrees: “The reasons why certain dates are hot don't matter if I know the properties. Unless the place burned down — that would be a little too hot for me!”

OK, so hot dates are a good idea for association planners, but are they heating up due to the economy? “We are seeing slowdowns in selective locales,” says David Scypinski, senior vice president, industry relations, Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “Not necessarily cancellations, but individual business travel is being affected, particularly in first-tier, expensive cities,” he notes. “People are being cautious, and will take a wait-and-see approach, probably through the summer.”

Arne M. Sorenson, executive vice president and CFO, Marriott International Inc., says, “Domestically, full-service hotels were hardest hit and saw a smaller-than-anticipated increase in revPAR: 1.6 percent. Residence Inns saw a fall-off in short-term training meetings, which were being replaced by long-term ‘problem-solver’ travelers.” Both Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide have lowered their profit estimates for the remainder of 2001.

What all this means for planners: “We have more rooms to fill, more hot dates/hot rates,” says Scypinski.

How Hot Is Hot?

Until recently, some hot dates may actually have been more lukewarm than steamy. According to Jim Stanton, vice president of marketing for HDHR.com, a Web site affiliated with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based site selection company HelmsBriscoe, “Those dates really have not been much of a bargain for the past couple of years. Now that the market's shifting, we're getting flooded by calls from planners saying, ‘We know there are bargains out there,’ and from hotels saying, ‘Do you take credit cards? Sign me up today!” (Hotels pay a fee to be listed on HDHR, they manage their own inventory, and planners can access the site for free.)

In fact, the environment is looking so hospitable that another hot dates/hot rates Web site launched in June. Charlie Robinson, a Starwood/Sheraton veteran of 28 years who started HotMeetingDates.com, says that up to 65 percent of the bookings his office handled were less than $50,000 in rooms revenue, and the majority of them were looking to book within a 12-month window. One planner told him that, of the 400 meetings he planned last year, 80 percent were booked for the year in the year. Placing all those pop-up meetings also takes time and energy away from working on the larger meetings, planners told him.

“Hotels are looking to fill short-term holes, and planners have a tremendous demand for space for short-term meetings. It's a natural,” Robinson says of his site, which also is supported financially by hotel fees and is free to planners. Because it's noncommissionable, it is open to third-party planners, and search parameters on hotmeetingdates.com are not limited to specific locations — a perennial problem for planners. As Magee says, “As a National/North American trade association, we often have very few restrictions on location, but we are locked into dates.” Because many existing resources require that the location be identified before searching, Magee points out, “Many of the best bargain locations — like those third-tier cities that don't spring to the front of everyone's mind — will often be overlooked.”

But do association planners, one of the main markets Robinson hopes to tap, flock to the Web when seeking out hot rates for their dates? Magee says that while she has visited a number of hot dates/hot rates sites, she generally finds it difficult to search for what she needs, given the parameters of her search. Still, she says, association meetings are a great fit for short-term availability hot dates, and Web sites could be a good way to find them.

“I could call our national account reps, but I feel bad consuming their time with what I consider to be tiny little pop-up meetings. Knowing how to find hot dates easily and being able to search for them — without having to deal with a hard sell until we know what are choices may be — would be heavenly.”

While most experienced planners know when the peak and shoulder times are for various locations, the economy-related meeting cancellations are creating bargains in many unlikely places, such as New York, San Francisco, and Orlando, according to recent industry reports. Whether they turn to a national sales rep, rely on hard copy and electronic newsletters, or find them through Web sites and e-mail promotions, association planners looking for a good deal for short-term meetings are finding that what may look like an economic dark cloud may have a silver lining after all.