A year ago our cover story delved into the then-new phenomenon of attendees wreaking attrition havoc by staying outside the group room block — thanks to cheaper Internet hotel rates. (See “Busting Up the Block,” October 2002, page 22.) The article was the result of the editorial roundtable we held in August 2002. Because the attrition issue continues to confound the industry, I decided to focus much of our roundtable discussion this summer on how to manage risk associated with bookings outside the block.

As in previous roundtables, our participants this year were not only excellent “thought leaders,” but witty and lots of fun to be with. (See cover story, page 22.) More to the point, the discussion resulted in different suggestions to combat the problem:

  • Hotels and planners need to change how they market and sell the hotel room — the attendee is buying the meeting experience when he or she pays the negotiated room rate.

  • Related to the above, associations should offer incentives for booking inside the block that are equal in dollar value to the value of booking outside the block. Possibilities range from a registration discount to preferred location points for exhibitors.

  • The hotels could determine a market price for meeting space rental and bill for that separately instead of folding the cost of meeting space into the room rate.

  • Planners with citywides could negotiate room rates with area hotels but provide no guarantees. (Don't laugh — it's being done.)

  • Planners should downsize their block and block much more conservatively in general.

Judging from the experiences of planners at this roundtable and the previous one, no one solution is likely to work for all groups. Association meetings come in all shapes and sizes and take place in unique local market conditions. Moreover, some associations don't charge registration fees, and some have agreements with affilated organizations that can hugely limit manipulation of room rates or meeting rental fees.

More light will no doubt be shed on this subject by the Convention Industry Council. Earlier this year, CIC launched Project Attrition, a research initiative whose aim is to understand this major industry problem and to find out how to deal with it. The project's findings and recommendations are due out in November. (Visit www.conventionindustry.org for details.)

Whatever CIC's findings and recommendations are, I have no doubt that a year from now we will still be grappling with this thorny issue. Rome, after all, was not built in a day.