Resort Meetings Consortium Gets Planners Price Breaks I was kind of disturbed when I got back rate quotes," says Jack Mackin, executive vice president, Associated Building Materials Distributors of America, Inc., Scottsdale, AZ, recalling his venue search for the association's 1998 convention in Tampa. "They were higher than I thought they should be." So, he decided to try something new. He called the Resort Meetings Consortium (RMC).

The Cherry Hill, NJbased company, launched a year ago, guarantees planners the lowest group rates available during their meeting dates. And according to Mackin, the consortium follows through on its promises. When he talked to Debra Jacobs, RMC vice president of operations, she asked him what his first- and second-choice properties were, then negotiated between them. "Frankly," says Mackin, "she came up with a lot better rate than I did, plus perks I hadn't thought about."

RMC offers a range of services, including site selection and program guidance. Staff members will negotiate resort contracts and handle negotiations with other suppliers. A newsletter keeps members updated on resort renovations and value dates, and members also have access to a library of resort brochures and videos.

Membership in RMC is $495 per year, a fee planners don't have to pay up front, says Jerry Janove, vice president, sales. "We want planners to use us first to see if we do what we say we can do," Janove says. Planners can deduct their membership fee from revenues they earn through RMC's revenue-sharing program. Here's how it works: The consortium earns a ten percent marketing fee from the resort (based on total room revenue), and then passes on ten to twenty-five percent of that fee to the group, depending on how many meetings the group books through the consortium. For an additional fee, RMC will also provide on-site program management.

Janove cofounded RMC because "there are consortiums in every other industry but the meetings industry," he says. "It makes sense because the dollar volume of meetings is just as high as other industries." With the seller's market driving the industry, Janove adds, "People need to band together to show their strength."

That combined strength is one obvious benefit for planners. While an individual association may bring a resort a $50,000 meeting, "imagine the power of $5 million worth of business in your pocket when you go to specific resorts," Janove points out.

All RMC staff members come from resort or hotel backgrounds and can capitalize on their long-term industry relationships, benefiting both planners and suppliers, says John Washko, national sales manager, Atlantis Paradise Island, in the Bahamas. Janove, for example, is an 11-year veteran of the hotel sales and marketing field, most recently serving as vice president of the Grand Wailea Resort, Hotel & Spa in Hawaii. "With his extensive resort and hotel experience, Janove is like an extension of our sales force," Washko says. Because consortium staff members know the inner workings of resorts, they appreciate the importance of seasonality of demand, arrival/departure patterns, and optimal use of function space, says Washko. That knowledge helps planners save time as well as money. "A planner may want to do site inspections at three resorts, but with Janove's vast knowledge of different properties, he might be able to say, 'These two aren't going to work. Here are the reasons why,'" says Washko. "He is able to find the right fit."

Washko sees the trend as less a result of the seller's market and more an outcome of planners' increased responsibilities and shrinking staffs. Even so, planners are sometimes nervous about approaching RMC, says Janove. "They think we're going to try to take away their role."

"I wish he would," chuckles Mackin in response. "After battling this thing myself for ten years, I was real pleased," declares Mackin. "No question it was worth the cost."

And You Thought Your Group Was Weird . . . Ever felt awkward asking a convention services manager for a request that seemed a bit bizarre? You'll never have to feel embarrassed again, once you know what others have wanted. We asked convention services teams two questions: What's the strangest event an association group has ever held? And, What's the oddest request you've ever gotten from an association planner?

Here are the top seven responses. (Don't panic, staffers kept the groups' identities secret . . . for the most part.)

The Midnight Detail The Request: A group wanted a full prime rib dinner for breakfast at 7 a.m., and then a breakfast buffet at dinner at 7 p.m."

The Reasoning: Wake up the membership, get members thinking nontraditionally.

The Response: "They didn't tell attendees before they arrived. At the first function, they thought that, as a hotel, we were insane."

And:

The Request: A midnight pajama party.

The Reasoning: "It was under the guise of teambuilding."

The Response: "I don't want to know that the teams were about. There was a little of everything, from plaid flannel to Marilyn Monroe, and men dressed as women."--Linda Curry, director of convention services, Copper Mountain Resort, Copper Mountain, CO

The Request:An executive wanted to dress in a tuxedo, don scuba gear and dive into the predator lagoon along with the sharks. (Continued on page 48)

The Reasoning: To welcome attendees.

The Response: "The executive had never scuba dived before. He was a bit of a thrill seeker. We felt it was probably not the best idea. He was a little disappointed, but he understood. If he had been more experienced, we would have allowed him to go in along with our divers--our fish are very well fed."--John Washko, national sales manager, Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas

The Request: The planner wanted the CEO served a McDonald's Happy Meal during a luncheon.

The Reasoning: "The planner knew the CEO lived on McDonald's food, loved it to death."

The Response: "We went the whole glorious nine yards in the presentation, served it like it was duck pate. He loved it. He couldn't have been happier."--Dorothea Calabrese, sales manager, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, Village of Farmington, PA

The Request: The North American Elk Breeders wanted to breed elk in the exhibit hall.

The Response: "We said, 'Just exactly what goes on?' We set up something in the parking lot. It was pretty wild."--Jim Stewart, director of association sales, Opryland Hotel Convention Center, Nashville, TN

The Request: The Southeast Frozen Foods Association always wants staff members to dress up as penguins and parade around the ballroom.

The Response: "I think we had twelve penguins this year. A high school marching band came in, too. It was pretty fun."--Alvin Bettcher, director of sales and marketing, Crowne Plaza Resort, Hilton Head Island, SC

The Death Detail Creepiest Decor: Funeral directors who had miniature coffins as centerpieces.

Most unnerving request: Medical associations that bring in cadavers and body parts for us to keep in storage.--Diane Yost, director of marketing, Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach (FL).

And finally, from Bob Nicoli, director of convention services, Walt Disney World Dolphin:

The Request: A black brassiere

The Reasoning: On that point, Nicoli claims amnesia . . .

Horsing Around With Sam Garcia Delivering a wooden horse to a meeting attendee's room may not be part of his job description, but that didn't faze Sam Garcia, CMP, director of convention services at Desert Springs Marriott Resort & Spa in Palm Desert, CA.

The life-size painted statue, from the resort's elaborate props and decor department, was secreted into the guest's room at the behest of the meeting planner who wanted to play a practical joke. The victim retaliated--the next morning the horse appeared at a coffee break. A mannequin astride its back, dressed as a cowboy, wore the joker's name badge. "It was kind of cute," Garcia says.

No doubt about it--attendees unwind once they arrive at a resort, but the hard part for planners, Garcia says, is booking the property. "There's a different dynamic to booking a large resort versus a convention hotel," observes Garcia, who used to work at the Anaheim Marriott.

In 1990 the Anaheim Marriott booked conventions through 2002. "That would never happen here," emphasizes Garcia. "We'd be shooting ourselves in the foot." Add in the effect of the seller's market, and the growing corporate and incentive demand, and association planners encounter much shorter booking cycles at resorts.

Firm cut-off dates are another result of the seller's market. "In the old days, there was more flexibility and leniency," says Garcia. "But now the 45 or 30 days becomes a very, very important juncture." Not only do planners face the possibility of attrition penalties if they don't meet their room blocks, but when they need additional rooms, the answer is often 'No.'

The lack of additional availability is the biggest shift in meetings negotiations over the last couple of years, Garcia says. "Planners have trouble with that. I don't blame' em."

Watch for Hidden Costs Once you've secured your booking, make sure you clarify all the price structures, not just the room rates, Garcia advises. "There are a lot of amenities served up a la carte." Ask about costs for golf, spa access, and other services. Those discussions should occur in the contract negotiation stage, not later on. "A lot of times, when the convention services manager jumps in a year out and sends out reconfirmation, [planners say] we didn't know about [amenities fees]," says Garcia. Some resorts won't negotiate golf fees years out, he adds. But negotiating isn't the only issue. "If you can negotiate' em, more power to you, but if you can't, understand that [the fees] are there." That way, you can take those costs into account when determining your registration fees.

Your knowledge will have a "trickle-down effect," adds Garcia. Inform members about costs, he advises, so that they can budget accordingly before they come on-site. (See the section, "Ouch . . . The Trend Toward Daily Service Fees," page 50, for more information on add-on costs.)

As far as your actual meeting, Garcia advises lots of breaks during sessions, light food, and lively multimedia productions to get your message across.

An 18-year Marriott veteran who began his career as a houseman at the Marriott LAX, Garcia also spent several years working for AVHQ, a Los Angelesbased audiovisual company, and he enjoys developing high quality presentations.

Give 'em a Break But above all, to ensure your resort meeting's success, "give attendees free time," he stresses. While your attendees may not play tricks with wooden horses, they will want to have fun outdoors.

"It's kind of a shame to bring a group to a place like this and have them walk past windows and look outside all day long," Garcia says.

And scheduling three and a half days of meetings with a half day of golf doesn't cut it, Garcia says. "I shake my head at that. If I were an attendee, I'd want a couple of half days [off]."