"Hotels are taking a hard look at all meetings that come across the table, and they are rejecting meetings that don't fit their business model.” That's how Jennifer Brown, CMP, partner, Meetings Sites Resource, set the stage for a packed breakout session at the recent Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Meeting in Las Vegas.

“If you hear ‘no availability,' go back and ask your salesperson if there is a way you can make it work,” she advises, because in this seller's market, “no availability” might simply mean “no thanks.” But if you can make your business more attractive, availability might be found.

All hotels, Brown said, have revenue management systems in place. That's nothing new. The difference today is that salespeople may have strict models they are required to follow — with absolutely no flexibility. These rules are set down by the revenue manager — “the new sheriff in town,” in Brown's words.

Her example, from personal experience, was a client that wanted a two-day setup for the ballroom. The hotel offered half a day. “The hotel would not budge,” she said, “because the sales team could not go off the model.” This was despite the fact that the meeting was upscale, 1,100 total room nights, with custom menus and senior people — and the client was willing to sign a two-year contract.

Brown then took breakout session participants through a case study: a four-night meeting, off pattern, in season, with a good rooms-to-meeting-space ratio but a below-average catering budget and a room-block request that exceeded its history. Using the rating system of an actual hotel, Brown showed that this piece of business would be considered unworthy of negotiation. The exercise for the breakout was to figure out if the program could become a “good” meeting.

The key, of course, is flexibility. The company could get creative with meeting-space usage, Brown suggested. For example, figure out a way to do the trade show and still have time to set up for an awards dinner in the same space. Be realistic about the room block. Explore the possibility of putting other meetings in the same property. None of those suggestions, however, could necessarily “save” the meeting. So the company might have to consider the biggies: changing the arrival/departure pattern or going off-season.

Changes like that aren't made on the fly, but with the seller's market set to last at least until more properties (and hence more competition) open in early 2008, it might be time to start educating your executives and clients about the potential cost-savings of such changes.

For now, Brown said, “We are learning to become salespeople to our salespeople.”