As meeting planners, we already know that key vendors know more about us than we know about them. Our insecurity and the feeling that we are being manipulated in negotiations stems from the fact that, as a rule, meeting managers do not research or prepare well. Another reason we feel insecure is that we believe that we don't have any choice but to agree too quickly to unfair terms or risk losing a special “relationship” we may need later on.
So it was comforting to read “Take It or Leave It: The Only Guide to Negotiating You Will Ever Need” in the August 2003 issue of Inc. Being something of a reluctant business negotiator himself, author Rob Walker wanted to learn the secret to successfulfrom the experts. He interviewed authors, completed surveys, and even participated one-on-one with a professional negotiating coach. Nearly every expert said that the secret to successful negotiations is to thoroughly research information and prepare options based on your internal requirements. That's it. Anything else, he writes, is just style and technique.
To stress the point further, in the special report “Shop Smart” in the August 10, 2003, issue of Parade magazine, writer Dianne Hales agrees that, as a consumer, to negotiate a good deal on your next car you need to, among other things, thoroughly research and compare prices. She also mentions that you need to be prepared and be willing to walk away, and that you must “double-check the paperwork” — the very things that all the business experts said to do.
I link the two articles, one business-oriented and the other consumer-oriented, to show meeting managers that there isn't much difference between handling negotiations with hotels and other kinds of suppliers. It's all about the power of finding the right information and using it to your best interests. Do it right, and you have the confidence to get the right deal for your organization. Don't do it, and you will be manipulated every time and look unprofessional in the process.
It's not too much, then, to emphasize that it is important to write down exactly what you need for your meeting in terms of guest rooms, meeting space (by square footage, not by capacity), food and beverage, AV equipment, transportation, staff, and supplies. You also know, based on past meetings, what you want to have to make the meeting run more smoothly, such as flowers, wine, parking passes, storage, security, 24-hour holds on meeting space, and other extras. So prepare your negotiation options in terms of what you will trade and what you will concede (if you have to) within the price ranges your research has shown to be the prevailing market rates, not the internal sales goals.
For example, most meeting managers tell the sales manager how many guest rooms they need and wait for his or her “best” offer. However, if meeting managers know what others are already paying, then the real “best” offer will come from them, not the hotel. How to get that information advantage? Consider the following:
Know how many total guest rooms you will need based on past pickups and current needs.
Find the average of all the weekend, seasonal, one-time, group, and even hot-date rates.
Ask other meeting managers within your organization or within your industry what they have been paying for guest rooms for similar meetings.
Call the hotels directly, before setting up a sales meeting, to find out any special rates over the period of your meeting. (Don't be pushed into giving meeting specifics at this time, though.)
Contact the local convention and visitors bureau to ask what the average guest room rate is, what the average occupancy rate is, and how many meetings are scheduled citywide and at select hotels during your meeting dates.
Create an average high and low guest-room rate from all this research, and you can manage your negotiation with more confidence, and in the best interest of your employer. Do this kind of research for all your vendor needs.
Even with all the right research and preparation, many meeting managers might still agree to athat doesn't provide adequate protection. This is the result of the prevailing focus on “relationships” and “win-win” in meeting management. Professor Leslie A. Perlow discusses this phenomenon in her recent book, When You Say Yes, But Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies and What You Can Do About It. In her research, Perlow has shown that conflict avoidance (win-win) and an overemphasis on politeness (relationships) are detrimental to your organization's best interest because they stifle creativity, intentionally limit options, and create “a spiral of silence.” In fact, many experts whom author Rob Walker interviewed for his book also took issue with win-win as a style of negotiating that “others go out of their way to exploit.”
Can you avoid falling into the win-win trap and work toward the benefit of your employer, especially when so many others follow it blindly? Yes, but it will take a little getting used to. For example, giving the hotel all your meeting requirements up front in order to avoid conflict or to demonstrate “honesty” emphasizes good relations, but you have given up any negotiating leverage in favor of the hotel. To compensate, provide only the basic information necessary to move to the next negotiation level, or trade your information for something you need to know right away, such as whether the meeting space is available, before talking about guest rooms.
Not only is it not dishonest to use the information or options you gather and prepare to benefit you, it is your responsibility to do so. These days, your job and your profession may depend on doing just that. So take the time to do the research, gather the information, prepare the options, and work for the benefit of your organization.
Thomas J. Carrier is a former senior government meeting manager and author of The Small Meetings Handbook. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Many experts gave the following hints to help you feel more secure at your next negotiating session:
Prepare your negotiating approach beforehand.
Be confident in your ability to represent your organization's interests.
Ask questions to elicit more information that you could use.
Talk less and listen more.
Don't play games.
Don't negotiate based on emotions.
Don't be so willing to compromise all the time, even for the sake of a “relationship.”
I would add:
Decide what you can trade for something (more of this).
Decide what you can concede for nothing (less of this).
Learn all the nuances of contract language.
Keep up with ALL aspects of the industry.