Yikes! You've just been asked to book a meeting for 50 people, with several breakout rooms, and it's a mere two weeks out. Impossible, you respond.

Might it be possible at an airport hotel?

Before you recoil in horror, consider this. Many major hotel companies have top-of-the-line properties at airports. Hilton leads, with 37 out of its 230 U.S. hotels. And airport hotels have meeting rooms with features comparable to those at the chains' downtown locations.

Meetings are important to airport properties. They represent 30 percent of the business at both the O'Hare Hilton and the Harborside Hyatt Hotel and Conference Center in Boston, 40 percent at the Atlanta Marriott, 45 percent at the Hyatt Regency Orlando (which is converting an exhibit hall to a full-scale ballroom to accommodate more meetings), and 50 percent at the Westin O'Hare. The Hyatt Regency DFW has 81 meeting rooms, and "I'd like to expand to about 100," says director of sales and marketing Brian Booth.

Would an airport hotel work for your meeting? Would it be a good deal? This checklist can help you decide.

A good choice for . . . * Planners with tight deadlines.The booking window for airport hotels is usually one week to six months. You don't even have a week? "We can completely wrap up a meeting on the phone in 15 minutes," says Joe Collier, director of sales and marketing for the Tampa Airport Marriott. "We can fax a proposal, menus, and a short-form contract."

Consider the case of Andrew Piretti, vice president, planning and administration for Sony Music, New York City, who recently had about a month to plan a 450-person marketing meeting in Los Angeles. "This is what the music business is about--everything is last minute," says Piretti. Only two properties could accept his group on such short notice, and at one, the ballroom wasn't appropriate. So he chose the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers, which has a ballroom that accommodates 1,300 people theater-style. "I never thought of airport hotels as having meeting facilities. It was an absolute surprise," comments Piretti. "But the hotel is truly a jewel located by an airport. For future meetings, if there are comparable facilities at airports, I'll look at them."

* Short meetings.Airport meetings average one and a half to two days. "It's not worth it for people to fly in and then ride into the city for a meeting of this length," notes Sara Schneck, meeting planner for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Chicago, who plans nearly 100 short committee meetings, planning sessions, and middle management meetings annually.

* Small meetings.At airport hotels, most meeting rooms are geared to groups of 10 to 75 people. Often, these rooms have permanent conference setups. For example, the Hyatt Regency DFW has an executive conference level with 15 preset boardrooms. At the O'Hare Hilton, 39 of the 60 meeting rooms are preset.

Another advantage is cited by Kathy McMahon, event planner for the accounting consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick in Chicago. "Your groups can get lost at some of the big downtown properties," says McMahon, who sometimes has meetings for as few as five or six people.

* Meetings requiring many breakouts. Carol Di Domenico, a Tampa-based regional sales coordinator for Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, each year plans four or five training meetings of 30 to 50 people. "We break out by product or specialty, for example, cardiovascular or neurosciences, and we need a lot of breakout space," she says. Her choice: airport hotels in Tampa and Orlando.

* Meetings that are all business.Airport hotels often have recreational facilities, but the choice of venue tells participants, "We're going to get in, work, and get out."

For serious business, you can even find a conference center at an airport, such as the DFW Lakes Hilton which has 40 dedicated meeting rooms, three tiered amphitheaters, and 14,000 square feet of exhibit space.

But might not be right for . . . * A long meeting. Longer meetings that require extensive recreational options may not be the best choice for an airport property. However, some airport properties, like the Miami Airport Hilton and Towers, target the incentive travel market with a full array of resort amenities (see sidebar on page 41).

* A meeting or incentive program that includes families. There might not be enough recreational opportunities for spouse and children--unless it's a property like the lakeside Miami Airport Hilton and Towers, which offers many water sports; or the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport, adjacent to a major shopping mall.

Airport hotel pluses * Time savings.Meet at the airport and you eliminate travel time to and from downtown. It's just a short van ride (complimentary) from terminal to hotel--sometimes not even that. Both the Hyatt Regency Orlando and Tampa Airport Marriott are literally within the terminal; at the latter, you can phone a bellman from the baggage claim area. Sony's Piretti touts the convenience: "The Los Angeles Airport Hilton is only 10 minutes from the airport," he notes.

* Cost savings. An airport location eliminates the costs of taxis, airport shuttle buses, and rental cars. Piretti points out another cost saver: "If we had been at a downtown hotel, 30 percent of my people would have had to stay overnight because of the 40-minute trip to the airport."

* Experience."You get excellent, excellent service at airport hotels," says Di Domenico at Bristol-Meyers Squibb. "Because so many people pass through, the hotels know how to handle them." As Ken Smith, general manager of the O'Hare Hilton, says, "Because of the short stays, we probably turn over 70 to 75 percent of our rooms each day. That's why we offer Zip-in check-in and Zip-out check-out."

Airport hotel myths * They're downscale.Airport hotels that carry a major brand name have all the features that you'd expect from that brand, from concierge floors and suites to guest room data ports to 24-hour room service.

"Sometimes there's a perception that you don't get the quality of the product at an airport hotel," says Alan J. Fabris, director of sales and marketing at the Westin O'Hare. "But I'll put my hotel up against any downtown hotel in my category."

* They're not equipped for meetings. Meeting facilities are "exactly the same" at airport hotels as at downtown properties, says KPMG Peat Marwick's McMahon.

Airport properties that target the meetings market offer groups what they need. The Hyatt Regency O'Hare has 61 meeting rooms, from boardrooms to ballrooms, 100,000 square feet in all. There are 40 meeting rooms, three tiered amphitheaters, and 14,000 square feet of exhibit space at the DFW Lakes Hilton; ISDN lines and fiber-optic cables at the Hyatt Regency Orlando; multilingual translation capability at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton. Business centers and on-site audiovisual support are the norm.

Getting the best deal Negotiating with an airport hotel is much like negotiating with any other property: The fundamental things apply. To get the best deal, keep these six important factors in mind:

* Market conditions.Airport hotels, like others, are benefiting from the sellers' market. But competition and the local economy also matter. Chicago's O'Hare has more hotels than other U.S. airports, but the demand for meeting space is so high, it's a tough market for negotiating. At Boston's Logan Airport, the Harborside Hyatt is the only upscale airport property, and it is small--just 270 guest rooms and 19,000 square feet of meeting space--so it's selective. But go west, and you'll find that Los Angeles is "the bargain basement of the world," says Dennis Clarke, general manager of the Los Angeles Airport Hilton & Towers. "People today don't talk rates; they talk availability," says Clarke. "But Los Angeles is behind the rest of the country, and anything is negotiable here."

* Timing. That said, you can do well in Chicago in the first quarter. "People don't mind coming to a cold climate for a meeting if they'll be here only two days, and they can get a great deal," says Daren Snow, director of marketing at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. In Boston, too, rates are better in the first quarter but "substantially higher" September through November, says Judy Sheng, sales manager at the Harborside Hyatt. Florida's low season is May to October. "In summer, you negotiate everything," says Farooq Rehmatwala, general manager at the Miami Airport Hil-ton and Towers.

The deals are better at all these properties for groups that can check in on a Thursday or a Sunday for a one- or two-day meeting.

* Number of sleeping rooms.The more sleeping rooms you book, the less you'll pay for a meeting room--at an airport hotel, as elsewhere.

* Pickup history.Documenting your company's pickup record will increase your negotiating clout.

* Food and beverage expenditures. The more you use the hotel catering department, the better your deal. At the Atlanta Airport Marriott, director of marketing Bob Stewart tries to limit group business to 40 percent. "But if a group has heavy food and beverage, and a lot of sleeping rooms, we'll trade out the transient business for that group," he says. The Hyatt Regency Orlando will even cater off-property and factor that revenue into negotiations.

* Continuing relationships.McMahon, who uses the Hotel Sofitel at O'Hare two or three times a month, says that "The hotel takes into consideration the fact that we do so many meetings." Di Domenico uses the Tampa Airport Marriott four or five times per year, and repeat business certainly helps. But Bristol-Myers has a national contract with Marriott, and "that's part of our negotiating power."

In sum, use your standard negotiating points. But don't expect the hotels to be pushovers. They want your business, and are confident they deserve it. As Fabris at the Westin O'Hare says, "I don't have the Magnificent Mile, but downtown hotels don't have O'Hare."

SUN AND FUN AT THE AIRPORT That's not an oxymoronic headline. Case in point: the Miami Airport Hilton and Towers, which calls itself "The Resort Near the Airport" and targets the incentive travel market. Located on a peninsula that juts into a 100-acre lake, the property offers jet skiing, Wave Runners, and power boats for waterskiing, plus tennis courts, an outdoor pool, a Jacuzzi, a jogging path, and a cardiovascular fitness center.

The Hyatt Regency DFW has a health club with workout equipment in each of its two towers, plus a heated outdoor pool. And just five minutes away (by way of a free shuttle) is the Hyatt Bear Creek Golf and Racquet Club, with two 18-hole golf courses, tennis and racquetball courts, and a ropes course for teambuilding activities.

For shop-'til-you-drop types, the terminal adjacent to the Hyatt Regency Orlando has 37 shops with mall prices, not airport markups, according to hotel general manager Patricia Engfer.

At the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers, the 25,000-square-foot fitness center, open 24 hours, has 30 exercise bikes, 30 treadmills, a racquetball court, and free weights. And one floor above the meeting rooms are landscaped gardens, available for events.

The Atlanta Airport Marriott has the usual amenities, plus one more: It sits peacefully amid 14 wooded acres; not your typical airport hotel.

In fact, "typical airport hotel" might be the oxymoron.