ASSOCIATIONS AREN'T the only ones affected by attendees finding hotel rates on the Web lower than the planner's negotiated rates, said participants in a discussion session at the Insurance Conference Planners Association Annual Meeting at Orlando's Gaylord Palms Resort in November.

Though most corporate and incentive meeting attendees aren't paying for their rooms, some still check online hotel booking sites and become thorns in planners' sides when they see a lower rate. It's especially tough when a senior executive catches sight of a fire sale and wants to know why his company is paying more. One planner said she'd actually been asked by her company if she were working on the hotel's side.

Some hoteliers at the session, moderated by Mike Murphy, vice president, sales and marketing, Renaissance Hotels & Resorts, and Steve Clark, CMP, representing CUNA Mutual, said the solution is to educate execs and attendees: Planners negotiate a rate that guarantees availability of the rooms they need on the dates of their meetings. Rooms available at cut-rate prices on the Web, on the other hand, are few and uncertain. “When hotels sell group blocks, they won't sell at lower rates until very close to the meeting dates,” said Judy Wasson, senior sales manager, Samoset Resort, Rockport, Me. “You're paying for the guarantee that those rooms are there.”

A planner countered that, by the same token, the hotel was getting a guaranteed piece of business. “We're a cost center,” added Laurie Fitzgerald, meeting manager, Allstate Insurance Co., Northbrook, Ill. “I have to justify my existence every day.” That's harder to do when a few mouse clicks seem to turn up better deals than what planners have negotiated.

“You've put us in a position of having to defend ourselves,” said Ken Juel, manager, sales incentives and recognition programs, Mutual of Omaha, Omaha, Neb.

“We have been in a cave without a light for the past five years,” admitted Mike Murphy of Renaissance Hotels & Resorts. “But we have a flashlight now. We're going to get better at this.” Step one was an announcement by Marriott Hotels & Resorts (which includes the Renaissance brand) of its Best Rate Guarantee. The plan means that anyone booking a room through any Marriott channel who then finds a lower rate for that room through any other outlet within 24 hours will get the lower rate plus a 25 percent discount. Marriott's Look No Further Best Rate Guarantee will be subject to terms and conditions. For example, the guarantee will not apply to special negotiated volume discount rates or package rates. (Other hotel companies have similar guarantees for Internet rates.)

On the face of it, this doesn't solve the specific problem of planners negotiating rates a year out and attendees finding better rates a month out. However, the Marriott move is meant to show that rooms at their hotels will no longer be sold piecemeal — a chunk of rooms available for one price at a toll-free reservations number, for example, and smaller slices of rooms doled out to Web sites at fire-sale prices — but rather will be sold as a single inventory. And it's a sign that the hotel companies are working to address customers' frustration at extreme rate variations for the same hotel room.