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."

That doesn't mean you can't book a meeting well in advance. Ronald Bruns, director of administrative affairs for the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), Park Ridge, Ill., has a long-standing relationship with the Westin O'Hare and books some meetings three years out.

*Short meetings.Airport meetings average one and one-half to two days. When Marie A. Dahmer, CMP, meeting planner for VHA Inc., an alliance of nonprofit healthcare organizations, schedules airport meetings for hospital CEOs or nursing leaders, she typically starts at 11:30 a.m. with a working lunch, and adjourns by 2:00 the next day--mission accomplished, and only one night's stay required. Dahmer, based in Irving, Texas, uses airport properties in Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago.

*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.

Of course, there are exceptions. Dave Betke, CMP, senior meeting planner for Searle Pharmaceuticals in Skokie, Ill., holds 30-person sales meetings at O'Hare, but also brings in up to 300 people for sales or marketing meetings, or customer symposiums. For even larger groups, The Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers has a ballroom that accommodates 1,300 people theater-style, and the Hyatt Regency Orlando, a ballroom for receptions of 800 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.Although airport hotels often have recreational facilities (see sidebar, page 38), 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. VHA's Dahmer frequents the DFW Lakes Hilton. "Because it's a conference center, that adds to the appeal," she says. She appreciates "the quality of the meeting rooms themselves, even the conference center chairs."

But might not be right for . . . *A long meeting. "We thought we were doing people a favor" by scheduling a course at an airport hotel, says Suzanne Ziemnik, MEd, director, Division of CME, for the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village, Ill. "Airport hotels are usually much cheaper, and cost to me is a driving factor." But the course lasted five full days, and "People felt trapped."

Di Domenico uses airport properties for week-long training meetings. But her attendees have little free time--there are even workshops in the evenings.

*A meeting that physician attendees want to combine with a family vacation. 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.

*Cost savings. An airport location eliminates the costs of taxis, airport shuttle buses, and rental cars. "Our members are on a per diem, so a $40 cab ride to downtown has an impact," says Bruns.

*Experience."You get excellent, excellent service at airport hotels," says Di Domenico. "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/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. "People who hold meetings at airport hotels need to accomplish the same things" as people who meet elsewhere, notes Collier at the Tampa Marriott. "We have audiovisual equipment, including LCD panels, fax capabilities, a service staff that can get things done."

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. 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, meeting planner, 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."

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.

* 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. Dhaka notes that at O'Hare, she pays $1,200 for a meeting room if she uses fewer than 10 sleeping rooms, but only $500 with 10 or more sleeping rooms.

*Pickup history.ASA consistently picks up 95 percent of the rooms Bruns books at the Westin O'Hare, and that, he says, gives him significant negotiating clout.

* Food and beverage expenditures. The more you use the hotel catering department, the better your deal. Di Domenico has greater leverage because she books breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two breaks daily.

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.

Groups that don't have their meals in function rooms are a genuine problem for the Hyatt Harborside: The hotel's one restaurant, with 150 seats, simply can't accommodate groups.

* Continuing relationships."The Westin O'Hare is not inexpensive, but we get great value," says Bruns. A key reason: he's been meeting there since 1985. Searle's Betke cites "relationships--the people that I know" as the most important factor in negotiation. 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."

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.