Even in the age of an increasing demand for transparency, strategic meetings management, and preferred suppliers, where RFPs are submitted online into a nameless, faceless centralized database, there is still room for strong hospitality-meeting planner relationships. So said an expert panel at a session on cultivating relationships between planners and hoteliers at the Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, held in Philadelphia in March. But the rules around how you go about building those relationships have changed.

Love at First Site?
While planners don’t have a lot of time to do lunches or site visits like they used to, hoteliers can still connect with planning staff when they arrive on site for the meeting. Panelist Angie Duncan, CMP, CMM, vice president, meeting operations at VMS Meetings, Indianapolis, said meetings like PMMF and other meetings industry conferences are also great places to network and make that face-to-face connection with planners. Another planner on the panel said that her company has “hotel days” once every month or two when hoteliers are invited to come to the office and talk to planners about what’s new at their properties and what services they offers.

One panelist, who works with preferred hotel suppliers, told hoteliers in the audience not to be afraid to speak their minds and push back if they need to. If they have an idea for better way of doing things, they should not be afraid to voice their opinions to clients. A good relationship with suppliers is a partnership, said the planner—there should be a healthy give-and-take.

Getting Noticed
Hoteliers who are not already preferred suppliers face a tougher time getting noticed by corporate clients. The key, panelists said, was to communicate something of value to the planner, whether through a simple e-mail or when returning an official RFP. Cold calls and unsolicited e-mail communication should contain information about the property that the planner would find useful—maybe it’s some type of functional breakout space or a new technology that will improve the meeting experience. If interested, the planner will file the e-mail away for review at a later date. But don’t follow up with repeated e-mails and calls—planners who have long-term preferred-supplier contracts won’t even consider it until the existing contracts are up for renewal, said a panelist.

Planners said the best way to differentiate your property in an RFP is to include details in the comments section that will make the hotel stand out to the meeting planner. For example, don’t list all your amenities (pool, spa, etc.)—list something unique about your meeting space or some kind of meetings-related service.

Another good way to cultivate relationships with planners is to cut them a break when they need it. For example, if they are booking short-term and you can somehow fit them in, or if they have to cancel at the last minute and you waive the attrition fee if they agree to rebook in the future, they will remember you next time.

Sidebar: Be Compliance-Friendly

For hoteliers looking specifically to attract pharmaceutical meetings, it also helps to learn about the AdvaMed and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) codes of ethical interactions with healthcare professionals. This point was emphasized by Michelle Bartolone, CMP, CEO of Meetings Sites Pro, an independent meeting planning company based in San Diego, in another PMMF session. While both codes are voluntary, most companies now follow some interpretation of the codes, though interpretations vary. The Physician Sunshine Act Provisions of the Health Care Reform Bill that President Obama signed into law in March also require pharma and medical device companies to track what they spend per-physician annually—including at meetings.

Anything hoteliers can do to help them will make them stand out from the crowd. For example, many companies now are including in their guidelines that the meeting space must be conducive to education. Hoteliers who can point out their educational aspects—as opposed to recreational or entertainment-related—can move up on the list.

While the AdvaMed and PhRMA codes relate just to meetings that pharmaceutical and medical device companies hold for healthcare providers, Bartolone pointed out that these companies also are still feeling the pinch from the “AIG effect” that affected most corporate meetings in the past year. This means that an emphasis on education over recreation could help with landing a company’s sales or other internal meetings. “Managing perception in the post-AIG effect world is more important than ever,” said Bartolone. —Sue Pelletier

More Highlights from the Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum

Duffy to Pharma Planners: Reposition the Meetings Industry

Healthcare Reform, Public Perception Mean Greater Scrutiny of Pharma Meetings

Are Independent Planners Becoming a Commodity?

Best Meeting Planning Practices in a Corporate World