Hours after the release of last week’s column on the end of the room block, I received an e-mail from an industry friend and colleague who wondered whether I was trying to put her out of business.
Ah, the life of a crusading columnist.
I assured her that I wasn’t. But as we discussed the question, it gradually became clear that the room block itself is just the leading edge of what might be lost to the rampant commoditization sweeping the hospitality side of the industry. What’s also at stake is a level of diligence, service, and independent attention to detail that has been rapidly eroded by budget cuts, travel restrictions, competition from destinations, and over-reliance on the 360-degree photography available on most hotel Web sites.
Much of Una Coté’s work involves booking room blocks for large, international trade shows. But even when she knows the show’s standard pattern and its mix of price categories, even when it takes place in a familiar destination, she’s obsessive about the details that shape the participant experience. She conducts a fresh site visit with every property. She walks the city to confirm distances from each hotel to the convention center. She scouts subway stops and finds out the cost of a cab ride.
“Maybe I’m angry because there used to be a time when this kind of thing mattered,” she mused. “I don’t know whether companies or associations really care anymore.” The emphasis is on cutting expenses and taking commissions, and everyone assumes the details will work themselves out.
“But at what cost?” she asked. “If you find your own deal or let the city take it over, and there’s nobody out there to negotiate on your behalf, the thought is that whoever signs up will pay for it. But if it’s more than they can pay, they’re not going to come. If they have a horrible experience, they won’t come back. So it comes back to the old questions: What is service? What are ethics? What matters? What doesn’t matter?”
She said the problem with competing channels goes beyond hotel sites like Hotwire and BackBid. In Europe and Asia, she’s seen convention centers develop their own room-booking sites. “They know what’s coming into town, so they have the opportunity to control more of the space availability.” At the extreme, I’ve heard concerns about destinations creating virtual monopolies on meeting space by locking in the lion’s share of the available rooms. This forces planners to pay a high premium for booking their own blocks outside the convention center block.
Coté foresees a “fightback on service,” with demands for higher standards coming from decision-makers with the clout to insist. If she’s right, fewer participants will come away from their events with serious complaints. But it’s hard to see how a concern as quaint as the hospitality we accord participants will make much of a dent in an industry that is running too lean to accommodate in-depth site visits and too fast to sweat the details.
NOTE: Doreen Ashton Wagner, whose comments on the end of the room block were the catalyst for this column, will be the special guest on next week's #eventtable chat, March 19, at 3 p.m. ET.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content, and founding chair of the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Foundation. Read his blog or follow @mitchellbeer on Twitter.