The menu for the 175-person banquet that Arlene Sheff was planning concluded with a trio of small chocolate desserts. Wanting to make sure that there was something to please even those who were not chocoholics like herself, Sheff, CMP, senior meeting and event planner for The Boeing Co. in Seal Beach, Calif., wanted to change one or two of those desserts to something else. Through several confirmations, she was certain that her wishes were well communicated, but at the event, as plates sailed out of the kitchen, each one held three little chocolate sweets.

“I explained to the banquet captain, ‘This isn't what I ordered. These are all chocolate, and I wanted one or two that aren't chocolate,” Sheff recalls. “He said, ‘I have your two desserts that are not chocolate in the back.'”

Sheff was sure she had made herself clear about those desserts during a number of conversations with her convention services manager. “We talked about it 10 different times,” she says, “but in our minds, we were not talking about the same thing.”

Why Won't You Return My Call?

Some planners might consider Sheff lucky — at least she had some communication going. One planner contacted for this story is still waiting for a response to a question she posed three weeks ago to the salesperson working on her upcoming 300-person event.

“Communication has just become too lackadaisical,” says the planner, who wished to remain nameless. “We are the buyers. They are the sellers. How badly do they need the business?”

Not badly at all, as planners are finding out. In the current seller's market, it seems that some hotels can pick and choose what business they want — so they're just not calling back.

Erika Powell, CMP, team lead meeting planner for Global Knowledge, Cary, N.C., organizes up to 25 IT training events across the country every week, and she often finds herself scrambling for overflow space just two weeks out — and never getting a fast answer. After calling five or six properties without reaching a single live person, return messages trickle in slowly over a few days.

“I can't understand why the message is not [conveyed] to the salesperson that the need is urgent. Surely, if it were, the response time would be quicker,” Powell says, adding that she suspects that the slow response is due, in part, to the fact that “they know that their space will get sold one way or the other.”

Response time is so critical to Linda Vest, CMP, event planner for State Farm Insurance in Dallas, that she will not use a property that doesn't respond in a timely fashion.

“As a team of planners, we discuss how we get serviced at a facility. We have a database, and if [communication] is a negative, it's recorded that we shouldn't contact them because they don't call back. And that has happened,” she says.

Of course, many sales teams work hard to make sure that that is never the case. At the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, Kimberly A. Hoppe, executive director of meetings and special events, says she has shrunk turnaround times for a reply from four hours to just two, and has given most of her managers BlackBerries. “My staff is receiving e-mails at three, four, five o'clock in the morning,” she says. “Turnaround time expectation is greater than it used to be, so the more tools I can give them, the better.”

Multitasking At Midnight

But even if salespeople are returning e-mails promptly while they are deluged with a million other tasks, are their clients' requests really getting through?

“People are so busy multitasking that they hear, but do not listen,” says Andrea Nierenberg, speaker, author, and trainer, The Nierenberg Group, New York. “In the course of a half hour, you can e-mail 30 people but really not communicate with anyone.”

Also, the more people rush, the sloppier and less professional those messages can become. “If I were dealing with someone on the supplier side whose grammar and spelling were sloppy, my impression would be that they are not professional, and I would question working with them,” says Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, CMM, chief strategist, Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, who teaches meeting planning classes at Virginia Tech and the Rosen College of Hospitality at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., as well as being an independent planner. “It may not be true — they may be crackerjack at the job — but that's how I judge people.”

Ritz-Carlton's Hoppe says that ensuring quality e-mail correspondence is an ongoing challenge for her. “When you're on e-mail as your No. 1 mode of communication, you have to be sure as a company that everyone gets trained, because not everyone is great at writing letters,” she says. “E-mails, if they're not phrased properly, can be very damaging.”

Hoppe exposes all her managers to e-mail etiquette training courses, often bringing in outside communication-skill trainers, and encourages her staff to bounce messages off one another before sending them to clients to make sure that the tone and clarity are what they intend.

E-mails also don't do much to build the rapport that is so important in the meetings business. “You can't base a relationship on, ‘I was typing to you,'” Sheff says, adding that she likes to include a social aspect to her e-mail communications, even with someone she has not met. That extends to understanding what keeps people at their computers late at night. For example, she knows that when there is a snow day for the children of someone with whom she is working, that person will likely be working at night. “A lot of people work virtually now, so their lives are intertwined with their work and other things they need to get done,” she says.

Global Access' Powell is a fan of relationship-building in e-mail. “Because e-mail correspondence is becoming more and more casual in tone, I believe that you can still establish a great rapport with another person, even if you have never had an actual phone conversation with him or her,” she says. “You can throw in a joking statement or two using appropriate symbols to show that your comments are good-natured, or add a few exclamation points.”

It also helps to contact people the way they prefer to be contacted — which might not be e-mail at all.

Powell, 30, has found that the preference often breaks down along generational lines. “Older folks want to use the phone,” she says, “because I think they are afraid that their tone might be misconstrued or because they believe that there is a more human connection if you have [spoken] dialogue.”

Awareness of those generational differences has never been more important, Nierenberg says, because this is perhaps the first time in the history of work that four generations are in the workplace. “Every group can learn from each other,” she says, adding, “Each generation brings different ways to communicate. I have some clients who only want to text message. So you'd better be up on texting, especially for really young people.”

Leaks In The Hotel Pipeline

Just like a brief text message, e-RFPs can be a stumbling block to good communication. “Using different online tools and RFP submission tools has decreased some of the face-to-face or telephone conversations,” says Jennifer Seaborn, director of sales at SunStream Hotels & Resorts, Fort Meyers Beach, Fla., adding that the one-size-fits-all nature of e-RFPs can leave out critical meeting details. “Some meetings are outside the box, and some planners are looking for things that are different and innovative. Sometimes, those details are left out.”

Eli Gorin, CMP, an independent planner with gMeetings Inc., Aventura, Fla., says that telephone follow-up is critical when it comes to hotels outside the U.S. “I do find that many e-mails and RFPs for my international meetings must be followed up with a phone call, because there is no guarantee that they were even received. Also, for me, phone communication is key because you can then gauge better who you are working with. That, and you can show more interest.”

As many hotel chains centralize incoming inquiries, planners are unwillingly shunted to regional or national sales offices. While Global Knowledge's Powell has an established relationship with the sales team at a hotel less than a mile from one of her company's training centers in Cary, N.C., if she is looking for an overflow meeting room there, the hotel generally tells her to contact a regional sales office in Maryland. “While the sales team in Cary is very familiar with our setup needs, I sometimes have to start from scratch explaining those needs to whoever picks up the phone at the regional office,” she says. “In my experience, having more people involved and more distance in between them leaves you open to a sort of telephone game … the kind you played in elementary school where the last person always has a completely different idea of the details than the first. And who wants that to happen to their meeting?”

Hotels have also segmented their sales organizations so much that just finding the right person to speak with can take days. As one planner lamented, “Some hotels have 15 different people assigned to different group sizes. This person takes up to 50, this person takes up to 150. … I can't keep up with it. I don't know their systems any more.”

Another place where planners routinely find a disconnect is at the handoff between sales and catering. Like many planners, Powell sends a detailed brief to the salesperson at the time of booking, assuming it will be passed on to the catering department. But more often than not, that information never gets sent on. “It all gets lost in the shuffle, almost universally,” she says.

Ever-shrinking Staffs

Admittedly, the hotel side is only partly responsible for the hotel/planner communication disconnect. Compounding it is the fact that many in-house meeting departments have been downsized or outsourced, and planners resent all the steps that they are sometimes forced to take to get results.

Ritz-Carlton's Hoppe says she rarely encounters meeting-planning departments staffed with half a dozen qualified planners like they used to be. “So my staff — the catering and conference service managers — is expected to do a lot more because the people planning the meeting are not necessarily professional meeting planners, or they are a professional meeting planner but they are stretched so thin — their departments have been dissolved — that they really do expect the other end to do a lot more.”

Despite this, when communication gaffes happen, she says, it's the recovery that you should be concerned with.

“It's life: Someone is going to misinterpret your instructions at some point,” she says. “Get past the emotion of it and have faith in the CSM to fix it.”

Did You Know?

The first online RFP site appeared in January 1996. Back then, the Radisson Miyako Hotel San Francisco offered a simple meeting space request form on its Web site.
Source: Corbin Ball Associates www.corbinball.com

Today, 15 percent of all meetings are sourced via e-RFPs. “Over time, we'll hit that 40 percent or 50 percent rate,” says Bob Bennett, senior vice president, supplier market, for Philadelphia-based StarCite, which offers e-RFP services among its online meeting-management tools.

Spell It Out On Your Beo

A few ways to ensure that your intended message gets through:

  • Sign the Banquet Event Order. Kimberly A. Hoppe, executive director of meetings and special events at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, says that some planners are so overwhelmed with paperwork that they skip this crucial step. But that paper is the map that will be passed out to every employee involved with your meeting, so it pays to make sure that it reflects your needs.

  • Don't be afraid to elaborate in writing on BEOs and contracts. If something is open to interpretation, make sure that you spell it out if it's important to you, right down to what color markers you want with your flip chart, says Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, CMM, chief strategist, Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, Charlotte, N.C. “The obligation is on the meeting planner to be clear,” she says.

  • Spell out both day and date on all correspondence, to make sure that all parties have their schedules right. And date and number any versions of rooming lists, BEOs, and other communications, says Wallsh. It's a way to ensure that everyone has the same version.

When Not To Use E-mail

  • When you're trying to reach consensus. It takes significantly longer to do this with e-mail.
  • When the message is very long. Call first and then use e-mail to confirm the main points.
  • When the news is really bad. “Routine” bad is fine; really bad is not.
  • When the reader is likely to be displeased with your solution.
  • When the reader has a different agenda from yours.
  • When the information is sensitive. Disclaimers do not protect you!
  • When the information is confidential. People could easily file and/or forward your note.
  • When you're communicating with someone who prefers the phone to e-mail.
  • When you know the other person will respond from his or her BlackBerry and you'll get only a two-word response to a complex question!

SOURCE: Sue Hershkowitz-Coore, CSP, www.speakersue.com

For information on standardized e-RFPs being developed for the meetings industry, visit the Convention Industry Council's site, www.conventionindustry.org