Site inspection often is an impediment to effective site selection. The emphasis too often is on the wrong priorities, purposes, places, and people. Do you experience a property the way that your members are going to experience it? Often, the answer is no.

What happens when you land at the airport? There's a limo waiting. What happens when you get to the hotel? There's a bellhop waiting, and your luggage is taken straight to our room, which is pre-registered. And what room are you whisked up to, typically? Maybe the presidential suite, or the governor's suite — not the third-floor room in the old building, with a view overlooking the garbage cans.

On a site selection trip, do you see the things you need to see to make the right decision? You need to experience what your members will experience, and your organization's goals and objectives must drive site-selection strategies and checklists.

The Fundamentals

Basic to effective site selection is a series of important questions: Why are we having this meeting? Is it because our bylaws require it? For excitement and entertainment? For education? For spiritual growth? For recreation? For networking? Are we having the meeting to identify new leaders and members?

The greatest catalyst for developing new leadership for your organization is conferences and conventions. How important is it to attract to new people? Are social events part of the mix?

What about financial considerations? Where do we expect to come out on the bottom line? Being a nonprofit doesn't mean you have a free pass to lose money year after year. Nonprofit is a tax issue. That's all it is.

Your organization might decide to make money on your conferences to support your church and its ministry. If making money is an objective, then deciding how much money to make is a matter for your conscience and your board.

The location you pick can directly affect your bottom line: whether it's attractive for your potential attendees, whether it's affordable for your organization and attendees, whether it's the right cultural environment for attendees. All these factors will affect the bottom line.

On the other hand, your organization might go into a conference planning to lose money, and there might be sound, strategic reasons for it. Perhaps it's a new conference, or perhaps you've decided to bring your meeting to a new region to attract new members.

Then again, your financial goal might be to break even. That's noble, defensible, but sometimes difficult to do.

Prior to the Site Visit

Important work is done before you leave on the site inspection:

  • Creation of a profile. Do a profile of your meetings, going back at least five years in the past. This will show you where you've been and where you're going. More importantly, when you deal with suppliers, you can justify and verify the pattern that your business promises to those that supply to you. Know your animal as well as your supplier does.

  • Evaluation and analysis of demographics. Who is attending and what do they represent to your organization? What are their ages? Are there new faces in the audience? Create surveys that allow you to capture this information. If you can't compute all the information you collect, hire someone to do it.

  • Attendee habits and performance. What do they do? When do they arrive and depart? Do you have a four-day event that's poorly attended on the first and last days? Why? Schedule your meetings to conform to attendees' behavior.

  • Financial results. Too few of us claim responsibility for the financial performance of our conferences. Take charge of the financial performance, and report the details of that success to your organization. This will help you to make sure assets come back to your department, so you can continue to execute great meetings.

Evaluating a Site

Consider these factors when evaluating venues:

  • Ease of transport. How easy is the location to get to? How affordable is it to fly?

  • Climate and season. What about Sioux Falls or Bismarck in the winter? Perhaps it's too cold. Or perhaps it's perfect, because it's convenient to your attendees and the rates presumably would be outstanding. On the opposite end of the temperature gauge, perhaps you can do better in Albuquerque in July than in January.

  • Geographic flow. Examine where you've been in the previous five years. You might feel it makes perfect sense in attendance and financial terms to meet in the East, but your leaders might be under political pressure to hold a meeting in the West. Perhaps that means you will lose money on the conference, but the decision will cultivate new growth in leadership and membership.

  • Culture and perceptions. Perceptions change. For example, 20 years ago, some Northeast cities carried the images of steel mills and grit. The changes in many of those cities are astonishing.

  • Local resources. These are so important, because none of us has enough help. So, how interested in us is the local CVB? How interested is the mayor's office? What about the governor's office? How interested is the police department? Is the police chief willing to meet with you? What about the fire department? How interested are the local unions? You'll probably find out the unions would love to meet with you, because so often they feel as if they're treated like the enemy, not a partner.

  • Where is your member base, and where do they like to travel? If you have pre- and post-meeting tours, where are the jumping-off spots in relation to the meetings' location?

  • Taxes and fees. Some cities are very aggressive about collecting taxes on the sale of items such as books and tapes, to the point that tax agents will try to collect the taxes on-site and daily. Do your research. If you want to hold a parade downtown, make sure to ask about fees. It costs money for local governments to clear the way for a parade. Find out if you're going to be charged fees, and how much.

  • Are other groups going to be in town during your meeting? The other group might be competition, or it might be an ally. Develop a relationship with the planner who is working on the meeting, and learn what he or she has learned. Consider doing a site inspection with a planner who has been there, or who is going to go there.

  • Overflow space. If you really do well, you might not fit into the original property. What arrangements does the property have for overflow?

  • Format of the meetings. The facilities you choose must be able to handle your needs and your objectives. You shouldn't change your meeting formats to fit the space. First, know what you want to do, and then choose the facility. Format comes first.

  • Number of rooms. You might find a property that's perfect in every way, including the number of rooms, say 750. But how many of those rooms are committable — in other words, available to you? Ask, because the hotel might have only 550 rooms that can be committed to your meeting. The hotel could be holding 200 rooms for airline crews, business travelers, and other purposes.

  • Also, which of those 750 rooms are committable? Are they the rooms in the old portion of the hotel that overlook the railroad tracks? And which meeting rooms are committable? You don't want the one in the basement!

This article was adapted from a tutorial at a past RCMA given by Leonard “Buck” Hoyle, CMP, president, Accolade Communications, Washington, D.C.