Site Selection/Sourcing Firm

The 5 W's of Buying Room Nights

What are they? Researching destinations and hotels that fit your group's specs is time-consuming. You may know the kind of destination you want, perhaps even the type of property — resort, city hotel, conference center — but you don't want to do all the legwork to find it and book it. Site selection firms sprang up more than 10 years ago; their forerunner was the hotel representation firm. The difference is that a hotel rep firm's sourcing agents are paid a retainer by a hotel to represent them.

The pure site selection firm of today is more akin to a travel agent for the meeting industry: It collects a commission from the hotel when it books and negotiates room nights for a meeting. It can also be likened to a buyer's agent in real estate. Although a site selection firm makes its money from the hotel (the seller), it represents the best interests of the buyer (the meeting sponsor/organizer).

What do they do? Based on a client's specs, site selection firms help organizers search for the right destination and property and help negotiate contracts.

What will it cost me? In most cases, a site selection firm's fee would be paid by the property. Typical commission is 10 percent of the booked rooms' cost for the event, although some firms collect fees in the 15 percent to 20 percent range.

When is payment due? Usually, the firm is paid when the event is over and the client pays the bill.

When are properties researched? Research happens online via the meeting industry's many hotel databases, by calls to national sales offices and individual properties, and through on-site inspections.

When should I make contact? As soon as you know where and when you want to book, call. Some suggest calling before you pick a destination, because they could offer you additional options. Large conferences obviously need more time, so contact a company a year or more out.

What do they need to know? Gather your data on region, the number of guest rooms needed, arrival/departure patterns, the meeting schedule, meeting room needs, F&B, preferable location specifics (airport or downtown, for example), personality of meeting (informal, refined, hightech), previous meeting location(s) and your experience with that property and/or locale.

What should I ask? Find out the site selection company's bargaining power, the relationships it has with hotels, and how quickly it can respond to your needs. Some may have agreements with certain properties to promote their hotels or destinations. At the outset, ask if such arrangements exist, and find out what they mean when it comes to negotiating the best rates and contracts.

Why should I go with a big company? Why a small one? Many reputable “mom and pop” site selection firms do good work, offering personalized service. Theoretically, the larger you are, the more purchasing power you have.

Who signs the contracts? In most cases, a representative of the client (the planner or a higher executive, depending on the company) signs a contract with the hotel.

What if I have to cancel? Ask a site selection firm about its cancellation policies. Since most are not paid their commission until the meeting takes place, they miss out on income when meetings are canceled.

What credentials do I look for, and how can I find them? There is no association for site selection companies. However, some people who work for these companies are members of RCMA. For references and reputations, ask a site selection company for names of its clients before deciding to work together.

Independent Planners

The 5 W's to Finding Your New Right Hand

What are they? Independent planners are used not only by companies without full-time meeting planners but also by companies with planners on staff. These professionals can handle every aspect of planning your event, from site selection to setting up tours for spouses to making sure attendees get to the airport at the end of the event.

What do they do? In a nutshell, these companies do whatever you need, including site selection, logistics, billing, on-site management, tour or partner program planning, work with suppliers, negotiation and planning of F&B events, contract management, program design, negotiate airline costs, registration, and housing. Most independents say that they usually work with an in-house planner; hiring an independent frees the in-house planner to focus on the content of the event rather than things such as logistics and site selection.

What should I ask? Is the planner active in industry organizations? What was the most interesting contract negotiation? What about the most challenging experience on-site? Have you had any crisis management experience — were you involved in a meeting on September 11? How did you take care of your attendees?

What's the advantage to working with a big company? Larger meeting planning companies offer volume benefits: larger potential discounts because they book more room nights and events each year. However, smaller firms may offer more personalized service. It all depends on your organization's needs and preferences.

What should the contract specify? The contract should outline the responsibilities of the in-house planner and the independent, timelines, fees, payment schedule, and cancellation clauses for all sides.

What credentials do I look for? Check the independent's qualifications, their credentials, to see if they have worked with comparable clients of the same size/type of meeting; find out about reputation and relationships with properties and suppliers. Many independents earn the industry's most recognized meeting planning credential: the Certified Meeting Professional designation from the Convention Industry Council.

Where do I find them? The Alliance of Meeting Management Consultants offers a member directory (www.ammc.org).

Production Companies

The 5 W's of Producing Pizzazz

What are they? If you only need someone to hook up speakers and lights, hire an AV technician. But if you want to add pizzazz, call a production company.

Of course, production companies take care of the AV details, making sure your event sounds and looks exactly as you envisioned it. Working with planners, production companies can design the theme and oversee every detail.

What do they do? Production companies help planners conceptualize the theme and then make it a reality, doing everything from designing the staging to creating customized video. Some offer other specialized services.

What will it cost me? This depends greatly on what the client wants to accomplish. Most companies bill on a line-item basis and collect fees in increments based on when payments are due to vendors, with the balance due upon completion. For example, the bill might be broken out by speaker, entertainment, AV, etc.

For something such as entertainment, mark-up would likely be in the 10 percent range. For most other outsourced services, the general range is 15 percent to 30 percent, depending on the item and whether it was billed on a per-day rate or on a per-event basis.

When should I make contact? Most production companies like to be involved at least three to six months in advance. Of course, thanks to technological advances, TelePrompTer copy and graphics can be tweaked moments before a speaker hits the stage.

What do they need to know? A production company needs to know what its client wants attendees to walk away thinking.

What should I ask? Find out a company's reputation, its length of time in business, if it has produced similar events, if it owns or rents equipment, how it charges, what the company considers its core capabilities, size experience, staff skills, and what staff they send on-site (freelancers? full-time employees?).

With whom will I work? An account executive will likely oversee your project. Others involved depend upon the project and company.

What if I have to cancel? Cancellation policies depend on timing and reasons. Most production companies base their refund policies on what work has been completed, as well as on terms of the agreements with subcontractors.

Where do I find them? Listings of industry professionals categorized by specialty are available on the Media Communications Association International Web site (www.mca-i.org). Individual companies' Web sites may also feature sample projects.

Special Event Planners

The 5 W's of Hiring a Third Party for Your Party

What are they? In the corporate arena especially, event planners are much more than party planners. They help you choose the theme, decoration, and entertainment for your event and then produce it. Some companies operate locally; others work with clients nationally, planning everything from formal galas to arena concerts.

What do they do? Event planners do everything from decor, entertainment, sound, lighting, and transportation to booking speakers, purchasing gifts for VIP attendees, planning and negotiating F&B, and even designing invitations and signage.

What will it cost me? The industry standard is 18 percent to 20 percent commission based on total event cost. This can be billed in various ways, depending on the client and the type of event: a flat management fee or a built-in mark-up fee on line items, for example.

When is payment due? A 50 percent deposit is usually due at the start, with another 25 percent due before the event and the remainder upon completion.

When should I make contact? Venues fill quickly, especially in big cities, so the more lead time, the better. But there really is no standard.

What do they need to know? Tell your event planner the event's purpose; the dates considered and flexibility; number of guests; format (black tie, informal); budget; event history; what you're serving at other meals during the meeting. Some companies need a budget estimate to get a realistic idea of what the event they want will cost.

What should I ask? Find out the event planner's background, client listing, references, and places they have done business; do a credit check, and ask for case histories for similar events. Check the planner's level of creativity, fee structure, if the planner is insured and belongs to industry associations. Does the planner own his or her props? Has the planner won industry awards?

With whom will I work? Most planners appoint a team leader to the account, who coordinates the event with the client.

What if I have to cancel? It depends on how close the event is to the cancellation. Many fees are nonrefundable because the event planner already has done the contracted work. Policies also depend on what is in the vendor agreements: if talent is booked, you're likely to have to pay whether the event happens or not.

What credentials should I look for? The International Society of Event Specialists offers the CESP (Certified Special Events Professional) designation.

Where can I find them? Local convention and visitors bureaus can provide you with a list. To get a list of CVBs, go to the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus' Web site: www.iacvb.org, or call (202) 296-7888. Also, check with area hotels to see who they consider the top-notch event planners to be. The International Special Events Society has a finder service on its Web site (www.ises.com) that is searchable by chapter location and service/product.

Destination Management Companies

The 5 W's to Hiring Local Help

What are they? Destination management companies are local companies that can serve as local liaisons for meeting planners. Once thought of as strictly local transportation providers, DMCs can do so much more. They can orchestrate events, recommend off-the-beaten-path venues, and basically take care of whatever you need, from props and staging to entertainment.

Although DMCs typically work only in the city in which they are based, many belong to national and global networks. So if you had a good experience with a DMC in Denver, you can expect comparable service elsewhere by looking to the same network for a referral.

The main benefit of using a DMC is its in-depth local knowledge. The company may also have more leverage in the local market when it comes to negotiating with vendors.

What do they do? Destination management companies find venues; find and hire entertainment; arrange tours, F&B, theme parties, sporting events, props, and transportation; help to purchase welcome or spouse gifts.

What will it cost me? DMCs work on a fee basis.

Depending on how a client prefers to be billed, some can quote a net management fee that is broken down by the number of attendees, or a line-by-line itemized account with a built-in management fee, usually in the 20 percent range and negotiable.

When is payment due? Most DMCs require a deposit up front. Usually, 75 percent to 80 percent of payment is required in installments before the event.

When should I make contact? It depends on the complexity of the bookings. If you just want to do a few dine-arounds, that can be booked quickly. If you want to hold an event at a venue such as the Smithsonian, which allows a limited number of bookings per year, you will need much more notice.

What do they need to know? Tell your DMC what you hope to achieve with the event. Considerations include budget, F&B needs, as well as the attendees' gender, profession, and age.

What should I ask? Does the DMC know the right subcontractors? Does it have good relationships with local vendors? Can it ensure that vendors are insured? What is its bargaining clout? Can it provide bank references? How long has the company been in existence, and how much of its business is repeat business?

How large is its full-time staff? What are the cancellation policies and payment terms and schedule? Is it involved in industry associations? Is it considered the preferred local partner of other industry firms, such as incentive houses or independent planners?

What if I have to cancel? Policies depend on how far out you cancel. Vendor contract policies play a huge role. If you booked an entertainer who held the date, you can expect to pay his or her fee. If you are only days away from an event and your caterer has purchased food, they are not likely to be very flexible.

What credentials should I look for? The Association of Destination Management recently introduced the Destination Management Certified Professional designation.

Where do I find them? Convention and visitor bureaus can give you the names of DMC members. Associations such as the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (www.site-intl.org) can also direct you to member DMCs, as can The Association of Destination Management (www.adme.org), which has an online member directory that is searchable by location.