A site inspection often makes or breaks a property’s chance to host an insurance or financial services company’s incentive program. And a site planning trip can make or break the success of a meeting that’s already on the books. We collected a few examples of hotels that really got it right in both situations.

Showing that They Can Set the Stage
“It was right after 9/11,” remembers Jana Stern, director, conventions and conference planning at ING in Minneapolis. “We had canceled an international program scheduled for October 2001 and needed to find a location stateside.” After several site inspections over many days, she and her team visited The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach. “The salesperson had saved the ballroom for last,” Stern recounts. “As we walked in, the lights came on and there was a man in a suit reading The Wall Street Journal sitting on an ING bench—just like in our commercials! Then the sales team came in and welcomed us to the hotel. They won the business.”

Helping Planners Do Their Jobs
Dan Young, CMP, director of event planning and field recognition at Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis, recently did a site planning trip at the Gaylord Texan for a major program in April 2011. He and his team participated in a catering menu tasting with Rhonda Drennan, catering manager. “Rhonda told us, ‘OK, you’re going to decide on your menus right now,’” recalls Young, who was taken aback at first. Now he sees the experience as a tremendous help to him: They made the decisions while their impressions of the food choices were fresh, and that piece of the planning process is now, so to speak, off their plates.

Turning a Negative Into a Positive
When your beach is a short ferry ride from your island property, it can put you at a disadvantage. But, says Steve Clark, CMP, Stephen Clark & Associates LLC, during his site inspection of a hotel with this challenge—which, he says, was not in the lead for hosting his meeting—“they blew us away.” Breakfast on the beach with key staff from every department demonstrated the commitment the property would make to the program. “It was a tremendous experience,” says Clark. “It sold the meeting.”

Putting the Puzzle Together—in Person
When Sun Life Financial’s Kathy Lind and her team made a planning trip to Moon Palace Resort & Casino in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (now the Hard Rock Resort & Casino Punta Cana), one of their priorities was to choose dinner courses and décor for the two gala banquets at their back-to-back incentive conferences. The executive chef and banquet team went all out to help them make those choices. “For each course, they gave us four to six options,” recalls Lind, senior events manager, who is based in Waterloo, Ont. “In some cases we would say, we want these potatoes, with this vegetable, and this meat, and they would go back to the kitchen, recreate the plate, and take a photo of exactly what we had chosen.” That enabled Lind to return to her office and show exactly what everyone could expect when they got on site. Because the property was new, they had only white linens in house. Not special enough for an incentive program. So the hotel actually made linens for Lind to look at. “They had samples of linens and chair coverings in different colors, and brought in samples of centerpieces. We were able to move everything around and try different options.” Again, photos allowed Lind to take the final choices back to the office and know that there would be no surprises on site. Her focus on F&B, she notes, is a constant. “With incentive events, it’s all about the experience, and food is a huge part of that.”

Knowing the Client
“The most impressive site inspection I experienced was a breakfast meeting with not only the director of sales, but also the banquet manager and the general manager,” says Koleen Roach, director, meetings and conference management, Securian Financial Group, St. Paul, Minn. That’s impressive enough. “But what really made it special was they took the time to research my company's Web site, and then customized a breakfast menu around our value proposition, mission statement, key initiatives, and historical timeline. I ordered the ‘Mutuality and Ingenuity Omelet’ and it was excellent!”

13 Site Inspection Questions

Of course, planners on site visits also need to see beyond the creativity and the wow, and get to the practicalities. Here’s a list of must-ask questions for site inspections, adapted from an article by Leonard “Buck” Hoyle, CAE, CMP, the longtime chief staff executive of Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International, who passed away in 2010.

1. How many available sleeping and meeting rooms does the hotel have? A 500-room hotel might have only 380 rooms available because of agreements with airlines or other customers.

Know Before You Go
For planners who have not done many site inspections, Kathy Lind of Sun Life Financial has three big tips for what to do before you book your flight:

1. Have a complete agenda planned for your site visit and share it ahead of time with the person who will be touring the property with you.

2. Confirm that the key department heads will be there, that the meeting space will be available for you to look at, and that you will be able to see a variety of sleeping rooms.

3. Know roughly what activities and evening events you’re going to want to schedule for your group. “You need to be able to share with the hotel what it is that you are trying to accomplish.”

2. Are there any changes in hotel ownership being discussed?

3. What other groups will be in-house on your preferred dates?

4. Are there any exclusive contracts with service companies? It's possible that the hotel has an exclusive contract with a florist or AV company, for example. But you might be able to negotiate rates. Ask if there is a charge for bringing in outside vendors.

5. What complimentary room ratio is in place? One complimentary room per 50 paid is typical, but the ratio can slide, depending on the attractiveness of your meeting.

6. What is the hotel’s storage policy? Is there a cost to move materials within the facility? How long will the property store materials that are sent for the meeting?

7. Are there any renovations planned between the time of booking and the time your meeting will be on site? Ask about any construction planned for the surrounding area as well.

8. What kind of security does the hotel provide? Know where you will need it—parking lot, front door, ballroom door, general session room—and what it will cost.

9. What are the hotel’s guarantee and deposit requirements?

10. What are the hotel’s cleaning and maintenance policies? Find out the schedule for cleaning breakout rooms and guest-room corridors.

11. Ask if you can walk through the back of the house. Look at the loading dock and the kitchen. Their appearance could give you insight into how the facility as a whole operates.

How About an Essay Question or Two?
Dan Young’s team at Thrivent Financial uses more than a straightforward checklist when considering properties for programs. Here are three questions they ask that require some serious thought on the part of their potential hotel partners:

1. What is the most creative approach the hotel has ever used to meet a client’s needs?

2. What are the hotel’s three largest competitors and what distinguishes the property from those competitors?

3. What single aspect of the hotel is management most proud of?


12. Does the hotel have a sustainability policy? You may have your own detailed eco-checklist. If not, use the Environmental Protection Agency’s 14-point questionnaire to get a good read of where the hotel falls on the green scale. By the end of 2010, planners and hoteliers should have the APEX/ASTM Green Meetings Standards to rely on as a true measure of a venue’s sustainability efforts.

13. What will we pay for Internet connections throughout the hotel? These days, free Wi-Fi in guest rooms is a must.

In addition to getting answers to big-picture questions, planners on thorough site inspections will be checking everything from front-desk staffing to elevator capacity to whether meeting rooms have their own lighting and temperature controls.

Extremely detailed checklists for all types of meeting venues—as well as for creating a city profile—are available from the Convention Industry Council Accepted Practices Exchange tool kit. They can be downloaded free at the CIC Web site.

VIEW FROM—AND FOR—THE HOTEL SIDE

Clarence Day, director of national accounts at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, on Maui, is big on making a positive impression on clients and potential clients during site visits. Here are a few of his tips for hoteliers:

1. Involve the Experts. “Depending on the hot buttons and specific needs of the client and the program, be sure to involve the relevant department leaders in both the planning and execution of the site inspection. For example, if activities are a key component, involve your in-house DMC or your favorite DMC partner.”

2. Find Out About the Client’s Past. “Don’t just gather history, dig in to it. Knowing what locations were used in the past is good; drilling down for the details is great. Clients are usually willing to share details about their most successful programs, so ask. And share what events have been successful at your hotel or resort.”

3. Know the Client’s Preferences. “Skip the bottle of wine as an amenity if the site schedule is packed and the client is only at your hotel for one night. Know the client: If he or she is into fitness, be sure to have fitness-class schedules and fitness-center hours highlighted.”

4. Prepare Your Team. “Beyond sending out a site inspection alert, be sure to visit each department and share information about the client who will be visiting, the program for which your location is being considered, and anything else that is important for them to know.”

Planners and hospitality partners: Share your great site inspection experiences and tips by using the comment function below. And watch for future issues of the Financial & Insurance Meetings Extra e-newsletter, when we’ll ask for your horror stories and cautionary tales as well!