Business Basics

Begin working with the hotels well in advance. Always start working with the hotels at least 90 days in advance; six months in advance is even better. While we may be comfortable running our personal lives by the seat of our pants, the business world doesn’t operate that way.

When dealing with hotels you should put the phrase “ought never be organized” completely out of your mind.

While being unorganized may be OK in AA, it’s not OK in the business world. (Besides, Tradition 9 doesn’t really say we should be disorganized in that sense. But that’s a matter for another time.) If you have an appointment with the hotel, be sure to show up on time. If you tell the salesperson you’re going to get her some additional information, be sure to provide it when promised. While we’re on the subject of being organized: be sure to take notes; the salespeople certainly will be. If you talk about anything particularly important during your meeting, it’s often helpful to summarize your notes in an email, asking the salesperson to reply confirming your understanding of the conversation.

Be mindful of how you dress and how you act.

Your dress should be at least business casual. Dressing like you would for a job interview isn’t a bad idea for any first approach with a hotel. On repeat visits, you can always dress down a little if the hotel folks you’re meeting with are more casually dressed. Profanity should be left outside the hotel door. And leave your cigarettes in your car. The hotel salesperson will never stop your meeting to say, “Hey, I need to take a smoke break. Do you mind?” You shouldn’t either.

Limit the number of people involved in the negotiation process.

Remember the old saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” As a general rule, two people from your committee are enough for any given hotel meeting. Both should agree on who is going to take the lead during a given meeting; it doesn’t necessarily need to be the same person every time. If it looks like there’s disagreement among the two of you, the salesperson will often see that as a weakness to exploit somehow. In cases where you’re meeting with more than one person at the hotel and you’ll be involved in significant discussion/negotiations at that meeting, an exception to the general rule is the “plus one” method. This means that you would bring one more person with you than you’re going to meet with at the hotel. So if you’re meeting with three hotel people, you would show up with a total of four people from your committee. Provided that everyone from your committee keeps in mind who your lead person is for that meeting, it doesn’t matter how much or how little the four people are involved in the meeting. It’s the fact that they’re there that’s most important. (Think ‘strength in numbers.’)

Never forget that you are the customer.

Regardless of whether you are a bidder or a host committee, remember you are bringing the hotel a good piece of business. You are doing them a favor, not the other way around. But don’t let that go to your head. Being the customer does not give you license to be arrogant or act like a jerk. You will be more effective in the long run if you are always polite and professional. Please keep in mind that “polite and professional” does not mean you have to be a doormat or a wet dishrag; you can be both firm and friendly at the same time. Your goal is to get the best deal you can for your conference. The salesperson’s goal is to maximize her commission. And the best deal for you typically means less commission for the salesperson, so you and she will not always agree on things. Learn the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Make the hotel your partner, not your enemy; think “win-win.”

The best deal is one that’s good for you and good for the hotel. It may be hard work to find common ground, but it often pays off in the long run. The hotel will never agree to a deal that isn’t profitable for them, and they will always have more margin to work with than they let on. So don’t be afraid to politely push for a better deal, but always be on the lookout for ways you can help the hotel.

As an example, one good place for give and take is in the dates you choose. Most meeting planners come to the hotel and say “we need such and such specific date.” But you have the flexibility to allow the hotel to fit you into a weekend that works well for them, i.e., when they’ve got nothing on the books. Remember a hotel that likes you will make the committee and the attendees much happier. If they don’t like you they are not going to work too well with the committee and the attendees. 

The hotels know about their (local) competitors, but they don’t know about yours.

The hotels you’ll be working with in your city compete with one another day in and day out. You should not be surprised if you learn that the sales rep you’re working with at Hotel A has drinks once or twice a week with your rep from Hotel B, and that they frequently compare notes. (Yes,”compare notes” is a euphemism for collusion and price fixing.) What they don’t know about is your competition, i.e., the other bid cities. Feel free to tell your hotels about the bidding process. Make sure they understand that there are typically 3 or more cities hoping to host the next year’s conference, and don’t be shy about telling them the best points of other cities’ contracts, e.g., “the Marriott in City X is offering 25 gallons of comp coffee,” “the Hilton in City Y is offering an $89 single-quad room rate,” “

Never let the hotels know which or how many other hotels you’re working with.

It is very important that you have more than one viable option, and it’s helpful to let the hotels know in a general way that you are considering other options. But be careful not to reveal too many details about the other hotels you’re working with. The hotels may learn this information from one another, but they should never learn this information from you. When the hotels know the other hotels you’re working with, they use that information as a way to shift your negotiation from ‘apples to apples’ to apples and oranges.’ For example, Hotel X may tell you that they’re better than Hotel Y because Hotel X is within walking distance from Wally World. And because they think they’re better, they want to charge more. It doesn’t seem to matter if you tell them you don’t care about Wally World; the hotel folks still want to charge more because they believe they are the “better value” even at a higher price, due to their location.

Don’t commit to anything at the first meeting, and never take what they offer the first time.

Hotel salespeople often use the same pressure tactics that car salespeople use, but they can be quite subtle about it. For example, they may tell you that another group is considering the same dates you are, trying to pressure you into making a decision. Obviously if you’re in a bidding situation you can’t sign a contract because you don’t have the conference yet. And if you haven’t already explained the bidding process, this is a great opportunity to open up that conversation. But even if you don’t sign anything, you can still make things hard on yourself. Salespeople frequently use a technique called “trial closing.” They try to get you to say yes to as many things as they can, because once you’ve said yes to something they know they don’t have to improve on that part of their deal. Of course, you’re entitled to change your mind, but it’s much harder to say no after you’ve already said yes. And the salesperson will know you meant yes the first time, and that you’re just saying no to try to get a better deal. It’s like showing your poker hand to the table and then trying to convince the other players you really don’t have the cards they saw. Your best approach is to simply tell the hotels that they’ve given you a lot of information to digest, and that you will go over everything carefully and then get back with them. And when you do get back with them, you’ll want to let them know everything about the deal that isn’t ideal for you. Remember, be polite and professional. You shouldn’t expect that they will make all your changes, so be sure they know what the top issues are. Nickel and diming them with a few changes now, a few changes next month, then some more changes a month after that, etc. will frustrate your salespeople, and they may lose interest in working with you. Of course, if new things come to light, by all means pass that info along. But it will help you in the long run to avoid becoming a moving target.

When your salesperson says “Let me get back to you on that” or “I need to check with my manager,” it’s often a good sign.

Clearly written agreements prevent disagreements.

Repeat that to yourself over and over again until it rolls off your tongue as easily as “Rarely have we seen a person fail . . . .” You want to get everything in clear writing; in the hotel business, a handshake deal is like no deal at all. Turnover in the hotel industry is high. If your salesperson quits, gets fired, goes on maternity leave, gets hit by a bus, etc. every handshake deal goes right out the door with her. Salespeople often don’t like it when you ask for things in writing. A common tactic is to act as if you’re hurting their feelings, like “C’mon, I thought we were friends?” or “Why don’t you trust me?” or something similar. Don’t fall into the trap; just reply, “Yes, but clearly written agreements prevent disagreements.” Say it as many times as you need to until you get what you want in writing, as clearly as you want it.

Not all contract advice is good advice.

Unlike the other topics in this section that relate to your dealings with the hotel, this relates to your dealings with others in the Fellowship. Just because someone is an advisory council member or a lawyer in your home group doesn’t mean she’s a contract expert. These suggestions arise out of nearly forty years of combined personal experience in working with convention hotels, coupled with input from professional meeting planners, sales trainers, hotel employees, etc.