The past year has created a perfect storm of challenges for meeting planners. Associations eager to return to in-person meetings have less leverage with hotels and venues, especially after activating cancellation clauses at the onset of COVID-19. Supply-chain disruptions have made it harder to secure many conference essentials, particularly food. High inflation has made attendees and exhibitors hesitant to travel. And COVID hasn’t gone away, further suppressing attendance.
In response, venues have sometimes added new fees and conditions that complicate meeting planners’ lives. “In my entire 50 years in this industry, I have never, ever faced what I’m facing now in terms of helping negotiate contracts,” said Joan Eisenstodt, a veteran meetings consultant.
It’s no surprise, then, that association meeting planners are looking for ways to cut costs. But Eisenstodt cautions that there’s no silver bullet to be found. Cut the coffee service? Now you’re sending attendees outside the venue, wrecking the community vibe and potentially infuriating exhibitors. Sign up for a more affordable onsite AV or internet access plan? The potential for glitches and slowdowns risks spoiling the meeting experience.
Scrutiny on Contracts
But association meeting planners aren’t entirely without options. Part of the solution involves a closer eye for contract details and a willingness to engage in some straight talk with venues. Barry Schieferstein, director of learning and events at the American Society for Nondestructive Testing, says associations still have some negotiating power with venues, especially if there’s been a past relationship.
“Everything’s negotiable, and that still holds true,” he said. Although venues “want to recoup two years of lost revenue as quickly as they can,” a long-term relationship with a association may be more important to the venue than collecting every possible fee.
To that end, take a close look at your contracts, which may prescribe some eye-popping fees: charges for attendee use of power outlets, inflation offsets, and attrition penalties. Pre-COVID, venues often were willing to waive some of those costs as a goodwill gesture. Now, they’re back on the table, and the meeting planner may not necessarily be informed that they’ve been applied.
Don’t be afraid to take cost concerns up the chain of command, Schieferstein says. “The event manager might be very strict in conversations, telling you what the attrition ramifications are,” he said. “But as soon as you go to the director of sales, the conversation changes immediately.”