Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why is hotel food so expensive?

Lately, there has been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about government excess and the $16 muffins and $8 cups of coffee that the Department of Justice had at a couple of their events (Here is the article that touched it off). Mind you, the article leaves out a lot of details behind the numbers and, instead, focuses on the particular items that are sure to fire people up. After all, they need an attention-grabbing piece to sell the news and including the details explaining how those figures came to be would have turned off most readers. The Meeting Professionals International (MPI) blog posted a response to it here, so I won’t go into that particular issue.

However, I have heard complaints for many years – from conference attendees and funders, mostly – about how expensive hotel food is. It certainly seems that way. $8/person for a coffee break, $22/person for a lunch, $34/person for dinner – you can certainly eat quite well as an individual at those prices, especially when you find out that these prices are “plus-plus”. Let’s examine each of these examples one by one. I’ll start with dinner, since that is the one most often referenced in conversations on this topic.

Dinner, at a hotel, typically includes a soup and/or salad, bread, the entrée (with sides), dessert, and coffee service. All of that is included in the $34/person. Now it isn’t fair to compare this to a fast food joint, like McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr. The two types of meal service aren’t even close. Meals served at conferences are more like eating at a restaurant – and a moderately nice one at that. If I were to get the same menu items at a middle-of-the-road restaurant in the same city as my conference, the prices (before tax and tip) might break down like this:

• Soup (or Salad): $5
• Bread: usually included for free
• Chicken Entrée: $16
• Dessert: $7
• Coffee or Tea: $3

Add that all up and you have…$31. Suddenly, the hotel’s pricing does not seem so out of line as it did before, does it? Yes, it is still a bit higher, but it is not shockingly so, which is what most people react to.

Lunch is very similar to dinner. For a restaurant lunch comparable to what a hotel might serve, you’re looking at prices something along these lines:

• Soup (or Salad): $4
• Bread: usually included for free
• Sandwich Entrée: $10
• Dessert: $5
• Coffee or Tea: $2

The total for a similar lunch at a restaurant is…$21? Yep, we’ve saved an entire dollar compared to the hotel’s pricing. Not much of a difference there…

Finally, let’s look at the $8 coffee. Yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to into it here but this is the one that seems to generate the most ire from certain folks and it is one area where your local coffee shop is way below the prices charged by hotels. Let’s look at in more detail…at $8/person for coffee service, what do you get? You get coffee service for a fixed amount of time (usually 1/2 hour), during which your attendees can pretty much drink as much coffee or tea as they want. How many of them do you think have just one cup?

When I order “in bulk” for coffee (to save money), I know that one gallon will give me 16-20 cups, depending on the size of the cups used by the hotel (see this post for more details). Will I order one gallon, then, for a group of 20 people? Probably not. I will want to have some extra available in case they drink more than I anticipated, even if this results in leftover coffee that no one drinks.

When ordering a break package, such as coffee service billed “per person” instead of by the gallon, the same principle is at work. The hotel does not want to run out of coffee (it makes them look bad), so they need to prepare more than they think people will drink. Plus, coffee service includes tea and decaf. The hotel needs to make sure that there is enough for people with those preferences as well. Your corner coffee shop (even Starbucks) can make coffee one gallon at a time and still promptly serve their customers. A hotel, trying to serve coffee to several hundred people all at the same time, must make much larger batches.

The upshot of all of this is that there is the potential for considerable leftovers (aka “waste”) with coffee service. Since the hotel must, at least, cover costs for providing it, they must take that into account – which results in higher prices. Even your corner coffee shop does this; their level of “lost product” is simply much smaller. In fact, every business that serves food must take wastage into account with their pricing or they will quickly be out of business. That’s basic economics.

So, does this mean that hotel food in not expensive? No, it’s still pricy – and I still think it’s expensive when I compare it to preparing a meal at home. However, when I compare it to eating out, I find that the prices are not too far off from what I would pay in a restaurant. Restaurants and hotel both need to cover not just the cost of the food, but also the costs of rent, equipment, staff wages, maintenance, and a myriad of other expenses that go into providing a service to the public – which means that it will always be more expensive than what it costs me to make the same dishes at home (assuming I even know how to make and have the time to make said dishes…).

So, the next time you hear a complaint about how expensive hotel food is, look at similar options before joining the chorus. You might find that the claims are right on track – or a bit overblown…

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How much would a Meeting Planner charge to produce my event?

That’s a tricky one to answer and there is no way I could give a realistic estimate without knowing details. So – let’s look at how the Meeting Planner would come up with an answer for you. It mostly comes down to two main factors…

To begin with, it depends on how the planer expects to get paid. Do they work on commission or do they use a “fee for service” structure? If they are “fee for service”, do they charge by the hour or by the job? Or, do they mix the difference fee options? [For more on how meeting planners get paid, check out this post.] Each approach yields different answers in terms of how much you would need to pay the planner, though the amount earned by the planner often ends up being roughly the same.

The second piece of this puzzle is the event itself and what you items you want the planner to handle. This is, in many ways, the greater of the two factors as well as being the more complex of the two. A couple of things you may recall from earlier posts: event RFPs outline the basic structure of the event and staffing (who staffs the event and how many people you will need) helps determine the planner’s physical presence at your event. But these areas only scratch the surface of what a planner will want (need!) to know about your event before they can give you an accurate estimate of cost… What more will they want to know? Well, once you get past the basic information about when, where, and how many people, a meeting planner will want details about each task that you want them to do. Each task requires a different amount of work and that amount is potentially different for each event – even for the same task.

For example, if you want the planer to handle registration, then information about how many people you expect to attend, what fees they will pay (if any) and who collects those fees, who produces name badges, etc. will all be useful for the planner to know in building a quote for you. Similarly, asking the meeting planner to handle all of your food arrangements will involve needing to know how many food functions you will have, how many people you anticipate attending each one, and meal restrictions or guidelines. And, an event for twenty people will require different things than an event for several thousand (though there are many similarities). Basically, the more information you can provide for each task you wish the meeting planner to do for you, the more accurate a quote they can provide.

When RDL works on a response to an RFP, we examine each task area that the potential client is asking us to do, while looking at how that task fits into the “big picture” of the event. We then start building the estimated “fee for service”, using a grid that outlines each task area with the common jobs within each area (and, no, I can’t share the grid…sorry). The grid allows us to estimate the hours required for each job and for each level of staff expertise, then calculate a total for the event. One of the nice things about this approach is its ability to take in account overlapping task areas when pricing an event. For example, the budget management task area includes many jobs and responsibilities that also appear in areas like site selection, food ordering and management, attendee reimbursements, and audio-visual services, just to name a few. If we are handling multiple areas for a client, we can often reduce the charge for those services below what they would be if you simply ordered services off of a “menu”. The whole costs less than the sum of the parts…

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, don’t worry about it too much. Remember, meeting planners – especially the independents – are used to doing this on a regular basis. They can get you a cost estimate fairly quickly. However, be ready to answer their questions in as much detail as you can so they can give you a more accurate response.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Negotiating Hotel Contracts

It is often said that everything is negotiable in hotel contracts. While that is not 100% true, there is still quite a lot that can be negotiated beyond the guest room rates, rental rates, and food and beverage prices. So how do you go about getting what you want and/or need for your event? Negotiation, of course, and that’s where knowing what you can reasonably negotiate in your contracts can make a difference. Let’s take a look at some common approaches…

There are some that believe that, if you want the moon (so to speak), you should ask for the sun and the moon – knowing that your request will be rejected and a counter offer will be put forth. The idea here is that, by asking for more than you need, you will get what you need as well as, possibly, something extra on top of that.

Others take the position that you should only ask for what you really need when putting out an RFP to hotels. This allows you to easily weed out those who cannot provide your basic needs while still giving you some choices among respondents. Anything they offer above and beyond the basics are considered a bonus.

I, and many others, tend to take a middle road of sorts. I outline the absolute minimum requirements for the event in the RFP. [Read this post for an outline of what that should include…] Once those are listed, I then will often add another layer or two of special requests. The first layer consists of the items that are desirable to get as part of the package. By themselves, none of these items are deal-breakers, but they can help make a bid more attractive to my client by providing certain perks that are of value to them. The second layer is made up of the client’s “wish list” items. These are things that will really take a proposal “over the top” but that we really don’t expect to get. This way, I ensure the event’s basic needs are met, without the hotels having to guess what those items are, and gain a few additional extras in the process that I know the client would like to have, without having the hotels offer items that are worthless to the client (and thinking those are deal-clinching incentives).

So, what do I ask for? What do I negotiate on? Well, that depends on the client and, if there are items that I absolutely must have, I am sure to include them in the RFP. Knowing what to ask for means that you, as the group’s planner, need to really know what the group requires, what would be of value to them, and what their ideal, pie in the sky, response would include. The better you can picture those three lists, the more productive your negotiations can be. Although there are those who view negotiations as “how much can I get from the hotel”, I prefer to view the process as one in which I am searching for the intersection of desires that maximizes what my client wants with what the hotel wants (yes, they want something, too – and it’s not always money!). If I can identify what the hotel wants, and can give it to them, then I can get more of what my client wants in return.

Every property is different and that will shape my approach. One may be able to negotiate on room rates but not on space rental, while another may be able to waive rental fees but cannot alter their food prices or guest room rates. As the planner negotiating on behalf of my group, it is up to me to find those areas that the hotel can negotiate on and work with them. Remember, if you cannot find an acceptable intersection of needs, you can always walk away – as can the hotel.

How do I know where the hotel can bargain? Some of it comes down to experience but, ultimately, if you don’t know where they have room to negotiate, ask them. Their goal is to book your business, which means they have an incentive to find a workable middle ground, too, and many sales reps understand that an informed opposite in negotiations can help them make it work for both parties.

While “everything” may be negotiable, I have found that being realistic about what I ask for and expect to receive in return for what I have to offer at the bargaining table is an excellent way to begin – and leads to a successful contract/partnership more often than not… And, a final thought here, if I can make the negotiations work for both sides (my client and the hotel), they are each happier with the results and my value to both of them goes up, too.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When should I get a second screen for my presentation?

When I work with clients to determine the audio-visual (AV) requirements for their events, they often consider one screen to display a presentation sufficient. In many cases, they are right. However, there are times when a single screen just isn’t enough. So how do I know when to use a second screen (or more)? There are essentially three factors I consider when deciding to use more than one screen.

     1. Audience Size
     2. Angle of Viewing
     3. Size and Shape of the Meeting Room

    Audience Size: Simply put, a large audience is more likely to need multiple screens than a small one. Note: I do not give a specific number. There is no fixed number at which you must have a second screen. A large audience does not, by itself, necessarily demand more than one screen but having higher numbers does raise a red flag for me, warning me that I may need to add screens. You need to take the other factors into consideration.

    Angle of Viewing: Given the way light reflects off of screens, it is very difficult to see projected material if you are at too low of an angle relative to the screen. Straight in front of the screen, 90 degrees (or perpendicular) to it, is usually the best spot. Ease of viewing is gradually impacted as you shift away from that prime spot until you hit about a 45-degree angle. Once you pass that and sit at a sharper angle, it becomes very difficult to read whatever is on the screen. Don’t believe me? Try it with your computer monitor and see how far you can get away from 90 degrees before you can’t read your screen. The same principle is at work.

    Size and Shape of Meeting Room: This actually impacts more than you might think and, while most meeting rooms are fairly rectangular in shape, there is great variation out there. A single property can have long and narrow rooms as well as square ones and the shape of the one you are using can have a huge impact on your seating and screen needs. Here are just a few of the ways a room’s size and shape can affect seating and the need for more than one screen.

    1. A room that is wide but not very deep might require a second screen in order to accommodate proper viewing angles.
    2. A room that is long and narrow may need a second screen due to distance from the screen (as per the 2x8 Rule).
    3. Ceiling height affects the maximum size screen that can be used, which determines the maximum effective viewing distance.
    4. If there are pillars or other obstructions, you may need to provide additional screens to ensure that everyone has a good view of the presenter’s material.

      All of these factors are really about sightlines and making the viewing experience better for the attendees. When I do a site visit, I always take the time to walk the room, testing sound (to determine if I will need microphones or not) and checking sightlines. I am also looking for things that will affect how I can use the room – where “front” can be, where aisles can/must be placed, etc. Permanent fixtures such as doors, windows, fire escapes, and other areas that you cannot block with staging, seating, or screens can also affect set up and you need to take those into account when determining the need for a second screen.

      If you do decide to get a second screen for your event, don’t forget to also request a signal splitter. This device routes the signal from a laptop (for example) to multiple destinations – in this case, multiple screens.

      I often say that, even after everything else is forgotten, attendees usually remember two things about every event: the food and the AV (especially if bad). If they cannot see the presentation clearly, they will likely remember that fact longer than the content of the session. So take the time to consider multiple screens for your event and provide your attendees with a good AV experience to remember…

      ~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises