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Meetings Industry Suppliers: Are Site Selection & 3rd Party Planners Friends or Foes?

A few months ago Greenfield Services held its Meeting Industry Supplier Summit during the Canada Meet in Toronto.  A highly contentious issue brought forward by the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) and hotel representatives who attended was the frustration with what they perceive as the "infiltration" of site selection and 3rd-party planning professionals in the relationship between the destination or host venue and the organizing entity.

All CVBs reported having some site selection professionals come to their city on familiarization trips, which were paid for by the CVB, only to see them go directly to the hotels with their Request for Proposals (RFP) – thereby “cutting out” the CVB who could then not “get credit” for the room-nights generated.

Some supplier professionals complained that some of these 3rd-party planners come on fams to "troll for business,” soliciting business from other meeting organizers.  Others voiced the concerns that 3rd-parties cut into hotels’ margins and driving up prices, without adding value.

Sales reps also complained about 3rd-party planners sending out dozens of RFPs, through online systems, to widely different types of destinations, and hotel types.  They felt site selection companies should do a better job of assessing what calibre of hotels and what rate range their client is willing to pay.

Much talk also took place about the “hurry up and wait” syndrome, where very tight deadlines are met for the RFP, but answers don’t come for weeks or the site selection rep stops communicating altogether. 

Finally a handful of Suppliers also complained about 3rd-party planners expecting way too many perks or concessions in the negotiation process.  One hotelier put it this way, “Why does the site inspection have to be in peak season when the program is in shoulder season – thought part of the site visit is to ‘see what the end user will see/experience’? And why ask for complimentary spa services or free golf when the program includes neither?”

Before you start thinking that this is just a “dump on 3rd-party planners” column, please read on.

I actually think the proliferation of intermediaries in the meetings industry is due to the fact hotels and CVBs too often have done a poor job of maintaining relationships.  And I believe hotel revenue managers have way too much power at many hotels; they just look at yields, and not at the relationship with meeting planners.

One site selection professional I spoke with told me about seeing her role as an "advocate" for her clients.  She related the example of one meeting where the organizer inadvertently had forgotten to account for some VIPs arriving earlier than the block reservation, and how the sales manager said she was unable to convince the hotel's revenue manager from charging almost twice the rate just because they were arriving one night earlier. The organizer could not get the hotel to budge until the site selection company stepped in.

From my experience, there are site selection professionals and 3rd party planners who abuse their status. They go on familiarization trips and never book anything, or they hit up hotels for perks they shouldn't be asking for. But there are just as many who are highly ethical, masterful at servicing and keeping in touch with their clients. Many seem to have more time to do so because often hotel and CVB sales managers are forced into too much administration work, endless meetings, and travel!

Ultimately, I see this as another case of suppliers and planners needing to elevate the conversation.   Hotel sales managers and CVB reps perhaps could use a reality check on the value they provide and the strengths of their relationships with clients. On the other hand 3rd-party planners and the companies they work for should take action against the unethical behaviour of some of their reps because they are giving everyone in that field a bad name.

There seems to be so much pent up emotion about this issue, with sales representatives afraid of speaking out for fear of repercussion.  Even site selection professionals who have witnessed unethical behavior by their peers seem reluctant to bring light to the issue.

Honesty and clarity are needed here, on both sides.  I urge you to have more and better conversations on this subject!

This article by Doreen Ashton Wagner was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Ottawa Chapter Communiqué Newsletter