II. Site Selection

Give Yourself Time

Another important decision you will need to make early in the conference planning process is site selection. Early is a key word here. The more time you have to choose a site, the greater your options will be. The more options you have, the greater your ability to obtain preferred dates and negotiate with hotels and meeting facilities will be.

How early should you start scouting conference sites? That depends on the size of the conference and the number of facilities available to accommodate you in the locale you desire. In Section I, 12 months was the suggested time frame in which to organize a conference. In terms of site selection, 18 months before the proposed date is not too early to start the selection process, especially if you want a site during its peak season. Some large associations and corporations select their sites ten years in advance! If you're thinking about hosting the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) Annual North American Victim Assistance Conference, consider the fact that NOVA receives bids two and a half years in advance of the conference. The competition for choice meeting dates gets stiffer every year; smart planners start early.

Matching Conferences With Facilities

Matching your conference with the right type of facility can make a good conference a great conference. This requires some considerate planning. For example, if you are planning a lot of "free time," especially in the evening, you would not want to use a conference center that is located far away from restaurants and local attractions. You need to consider what type of facility can best serve your needs. Following is a list of facility types and the advantages of using each:

* A downtown hotel in a large city with downtown attractions is a good choice when attendees are in meetings most of the day but have large blocks of personal time around lunch or in the evening.

* An airport hotel or airport meeting facility works great when you have conferees flying in for a one- or two-day conference and you need to keep ground travel time at a minimum.

* Suburban hotels offer an alternative to downtown or airport hotels. They usually provide convenient parking at no charge and are often situated near local attractions. These hotels work especially well when many conferees will be driving to the meeting.

* A conference center is ideal when you are planning intensive training and need to avoid distractions. Many colleges and universities have conference facilities.

* Resort properties often have excellent conference facilities. However, many sponsors, especially government agencies, refuse to consider resort locations because they seem more suited to fun and recreation than serious meetings. Resort properties can provide great bargains during off-season or shoulder periods.

* Convention centers are often used for very large conferences at which conferees may be sleeping at several hotels, none of which can accommodate meeting and/or banquet needs.

Any of these types of facilities can help make your conference a success if it is a good match for your meeting. When you know your audience, understand the purpose of your conference, and have planned an appropriate conference program, choosing the proper type of facility will be easy.

Conference History Data and Fact Sheets

Conferences can bring great economic benefits to the host city or community. For this reason, you will find convention bureaus, hotel, resorts, and convention centers aggressively competing for your conference business. As you compare cities and facilities and evaluate which ones are best for you, be aware that representatives of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVB) and meeting facilities are evaluating your conference and its economic impact as well. These representatives must decide if doing business with you is a good business decision.

In determining the value of your business, CVB's and conference property representatives will want to see a well-documented record of your past conferences if a similar conference was held in the past; this is known as your conference history data. The conference representatives will want to see a fact sheet of meeting requirements for the conference you are now planning as well.

Together, these documents are your two most valuable site selection tools. With this information, you can accurately anticipate your current meeting needs and also establish a dollar value for your conference business, positioning yourself for contract negotiations that eventually will follow.

The information you provide in your conference history data routinely will be verified with the facilities you used in the past, so provide accurate information and don't exaggerate your business value. If your conference has a history of three years or more, then the data you present should cover the three most recent years.

Although additional information may be necessary, convention bureaus, hotels, and meeting facilities will want to see the following conference history data:

* Conference dates and locations.

* Number of sleeping rooms and suites blocked at each hotel.

* Number of single and double occupancies.

* Number of rooms picked up (include preconference and postconference dates).

* Number of no-shows (does not include timely made cancellations).

* Number of hospitality suites used.

* Number of meeting rooms used each day and number of participants in each room.

* Types of functions held each day.

* Food and beverage information (guaranteed and consumed).

* Arrival and departure patterns.

* Activities planned away from conference site (sports, tours, dinners, receptions, etc.).

This list illustrates why good record keeping is a vital element of conference planning. When examined in conjunction with the conference profile, this information can provide a solid foundation on which to base decisions about your upcoming meeting.

With the data on past meetings as a guideline, draw up a fact sheet of anticipated meeting requirements. The fact sheet should include:

* Preferred conference dates (first, second, and third choices).

* Number of sleeping rooms needed (include suites and any requirements for multiple occupancy).

* Meeting room requirements (number, size, and duration of use).

* Food and beverage requirements.

* Audience profile (shelter staff, prosecutors, etc.).

* How facilities should submit bids (include contact person, agency, address, and phone and fax numbers).

* When decisions will be reached (indicate whether site visits are required).

* Conference history data.

Fact sheets are incredible time savers; without them, you can spend hours on the phone reciting the same information to different convention bureaus and hotel sales representatives. There are two easy ways to distribute your fact sheets.

1. You can mail fact sheets directly to each hotel and/or meeting facility. This method works well only if you already know which facilities can accommodate your needs. Otherwise, you will be wasting energy on facilities that cannot compete for your business.

2. You can contact the CVB's in the locales you are considering. Ask the CVB's to send your fact sheet and your request for bids to only those facilities that fit your needs.

Convention and Visitors Bureaus

CVB's vary in size and services, and the only way to know what services are available is to contact each CVB and see what it offers. CVB's can be a great resource. All the information you need about the city or region under consideration can be obtained through the local CVB. If you need information about hotels and meeting facilities, airline services, public safety, restaurants, attractions, nightlife, and other available activities, the CVB can obtain this information for you. Commonly, the CVB will provide a packet of information that answers conference planners' most frequently asked questions and, at the same time, highlights the features of its area of service.

If you have some flexibility in determining which city will receive your conference business, contact several CVB's for their packets of facts and information. Perceptions of a city or geographic area are sometimes very different from actualities. The only way you can make an informed decision on the best location for your conference is to compare geographic areas, cities, hotels, and meeting facilities; the CVB's will help you do that. Another benefit of contacting two or more CVB's is that you may discover you have some excellent options in terms of location, and it's never too early to start thinking about your next conference.

It is advisable to call your CVB representative in advance to determine the best way to seek bids. Review your conference history data and fact sheet with the representative, who will let you know what other information is needed. In many cases the representative will contact hotels and meeting facilities for you. Additionally, many bureaus will help schedule site inspections for you at the properties you want to see.

Remember, the CVB is your liaison to businesses, local officials, and the community. It can be a valuable partner in conference planning and execution.

Site Inspections

A vital step in the site selection process is a visit to each property under consideration. This may be done by members of the Conference Planning Committee, the coordinator, or both. If site inspections are the responsibility of only the coordinator, another person who understands the objectives of the conference and the meeting requirements should be included for inspections. A second viewpoint is always helpful.

Too often a conference site is chosen without the involvement of the Conference Coordinator. Sometimes this cannot be avoided, but considering the importance of the meeting location, site inspection should involve the coordinator whenever possible. After the initial conference plans are made, the execution of those plans will be the responsibility of the Conference Coordinator. Plans and site inspections made by a committee without the involvement of the coordinator can unnecessarily complicate the conference planning process.

Additionally, site inspections can build the relationship and open communication between the coordinator and the staff of the hotel or meeting facility. Keeping the coordinator involved from the start of dialogue with facility staff also increases the likelihood that the meeting as planned will work at the facility, and decreases the likelihood of miscommunication or misunderstandings.

Site inspections offer the opportunity to walk through a property and examine it for cleanliness and upkeep, but there is so much more that can be accomplished. This is your chance to meet the property managers, see the staff in action, and get a feel for the ambiance of the facility. You will want to measure those special qualities that cannot be shown on floor plans or brochures. Are rooms bright or dim, noisy or quiet, warm or cold, fresh smelling or musty? Are staff polite, friendly, well-groomed and courteous? Can you move easily and comfortably from room to room? These are the kinds of characteristics that can be measured only by a site inspection.

As you begin your tour of a property, you can expect to receive a packet from your sales representative containing details such as room capacities; the number of singles, doubles, and suites; the property's floor plan; and banquet options and menus. In addition to this useful information, prepare your own checklist of items you want to review and questions you need to have answered. Then, as you walk through a property, check off each item or take notes on what you observe and what has been discussed with staff from the hotel or meeting center.

This checklist and written record becomes very important when several sites are visited. It may seem easy to remember the differences between properties at first, but the collected data can be overwhelming.

Stay focused on the purpose of your visit, and fully utilize the short time you have at the property with its representative. Observe, take notes, and above all, ask questions! There are no stupid questions and chances are good that what you ask has been asked before.

A sample site inspection checklist may be found in Appendix C.

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