Who – and When -- Do You Tip?

September 28, 2007

by Rob Schron

There has never been a question in my mind that a venue’s conference services manager is the key to a successful event, particularly when the logistics involved require a better than average attention to detail.  And while I can honestly say I never met a CSM I didn’t like, I can also state quite honestly that on a number of occasions I found their being amiable didn’t always translate into their being capable.

There is no question that all CSMs are not created equal and, as a result, shouldn’t be treated the same when it comes to evaluating their services. Hence, to reward them with a gratuity at conference’s end just because “they’re there” doesn’t make sense to me. In my view, each situation should be judged on its own merits and the amount you decide on to recognize effort should be based on your evaluation of what was done to make your program a success -- nothing more, nothing less. As for the actual amount to be dispensed, that’s a call only you can make, although if you’re an independent planner it’s always a good idea to get the client’s input.

As for others involved with your program – management people, maitre d’s, house-keepers, bell captains, etc. – tipping isn’t always necessary or in some cases (in Europe and Asia, for example) even expected.  And in certain situations, gratuities (a/k/a “tips”) are already built into the prices you’re paying, although you need to read your contract to make sure. Recently, a gala dinner we arranged for a client – a “tasting menu” at a little over $160.00 a pop, including wine – had a 26% service charge added to it: 21% of which was to go the maitre d’ and wait staff and 5% to the venue’s administrative people. 
The client and I agreed an additional gratuity here wasn’t necessary, by the way.

More often than not, most planners I know include tips in formulating their meeting budgets despite the fact that there are no guidelines or formulas for doing so. We have most often advised clients to use a flat amount, ranging from $3.00 to $10.00 per attendee, based on the number of people participating in the event and the length and number of days the program is running. When outside “forces” such as tour guides or DMC staff is involved, however, we recommend the client disperse tips based on a percentage of the total cost of each offsite event.

word “tip” is usually interpreted to mean “to insure promptness” but meeting planners might want to consider a different take on it: in this case, “to indicate professionalism” –which, as we all know, is what it takes to make a meeting successful and something no one in our business – planner or supplier -- should take for granted, tip or no tip.

Pick and Pay (For My Brains and Expertise, Please)….

September 26, 2007

by Rob Schron

Independent meeting planners need to give serious thought to charging prospective clients a fee for their services – especially those who seek their advice and counsel and, at the same time, “must” have a proposal from you on short notice, even when the event being planned may often be many months away.  After all, it takes time – your time -- to research and develop such requests and, among other things, determine hotel rates and availability, the air lift to a particular destination and the frequency of flights from various gateways, transfer possibilities, food and beverage options, DMC options and the cost of renting AV materials, etc., etc., etc.

So the question isn’t so much whether or not you should charge such a fee but how much your fee should be.  People in the “advice” business generally charge by the hour and while you may not be able to quantify the time you’ll need to spend on developing a particular proposal, you do have some idea, based on past experience, as to how long it will take you to draw one up. Hence, a flat fee in such cases might be the way to go.

There is a risk and a reward to this idea and, in my view, a positive way to present it. 
Here’s the deal:

Explain to your prospective client (I wouldn’t charge repeat clients as they have already shown their good faith by doing business with you) that in order to work up a detailed proposal you need to allot significant time for it and since, as the saying goes, “time is money,” you need to be compensated for it.  And before the prospective client abruptly declines your offer, explain what you’re prepared to do, to wit, apply 100% of your fee toward the actual cost of the program should your proposal be accepted and the program moves forward.  This way, you’ve put a value on your expertise by having the client pay for the time you’ve spent developing the program (as a retainer, so to speak) and paying for your services when, and if, the program -- and your management and supervision of it – materializes.

Bottom line here is that people seeking the help of a professional meeting planner shouldn’t expect to get it for nothing.  Remember, most people think free advice is worthless. And while charging a fee for your services may not be the proverbial “offer your client can’t refuse,” it does attest to the adage that “there’s no free lunch” – unless of course you decide to take the client out for one when he’s ready to sign a contract.

What “Good Old Days?”

September 24, 2007

by Rob Schron

For those of us who have been around the meeting planning and incentive travel business awhile, it’s almost become a rite of passage that, from time-to-time, we recall the so-called “good old days.”  The fact is, however, that very often “the good old days” weren’t always that good. On the other hand, they weren’t that bad either.

Among other things, when there were no computers and you had to operate with telephones that weren’t attached to you as they appear to be today and fax machines that always seemed to run out of toner or paper just when you needed them, reaching clients and suppliers was far more difficult, although, on the plus side, there was at that time far more personal interaction between buyers and sellers. (I can actually remember when I had several airline reps calling on me in search of group business!) Anyway, while the trade-off is debatable, I’ve always preferred talking and meeting with clients and suppliers, many of whom over the years became life-long friends as a result of our having to work more closely together.

Nowadays, however, when you try to reach the people you need to work with by telephone, you invariably seem to get their “voice mail” and in many cases need to resort to email to get their attention. And quite often, and strange as it may seem, because of email, you can put together an entire program without ever having met the people who were an integral part of planning it with you. In short, it seems the business of planning meetings has almost become “faceless!”

Problem as I see it is everybody is looking for instance gratification, probably due to the fact that virtually everything you always wanted to know but didn’t know who to ask has been solved by the people who gave us “Google” and other search engines.  And if you can’t find it via these sources, there are always the web sites of the airlines, hotels, DMCs, motor coach companies, etc., to fill in the blanks. 

So, one might ask, who needs people? The answer is, of course, we do.

As “faceless” as the process has become, it does allow for planners and suppliers to provide for quicker responses to RFPs – and in today’s fast-paced environment that  increases the opportunities to do business which, as Martha Stewart might say, “is a good thing.”  Nevertheless, despite all the advances in technology that, without question, have helped grow our businesses, the “good old days” were “a good thing” too.   

Perfect your partnership with suppliers

April 13, 2007

By Rob Schron

As important as it is to know who your audience is when formulating a plan for a meeting, it’s equally important for you to know who the people are who you’ll rely on to make everything happen the way you planned it, whether you’re dealing with a conference center, a hotel, or a DMC.

Everyone knows the usual cast of characters: the venue’s sales manager, the conference services or operations manager, the person who heads food and beverage, the AV guy or girl, the heads of housekeeping and security, even the finance person—they all have a stake in your program. And they almost always attend the so-called “pre-con” – that coffee and cookies “extravaganza” that usually takes place a day or so before your meeting where you get to meet them in person, and they show up to assure you everything is going to be just fine.

Assurances aside, however, you need to make sure everyone appreciates that while they’re only coming into contact with your guests for brief periods of time, your relationship with the group is ongoing and your reputation is on the line more than theirs. (It can’t hurt, by the way, to request that the venue’s general manager also be on hand for this get-together). 
When you do meet the people responsible for the logistics of your meeting, it’s always a good idea to exchange business cards so that they don’t forget who you are and, just as importantly, you don’t forget who they are. And it doesn’t hurt to review the plan you’ve put together so that everyone is on the same page and knows your meeting’s time line. In fact, to make sure everyone is on the same page, provide everyone with that “same page” (or pages) and avoid leaving anything to chance or open to question.
For instance, if your venue is a hotel, you might want to remind housekeeping that even though your meetings will start each day with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., they shouldn’t plan on making up rooms earlier than, say, 9:00 a.m. – and even later if the attendee is accompanied by his or her spouse who might have forgotten to put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign!
Other issues you might want to raise or review at the “pre-con” -- aside, obviously, of the banquet event orders -- include the exact time the room or rooms for the program will be set up, the exact location in each room of rheostats, thermostats, tale-phone extensions and emergency exits, and the person to contact at any time during your meeting if you need to change something or in the event of an emergency. 

You might also use the pre-con to take issue with something that has been a pet peeve of ours ever since we started our business event planning business 25 years ago: the so-called “tip cup” – that wine glass with a dollar or two in it that invariably shows up on bars as a reminder to “take care of the bartender.”  When you’re paying to cover gratuities and service charges that on F&B alone these days range in many places from 15-24%, we find this particularly egregious – and have taken to insist that venues we’re working with put it in writing – right there on the BEO -- that this display of greed won’t become an issue at any of our functions.      

Maybe we should drink to that!

Know your place in the meeting

April 11, 2007

By Rob Schron

Whether you’re a corporate, association, or independent meeting planner, you need to know one very important thing about the meeting you’ve undertaken to manage: Just exactly where you stand – or, for that matter, sit – when the actual event is taking place.

All too often, the meeting planner is left to fend for him or herself during business sessions, breakouts, and dining situations and without guidance from the top – from the people for whom you’re managing the program – and this can put you in somewhat of an awkward, or even untenable, position. 
As for business sessions, if you haven’t been advised where your company or client wants you to be, there’s no harm in asking. Should you be in the back of the conference room or immediately outside it? Do you need to be in close proximity to the event, or can you be a short distance away, checking on other rooms but within range of a walkie-talkie or cell phone? Is it necessary for you to be on site if you’re 100% -- repeat, 100% -- sure the venue itself can handle any problems that may arise? Knowing in advance where you’re expected to be can go a long way in eliminating any misunderstandings between you and the people responsible for the content of the meeting. And having it in writing isn’t a bad idea, either.

When it comes time to dine, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, a cocktail reception or dinner, here, too, you should ask for guidance. Are you on the scene in simply a supervisory capacity, or do you get to share in the experience with your group’s guests? While, in my view, you should always be on site when it comes to group dining – if nothing else than to make sure the setup is right, the wait staff is attentive and the food is what you ordered – the meeting’s hosts may feel otherwise. Know upfront what is expected of you, and if you’re not going to eat with the troops or be there to simply oversee F&B, make an arrangement with the kitchen to eat before or afterwards.

A word, or a few, about drinking: While in most cases, a company or association will assume all, or at least a share, of the responsibility for the consumption of alcohol with the venue serving it, the independent planner should always include a disclaimer in any contract drawn up for a client that acknowledges that (1) the planner be held harmless for any issues that might arise as a result of excessive alcohol consumption; and that (2) the planner not be responsible for any and all losses, damages, claims and expenses that may result from it.

And, if you’ve been invited to be on the scene during such a reception, make sure your glass contains nothing more than Poland Spring or Pelligrino!

Demographic considerations for food and fun

April 09, 2007

By Rob Schron

In the meeting planning business, when it comes to putting together an agenda, you need to recognize that all men – and women, as well -- are not created equal.

In short, you must know your audience. If you’re an internal corporate or association planner, chances are you know who you’re dealing with and the issues most important to them. But if you’re an independent planner, make sure your client provides you with a detailed profile that pinpoints the type of crowd you’re going to have to manage, and who among them may need “special handling.”

And remember that the site you choose for your meeting isn’t more important than what you plan to do once everyone gets there. In this vein, if everybody either works for the company holding the meeting or shares interest in a common subject matter, the agenda itself should be the least of your challenges. What you need to do is make sure the overall experience is, if not unforgettable, at the very least enjoyable.   

So the first thing you probably need to know is the age range of the participants. Young and old don’t always mix, or even want to try, so you might want to make sure you’ve selected a site for your program that has universal appeal and enough activities that all age groups can find something to enjoy. Not everybody plays golf, remember, and casinos and beaches are not everybody’s cup of tea, either.

Food, too, needs to be considered, since one person’s steak is often another’s
broccoli. Best bet here is to probably consider a buffet with a wide variety of choices, or a plated meal with options for appetizers and main courses.

Creativity can come into play here, of course. If you’re putting together a lunch or dinner for an international audience, consider food stations representative of the various countries from where the attendees come from. Or, if the company produces a product at various domestic or international locations, you could serve food known to be the specialties of these regions and thus create a theme.

In short, meeting planners need to give thought for food outside the meeting room, in addition to giving food for thought inside the meeting room.

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