How do you cut through the marketing hype and choose the right venue for your next corporate event? Here are 10 steps, along with insider tips, to help you conduct a successful site inspection.
An event planner dies and goes to heaven. At the pearly gates, St. Peter invites her to take a look at hell as well, just so she understands her options. Hell looks good – better than heaven, in fact. She makes her choice, only to find herself surrounded by fire and brimstone. She looks up to the heavens and cries, "This is not the hell I saw before." "Sorry," says St. Peter, "that was just the site inspection."
Joking aside, choosing a venue for your corporate event is one of the most important and difficult parts of planning an event. How do you distinguish between the rosy picture venues present when they're courting your business and the reality of what your guests will experience?
Once you've determined your event objectives, assessed the needs of your attendees, and narrowed your possible venues to a short list of two or three sites, it often comes down to the all-important site inspection. Follow these 10 tips, and you're far more likely to find a suitable venue without landing yourself in the seventh circle of event-planning hell.
1. Start Off Stealthily
An attendee's first impression of a venue sets the stage for the rest of the event. And it may be very different from your own first impression if you're being picked up at the airport by a limo, skipping standard front-desk check-in, sleeping in an upgraded room, and being pampered with top-end amenities.
The best way to get a realistic idea of what attendees will encounter is to start your site inspection in "stealth mode." Fly in before your scheduled tour and check out the site for yourself first.
When you get to the venue, what is your first impression? Is the main entrance welcoming, with areas for your attendees to meet informally? If it's a hotel property, does someone greet you as you arrive and ask if you need any assistance with your bags? Is the front desk adequately staffed?
As you walk around the property, pay attention to the venue's directional signage. Can you easily find your way around? Also ensure that the venue is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant with accessible parking, wheelchair ramps, braille signage, etc.
Check out the condition of the property – including the cleanliness of the carpets, curtains, and furnishings in the public areas. For hotel venues, pop into rooms that are being cleaned to see if they're on par with your room and the other rooms you'll see on your tour. And regularly check your phone or tablet to see if free Wi-Fi is available throughout the property, or if coverage is slow and spotty.
2. Request the Right Guide
When setting up your official tour, ask if the person you'd actually be working with (i.e., the convention services manager or facilities manager) is able to conduct your tour, instead of a salesperson who will tell you anything he or she thinks you want to hear. The person you negotiate the contract with isn't the person who'll follow you through the planning process, and you need to find out if that person is someone with whom you would be comfortable working.
You'll also want to request the credentials and experience levels of the person or people you'll be working with. I've had bad experiences working with unqualified facilities managers, during which I spent all my time teaching them the "language" of the hospitality industry, and hearing "I'll check on that and get back with you."
3. Do a Background Check
When you begin your tour, ask when the last renovations of the public/function areas were completed, and, if applicable, the date of the most recent upgrades to the sleeping-room furnishings and linens. My colleague Margaret Kennedy, CMP, says bedding and mattresses should be changed at least every five years – especially in convention cities with high occupancy – and other décor and cosmetic updates should be done every eight to 10 years, minimum.
Ask about any future plans for construction or refurbishment and if those plans might impact the dates of your event. Is the property currently up for sale or pending sale? Is the property planning on changing management, and if so, when?
Find out what other organizations will be holding functions during your event at the same venue. Can you be notified if other groups contract for adjacent space during your event?
Also ask to see the list of services and pricing offered by the venue's in-house vendors, such as audiovisual, telecommunications and Internet, floral, and computer rental, and ask if any of the vendors have an exclusive contract to provide these services. Exclusivity kills competition and can greatly increase prices.
4. Picture Your Event
As you tour the function space, imagine your specific event arrangements. Where would you place your registration desk? Which meeting rooms would you use? Where would you set up your exhibit hall, hold hospitality functions, stage entertainment, or serve meals? If any of these functions are being held outside, what would be the backup plan in case of inclement weather? Where would you locate staff offices and green rooms for speakers? Evaluate whether each area is adequate to serve your needs.
Make sure to get accurate floor plans with maximum capacities for various setups (e.g., reception, theater, classroom, rounds, crescents, etc.) and the official fire-code capacities for all rooms, considering the AV equipment and food, class material, or serving stations you'll need. Does the facility have overflow space if your attendance expands beyond your initial estimates?
Ask plenty of questions regarding Internet access and the cost of wired and wireless Internet connectivity. Get your internal technical team involved if necessary to make sure that you've adequately assessed all Internet and power requirements.
Visit the meeting rooms you would use during your event. Are they on the same level of the facility or distributed on different floors? If elevators are used to get between them, will the number of elevators be adequate for moving your guests during breaks?
Is there adequate signage to direct attendees? Are there sufficient restrooms near the meeting areas? If your guests will be served snacks and meals, what is the proximity between meeting rooms or the exhibit hall and the food-service areas?
Keep an eye on room capabilities as they relate to your AV needs. Consider built-in sound systems, data ports, electrical capacity for AV and attendees' laptops, etc. Check for visual obstructions such as supports or light fixtures and issues with sound bleeding from adjacent rooms, especially if rooms are separated by folding walls.
Temperature always seems to be a "hot button" with attendees. How is temperature in the function and meeting rooms controlled, and is each room on a separate thermostat? If so, who controls it?
5. Go Behind the Scenes
Don't restrict your visit to the areas that the venue wants to show you; ask for an impromptu tour of the "back of house" and look for cleanliness and organization. Depending on the type of meeting, check the access to the property's shipping docks, the proximity and capacity of freight elevators, the facility's freight-receiving and material-handling capabilities, and the location and security of storage.
Ensure the venue's inventory of meeting furnishings, linen, centerpieces, props, etc. is adequate for your event. Make sure the condition of these furnishings meet your standards, as many venues have extended the life of these items to save money.
6. Chow Down
Food quality matters to your attendees, and you don't want bone-dry salmon to be the most memorable part of your event. Consider the venue's standard menus and ask if you can work with the chef or other caterers on custom menus for themed events and for attendees with special dietary requirements. With so many different food requirements these days (e.g., vegan, gluten free, lactose intolerant, nuts or seafood allergies, etc.) it's important to find out which accommodations are standard and which may require other arrangements with the kitchen.
Consider setting up a tasting of the items you'd likely be serving to check food quality and presentation. What is the venue's guarantee of food quality? What quantity does it guarantee will be available above the number of estimated guests? By what date does the venue require final attendance figures? Also inquire about minimum charges, either per meal or event, since food and beverage (F&B) is a major source of venues' revenue and will be considered as you negotiate for both sleeping and meeting rooms.
Obtain a list of any additional fees that will be charged, such as administrative fees, staffing fees for bartenders or baristas, buy-out fees for using your own F&B providers, and standard percentages for tips, gratuities, and sales tax. And find out the ratio of servers to guests to assure that staffing will be adequate. Lastly, order room service to test the friendliness of the phone staff, promptness of delivery, and quality of menu offerings.
7. Meet the Staff
Hotels and other venues are squeezing budgets to improve revenue after some lean years, and many have cut back on staffing. So find out the ratio of staffers to guest rooms and the average length of employment of the staff. Compare those numbers to other properties you're considering. Longevity is a good indicator that the staff is treated well and will treat your guests well in turn. It is especially important to find out how long the facility's general manager and department heads have worked there, as they will play crucial roles in your event's success.
Make sure to meet the banquet manager and captain, as well as the people who manage the meeting room furnishings, linens, décor, room setup, and meal service. If other services such as AV and Internet are exclusive, also meet the managers of those areas. They will all be very important points of contact during your event to keep everything running smoothly and on time. If applicable to your event, ask for a list of local third-party vendors with which the venue has working relationships, such as general service contractors, destination management companies, security providers, and transportation vendors for moving your guests between the airport, hotel, and events.
Find out what restrictions are in place under the venue's union contracts that may impact your ability to complete basic tasks on your own, such as running standard video cables from your laptop to a projector or setting up your own projection screens. Those may seem like tiny details, but they can count up quickly when it comes to your final invoice. Once, when I brought my own video cable to an event, I was told I couldn't use it. Instead, the venue charged me $50 to rent its cable, and then tacked on labor and service fees, as well as tax. Another time, I held a luncheon at Moscone Center and was charged two five-hour minimums to set up and tear down a simple pop-up projection screen and LCD projector.
Finally, ask if the hotel employees are part of a collective-bargaining agreement (members of a union) and if so, when their current contract is expiring. If their contract expires right before or during your event, there may be an increased likelihood of a labor strike, which could disrupt your event.
8. Do a Safety Check
It's your responsibility as an event professional to make sure that the venue you select is safe for your attendees. Ask about local crime rates, get a copy of the venue's safety and security policies, and inquire about its current security-staffing levels. What types of training have the venue's security officers completed? Are its security officers trained in CPR or the use of defibrillators (if they're available on site)? How far is the venue located from the closest hospital with an emergency room?
Take note of lighting in the hallways, limited-access doors that are activated by room keys during evening hours, and lighting in parking garages and lots. Also check to see that all fire exits are properly marked and illuminated, and discuss the venue's evacuation procedures.
9. Check References
Ask your sales rep for the contact information of three event planners who have recently held events at the venue. And utilize the industry grapevine online through LinkedIn groups or other forums in the hospitality and event industry to get firsthand knowledge of venues.
If the opportunity arises during your site inspection, introduce yourself to other meeting planners on site who can share their insight into their overall dealings with the venue.
10. Take Good Notes
Make sure you use the same matrix to gather and record information at each venue. I like to make a spreadsheet to compare the different aspects of the venues I'm considering, with plenty of room for jotting down quick notes as I tour. I also analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of the venues I tour. And I take loads of photos of each property to help refresh my memory as I move through the decision-making process.
Although your hundreds of questions may leave your tour guide exhausted, careful inspections and a detailed analysis should help you detect any fire and brimstone behind the pearly exteriors of potential venues. E
Here's a brief overview of my 10-step approach to site inspections. Use it to help guide your next venue inspection and aid in the process of selecting the best property for your company's corporate events.
1. Start Off Stealthily: Arrive with plenty of time before your scheduled visit and observe how you're treated by hotel employees before they realize you're there to conduct a site inspection.
2. Request the Right Guide: Ask that your on-site guide be the person you'd actually be working with if you book your event at that venue.
3. Do a Background Check: Find out when the hotel last updated its bedding and mattresses. As a general rule, these things should be changed out at least every five years.
4. Picture Your Event: Get accurate floor plans with maximum capacities for various setups and the official fire-code capacities for all rooms, considering any audiovisual or other equipment.
5. Go Behind the Scenes: Ask for an impromptu tour of the "back of house" and look for cleanliness and organization.
6. Chow Down: Arrange a tasting of the items you're considering serving to guests to check food quality and presentation. Also ask for a list of any additional fees that you may incur.
7. Meet the Staff: Make sure to meet the banquet manager and captain, as well as the people who manage the meeting room furnishings, linens, décor, room setup, and meal service.
8. Do a Safety Check: Ask about local crime rates, get a copy of the venue's safety and security policies, and inquire about its current security-staffing levels.
9. Check References: Ask your sales representative for the contact information of three event planners who have recently held events at the venue. Contact those individuals for feedback and insight.
10. Take Good Notes: Make sure you use the same matrix to gather and record information at each venue you visit. And take loads of photos to help refresh your memory after your visit.
CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com