Since 2010, our WERC Annual Conference has had flat attendance numbers, but room block pickup has been on a steady decline: The capture rate has gone from a high of 90 percent of attendees down to 60 percent of attendees. This was creating challenges for my planning team, including room block attrition penalties and rooms-to-space ratio imbalances, making the group less desirable for destinations.
Sound familiar? It’s a common challenge for meeting planners in the last decade.
Knowing it was critical to fix this, I mapped out a plan of action. I knew we needed to gather data and understand attendee priorities to learn why they were booking outside the room block in the first place. To do this, we surveyed event attendees about hotel booking preferences and priorities, and also what drives them to attend events. We also surveyed nonattendee industry professionals about what drives them to not attend the event and what, if any, other events they do attend and why.
The results were enlightening. From our surveys, we learned:
» Education and networking opportunities were the top reasons people attend the event.
» Affordability of the total event was a critical decision-making factor.
» While the event destination’s accessibility was important to minimize time out of the office, the perceived appeal of the destination itself was much lower on the list of decisionmaking factors.
Other Known Factors:
» Room rates have been increasing steadily since 2009, especially in “first-tier” destinations.
» Attendees have more options to “shop” for hotel rooms (i.e., online travel booking sites).
» Attendees want loyalty program points.
» Attendees’ employers have corporate travel policies dictating use of specific hotels or brands.
Armed with our newfound understanding of our attendees, our next step was to find ways to change behavior while better meeting attendees’ needs. While we hoped that could be achieved easily and in one year, it ultimately took three years and multiple initiatives to induce change.
We shifted our event from first- to second-tier destinations. This allowed us to offer hotels in multiple brands and at various price points that would meet attendee rate requirements and brand preferences, in addition to containing organization costs. We also implemented marketing initiatives to educate attendees about supporting WERC by booking in the block. While the year-one initiatives helped contain overall costs to the organization, they did not drive a higher percentage of attendees to book in the block.
We enlisted the services of a professional housing company to manage room blocks, communicate with attendees and hotels, and identify attendees booking outside the block. This initiative, coupled with year-one initiatives, again had little impact in driving a higher percentage of attendees to book in the block, but offered us additional data to work with.
Realizing that years one and two hadn’t given us the results we wanted, we had to identify the exact scope of the problem. In our case, 30 percent of attendees who needed a hotel room were still booking outside the block.
Our New Plan:
1. Itemize the total direct and indirect costs to WERC of attendees booking outside the block, including attrition fees, lost revenue from commission and/or rebates, added costs due to reduced earned comp room nights and loss of access to future desired destinations due to poor room block performance.
2. Use all data gathered to gain approval to implement a tiered registration fee structure giving incentives to attendees who book in the official housing block. Utilize the housing company to manage the process and ensure attendee compliance.
3. Require all official hotels to support WERC by maintaining the integrity of the group’s rates and not offering any other lower rates online, thereby fostering attendees’ trust in WERC.
Year-three initiatives are currently in progress, but have so far garnered a 30 percent increase in bookings in the block at 90 days out.
What have we learned from this process? Room block maximization and site selection strategy is a common, yet complex, challenge complicated by lack of a clear understanding of the issues by leadership. This is when data and budgets can be your best friend.
Angie Silberhorn, CMP, conference director for Warehousing Education and Research Council, has more than 25 years of experience in meeting and event management. She’s passionate about professional ethics and teaching the next generation of event professionals, as well as her work with animal rescue groups.