HOW DO SUPPLIERS SEE US? Perceptions of religious planners and events

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Curious to know how our industry is perceived, I attended the Understanding the Religious Market education session offered at Emerge Omaha, co-led by Dean Jones, CMP, Director of Conferences and Events for RCMA and Tommy Keown, CMP, Account Manager for Arrowhead Conferences & Events. The room was nearly full, and about 85% were CVB representatives, by a raise of hands.

What proceeded in that session felt like a mirror held up to the religious planning community, and I thought it would be valuable to pass along the content of that session to our planners—to let you take a look in the mirror, so to speak. This isn’t a criticism of religious planners! Being better is an unending pursuit—my hope is that you’ll see places in this article where you’re already doing well and others where you might be able to improve.

First Impressions

Most religious meeting organizers that suppliers encounter seem to be people who wear multiple hats, have little or no meeting planning training, and are often temporary and/or elected into our leadership roles. If that’s not you, you may find yourself having to prove it more often than you’d like. If that’s an apt description of you as a planner, embrace it. Yes, you can get better, but don’t try to represent yourself as more experienced than you are. You’ll likely get better explanations of important details you need to know if it’s not assumed you know more than you do. Questions are good; honesty is your friend.

The group of suppliers was advised on areas where religious planners tend to try to save money, most notably room rates, food and beverage packages, meeting space rental, parking fees, audio-visual elements, and Wi-Fi access (nearly the whole event, if you add it up). This was done in an effort to encourage suppliers to help you avoid surprises as well as find ways to help you actually save where you can. Armed with this list, you can approach your next planning meeting ready to express which of those are most important to you and where you’ve got the most flexibility.

For less experienced planners, the financial arrangements of an event can be the most daunting elements you’ll face. Even for experienced planners, the constraints of available capital make things like required deposits—sometimes months or years in advance—difficult or impossible. Be clear when communicating with suppliers regarding specific financial needs. If you need any items specifically addressed in your contract, bring that up as soon as possible in your planning process—there may be 3rd party providers involved, and additional time may be required to accommodate those requests. We’ll cover more on contracts in a moment.

Cost/Budget Considerations

Beginning with your site visit, there are a host of cost and budget items to navigate. Handling the costs associated with a site visit varies from destination to destination. Some destinations take care of flight and hotel costs for events based on a certain hotel room block size; others may expect you to cover it up front and credit it against your eventual contract. Don’t wonder. Ask.

Audio visual needs can be one of the trickier areas to negotiate, often due to unclear expectations from both sides. Suppliers should be as specific as possible about what is and isn’t included in terms of A/V, and in return planners should be as clear as possible about known needs. The more you know about how many screens, microphones, lights, or cameras you need, the sooner the supplier can you let you know what from your list may be included and which items may incur additional charges. Assuming too often leads to unexpected costs; don’t assume anything.

Many religious groups don’t consume alcohol, which limits a significant revenue source for hotels and other suppliers. Be clear up front (especially with your CVB contact) about what your groups needs in this area are, and what other food and beverage that could enhance your event. 

Complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi, and parking are becoming more common but aren’t a guarantee. Be sure to ask in advance if you know your group would like these amenities included. Religious planners are often surprised by charges—if it’s not parking and Wi-Fi, it’s tax and service charges on top of the food and beverage minimums or resort fees on top of room rates. Suppliers aren’t trying to nickel and dime planners, but asking for clarity on all charges (or consolidation of things like room rates and resort fees) can shed light on potential surprises and ensure you’re creating a successful event budget.

If you have specific needs regarding the amount of time to settle your final bill, communicate that from the beginning. Most issues can be worked out with some intentional communication.

Contract Considerations

Due to the nature of committee or board organization of many religious entities, our decision-making and approval processes can often seem sluggish to our suppliers. Do what you can to streamline those processes, and make it clear to your organization the importance of expediency.

Don’t wait to plan the specifics of your food and beverage needs—rushing those decisions makes for messy details. Do you want buffets or plated meals? Water in bottles or pitchers? Do you have specific dietary needs? Be clear about those needs and ask your questions about them sooner rather than later. Unless you’re a concessions expert, ask for help understanding what’s available to you—what is a must-have vs. a might-want, all the way to what might be a bonus for your group.

Attrition is a key concept for estimating room block size; don’t get caught off-guard here. Remember, the supplier is your friend; they don’t want you paying for empty rooms, either. Bring your event history to the conversation and ask for help figuring out what you need. How many comp rooms are included in your contract? Can 3rd-party planners receive a comped room?

You may very well have a legal expert examine your organization’s contracts, but many planners don’t have this luxury. It’s important that the contract addresses all the specifics you request, but asking that the contract language be as simplified as possible will help you feel more secure at the signing table.

In the spirit of the potluck supper, the religious market can instinctually attempt to cost-save by showing up with their own _____, with the blank being filled by anything from bottled water to birthday cake to Mrs. Gustafson’s fabled casserole. Contractually speaking, this is often not allowed on many properties, and could be considered a heath-code violation. Find out what is allowed and what is not. If you have a specific desire (youth ministry events do seem to love eating pizza right out of the boxes), communicate that in advance. Ask what the supplier can offer in the way of a unique experience. The bring-it-yourself violations can extend beyond mealtime—be sure to ask in advance if you can bring your own A/V elements or other items that are offered as services at your destination.

Remember to ask your supplier about hits and misses with previous planners running events similar to yours. These conversations can save you some headaches, eliminate surprises, and seed great ongoing relationships.

Most suppliers have a wealth of experience and knowledge that they are glad to share with you. Look to the supplier as an ally and not an adversary, and in some instances, suppliers are great mentors for meeting planners. I found something reassuring about the idea that religious planners and suppliers often don’t fully understand each other. Hopefully this section has shown where you can help yourself by thinking ahead to be ready to answer supplier questions, advocate for your needs from the get-go, or even improve a supplier’s experience of the religious market by being prepared or more organized than expected.

Here are a series of questions for your and your leadership team to consider as your next event approaches:

  • What is the role of the sales director and convention services manager? Who will I be working with?
  • How experienced is my sales manager? (If you are relatively new in your role, you definitely want someone experienced guiding you. It’s probably also a good idea to express your newness to your suppliers—otherwise, disadvantageous assumptions may be made about your event knowledge.)
  • What terminology am I familiar with, and what don’t I recognize in early communication? (Again, there’s nothing to be gained in pretending beyond your experience level. You can’t make a RFP until you know what an RFP is. If you don’t recognize something, speak up.)
  • What is the timeline for deposits, room setups, rooming lists, and so forth? Is there a format I should use for rooming lists? Ask for a schedule of due dates for these action items so they don’t creep up on you.
  • What are the parameters for a tasting? (This section caught the room’s funny bone a little. I’ll sum it up by suggesting you not show up to a tasting with a doggy bag.)
  • Who is my point of contact at the CVB?
  • How can I avoid participants booking outside of our room block?
  • What other groups will be present at the hotel or event location while we’re there? (Here you’re trying to avoid incompatibility with other events. I once attended a youth conference where this question was not asked. On one day of the event, our several-thousand strong youth worship event (think decibels) was on the other side of the wall from the California state bar exam. The next day the bar exam was over and a sanctioned MMA fight moved in for the night, filling the hallway with tattoos and leather. The question is worth asking.)
  • Can I save money if my dates are flexible? (It’s possible that you’re unintentionally booking during a peak week; flexing several days could save you on food or lodging.)
  • What else can you help me understand about my type of event? (Don’t stop at the details of your own planning; embrace the supplier as an educator. They may communicate something that’s useful down the road.)

Pre & Post-Conference Planning

Consider having both pre-conference and post-conference meetings bookending your event. The former will establish a pattern of clear communication, and the latter will help work out any issues that arose throughout and help better prepare you in future event planning.

PLANNER TAKEAWAYS

  • Ask questions and be honest about your level of experience. 
  • Communicate clearly upfront your financial needs and limitations with suppliers. 

  • Know the unique needs of your group and be prepared to address those early on in the planning process.
  • Make a list of things you presume would be included financially (or items or services you would presume to be present) and make sure go over it with the appropriate suppliers.
  • If you have a known weakness in an area of planning (A/V is a common one) don’t hesitate to ask for advice from other planners prior to meeting with suppliers.
     
Kevin AltonTips for Planners