Event Planning: 4 Surprise Challenges, 4 Solutions

By Barbara Dunn, July 18, 2011

While most meeting professionals work hard to anticipate problems that might arise during event planning and execution, the reality is the biggest challenges are often unexpected. Fortunately, we can learn from others. Here are four true stories of surprise challenges faced by planners, how they were resolved, and what could have been done to avoid or minimize the problems that ensued.

1. Underdeparted and the Snowstorm

How does a snowstorm in the Northeast affect a meeting in Florida? When attendees from an earlier meeting are unable to travel back home to the Northeast. That’s what happened to one group a few years ago. When attendees arrived in Florida for their meeting, they learned the hotel was unable to provide their sleeping rooms or function space because the previous group did not check out as scheduled due to a storm that left them stranded.

Once alerted to the problem, the hotel worked to secure sleeping rooms at a neighboring hotel. The hotel also was able to provide function space to the group. Ultimately, the holdovers were able to travel home and the group was able to move its sleeping rooms back to the hotel.

This issue of being oversold—or, as one hotelier put it to me, “underdeparted”—can be a major disruption to a group’s meeting. And yet despite efforts to put strong language into hotel contracts, these situations still arise from time to time and need to be managed from a practical standpoint outside of the contract.

2. The Speaker and the Scandal

Just three days after entering into a contract with a keynote speaker, a nonprofit organization learned on the national news that the speaker was involved in a scandal alleging he engaged in illegal and unethical behavior. The group quickly made an assessment of their options, including cancellation of the speaker contract. Unfortunately, the contract did not include cancellation for this specific reason; the group would have to pay a cancellation fee. After discussing the issue with the speaker’s bureau, the bureau agreed to allow the group to apply its contract and fee toward another speaker.

While the group was pleased the speaker’s bureau understood its concerns and addressed them regardless of what the contract stipulated, the key takeaway from this story is that it is important to have strong language in the speaker contract regarding the group’s right to cancel for issues or concerns involving the speaker. Typically in speaker contracts, there is a broad right for the speaker to cancel for reasons such as illness, death of a family member and even “overriding professional obligations,” but this right is one-sided. By converting these provisions to mutual rights, the group will be in a better position to protect its interests with this important investment.

3. No Rooms at the Inn

Three weeks before an annual meeting, the planner for a professional society learned the luxury brand hotel scheduled to host her group’s meeting would be undergoing exterior renovations and unable to provide sleeping rooms to the group. The hotel proposed that since it could still host the function space, it would transport attendees to and from the hotel by bus to a nearby limited-service hotel.

The hotel’s proposal was unacceptable, so the planner worked to secure rooms and function space in another luxury brand hotel. Meanwhile, the organization advised the original hotel that due to its inability to provide sleeping rooms as required, it was in breach of its contract and therefore all obligations were terminated and the hotel would be legally responsible for all monetary damages incurred by the group to move its meeting.

The summary of damages included the difference in room rates and food and beverage prices between the original and alternate hotel; costs to notify the attendees of the change in location and update the website; and attorney fees to review the contract for the alternate hotel. Documentation of the charges was also provided. Following review and discussion of the damages, the original hotel accepted the summary and made a payment to the group for its damages.

Although this story has a happy ending, the group could have put itself in a stronger position with the original hotel by including a provision in the contract that addressed the possibility of the hotel’s cancellation. That provision would include a detailed listing of those categories of items and costs for which the hotel would need to pay monetary damages if it could not provide the rooms or function space required by the contract.

4. Party of Two for the Ballroom?

Two weeks before an annual sales meeting, a corporate meeting planner discovered the ballroom reserved for her company’s general session programs also had been reserved by another group and would not be available for her company’s use. Although the contract did not state the hotel could move the group’s function space, the hotel made the change anyway. When challenged, the hotel stated that the change was made because the group would not be using its minimum room block; therefore, the hotel found another group that would replace revenue at the hotel. The alternate space being offered by the hotel was inferior in terms of size, location and amenities.

While the group continued to challenge the hotel’s right to move its function space, it contacted its decorator about the alternate space and whether it could be made to work for the general sessions. It could. Negotiations then began over what the group would receive from the hotel as a result of the change. In addition to paying the group’s additional costs to move the general session (including decor, lighting and signage), the hotel agreed to waive more than $20,000 in room block attrition fees the group would have been responsible for under the terms of the contract. So in the end, while not happy about the alternate space, the meeting went from a financial failure to a financial success due in part to the hotel’s change in function space.

There are two key learning points from this story: First, make sure hotel and convention center agreements include language requiring the hotel or center to obtain the group’s prior consent to any function space reassignments. Second, when any challenge such as double booking of function space occurs, remember that sometimes it can be a good thing. Often, the group gains leverage to negotiate financially beneficial concessions.

*****

The next time you hear a story from a meeting professional about a challenge at a meeting, don’t think the same thing can’t happen to you. Think instead of what you would do to make sure the problem never arises in the first place. Heed the old saying, “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

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