Recently, while coordinating a meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., I became concerned when my breakfast set-up was not complete 15 minutes before guests were due. Upon notifying the banquet captain, I was informed that many of the staff had not arrived that morning for work. The sales manager and I pitched in and helped the skeleton crew finish the set-up seconds before the guests arrived.
“We still have some kinks to work out due to the management change,” the hotel salesperson informed me. The hotel had recently changed brands and management companies, which was reflected in the service for this particular function. Ultimately, the hotel provided seamless service, and the guests did not notice anything amiss.
In many cases, though, a change in hotel brands or management companies can present challenges for planners. For Jackie Smith, vice president of GT Consultants Inc., the management company for her destination property changed one month prior to her group’s arrival.
“I called my hotel contact and got her voicemail,” Smith says. “It turns out she and almost all of the old staff had left the property. And I didn’t know until I received a call from a new member of the management team.”
Smith says the new management team bent over backwards to reassure her that the meeting would go smoothly. Fortunately, it did. But if she had inserted a protective clause in her hotel contract, she wouldn’t have been caught off-guard.
Joshua L. Grimes, Esq., of Grimes Law Offices LLC recommends inserting a clause requiring the hotel to alert the planner if a hotel changes brands, management companies or ownership; and gives planners 30 days to reflect on the information, and the right to terminate the agreement if they are not happy with the new brand or management company.
“It is important to remember that if ownership control changes, this can also change the offerings of the hotel,” Grimes says. “If a four-star property is sold and it now becomes a three-star, the planner has a right to be notified and to terminate the contract. … If more than 50 percent of ownership changes, planners should be alerted.”
Kerry Smithwick, CMP, senior project manager for Meeting Consultants Inc. and a recently retired program director of WW Sales Enablement for IBM, says hotel contract clauses requiring notification of change of ownership, management or quality are an integral part of her negotiation process.
“We have a clause that allows us to renegotiate terms and/or be released from the commitment if the brand or management company changes and the property is no longer up to the standard or can no longer provide the level of services agreed upon,” Smithwick says. “Additionally, we have specific amendments to our Statement of Work requiring each property to provide daily rooming reports for hotel sleeping rooms and meeting space.”
Grimes also says planners should insert a clause giving them the right to terminate if renovations will affect the quality or service of the hotel. Jene Schumacher, president of The Meeting Source Inc., did not have such a clause in her hotel contract. When she arrived at the program hotel, she was shocked to find the lobby a completely different animal from what she remembered.
“I had a meeting at a hotel in Houston (about 200 people), and when I arrived and walked into the lobby, I noticed everyone had a dog,” Schumacher says. “I thought it must be some kind of dog show going on, but as it turns out, the hotel was under extensive renovation, and they took in Katrina victims who had pets while the hotel was being renovated. No mention was made of this at any time during my contract signing, which was at least six months prior. Fortunately, everyone was sympathetic to the plight of the Katrina victims and their pets, so it was not a disaster.”
Schumacher’s now inserts a renovation clause into her contracts. She also maintains close relationships with her salespeople and lets them know to call if there is anything out of the ordinary that might affect her groups.
Not everything is avoidable, however. Sometimes a problem may arise, leaving a planner too little time to cancel and find a new venue. In that case, Schumacher says, “You should be prepared to renegotiate some areas of the contract in the best interest of your client.”
Schumacher says she might negotiate deeply discounted rates at a nearby hotel and have the host hotel provide transportation, or ask for a complimentary welcome reception with the general manager making an appearance to apologize for the renovation if it is extensive. Planners also may negotiate for additional complimentary suites or ask the hotel to do renovation work during times the group is off-site.
Sometimes a change in the hotel’s level due to renovation or brand change can be for the better. For Ann Howard Hittle, CMP, senior meeting planner at LOMA, the change upgraded her group’s experience. “My hotel changed over to a higher brand,” Hittle explains. “Thankfully, our contract was finalized before the change, or we might have had to pay an increased room rate.”
Including the contract clauses Grimes recommends not only better prepares planners to handle change, it also keeps the attendees’ experience from being compromised. “If it was a switch that was perceived as lowering the image, we might consider other hotel options,” Hittle says. “With our meetings and conferences, it’s not only the destination that is driving our attendance, but in many cases, the specific property. The more desirable the destination and the better the image, the more our attendance will be positively affected.”
David Monroe, director of corporate segment sales and marketing for Marriott International, says not all hotels will provide an out clause. Instead, he says, “The planner should receive a letter of commitment from the hotel explaining that there has been an ownership change, but that this change won’t affect your meeting.”
Regardless, planners need to keep track and hold hotels accountable. At IBM, Smithwick says, the company’s procurement team tracks brand changes and assesses whether or not there will be a lapse in the quality of services offered. “If the brand change will negatively impact the hotel, then they [are] removed from the preferred vendor list.”
Monica Compton, CMP, is an event specialist with Pinnacle Productions Inc. She has 15 years experience as a global meeting planner, managing a variety of corporate programs both domestically and internationally.