Get 150 corporate meeting planners in a room, ask them what their average booking window is, and they’ll tell you 36 days. And that may not change any time soon.
A recent study conducted with planners who averaged a total of 15 annual off-site meetings found that last-minute meetings have become the norm, with 60 percent being booked within a 90-day window. The study was commissioned by new online booking engine Zentila.
The reasons for this last-minute planning trend are two-fold: the economy and inertia.
Companies are still reluctant to commit cash until the last minute when they’re sure of cash flow. In addition, meeting planners have been forced to plan ad-hoc and at the last minute for the past few years. Unless that procrastination hurt business (and veteran planners have worked hard to ensure it hasn’t), convincing meeting stakeholders to be more proactive will be an uphill battle.
The study also found that planners’ requirements for booking these down-to-the-wire meetings are different than when they have the luxury of time. The majority of planners surveyed (72 percent) said they book upscale and luxury properties, especially if rooms in their preferred price range are not available. And, if they can’t find what they need, they are three times more likely to upgrade than downgrade their hotel choice. In the spirit of flexibility, 97 percent said they were more open about their options, with roughly half admitting they would try an unknown facility. More than half (68 percent) said they were given permission to sign off on short-term meeting contracts without management approval.
How to book a meeting in 24 hours or less
So how does Zentila differ from the thousands on online booking/RFP services that already exist? First of all, it is designed to help planners tasked with booking a meeting in 90 days or less. Secondly, it guarantees the hotels will respond with bids within three hours of the RFP being submitted (evenings, weekends and holidays excepted). Planners are then required to select a winning bid within 24 hours or the offers are off the table.
“There have been an influx of tools that allow planners and third-party intermediaries to send RFPs to not three hotels but 40, or 91 hotels — we call this lead spam and this is crushing hotels,” says Zentila Founder and “ZEO” Mike Mason, who worked on the convention and hotel sales side for 25 years. Planners sending RFPs through Zentila must do so to at least three hotels but no more than eight.
“Hotels [typically] get this influx of leads and they have no real way to respond to them on time,” Mason says. “With Zentila, they know someone is going to buy, and they know they’re not up against a lot of competitors, so hotels say Zentila is on top of their response pile.”
When hotels get the RFP, they see who they are bidding against, so they are incentivized to give planners the best deal. When planners see the bids come back, however, they won’t see the name of the hotel; they’ll just see the responses to the concessions, rates, fees, minimums and any suggestions for alternative dates or space. Once the winning bid is selected, the losing hotels are notified automatically, and planners receive a contract from the chosen property.
Depending on how quickly planners agree to the final terms, they could research venues with their first cup of coffee, receive bids by lunch and have a meeting venue booked by the time they leave work.
Cool bells and whistles
The Zentila user experience is designed to be intuitive and fun. And it’s fast — the RFP is complete in just five steps.
One of the biggest time-savers is the drag-and-drop RFP engine. Enter the type of event being planned and a suggested agenda pops up with the meeting pattern and room types typically required displayed in a day-by-day calendar format.
Don’t want to do your reception at 6 p.m.? Drag and drop it to the appropriate time slot. Have special technical requirements for one of the breakouts? Double click on that room and add them. Planners also can add special notes about catering, seating arrangements, requested concessions or anything else they’d like the hotel to know.
“We built it to be 90 percent correct so you could just tweak it instead of having to build it from scratch,” Mason explains.
The search engine also is designed to save time. Only four- and five-star hotels are featured, and results are displayed according to relevancy — not whether someone paid for the space. Results can be filtered by traditional fields like meeting square footage and number of guest rooms, but planners also can search hotels by last renovation date, the size of sleeping rooms, and time to the airport or local landmarks.
This is because Zentila was designed with input from meeting planners. “We had one planner in our focus group say, ‘I could care less about distance, give me everything in time’ because 10 miles can take 45 minutes, depending on the city you’re in,” Mason explains.
Crowdsourcing and connecting
Because planners’ No. 1 most trusted resource is the opinion of other planners, Zentila created a way for planners to communicate with peers who have done business at a hotel they’re considering. “We [call it] zooting,” Mason says. “On a hotel’s page, you can see which meeting planner was the last one to book [there], you can connect with them and get responses back immediately.”
Meeting planners told Zentila that one of their biggest challenges was finding a hotel that looked like the one their boss liked. To make that easier, hotel profile pages feature a list of similar hotels, shown along the bottom of the page. That list is drawn from properties that were added to RFPs along with the current hotel or viewed after that hotel’s page was viewed by other planners.
“We’re in the business of eliminating pain,” Mason says, “for both the planners and the hotels.”