My biggest challenge as a high-tech association planner was providing Internet access to my attendees at a reasonable cost to the association. We were known for always having a great network and free access. It set us apart from our competition. Our attendees were heavy Internet users that expected to have free access in the meeting rooms, and they expected it to work well. With seven annual conferences ranging in size from 250 to 1,200 people, it was not an easy task to accomplish.
While Internet access is free at your local Starbucks and economy hotels, it still remains a big charge on your master bill and your attendee’s hotel room bill. With the proliferation of mobile meeting technology, it is no longer a question of do we provide Internet access in the meeting space but a question of how good is that access and how much does it cost? Many organizations are struggling with ways to use these new mobile tools to engage their audience, keep their conferences relevant, and remain competitive without having to raise registration fees or cut back in other areas to offer these additional services.
There are several strategies we implemented at our association to negotiate the best pricing for each conference. Most of our conferences were held at hotels rather than convention centers, and we found that hotels were more willing to play ball with us on the pricing. However, many of these steps are simple ways that you can fight those sky-high Internet costs at any venue.
Know your audience
What type of users are your attendees? Do they download a lot from the Internet or do they just check e-mail and surf the Web? Do they connect to the Internet with multiple devices (laptop, smartphones, tablets, etc.)? Do they access the Internet in their guest rooms? Survey your past attendees to find out what their needs are and how they are using the Internet at your event.
Collect your data
Do you know how much bandwidth your group uses? Do your supplier partners have any historical data about your group’s usage? Will you be using mobile meeting technology at your event and will you require access in the Exhibit Hall? Connect with other planners and find out what they are paying for Internet. As with any other negotiation, arm yourself with numbers and your exact needs and use that data in your negotiations.
Be vocal about the issue
At the RFP stage, let your suppliers know that Internet pricing is one of your hot buttons. Use the data you’ve collected to ask for what you need in a price range that you can afford. Talk about the issue with your sales managers, GSOs, CSMs, GMs and other upper management any chance you get. Ask why the Internet costs are so high and what are the venues doing about it. Every time we went to a client appreciation event hosted by one of the major brands, we brought up this issue.
Ask for a flat rate in your meeting space for the duration of your event
I would laugh every time a venue quoted me a per person/per day Internet charge! It always added up to an enormously outrageous and unreasonable cost. Negotiate a flat rate for your group for the entire length of your event. Determine what level of IT support will be included in that rate and available to your group on-site. If the network crashes, is someone there to fix it? Or is it handled remotely in a different time zone? One time our Internet went down (which is an emergency at a high-tech conference!) and the property did not have a high-level technician on-site. We had to have someone drive in from another state to fix it, and it took hours and hours for it to work again. The attendees were not happy, and that’s not the conference experience that they are expecting!
Ask for the Internet charges in the guest rooms to be waived as one of your concessions
We looked like heroes to our attendees when we were able to offer this at our events! It saves each attendee $9.95 – $15.95/day, which can make a huge difference for an attendee that has paid his or her own way to a conference. We are all expected to stay connected and solve problems while we are away from the office, and many attendees continue to work in their guest rooms after the meeting sessions have concluded for the day. By getting this fee waived for them, we helped reduce their overall costs to attend our event and it created good vibes about our association.
Set up your own wireless network
Our Senior System Administrator on staff also doubled as our Conference Network Administrator and would travel to each conference and set up our own network. He simply rocks! We brought all of our own equipment and set up, monitored, managed, fixed, and broke down the network. We still had to pay a flat rate to “tap into” their pipeline, but it guaranteed that the service we were providing to the attendees would be consistent and of the highest quality. This is a long-term strategy and investment that an organization can look into if the need is there and the venues that you use cannot support your group’s usage. There are also several companies out there that can provide this service to your organization.
Seek out sponsors to cover the entire cost of Internet in the meeting space — not just sponsorship of a Cyber Café. We also found a sponsor that donated equipment to us that we used to set up our wireless network and we acknowledged them at every event.
Be aware of hotel membership programs that help your attendees
Fairmont Hotels and Kimpton Hotels are the only upper-scale brands that I know of that offer free Internet in the guest rooms. It is a benefit given to members who join their free loyalty programs – the Fairmont President’s Club or Kimpton’s InTouch Program. Any time we held an event at these hotels, we would make this information available to our attendees. If they weren’t members already, they were excited to join to receive this benefit and saw this as a value-add to attending our event.
We all know that technology is rapidly changing the design, shape, and scope of our meetings. But the cost of staying relevant and on the cutting-edge is a huge burden for most organizations, and our supplier partners need to work hard to make changes on their side to reduce Internet costs so that organizations can remain competitive. Planners need to unite and take a stand against paying outrageous Internet costs. Ultimately, our success is dependent upon one another.