Whether you're organizing a week-long conference or a two-day company retreat, booking accommodations is a huge piece of the planning puzzle. You may dread the prospect of securing a hotel room block for your event, but finding a great deal doesn't have to take hours of research or frustrating negotiations. It's all about knowing what you want, what questions to ask, and what to look for in a contract.
Here are five tips on how to negotiate the best rate on a hotel room block.
Start Your Search Early
The earlier you start looking and booking, the more options you'll have. When narrowing down hotel choices, consider factors like meeting-room size, parking options, and transportation costs. Online sites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz can usually provide these details.
If your event dates are flexible, check out trend graphs like the ones on HotelPlanner.com that forecast future rates so you can hone in on low-cost months.
“The price of a hotel room hinges on whether your event is at a peak or off-peak time for the hotel," says special-events manager Joyce Scardina Becker. “In cities, weekends are usually off-peak—hotels are busier during the week with business travelers—so the rates can be relatively lower. But in resort areas and tourist destinations, weekend rates can be much higher, and popular destinations often require a two-night stay."
Plan for the Right Number of Rooms
Once you have your dates and a shortlist of hotel options, focus on choosing the number of rooms you want to reserve. “When planning an event, a lot of people overestimate the number of rooms they'll need," says Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner.com. “Remember, it's hard to get people in one place at one time. Flight interruptions happen, people get sick, and so on."
As a rule of thumb, Hentschel recommends always expecting a 10 to 20 percent drop-off. “Unless you have a mandatory event for your business or there's some sort of corporate incentive, you won't have 100 percent utilization of a block," he explains.
Do Your Homework on Rates
Before you call the hotels on your list, research the best rates they offer online. “Once you know their rates, call the hotels and ask for a group sales manager," says Becker. “If the hotel is part of a national chain, call the local number, not the national reservations number."
Ask the group sales manager for the best rate that he or she can offer. If it's higher than the web rate, ask if you can get a better price. “Assuming they can quote a price that beats web offerings, also ask if they have a comp policy where they provide a free room if a certain number of rooms are secured," Becker says. “At many hotels, you can get a complimentary room for every 50 rooms picked up by your guests."
Ask if On-site Events Can Lower Your Rate
If your event allows for it, consider planning some events at the hotel, such as a group meal or happy hour. “Total spend is a big part of booking hotels," Hentschel notes. “The more you can do at the hotel, the more you'll save." Adding on-site activities will change how the hotel views you as a client, he says. The more you spend and the more hotel services you use, the more they see you as a VIP customer.
“Plan something on site," Hentschel says. “Even if it's a small spend, you'll make it back in a discount for the price for rooms and in how the hotel caters to you."
Go Over the Contract with a Fine-toothed Comb
Once you're done negotiating, the hotel will give you a contract that ensures it will hold the number of your requested rooms at your agreed-upon rate. Before you accept it, take a close look at a few crucial details.
“Take note of the cancellation policy, cut-off date, attrition policy, rate, and deposit amount," Hentschel says. The cut-off date is when the hotel expects you to have all rooms booked to ensure the block is secure. Check to see if attrition policies apply; that means you may be liable for an attrition penalty if your guests don't pick up the total number of rooms you requested.
To avoid potential fees, negotiate a reasonable cut-off date with the group sales manager. “This means that the rooms will be held until a specific date—anywhere from one to two months before the event, depending on the hotel—at which point, any unreserved rooms will be released for sale with no penalties to you," Becker explains.
By working closely with a hotel's booking agent, keeping event activities on-site when possible, and negotiating a reasonable contract without hidden penalties, you'll be well on your way to successfully negotiating a hotel room block for your next event—hassles and headaches not included.