As You Like It

(Originally published October 10, 2005)

The era of rigidity in conference center pricing may be winding down. Previously, centers mostly stuck to allinclusive packages while questions about the cost of individual package elements were treated like unwelcome visitors. They're still doing that where they can. But at the same time many centers are growing increasingly willing to bend to customers' needs, and are following the lead of Dolce International, which announced earlier this year that it would sometimes "unbundle" the Complete Meeting Package (MeetingNews, Jan. 24).

Many properties are offering customized packages, and some are providing information on how the CMP breaks down. And these moves are being made with the support of others in the niche, suggesting the trend will become pervasive.

"No conference center wants to lose a five-night piece of business over a dinner," said Neil Pompan, vice president of meetings and events at JPMorgan Chase in Jersey City, N.J. "In this very competitive market, conference centers will do what's necessary to create satisfied customers."

Added Tom Bolman, executive vice president of the International Association of Conference Centers, "Increased flexibility is great. I think a property should do whatever it can do to make the CMP work for each client. And in some instances, centers do need to reveal the allocations [toward guestroom, audiovisual services, etc.] in the CMP."

Possibilities for customized CMPs are virtually endless, though many of the ones being offered so far revolve around dining options.

"Carousel dining," whereby a group in house for several days can dine at an area restaurant one night, in lieu of eating onproperty night after night, is being allowed at a number of properties. To arrange this the center typically allocates a portion of the CMP to paying the eateries so there is no extra cost to the group.

"One thing that should be fun about traveling is getting to experience another community," said Chris Kenney, director of sales and marketing at Tempe Mission Palms Hotel & Conference Center in Tempe, Ariz., where carousel dining is offered. "If we have a group cooped up, and the program calls for six or seven meals, the attendees don't get to experience the taste and feel of the area."

Offering such flexibility is now seen as a necessity at the Wyndham Peachtree Hotel & Conference Center in Peachtree City, Ga. "Programs are longer now that the training market is rebounding, so we're creating flexibility, without impacting budgets, for those who are here for several days," said Sherry Awbrey, associate director of sales.

Groups are pleased to have the option, according to Keith Wilbur, sales training consultant at Automatic Data Processing in Peachtree City, who helped pull together a recent program at the Wyndham.

"It provided attendees with a nice break from the monotony of the lecture and the on-site food," he said. "And when the attendees are happy, it reflects on the training experience we provide."

Customized CMPs also can be created when meeting planners indicate that an element of the package is not a musthave, while the upgrade of another piece would serve the group well.

"We had a group that said audiovisual services weren't important but teambuilding was, so we added that," said Doug Rollins, vice president of sales at Chateau Elan Resort and Conference Center in Braselton, Ga. "For other groups, we have included transportation or a T1 line in the meeting room and left out other elements."

At Benchmark Hospitality, the company philosophy is to view the CMP as an ever-changing animal. "The key is to keep the CMP current, provide what customers need, and then absolutely be willing to customize," said Hal Powell, regional vice president of sales and marketing.

Showing planners what costs what, or "exposing the rate," is becoming more common too. "If it's a reasonable request that can be granted,we do it," said Awbrey.

Added Bolman, "If a client has a compelling reason to know what the allocations are, I don't think it's necessarily bad to provide that information."