Blockless Housing 101

Tinkering with an established housing strategy is not a task to be taken lightly, but planners across all industries are reevaluating their rooming policies as attrition clauses and the Internet continue to reshape their dealings with hotels. Here are five key suggestions to consider as you navigate these still- troubled waters.

Know your history (and future)

The most important data to consider when redesigning a housing program is the event's historical room pick-up. This data also helps at the negotiating table when you try to maximize your leverage with hotel or convention center salespeople who are hoping for a bigger block. "We're reducing the blocks for the future and booking the minimum number of rooms," says Jeff Wood, meetings director at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in New York City. "Hotels will compromise with us, because of our past business with them and our potential for future business."

Reduce the block gradually

Conventional wisdom says that about 20 percent of attendees book outside the block for any given event. Many planners have reduced their blocks by about that much, but still keep full-size blocks at headquarters properties. "Make sure you have tighter control at the key hotels," says Fred Shea, vice president of Hyatt Hotels in Chicago. "Don't take as much risk with overflow housing -- that's where people really get burned."

Explore new venues

Look to offbeat hotels, private clubs, conference centers, universities, and other nontraditional venues for small-block events. "[For blockless meetings] I avoid large convention properties and I look at smaller properties to see if they have a niche I can fill," says Peter Huggins, short courses coordinator with the American Chemical Society in Washington D.C. "I'm using part of a hotel ballroom with a small room block, but the only way I can do that is because the guest rooms are all taken for a citywide. So they're happy to get the catering function for three days."

Talk to suppliers

Hotels and convention centers are willing to sell meeting space without room blocks, but only under certain circumstances. Improve your chances by being flexible about dates and using shorter lead times. "If you want to book outside the eighteen-month window, you have to have a certain number of guest rooms, otherwise you have to take whatever the dates they give you," says Tina Stark, director of housing sales at the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Some cities want 3,000 room-nights on peak. Some want 1,800. It really depends on the city."

Ask the experts

Third-party housing management firms can help you figure out what is best for your event, and more of them, including emeetingsonline, Expedia Corporate Travel, and Meeting Fair, can set up blockless housing programs to augment traditional negotiated room blocks. "Planners contract for room blocks that they know they can sell without risking attrition," says Robert Colvin, emeetingsonline director of sales in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Once those blocks are filled, "Unnegotiated, unblocked booking access can be clicked on and off with the flip of a switch."