Short Orders

What's the time of year most planners dread? The four-week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every off-site venue is booked for holiday parties, no one is around to take phone calls, and there are tons of things to do for your own family and friends. Anne Picillo, president of Custom Made Meetings & Conferences, Inc., in Franklin, MA, is no different. But during this past holiday season, she got an added portion of chaos when her phone rang just before Thanksgiving. It was a pharmaceutical company that wanted her to plan a marketing meeting in New York City—in just three weeks!

Certain organized, tenacious people can get this job done, and according to Picillo, she needed to be persistent when conducting thorough—and fast—research for the planning of the 35-person event. She had to deal not only with the pressure and stress of the holidays, but the added pressure of finding a place during the busiest month of the year, in the busiest city in the country.

Perseverance, creativity, and open communication are what's needed for planning short-term meetings, adds Andre Kelly, president of Meeting Resources, Inc. in Phoenix, AZ. And as any planner knows, short-term meetings also involve a draining burst of effort.

On Demand

Picillo looked at 60 restaurants in New York City for her meeting, and had to pull out of her first choice since the client thought it was too "over the top." Picillo says that it was difficult finding a place that the client was happy with, as pharmaceutical companies' actions are under an immense amount of scrutiny lately. "Planning short-term meetings," says Picillo, "mean that planners need to work openly with clients so that they can get immediate decisions from them." Picillo is most familiar planning events in New York City; she feels that it is wise to become knowledgeable with the venues and suppliers that can accommodate events large and small, formal and informal, in an area. She compares planning short-term meetings in New York City to finding an apartment to rent in the city. For instance, you have to be ready to put cash down immediately, comments Picillo, for if you don't there is always another person right behind you willing to snatch the place up. Similarly, when booking a venue in the Big Apple, you have to be ready to book and contract it immediately, for that space will go fast. "You need to act fast when planning short-term meetings," explains Picillo, "so you'd better know specifically what the client wants."

The key is to develop relationships with certain suppliers, like restaurants and hotels, and to have open communication with clients on matching their desires to their budgets. Despite the pressure, though, Picillo doesn't seem unsettled by all her short-term projects. "I am planning a meeting that involves 25 U.S. attendees and 75 international attendees. It's scheduled to happen in five weeks and the destination isn't even chosen." The client makes the decisions, says Picillo, so she needs to first be patient, then to act quickly in an organized manner.

No Rooms at the Inn

Planning for short-term meetings has always involved an extensive amount of research and steadfastness, as Picillo stated. However, according to Andre Kelly of Meeting Resources Inc., these qualities, plus nimbleness, might not be enough in a tough business climate in which hotels are increasing their business and meeting space is getting filled more quickly than in the recent past. Because of this tight room inventory, planners of short-term events are experiencing even more stress than usual.

"Planners are limited with options of hotel availability," says Jack Eichhorn, global manager of meetings and events at Cisco Systems in Research Triangle Park, NC. "That's where creativity and established relationships with hotels kick in. When dealing with short lead times, we look to our partner hotel companies for assistance. But we also expand our search when availability becomes a problem."

Kelly concurs, saying he solves the availability problem by exhausting his search among every single hotel chain that exists. Kelly adds that in this time of high demand planners simply need to consider every single opportunity that can possibly meet the client's goals. "On December 15, I was told to plan a meeting for mid-February in Phoenix," he says. "I found that the room inventory was not available at the first-choice resort, and the second choice had rates that were too high." Because of this, Kelly had to go to secondary cities, outside of Phoenix. Kelly adds that "if secondary cities don't pan out, you have to look at the metro-area properties. For instance, if a client wants Times Square in New York City and a hotel in that area is impossible to get, then the planner should look at the outskirts of the city and go to Battery Park, where it will be cheaper, or even right across the Hudson River to Hoboken and Jersey City, NJ." There are always headaches involved when planning short-term meetings, he admits, but you have to "create your own opportunities and not rule out anyone." In addition, planners need to know how to negotiate and communicate quickly with individual hotel properties, and especially develop relationships with chains' national sales teams.

In addition to overcoming the recent room-inventory crunch, Kelly has encountered mistakes that hotels have made when accommodating short-term events. For instance, his recent 110-person meeting became the victim of a double-booked ballroom. "I had planned a full-day meeting for a pharmaceutical company that included meals and breaks. Double booking happens a lot in this business, but I am finding hotels being more negligent and overlooking more things. They need to slow down and cross-check their work, just as I have to."

With short-term events, options are always fewer and often not ideal, says Cisco Systems' Eichhorn. Every member of his team must be empowered to make immediate decisions. "You not only have to be persistent," says Eichhorn, "but you have to lean on the suppliers and clients to make approvals and decisions, in addition to responding immediately to their own needs. We get by on the method of dropping everything and doing it now. What's more, unlike the recent past, hotels are not willing to be as flexible or as negotiable as they would on a larger business opportunity." He adds, "I think today, hotels feel that in short-term circumstances they are most needed." This is true, however, so planners must simply work around that fact with persistent creativity and flexibility.


SIDEBAR

The Quick and the Dead
Think three weeks is a short lead time? Try three days

It is no easy task to plan a small to midsize meeting in two to three weeks, but can you imagine the flurry of preparations required to plan an unexpected meeting on 72 hours' notice, such as a funeral? Patrick Healey, business administrator for McCann-Healey Funeral Home in Gloucester City, NJ, can't emphasize enough how difficult it is planning a funeral within three days for families when they are grieving for a loved one. "There is a litany of questions, arrangements, and preparations we must go through with the bereaved, and it becomes very difficult to obtain all of the information, as they are experiencing a tremendous amount of distress," says Healey.

"They are upset and angry, and you're talking about getting a lot of information that needs to be processed in 24 hours. It's a very stressful time for everyone."

According to Healey, having an always-ready blueprint is the key to putting an event together with virtually no lead time. "We help the family pick out the casket, the burial spot, the clothing; set up appointments with the florists, services, and restaurant and caterers," says Healey. "We have everything already researched for them."

But Healey frequently runs into the problem of already-booked vendors. For instance, he once called on a certain florist but the shop couldn't help him because it was sold out due to Mother's Day. He then had to go on to plan B, which involved combing his list of all the florists around the area. "Eventually things work out, because they just have to," comments Healey. He is always looking for the next option, for times when one can't pull through. "Sometimes the family doesn't get the day they want because the church is booked for a first communion or christening or wedding. We learn to mix and match and strategize before clients even come to us, to have everything fall into place," says Healey. "We've already done our homework of researching vendors in the area, so when it's time to act, the problem-solving process is already in place."