Meeting Mentor Magazine

April 2021

ConferenceDirect Solutions: Susan Relihan

Continual Adjustments Help
Clients and Properties Meet Their Goals

How to bring back attendance? That is indeed the question for meeting groups still recovering from the Great Recession.

“It was so deep and hit all industry sectors,” said Susan Relihan (left), director of global accounts, ConferenceDirect. The ramifications — slashed budgets and making do with a lot less — continue to keep her clients up at night as they try to deliver “a return on investment that keeps attendees coming.”

Relihan helps by making continual adjustments on room blocks and meeting space, even though “with larger programs it’s like moving a giant behemoth around.” Example: Two companies that come together for a summer show needed to shift the program flow at the meeting property two months out, changing the order of which company kicked off the convention and which one finished it up. They provided as much notice as possible and played upon the good partnership with the hotel — thanks to multiple programs and a multi-year contract in place. The outcome: a contract addendum that allowed for the change.

“We had to be flexible and make compromises in working with the group that was on property prior to this meeting,” she noted. By “total happenstance” that group turned out to be a ConferenceDirect client. While Relihan knew her colleague had to protect her own client’s business, she was thankful it was a “comfortable” phone call to make.

As the economy moves in fits and starts, her clients are more closely scrutinizing return. Three “Cs” have become their mantra: conservative in budgeting, careful in planning, and competitive in the increasingly global marketplace. Example: A large association client produces winter and summer shows. Attendance at the summer event began to decline even before the recession. The feedback to senior executives was that participants didn’t feel the same drive to attend as the winter show. “It wasn’t integral to their business,” Relihan reported. “So the CEO responded that ‘the onus is on us to make it worthwhile for members to be there. We need to give them very solid business reasons why to maintain the meeting.’”

Because contracts were already signed for three and four years out, clauses were added to provide the organization with some flexibility to make changes to attrition and meeting space requirements after seeing results from 2013 and 2014 summer meetings. One multi-year agreement in place in the southwestern United States required Relihan to go back to the convention and visitors bureau and co-headquarter hotel partners. The signed winter 2014 contract provided concessions predicated on a future summer meeting yet to be finalized. With the 2017 winter meeting as replacement, the hotels agreed to honor the existing deal. “They appreciated the organization’s honesty about the business climate and situation, and we were still able to leverage concessions with the city and convention center,” said Relihan.

“At ConferenceDirect,” she added, “we always remember that we have two partners: the customer and the hotel/vendor. We need both relationships to be strong, especially in situations where we need to seek adjustments and changes.”

These relationships are especially vital as rising demand and improved occupancy push hotel rates up. A big part of Relihan’s job is to educate her customers on all the opportunities among brands, cities, tiers, and times. Using her deep market knowledge, she can leverage the meeting parameters to work out the best deal possible. Example: Last year Relihan booked for one client a three-meeting, multi-year deal with a hotel brand for 2012 and beyond. However, for that client’s separate 2012 meeting at a hotel within that brand, rates negotiated before the recession hit were no longer competitive. The multi-year deal gave Relihan the leverage to get a rate cut included in a special clause.

“Customers must understand that hotel inventory is perishable, and properties won’t close off revenue opportunities,” she said. As a result, “it’s getting harder to obtain an open-ended best rate clause.” On the other hand, “the integrity and reputation of the group is damaged when lower rates undercut the negotiated group rate.” That’s one reason why she protects her clients with an audit clause. — Maxine Golding

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About ConferenceDirect
ConferenceDirect is a global meetings solutions company offering site selection/contract negotiation, conference management, housing & registration services, mobile app technology and strategic meetings management solutions. It provides expertise to 4,400+ associations, corporations, and sporting authorities through our 400+ global associates.

About MeetingMentor
MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually.

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