10 Tips for Better Site Inspections

Originally published on Meetings Today blog

In the April print and digital editions of Meetings Today, I wrote about the “10 Areas of Site Selection to Question and Learn” and spoke more about site selection on the April 27 webinar, “Site Selection: Finding the Right Fit.” It all ties together with this Friday, May 6, blog and the Friday With Joan interviews about site inspections.

This blog focuses on hotels. It is a fraction of the items on checklists I use. The same principles, and many of the questions, apply if you are looking at a convention or conference center, restaurant, museum or other venue.

1. In Person or Virtual Site Inspection

Not everyone can afford to visit every destination (city/country) or site (property/venue) under consideration before making a decision and contracting. Every meeting professional has had to book “sight unseen” and hope that the RFP questions and responses—and the contracts—cover all thoroughly.

Just like experiential meetings are best, so are physical site inspections. Technology does not yet allow us to experience a site as we would if we were there. There are things you won’t know—an airwall’s ability to block sound; whether room service trays are left out overnight; the flow of people from entry to front desk to elevators to meeting space and through the meeting space; using various means (wheelchair, electric scooter, blindfold, ear plugs) to check accessibility—unless you do a site inspection in person. One day, maybe, virtual site inspections … though I wonder about the privacy of cameras in all areas!

2. Prioritize and Allow Adequate Time

List who and what are critical to your meeting and its participants, speakers, vendors and others, before you schedule a site inspection to help you and the venues make the most of the site inspection.

With priorities in mind, consider the time you want and need to thoroughly see and experience each property. The amount of time depends on what’s most important to and for your group and meeting. For example, if you have a one day meeting that, unless an emergency occurs, won’t use sleeping rooms, your priorities may be meeting space, audio visual support, food and beverage, and access.

If you require guest rooms, what’s most important: view(s)? quiet? amenities? cleanliness? (Do you check under and behind beds, other furniture? Check bathrooms for mold? Ask about how they clean and replace drinking glasses and bedspreads/comforters?)

3. Schedule or “Surprise” Site Inspection

Some planners believe a more realistic experience is achieved if they just show up, unannounced, for a site inspection.

Better: schedule your site inspection in advance to ensure people with whom you need to meet are available (see No. 4), and your priorities can be achieved. You can take time, unaccompanied, to sit in a lobby, walk the halls at night, use room service or eat in the restaurant to observe areas you believe might have otherwise been staged just for you.

If you’re looking at multiple hotels or hotels and a convention center, ask the DMO (Destination Marketing Organization also known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau, or CVB) for assistance. They can help you schedule appointments.

Whether to go when there are groups occupying the space (see No. 5) or when it is empty will depend on your availability, that of the property(ies), and your needs. Ideally, you would conduct two inspections: one when the hotel is occupied, another when it’s not.

Usually we don’t have that luxury.

4. People You Should Meet

Schedule, at the very least, meetings with a sales manager assigned to your account, the director of event services (aka convention services) or a convention services manager, representatives of the in-house AV company and of the unions, the director of loss prevention (security), front office manager, director of housekeeping, the chef and catering manager (note: in some properties, event/convention services and catering are a combined position), the general manager, and if on site, an owner, and any others who may help you learn more about the property, its staff and service.

After a thorough RFP is sent and responses received, you’ll have evaluated and ranked your choices and then schedule site inspections. I like to start a site inspection with a meeting with all parties to explain the meeting for which the site inspection is being conducted, and ask them to tell me and the client more about the property from their department’s perspective. Asking questions and listening closely and asking follow up questions allows you to learn more than you might on a walk through with sales alone.

Allowing time for this plus the walk-through means inspecting a site may require a minimum of three to five hours per property. Don’t scrimp on the time and rush through it. You may want to record your comments and take photos or videos as you go—seeing more than one hotel a day can cause them all to seem alike! Take time to gather accurate information.

5. What to See and With Whom

Like my industry lawyer friends say about industry legal issues, “it depends” on your meeting, its complexity, the participant demographics and on your priorities.

Usually a sales manager accompanies the planner and/or group conducting a site inspection. I strongly recommend being accompanied by an event service professional (aka CSM) and someone from the in-house AV provider. They use the space daily and will be able to best answer questions. You may also have with you others from your or your client’s organization, vendors (AV, decorators) with whom you contract, and volunteers. Prepare all of those who will accompany you on what specifically you want to see and experience. It’s easy to be “wowed” by amenities when those may not be most important to your group.

Representative Guest Rooms and Suites.

  • See as many of the different guest room types as possible. Years ago, a student said see “the worst room in the house” (thanks either Kelly or Bob!)—the one by the elevator or ice machine or not renovated or without a window or with a view to the trash or over an area where private parties with music are held. You know someone in your group may get that room and you want to be prepared.
  • If you use suites, see different types: those with separate parlors and entrances to those parlors; one room “executive” suites, some with Murphy beds. If you have noted a priority for a “Presidential Suite,” ask to see those the hotel designates in that category and how they each may differ.
  • Smoking or nonsmoking? More hotels (see link in resources) are now all nonsmoking. Some groups have smokers and may need to consider—for guest rooms and suites—if this is a priority and what the policies are for smoking in a nonsmoking room.
  • If your preference is like mine to go when a property is occupied, you may not be able to see as many (or any) guest room types. Perhaps finding a compromise time when a group is meeting on a last day and many people have checked out (and rooms have been cleaned) will be optimal. Work with the DMO and hotel to determine what’s most advantageous for you and the property’s availability.
  • If you can, stay overnight (see No. 8 about who should pay). Experiencing a guest room—one that has a connecting door, for example—allows you to check for soundproofing, security and general comfort.

All Meeting and Public Space.

  • I prefer to see meeting space in use to more easily test airwalls. The venue may need to secure permission from in-house group/s for you to see their space either occupied or when they break. If you can’t see space occupied, check with references for groups like yours to learn their experiences. It won’t be the same; it will give you some reference points. If there are groups in house, make it a point to talk with the planner(s) about their experiences.
  • If your group requires specific sets and the hotel is not occupied, ask if they will set rooms to your specifications (which you’ll send ahead) to see how your sets looks in their space.
  • Check access to the space from the hotel’s entrance/s and from guest rooms. In a property with multiple towers or buildings, consider the distance and your group’s demographics—are there people for whom the distance, with or without a mobility device, would be difficult? Look for directional signs and determine if the signs are be adequate, or what needs to be improved or added.

Furniture

  • Ask about and see the types of meeting furniture a property has: hard surface tables that don’t require skirting and draping or dented plywood? Different sizes and types of tables such as real crescents (versus using a banquet round)? Ergonomic chairs? Soft furniture able to be used in meeting rooms or on stages? Sizes and numbers of risers?

Audio Visual (or AV)

  • You will, in your RFP, have asked for price lists and conditions of use of the in-house company and conditions for use of an outside company. Even if you use an outside AV company, ask the in-house provider (and perhaps an hotel engineer) to conduct the site inspection with you to help explain how and where the sound systems are (or aren’t), power, lighting, and more. If your external AV provider is with you, coordinate ahead of time for the questions you both need to ask.

Accessibility

  • In your RFP, you’ll have asked details about transportation to and from airports, trains, and public transit to and from the hotel. Confirm that by experience when you arrive (see No. 9).
  • Consider conducting a portion or all of the site inspection using a mobility device, wearing ear plugs or an eyepatch. Regardless of what a venue tells you about their ADA compliance, you’ll learn firsthand what a participant with a disability may experience (think you have no one with a mobility or other disability? An individual can become disabled—permanently or temporarily—in an instant. Be prepared). Stay on or in the wheelchair or scooter to use restrooms, access restaurants and other outlets, and guest rooms (for more information, go to the U.S. Department of Justice resource linked in “resources” below).

Sustainability or “Greening”

6. Food and Beverage

Some planners like to conduct “test” meals or “tastings.” I’m not a fan of doing so because they are meals prepared for a small group and will not be like those prepared for your meeting of 25, 50 or 1,000 or more people. Better, if you conduct a site inspection when another group with similar demographics is in house (see No. 5), ask to see and sample the meals they are served. These will be more representative of what your group may experience and you will get a better sense of the hotel’s capabilities.

I’m also a fan of eating in the employee cafeteria after a large group meal when leftover meals may be served.

Meet with the chef to learn about the hotel’s capabilities and the chef’s preferences, if and how they serve locally grown and produced food, if they have and use their own garden for herbs, produce; if they are beekeepers. Find out what they do to prepare requests for vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, Halal and other meals that may be needed (Patti Shock’s webinar on food and beverage will be helpful).

7. Staffing and Service

Years ago, one of the best comments I ever heard was in meeting planning training conducted for a client’s staff: over three days, one of the lunches was in the employee cafeteria. After lunch, I asked about the experience. One person observed “The suits ate with the uniforms,” meaning management and line staff sat together. And one of the worst site inspections I’ve ever been on—one I cut short after 15 minutes—was when the director of convention services who was guiding me through was acknowledged by name by all the line and management staff we encountered. He addressed only management staff by name, not line staff. When asked why, he responded “They work for me; I don’t need to know their names.” The site visit ended right then.

In your RFP, you’ll have asked about employment longevity of management and line staff, how many staff are full or part time, and how many positions are outsourced and not direct employees of the hotel. When you meet the hotel GM, get a sense in what ways this person is engaged with all staff.

Talk with staff in different positions to learn their experiences. Sit in the lobby and observe the front desk, bell, valet, and concierge staff. Walk the back (or heart) of the house to observe both cleanliness and storage, and how all staff are treated. If you eat in the employee cafeteria, you’ll observe how employees acknowledge each other and the relationships among individuals and departments. When talking with union stewards or department heads, ask about labor contracts and negotiations with management and owners to determine any red flags that may impede your meeting (and about unions: some planners automatically dismiss their usefulness.

When it comes to sustainability of human beings, they are often one of the strongest advocates. Consider a different view from one you may have).

8. Paying for the Site Inspection

Whether it’s a “three hours and a walk through locally with a meal,” or “a trip involving a few nights,” there are costs involved in a site visit: transportation, parking, and meals among them. Often, coordinated by a DMO, cities, hotels and other venues will pay for meeting planners to come to their cities, experience what they have to offer, and pick up the tab for all expenses.

FAM trips have been abused and an ethical cloud often hangs over those who go to destinations that they know they will never use in their current job, sometimes justifying that one day, in another job, they might. If you can’t otherwise go to see a city and hotels, you can ask a DMO if they are scheduling trips to which you could be invited provided that during the time there you see and meet with those that will be pertinent to your group and meeting.

If your company or client prefers to pay for your trip to ensure there are no real or perceived obligations, pay for your trip and if you contract and hold a meeting, consider negotiating that amount being deducted from the master account.

Help your employer or client understand the importance of experiencing the properties and build into their meeting budgets transportation, accommodations, and meals.

9. VIP or ‘Regular’ Treatment

Sometimes if a DMO helps you schedule appointments, your contact may offer to arrange and even pay for or provide transportation to and from the airport and the appointments. If the convenience is helpful, review the schedule to ensure it will provide the time you need to experience everything on your checklists. If all your meeting participants are to be “VIP-ed”, consider upgrades (better rooms), special check-in, and even in-room amenities.

Remember: you’re there to experience what your meeting participants will experience. It’s best to set parameters for your stay from arrival to departure and to say “thank you but no thank you” to VIP treatment.

10. What if …

  • you’ve used the property in the last 6 months? The last year or two?
    • Even if your program is the same or the hotel has not changed owners, management company, or brands, conditions and staff can change. Conduct a site inspection.
  • there’s no budget for a site visit?
    • FAMs? Hosted Buyer programs?
      • They are useful if used for more than the social events! Just as you would for a pay-your-way site inspection, build in time for those with whom you need to meet and what you need to experience.
    • Pay and have the cost (agreed to in advance) refunded to the master account if you contract and hold the meeting.
    • Prepare a volunteer in the area to conduct the site inspection. They can use media to take you with them and for you to ask questions (it’s another good way to check connectivity in the venue).
    • Use social media to ask colleagues about their experiences.
    • Read all you can including, yes, on TripAdvisor.

Most importantly:

  • Submit thorough RFPs.
  • Require (demand!) thorough proposals in response to your RFPs.
  • Prioritize your needs and schedule.
  • Experience what will help you make a decision based on your priorities.

RESOURCES:

Better Room sets: “Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements”

For comments, do so below or to me at FridayWithJoan@aol.com. And be sure to check the interviews with CSMs, sales, and a meeting planner in the Friday With Joan newsletter.

Posted by Joan L. Eisenstodt

Follow Joan on Twitter: @joaneisenstodt

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