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Choosing wisely

published on June 1, 2003
on Corporate & Incentive Travel Magazine

Whether it's your first meeting or incentive, or your 100th, selecting the best off-site location is always a critical task for corporate meeting planners. And mastering the details of the site you're selecting can make or break you.

A case in point: What if you fail to consider how many elevators are needed to move 500 participants from their guest rooms to the banquet reception? Overlooking this one detail can throw an event into chaos - and land plenty of egg on your face. To avoid such snafus, successful meeting planners follow a methodical plan of attack to select their groups' off-site locations. They lay the ground work with sufficient pre-planning intelligence, and create effective RFPs. Then they follow up with additional research about the destination, finally whittling down the selections for negotiation. Through experience, planners learn which short cuts work, which ones don't, and how to keep the process running smoothly.

Are You Gathering Intelligence?

Ironically, when charting a course for future corporate meetings or incentive travel programs, most planners look to the past. They examine meeting histories. With 25 years in the business, Cheryl Geib, national travel and meeting manager with Illinois-based Grant Thornton LLP, bases most of her plans for company's meeting plans on historical data.

"Our large meetings are very structured with a minimal change to their format," said Geib, who is chairman of the NBTA's local chapter education committee. An examination of meeting histories can help newcomers as well.

Brandi Brant, field administrator with Kérastase of Paris, a division of L'Oreal, is a case in point. Last year, new to her position, she studied what her predecessors did to determine how to handle a program involving 16 attendees visiting the company's New York headquarters. But Brant went a step further. To really understand the expectations of the group, Brant toured the group's previous meeting sites, among them New York's elite hotels.

"I wanted to get a sense of the décor and the atmosphere," said Brant. "Even the people who work at the hotels were young and beautiful, like they should all have been on TV." Brant said the extra insight gave her a feel for where the group might like to go under her watch.

Another key to sending groups to the right location is to know the purpose of the meeting. This may dictate the type of property you select. For instance, if you're doing a heavy duty training session, you might choose a resort property, away from the distractions and temptations of a bustling city. Or for the same staff training, a four-star facility might be more appropriate and on budget than a five-star venue used for client events.

Keeping in mind the purpose of the meeting can also give clues about the attendees and their likes and dislikes, noted Marlys Hickman, events coordinator at the Philadelphia headquarters of Fox Rothschild O'Brien & Frankel, LLP, a large Mid-Atlantic law firm. Hickman books off-site meetings and educational seminars for the firm's clients, as well as cocktail receptions for as many as 200 attendees in various locations in the Tri-State region.

Experience has taught her a thing or two about the likes and dislikes of particular clients. For instance, physicians prefer to meet in the evenings, while seminar attendance for the firm's real estate clients is better in the mornings. So even with a bit of general information about the attendees, meeting planners can make informed decisions about what might or might not be appropriate for a group.

"You're never going to know everyone or everything about a group,' said Reggie Sears, CMP, of Sears Enterprises of Sacramento, CA. But Sears adds that you should know at least the basics, including whether the attendees will be mostly male, mostly female, or an even mix, and if the people are likely to bring spouses or children. The age range of the attendees is also important. Early in this intelligence-gathering phase, planners should determine where attendees will be flying from, as this often affects site selection. If you're flying in people from all over the world or the United States, you'll probably want to choose a central destination served by major airlines with numerous non-stop arrivals.

"If it's difficult to get attendees in and out of the destination, it might end up increasing your costs because you would need to overnight them," noted Geib.

There are other considerations, such as the hassle of long flights or nervousness about going to destinations targeted by terrorists. Time zones might be a consideration, too, as you don't want dreary-eyed guests fighting to stay awake during the CEO's address. Often, it's not until six months out from the arrival date that meeting planners begin confirming attendees and surveying them about special requirements: dietary restrictions, preferred meals or activities, or special health considerations - such as wheel-chair accessibility or storage requirements of special medications. A variety of Web-based solutions exist to simplify the collection of attendee data. To facilitate its programs, Grant Thompson developed its own Access database-driven Web site. Planners simply send out a link to the Web site and attendees drop in their information.

"It's free, cheap, and works just fine," said Geib, who has evaluated numerous other solutions. RFPs The next step in the process is the RFP, or request for proposals. Depending on the size of the meeting - whether you're flying in national leaders for a small meeting or transporting hundreds of people across the nation - you may or may not need a formal process. For instance, when Brant was working with hotels in New York, she simply outlined her requirements for a 16-person executive sales meeting and the hotels sent her a mocked-up contract. Three rounds of changes later, the contract was ready.

Things get a little more complex with larger meetings, however. For instance, when working a larger meeting, it's not uncommon to send 10 RFPs-two RFPs for each of the four preferred cities. While waiting for the RFPs to return, planners can work with a travel service to analyze costs associated with flying in attendees to each location. Then, when the RFPs arrive, a planner can use the airfare figure and the hotel estimates to calculate a cost per participant number for each location, quickly eliminating the most expensive cities. When pulling together an RFP, meeting planners advise that it's best to include everything you can think of.

According to Sears, a frequent speaker on the topic of site selection methods, RFPs should at least include the name of the group, the meeting date (or flexible dates), the anticipated number of people; and a tentative agenda. Most of that information should be available in the histories of previous meetings. But experts advise planners to expand on the history because the more information you ask for in the RFP, the less phone tag you'll have to play with the hotel later. "You learn everyday by what you don't specify," said Geib. One thing she recently started including in her requests is the cost of high-speed Internet access. Hotels typically charge an access fee and then a flat fee for each additional line.

"I never negotiated electronic before for high speed technology," said Geib, who learned that had she pre-determined a set number of high speed Internet lines 30-days before one event she could have saved $100 per line. "If we do add lines on site, we'll make sure we'll be adding that to the standard RFP," she said. As far as distributing the RFPs, there's no need to tackle distribution yourself. A variety of options exist to help you -from the free to the paid. "When I was new at this, I used to get an AAA book and send it to every hotel in that town," said Sears, who later learned the joys of working with local CVBs. "The CVB will send the RFP to every group that fits your needs in their location. I've been doing this now for 20 years and it works just great for me - especially in a city that I don't know well."

On the other hand, some meeting planners go right to the national or regional sales representative of their preferred chains. Others use third-party site search companies, such as American Express, ConferenceDirect, HelmsBriscoe, McGettigan Partners, and Maritz Travel, for the convenience of uncovering qualified, available meeting sites in multiple cities. "You give them four cities and they'll handle that and come back with several listings," said Geib, who prefers to take a hands-on approach for her large meetings.


Though getting a response in a minute might thrill some planners, especially those in a crunch, most expect to wait a few weeks.

In the interim, meeting planners use the time to further research the properties via the Internet or by pouring over the notes they have from fams (familiarization trips). Planners should focus on points of interest at the destinations, aspects of the community that might make the destination more (or less) appealing, the possibility of competing events (do you really want to book a group in Pasadena during the Rose Bowl?), and general climactic conditions during the proposed stay. A trip the Caribbean in September, for example, might get you off-season discounts - but are lower prices worth the gamble of putting a group in harm's way should a hurricane occur? These are all important considerations.

And More Research

Finally, when the RFPs come back, it's time to follow up with the sales reps. They're only too happy to answer your questions in order to win business. "I did talk to the sales people on the phone quite a lot," said Kérastase's Brant. "You can get a lot of information online, and the sales person sent me a packet of their menus. We learned we could get upgraded by paying with American Express."

In addition to discovering gems like free upgrades, query the reps on the following:

  • How does the property handle transfers to and from the airport? oParking availability/cost;
  • Meeting space capacity;
  • Meeting space location, i.e., are the rooms centralized, spread out around the property, or is space available outdoors to take advantage of a pleasant climate?
  • Recent or ongoing renovations that might have an affect;
  • Labor union issues that might impact level of service;
  • Employee turnover;
  • Types of rates offered, i.e., flat, sliding, or off-season;
  • Policies related to reservations, late arrivals, and late check out.

Also, planners must check references from previous corporate groups that have met on the property before you commit to doing a site inspection. Physical Inspection Site inspections are critical. "You want to touch, see, smell, and taste the hotel for yourself," says Sears. "You can go online and most hotels have pictures of the rooms, but you can't touch the computer screen or feel a bed."

To aid in the inspection, planners themselves should prepare. For instance, let the sales rep know exactly what you must see and don't care to see before you book your site inspection. They should gladly be able to meet your request. Because of the vast amount of information you get during a site visit, planners need to keep their thoughts and impressions organized. Some meeting planners live and die by their site inspection checklists. Others take copious notes. Geib's team rarely relies on their written checklist, due to their experience.

"We have a mental check list, though, and when we're looking at a property for a specific purpose, we have our meeting agenda and our requirements and we make sure the meeting space is appropriate," she says.

Some planners only inspect the front of the house. Others dictate to the sales rep where they want to go - right down to inspecting the condition of the freight elevators and the attitude of the staff. You should meet with the food and beverage heads, view the kitchens, and taste the food. Tour meeting, ballroom, exhibit, and breakout facilities, being sure to check out the quality of the airwalls that divide larger space into smaller ones. And if the rooms have windows, ask if there are blackout curtains available. Also take special note of the location of thermostats. View the office space you'll be given. Is it big enough, central enough, and secure enough to guarantee your expensive incentive gifts or computing systems won't be accessed or stolen? Check out the equipment, everything from the condition of the seats, to the lighting set, projectors, and the like. Walk through the pool areas, the health club, and spa, even if you think the guests might not use them. Also, talk with other patrons, or simply sit in public places and listen to their conversations. People usually like to talk about where they're staying."

For example, Geib shared that an attendee of another company's meeting told her that the meeting rooms were consistently too cold. That information made for more comfortable attendees. During the inspection, your mindset can make a world of difference. "My whole attitude the entire time was like I was doing this for my family or my wedding," said Brant. "Don't let things go by because you think your guests won't mind."


Once you have two or three properties on the short list, it's time to negotiate. Virtually everything is fair game for negotiation - except for gratuities, which will affect the level of service. Regarding food and beverage, some hotels don't count spending in the hotel restaurants and bars toward your food and beverage commitments.

Geib negotiates so that "anything coming out of any kitchen anywhere on the property goes on the food and beverage contract. As far as I'm concerned, we're spending money in your hotel and it doesn't really matter where," said Geib. She makes sure that any food and beverage discount the group receives includes liquor consumption as well. "That's been inserted in there once on me and I had to renegotiate," said Geib. Your decision will probably come down to pricing, availability, and fit. But if you've done your homework, you'll distinguish a real deal from a clunker.

When an IT executive lost his or her job three years ago, the exec could pick up the phone, work his or her network, and have a new job lined up within days, according to Russ Tessman, an IT recruiter with The Vermillion Group in Des Moines.

Today's employment scenario is clearly much different—the economy is sluggish and companies are hiring with caution. Unemployed CIOs are facing job search rejection like never before.

For advice about how IT leaders can stay afloat during these difficult seas, I talked with technology executives, a recruiter, and career consultants. What follows is the first of a two-part series providing career advice, recommendations, and insight on how to survive rejection during a job search. In this first article, experts offer tips that will help CIOs survive, and move ahead, in this difficult climate. The second part will focus on best practices for retaining emotional and life balance during a difficult and extended job search.

A realistic view of the job market

"In my whole career, I've always been able to get the jobs I've wanted," said CTO Niamh Darcy, who makes her home in both Newton, MA, and Raleigh, NC. "I've never worked through a recruiter, I've always just interviewed for a job and got it."

Darcy, who is unemployed, returned to the United States in January after taking a year off following a corporate downsizing to do some volunteer work in Ghana. But this winter, early in her job hunt, Darcy received an unexpected disappointment. She was just days away from landing a technology management position when the company declared a hiring freeze.

"I was obviously disappointed because it was a very good fit and it was exactly what I was looking for," said Darcy, who was excited at the prospect of working for a non-governmental organization involved in bringing technology to non-industrialized nations. "But it's a sign of the economy and the times, and that's the way you have to look at it."

Many tech executives, however, don't view the employment market the way Darcy does. Instead they increase their own suffering by beating up on themselves, said Ruth Luban, a Santa Monica, CA- based psychotherapist and author of Are You a Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned, and Displaced Workers (Penguin 2001).

CIOs need to get the wide-screen view of the present job market, and in doing so, shift their focus from their disappointment to the circumstances and how they can successfully operate within them, said St. Louis -based career consultant Rose Jonas, author of Can I Lie on My Resume?: Strategies that Win the Career Game (Morrison Publishing, 2002).

"CIOs are finding what garden-variety executives are also experiencing—the risk-averse, molasses economy, and the heartbreak of just missing getting the offer, of coming in second," said Jonas.

The reality is that regardless of talent, unemployed IT executives can simply expect to be out of a job for a longer period of time—from three months to more than a year, depending on the industry and the geographic area in which they work, according Tessman.

There simply are fewer CIO positions and, when companies are ready to hire, they expect job candidates to possess the entire list of attributes they want from a new hire. If a CIO has only 12 of the 14 requirements, for instance, that person isn't going to get the job.

Competition is tougher than ever

For the CIO, this exactitude contributes to what can seem like an endless stream of resumes and meetings in order to land a job offer.

"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I'd say they have to send out 100 times the number of resumes [as they did during the technology employment heyday]," said Tessman, who added that tech executives should expect to go on 10 times as many job interviews as they did previously.

The applicant-to-job ratio for top IT posts is incredibly out of whack, explained Tessman. "It can be very depressing [for the CIOs]. Right now I have a CIO search going on and I have 200 candidates for one CIO job," he said.

With the competition so high for job openings, glum senior IT executives may be tempted to ask themselves a battery of damaging questions, such as What's wrong with me? and What's the other guy got that I don't have?

But in doing so, CIOs fail to take the extra step of putting their houses in order. They would do better to answer five specific questions, said Deborah Brown-Volkman, president and founder of the Long Island, NY, career and mentor coaching company Surpass Your Dreams:

  • Which companies are on your target list?
  • What do these companies really need?
  • What skills do you have that can apply?
  • How can you sell yourself?
  • What success stories can you tell about yourself that will showcase your skills, abilities, and leadership?

"First of all, a senior IT level executive should be themselves, confident, and prepared," said Brown-Volkman. "The goal is not to worry about the competition, but rather focus on what you bring to the table. Talk about what you have done, the problems you have solved, the process you took to solve the problems, and the results you produced. Although there is competition, there is only one you. Capitalize on that."

"IT executives are in sales right now and what they're selling is themselves, and they don't have that skill," said Brown-Volkman.

Marketing is now a necessary skill

Brown-Volkman recommends that CIOs grab some sales and marketing books and learn how to market themselves.

"You need an elevator pitch, so that when you speak to people you're very clear that this is who I am and this is what I'm looking for, so if you have something like this or you know who has something like this, please let me know." A recent TechRepublic article offers more insight on how to create and perfect the quick elevator pitch.

Along with being able to sell themselves effectively, CIOs need to adjust the way they approach job interviews, according to the experts. Every contact with a potential employer is as an opportunity to build a relationship, regardless of whether or not a job offer follows, said Darcy.

For example, when Darcy's dream job was pulled out of her reach she didn't view it as a complete defeat—she kept the door open on the relationship she nurtured during the interview process. Others might have simply licked their wounds and walked away.

"I built a very good relationship with the people at this organization over the interview process," said Darcy. "So they feel a certain level of responsibility for having pulled the job. I'm going to continue talking to them, I'm going to keep trying to push for that position."

The company said it would also be willing to refer Darcy to affiliated organizations, further paving the way for more opportunities.

Darcy said that this openness is a two-way street that exists because the hiring organization is small enough to take a personal interest in her. At a very large organization, personal attention is rare unless the situation is unique. If someone of significant enough stature recommended the CIO candidate personally and the company felt some responsibility to the candidate, the applicant might get additional referrals.

"In that case, they may be willing to do introductions, or you could ask for introductions," said Darcy. Regardless, executive candidates need to assess the contact at the company wisely and perceive with a certain degree of sensitivity whether the request for referrals may be viewed as somewhat irregular.

"It's basically using the interview process as a network," said Darcy.

New career paths can open as well

Another valuable element during the interview process is keeping an eye open to potential jobs and potential consulting projects, said Luban.

"I know one guy who turned a $25,000 project here and there into a business. He's now self-employed."

For example, after an interview, if a job offer isn't forthcoming, a CIO should write up a proposal that could address the company's needs at the present time and send it to the executive who conducted the interview.

"It does take time, but it's still good practice and you never know—the proposal could make it to a different department and lead to something that you didn't even know about," said Luban.

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david southgate
writing for living.