Twenty-four dollars for online access? Were they kidding? That’s what the card on the desk of the hotel room offered.
I’m not cheap—well, maybe a little—but I’m always stunned by the way the most expensive hotels charge for things that lower-priced hotels throw in for free. Doubletree, Holiday Inn, even Super 8 offer their guests high-speed Internet access, basic breakfast, local phone calls and a coffee pot right in the room, gratis. More deluxe hotel brands—like the kinds conference organizers often use to impress their participants—very often don’t.
While it’s certainly nice to be put up in a deluxe resort or name-brand hotel, it’s disheartening to learn the hotel you’re staying in is more of a store than a temporary home. Each new cost on top of conference fees creates new stress and resentment; each unexpected cost for what began as a reward or incentive trip changes the equation.
And while conference organizers may not be responsible for tacking on all those hidden costs, they are responsible for their invitees’ end-to-end experience—particularly when they have negotiated deals with particular hotels or airlines. The hotel in which you throw an event is not a contractor, however much you might see them as such. Like the airline, the limo company, the caterer and the golf course, as far as the participant is concerned, the venue is you.
Unless you and your company really lack an identity of your own, I think there’s more risk than reward in identifying yourself by proxy with a strong luxury hotel brand. In an age of transparency, it might just be a better choice to pick a venue with as little of its own voice as possible—or one that’s pleasant but definitely quieter than whatever it is you’re using to talk about yourself. While it might be nice for someone to go home talking about how great a hotel property is, your job isn’t to earn the hotel repeat business. It’s to earn your company more attention, focus or dedication.
This is why your choice of partners and contractors needs to be understood less as components of your set or costume concepts than as facilitators of the conference that you are actually holding. In the long run, the more effortlessly people can do the job at hand—meet other people, record their thoughts, communicate with the home office, eat, shower, sauna, work out—the better they will be at the task of convening.
It is aggravating to learn that a hotel’s gym facilities require additional payment or membership in a special club; it’s an impediment to flow. Making it to an 8 a.m. keynote shouldn’t mean having to hang a card on the door ordering a US$17 Continental breakfast in order to get a simple cup of coffee.
As conference organizers patronizing several dying industries, you have leverage to get your attendees considerations that actually make a difference in their experience—not fruit baskets or the latest USB gizmo. Opt instead for free shuttles from the airport or special check-in, dedicated personnel at the hotel who don’t have to look up your conference in order to tell people where to go or what’s happening, coffee in the room, free Internet, free gym, etc., even if the hotel doesn’t normally offer these perks. And if these are special considerations, there’s no harm letting your attendees know you’ve won these services for them through your own dedication and perseverance.
In the process, you will be communicating to your group the actual power of the group. As a group, you have the power to negotiate things that none of these people would be able to get as individuals. As a group, you have the power to turn any hotel, convention center or meeting place into your place. It’s that feeling of really taking over a building—and doing so in a way that everyone who was there remembers just how dramatic a takeover occurred when you came through town.
Just as human resources people come to understand the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, conference organizers must learn to distinguish between the kind of effort that matters to the success of a conference, and the kind that doesn’t. I hate to watch hundreds of dollars a night per participant go down the drain in luxury hotel bills and other extraneous branded experiences when their basic needs aren’t even being met.
With just a little more planning and a whole lot less cash, however, you can greatly increase your guest’s efficiency. Every little idea you come up with to make it easier to get water, get to the flight gate, get online, get fed, get heard or even get to sleep will be remembered long after the name on the soap in the bathroom.
Stay in the hotel you’re planning to use, fly the airline, eat in the restaurant, take the cab. Observe each and every touch point. And if you don’t like one, change it.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF speaks and writes about communication, values, culture and organizations. His latest book is Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. He can be contacted via www.rushkoff.com.
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