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Short Lead Times

Tips for tackling one of the most challenging trends affecting meetings and events

By Angeal Kryhul

Talk about déjà vu. Helen Van Dongen got that old familiar feeling in the early part of last year, when she was suddenly asked to pull together an off-site corporate meeting with an insanely short lead-time of only two weeks.

In a poor economy, companies tend to pare back meetings and conferences, or they will wait until the very last minute to commit to a project. That’s exactly what started happening in 2009, a trend also seen during previous economic downturns, says Van Dongen, CMP, CMM, national director, event management at KPMG.

Meeting planners and suppliers stepped up to the plate. Over the past two years, they proved they could deliver quality events in less time. Trouble is, clients still expect near-instant turnaround times, even as the economy improves.

A June 2011 survey of 150 corporate meeting planners by Zentila, a Florida-based hospitality technology startup, found that the typical booking window is now only 36 days. Compared to lead times of three or four months in “the good old days,” one month’s notice is not uncommon in today’s market, agrees Van Dongen.

“Clients, event planners and venue partners have set the bar at this level collectively by being able to deliver. It’s a game changer,” says Ellen Boddington, president of Stellar Conference & Event Management Inc., based in Toronto.

There are positives and negatives to this trend, Boddington adds. Clients feel more comfortable asking for impromptu gatherings because they know that, one way or another, an event planner will make it happen. Also, short notice allows some venues to fill gaps in their availability.

One drawback, however, is that clients who push planners to book any available space likely don’t realize just how much a carefully chosen venue supports their program’s overall success, she says.

Over the past four years, Francine Miller, CMP, director, marketing services at Scotia Capital in Toronto has seen lead times for annual conferences and golf tournaments shrink from six or even 12 months to as few as three weeks.

Lately, things have gotten marginally better. Miller, who manages about 150 events a year, says lead times have crept to about three months.

Are short lead times the new normal?

Event planners have mixed opinions. As the economy continues to improve and demand for meeting space rises, corporate clients may be forced to plan their events further in advance.

But, Miller adds, there is unlikely to be a dramatic shift as long as venues and suppliers are able to deliver on a quick turnaround.

Tips for Tackling Short Lead Times

Detailed RFPs. Keep your RFPs direct and to the point so that venues and supplier partners can respond quickly.

Nudge Decision-Making. At the beginning of the process, push the client to commit to every detail, such as keynote speaker versus moderated panel, reception versus dinner.

Best Offer. Since you likely won’t have time to negotiate, ask venues and suppliers to provide their best rate in their initial response.

Love Your CVB. Work with the local convention bureau. They can get immediate responses from their local partners, and their services are free. 

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