With You All the Way

by Sharron Campbell,

Certified Meeting Professional, 30 years experience

Are you losing the battle with sleeping room pirates that con your attendees?
Group sleeping room pirate flag
Group sleeping room pirate flag
Group sleeping room pirate flag 
 Image courtesy of Estelle Page

Room piracy is costing the meeting and event industry a fortune. 
What you can do to protect your group room blocks.

This is not a new problem, but are you aware of it?

It has been an ongoing industry discussion in recent years about the escalating problem meeting planners are experiencing from pirates that fraudulently pose as representatives of an upcoming meeting or event and book attendees' sleeping rooms outside of the group block at another, and sometimes non-existent, hotel.  But it was shocking to learn this year of just how extensive the damage has been to the bottom line of both large and small meetings and events. Large groups are losing as much as 45% of their room blocks to pirate organizations. Smaller groups are losing as much as 10% which can affect them as dramatically as the 45% loss to larger groups.

Since hotels negotiate the cost and availability of meeting and function space based on the number of sleeping rooms a group will guarantee to reserve and occupy, the loss of rooms to pirate organizations can be devastating to the financial success of the event.  If the designated number of guaranteed sleeping rooms are not occupied by the group during the event, the burden will fall to the event organization to pay for the rooms anyway as an attrition penalty. Additionally, other negotiated and cost-saving amenities for the group will likely be revoked by the hotel.
 
How pirates work.

Pirate organizations contact exhibitors, sponsors and attendee organizations from lists posted on event websites and printed materials they acquire through fake inquiries to the organization hosting the meeting or event. They may make reservations for themselves using fictitious names that they later cancel before the cancellation deadline. They send emails from disposable email addresses that they delete once they get the results they want. They offer lower rates to attendees or issue false warnings that the room block is nearly full and give their temporary contact info for booking rooms. If an attendee responds by phone, they can be very persuasive and believable. Pirates are adept at side-stepping  attempts by meeting planners to stop them. They are immune to a group's cease-and-desist letters and the legal system in general. They can be based anywhere in the world and will fade into the background under pressure only to rise up again elsewhere. It is not a pretty scenario.

What you can do about it.

 Audit-Group Room Blocks
Image courtesy of Simon Cunningham
Event planners can help protect themselves against attrition penalties by writing a clause into their hotel contracts that require a sleeping-room audit at the close of the event. The audit will involve comparing the event registration list to the hotel's occupancy list in order to identify attendees that stayed at the hotel without reserving their rooms from the group's block. The hotel would then credit the group for all attendee rooms whether they were booked by a 3rd party such as Expedia or Booking.com, or directly with the hotel without identifying with the group's event, or through a poacher.
 
Hotels will not allow planners access to their occupancy reports for guests' privacy reasons, so it will be necessary for the planner and the hotel representative to conduct the audit together to ensure both parties agree to its accuracy. This will not compensate the group for the loss of rooms that the pirate successfully moved to another property or to one that doesn't exist, but it can capture some room credit that would be lost without the audit. 

Work closely with your hotel reservations representative. Daily pickup reports from them will tell you how many reservations have been made or canceled and can raise red flags about unusual activity. They may also have developed solutions you can apply. It is in their best interest to help you. 

Incentives.

Some planners offer incentives such as discounted event registration if attendees book sleeping rooms from the group block at the event hotel. Incentives can be tricky, though, so best to think them out carefully. If piracy is not a big problem for your group, discounted registration fees may reduce revenue to the bottom line more than the rooms they save are worth.

Persuade attendees to make reservations safely.

Be diligent about your marketing strategy to create awareness among attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors about piracy and convince them to stay alert when receiving communications regarding sleeping rooms that might not be legitimate. Use realistic terms rather than scare tactics in your communications on how to make reservations safely through the event website and by verifying the phone number and email address they respond to are legitimate. Use a compelling tagline and image with a link to more detail in marketing materials and social media. Remember that registration forms in reminder mailers can be easily generated and distributed by pirates to look authentic, so caution attendees to respond only to one email address or phone number that has been designated for housing.

Check the event website daily to verify it has not been hacked or redirected. Your website provider can help you with that. Making a test reservation for yourself each day through the website could throw up red flags, too. Keep your hotel reservation representatives in the loop if you do this.
 
What meeting and event leaders are doing to control this. 

It is a major issue that the hospitality industry is struggling with worldwide and working diligently across many avenues with many partners to find an effective solution. For now, control is largely up to planners and marketing teams by focusing on effective ways to educate attendees about the risks of booking outside the group block and the benefits for them and the group when they book within the block.

For an in-depth discussion on rooms piracy and how the industry is rethinking the entire group room block process, go to PCMA Article-Convene 2016 January.

Sharron Campbell, CMP



Sharron Campbell is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), founder and publisher of PlanningHelper.com, a free, "how-to," educational resource designed to make the complex process of meeting and event planning easier to learn and manage for beginners, volunteers, and students - and to help any planner in need of a refresher. The basics and beyond.