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Prevent Lobby Renovations from Ruining Your Meeting or Event

This is a post by our regular contributor Trish Rafferty, CMP. Trish is the Senior Meeting Manager with Meetings in Medicine in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @theFunctionista.

Turning a Negative into a (Semi) Positive

I don’t claim to be an expert on hotel lobby renovations, but I have not once, not twice, but three times experienced firsthand the challenges of managing a meeting during the final phase of a major venue refurbishment.  As a result I feel qualified to share a few pointers on how to minimize the damage and ensure a successful event.

Granted, hotel renovations are necessary to keep a property viable, fresh and appealing –years of high volume traffic take a toll and the need to compete with newer properties and changing styles is a given.  Often hotels remain open during renovations and continue to book meetings and events.

Since meeting contracts are frequently signed in advance before construction is planned, a construction clause is essential in hotel meeting contracts or addendums.  This clause ideally should allow the meeting organizers to exercise their options including pulling out of the hotel altogether; receiving financial compensation for the inconveniences and/or additional concessions for the group.

I have found these clauses, while helpful, can be difficult to enforce when it comes to lobby construction.   Technically, construction in the lobby does not directly affect meeting space or sleeping rooms and is often the last step in a major refurbishing effort.  In theory, if 90% of the property is good to go, why should sleeping rooms and meeting space sit empty while the lobby undergoes a face lift?  I understand the logic, but I have been on the receiving end of the aftermath and seen it negatively impact the event.

The simple fact is that the hotel lobby is an integral part of any event and construction in that space can be very disruptive.  The reception area is the meeting attendees’ first impression of the hotel and, by association, the event.  In addition, it is the place to meet and greet colleagues and friends and often serves as the natural convening spot throughout the meeting. Unfortunately details on construction scheduling are not always forthcoming from the hotel team.  The simple reason for this – they are at the mercy of the constantly changing construction timetables often subject to delays..  In addition, they are trying to manage the needs and demands of multiple clients at the same time.

Two notes I will share with hoteliers:

  • First be as upfront as possible with the planners and sensitive to their concerns.
  • Second – unless the planner is a repeat customer who is already planning a future meeting, DO NOT focus on how amazing the lobby will look upon completion.  As a meeting planner I truly don’t care what the hotel looks like before my group arrives or after we walk out the door.

Even though I have been through three meetings in hotels undergoing lobby renovation each time there were new lessons to be learned.

The first was an association annual meeting.  My hotel contact let me know the renovation was almost complete a few weeks before the meeting.  The lobby was the only remaining component.  I quickly went for a site visit and discovered the entryway to this downtown Chicago convention hotel had been reduced to the size of a large living room and the shape of a hard to negotiate maze populated with temporary walls, stanchions and crowded registration desks – hardly a charming welcome.  We negotiated a front door meet and greet and escort to check-in for each arrival.  In addition, we set up a “lounge” area just for our group with snacks and beverages supplied by the hotel.  There were also financial concessions for the inconvenience and the meeting proceeded with minimal disruption.

My second experience was during the restoration of a landmark San Francisco property – I was on-site to assist another planner soon after starting a new job.  I knew nothing of the construction until I arrived on-site.  The entire façade of the hotel was draped in black and resembled a large haunted house.  To this day I feel badly for the bride who married in the main ballroom that weekend and hope she got a screaming deal!

Every day on-site brought a new surprise.  Day 1’s highlight was the aforementioned scaffolding. Day 2 included the unexpected removal of all the lobby furniture.  I immediately suggested the hotel set up a separate lounge area for our group and it was quickly assembled.  Day 3 was a series of meeting disrupting fire drills due to alarms set off by the constructions crew.  The fire drills gave way to power outages in the afternoon and frequent elevator malfunctions.

Day 3 was a tough day!  Overall, the hotel construction was deemed truly detrimental to the meeting by both our team and the hotel.  To make amends the hotel agreed to host our next board meeting free of charge.  On the return trip, six months later, the restored lobby was picture perfect and the meeting came off without a hitch.

The Third Time is What?

They say the third time is the charm, but in this case the third was the most challenging despite putting a plan in place to forestall any complications.  The program was a last-minute training meeting for a pharmaceutical group in New Jersey; a local meeting for me.  Three weeks prior to the event my client and I met for a site visit at the hotel.  I was dismayed to see the now foreboding scaffolding dominating the atrium lobby.  Misunderstanding my reaction, the eager Convention Services Manager (CSM) walked us through the lobby area first and gushed about how beautiful the space was going to be and how perfect it would be for our opening night reception.

I quickly stated the obvious – renovations were ongoing and we could not plan on a reception in that space.  Ignoring my concerns she assured my excited client that she could get the general manager to agree to it – “He never says no to me,” she promised.  Plans were set in motion that afternoon for a beautiful evening in brand new space and two of us were ecstatic.  As you might have guessed, I got a call the next day that the GM said no and it was left to me deliver the news to my client.

–It was time to make my demands known so a meeting was quickly arranged with the general manager, the sales manager and our enthusiastic CSM.  I opened the meeting by expressing my informed concerns that the lobby renovation would be detrimental to our meeting and noted that we were not notified of the ongoing construction at contract signing which had only occurred the week prior.  As I had been down this road before I was prepared with several requests.

  • First and foremost I asked that, even if the lobby was not re-opened, the work stop during our meeting and the unsightly scaffolding be removed from the lobby.  Amazingly the GM agreed
  • I asked for and got reassurances that work done in other areas of the hotel away from our meeting space would not disturb our program and, if it did, it would be stopped immediately.
  • In addition I requested that an explanation of the work being done be provided to our guests and an amenity provided.  The amenity of tool-shaped chocolates reserved for VIPs was reluctantly offered to the entire group.
  • My request for an exclusive lounge area for the group was denied due to a lack of space, but a meeting room had been repurposed as a bar on the second floor and our group was welcome to frequent that space.

Armed with a letter signed by the general manager promising all of the concessions above I got down to planning the meeting. I was cautiously optimistic when I arrived on-site 24 hours before the meeting and completely shocked to see the offensive scaffolding standing proudly at the back of the lobby.  It was badly draped with a wrinkled and ripped tarp.  I accosted the front desk clerk demanding to see the general manager immediately.

The Manager on Duty was called as the GM was off property and not scheduled to return until late that night.  I was assured my concerns would be addressed first thing in the morning.  “Not even close to good enough,” I countered and suggested he be called to discuss this situation.  Everyone was hesitant to “disturb” him, but I was told he would be asked to call me.  I got to my room, unpacked and paced waiting for the phone to ring.  When it rang it was the MOD apologizing, but saying that the GM would be in touch with me the next morning.  Another earful from me sent him back to the other phone line to try again.  The next knock on the door was a delivery of champagne from the absentee GM.  I refused the delivery and slammed the door.  (Let me pause here to note that might have been a miscalculated overreaction on my part).

An hour later the phone rang and I spoke to the absentee GM himself. 

His “Welcome to the hotel” and ‘What seems to be the problem?” fueled my anger.  I asked him why the scaffolding he had promised to have removed was still in the atrium.  He countered that it was not in the atrium; it was in the centrium – the area inside the back door and this location was out of the way as agreed. .  “No,” I countered, “It was not as agreed and it has to be removed immediately before my group arrives.”

This solution, he calmly tried to explain, was not possible since the crew was not under his jurisdiction and removing anything could land him in jail.  I won’t go into the minutiae of the conversation; instead I will focus on the salient details.  Neither of us was going to back down and our mutual anger escalated throughout the exchange.  The highlights included him repeatedly saying in an ever-increasing volume, “Please rest assured that your meeting will be a great success,” and me retaliating at a matching pitch, “I will not rest assured as long as the scaffolding is still in the lobby/atrium/centrium!” We were just spinning our wheels  so the call ended with dissatisfaction on both sides.

I quickly made two more calls – to my boss and to our National Sales Office contact and both agreed to meet me at the hotel in the morning.

The meeting between the four of us was tense at best and accomplished little.  A closed door meeting between my NSO contact and the GM revealed that basically the GM was at the mercy of the construction crew and had no control over them or the areas they were occupying.  He should never have agreed to the terms he put in writing.  Financial compensations were discussed and agreed upon and, like a broken record, we were again reassured, that the meeting would be a success.

I called my client to avoid her shocked surprise upon arrival and apologized profusely for the inconvenience in advance.  Note – the warning call was not a courtesy extended to me by anyone at the hotel.

There were issues throughout the meeting; too many to detail here.  Highlights included the paint crew throwing down tarps 30 feet from my registration desk and me angrily chasing them away.  When, a short time later, I caught the unmistakable aroma of paint fumes I looked over the railing into the lower level to see the tarps and the crew assembled there.  One of them smiled up at me and shouted, “Can we work down here?”  I shook my head and they immediately packed up and left.  This gave me a false sense of importance and earned me a stern lecture from the GM that I was not running the hotel and had no right to dismiss the crew.

When the sound of jackhammers began to drift my way I took a different approach and called my CSM asking her to find the source and make it stop as it was disrupting the meeting.  She assured me she would take care of it and get right back to me.  Ten minutes later, with no action, I called her again and was again told she was working on it.  Another ten minutes went by and my exasperated client came out of the room with a request that I make the noise stop – “Can’t you hear that?” she demanded.  No point in telling her I had already made two requests – I called my CSM and demanded that something be done immediately.  “I’m working on it.” she retorted.  It was another 10 minutes before she appeared at the registration desk and bore the brunt of my wrath – louder than normal, but barely audible over the continuing hum of the jackhammer.

Finally, the noise stopped and I was treated to an angry lecture from the sales manager on how not to talk to her staff.  She was on the receiving end of my equally impassioned sermon on how not to talk to a client and to know all the facts before going on the offensive.  I defended my tirade, explaining that what she witnessed was my frustration at asking four times for something to be done with no resolution.  The meeting could not end fast enough for me or for the hotel team.

On the plus side, my client was pleased with my work and we collaborated on subsequent events at other, construction-free venues.  I downloaded the entire experience (tattled) to the national sales office.  I don’t know the outcome of that “satisfaction survey” but to this day I hear nothing from that particular property during the holidays.

I hope I have established my position as someone who has some experience with lobby renovations and I offer the following suggestions to those in similar situations.  If a meeting planner is in the position of hosting a meeting at a property undergoing lobby construction there are several steps to take in an effort to minimize the effects of the renovations on the meeting.

  • Have the latest information on the renovation timetable and prepare your clients/attendees – no surprises!
  • Visit the hotel in the weeks leading up to the meeting to see the construction and ascertain potential pitfalls first-hand.  Walk the space and review your agenda with the hotel staff – active construction should not take place during your peak arrival and departure times and noise, construction equipment and paint fumes should not impact the meeting.
  • If appropriate, ask the hotel to prepare a welcome letter to your attendees apologizing for the disruption and thanking them for their patience

Once the group is on-site, the following steps are useful (all should be paid for by the hotel):

  • Utilize meeting signage in the lobby (this is the one time to get away with that) to distract attention from the construction as attendees arrive
  • Set up a welcome area with snacks/beverages
  • Create a “lounge” area where guests can meet their friends and colleagues and network upon arrival and before/after sessions
  • Play up the construction – have the hotel provide construction-themed amenities; use construction props in the sessions and on refreshment breaks.

While a lobby renovation has the potential of damaging a meeting, there are ways to overcome it and achieve a successful outcome.  I still cringe when I see scaffolding or smell paint as I walk into a hotel.  I can’t help it – too many memories…

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