June 20, 2011

Hotels 101

A friend (yes, I’m talking about you Laura) asked me to cover hotel contacts.  I’ve never been really good at negotiating hotel contracts, but I have seen enough of them over the years to know what hotels typically will and will not do for (to) you. 

[I guess I need to mention one thing about my background, that isn’t part of my con running history.  I spent a few years renting out a ballroom at a local performing arts facility.  So, I’ve been on both sides of this deal.] 
The first thing a con runner needs to understand is that renting hotel space is kind of like buying a car.  The hotel staff has had a lot of time to prepare to negotiate with you.  They want to maximize the amount of money they get from your con’s coffers, and have a number of ways planned to do just that.

Most hotels will initially talk about a fee for the ballrooms.  This might be a lump sum or it might be broken down by room.  Regardless of how it’s presented, get a total figure for the weekend.  They will probably discuss the cost of tables and linens, and then hit you with a service fee.   Service fees are normally a percentage of one, or all, of the other costs.  Be careful, if they do not mention the service fee, ask about it.  Also, find out exactly what the service fee applies to, and if it’s pre-tax or post-tax.  I’ve seen it show up as post- tax only once, but it was a nasty little surprise that the con was not prepared to pay.  Speaking of taxes, find out what the tax percentage is on the ballroom rental, tables, chairs, etc. 
The hotel will most likely suggest to you that you can lower, or even remove, the cost of the space if you buy some food.   Catering is the single highest profit center for the hotel, so they really want to sell it to you.  It will likely cost you more than the ballroom rental, so stay way from it, if you can.  Buying food has wrecked more than one con’s budget, and hotels are usually really persistent on trying to get you to buy some.

If you decide you are not buying food, but then someone on your ConCom wants to hold an event with food, be aware that you will be very unlikely to be able to just bring in your own food.  Health laws prevent that in many states, and even in the ones where you can get away with it legally, you will end paying a corkage fee.  Corkage fees are charged by hotel to discourage you from not using their catering services. 
Similar to corkage fees, a lot of hotels own A/V equipment and require that you rent it from them, instead another local company.  Some hotels will allow you to bring in your own equipment if you are not actually paying for the equipment.  So try to work that into the contract.

You should discuss your operating hours with the hotel up front.  Some hotels will charge for security after a certain time of night.  This can get pricey if you have much late night programming.  Also, while discussing hours, be sure to include time for set up and tear down when you tell the hotel how long you need the space.  The hotel considers your event to begin the moment you need in the building and does not consider it over until every single person is out.  This includes you and your staff, by the way.

The cost of guest rooms is the final major cost you will need to negotiate.  Before you visit any perspective hotels, do a little web surfing, and find out what the other cons in your area have listed as the “con rate” for hotel rooms.  This will give you two pieces of information.  It will tell you if the hotel is competitive, and what your members are likely to be willing to pay.  Keep in mind that if you have to cover the guest rooms for some of your guests, and you probably will, this will affect your bottom line.  Be sure to also find out what the tax percentage is for the guest rooms.   Normally it’s between 12% and 15% depending on your local and state government.  That adds up pretty quickly.
Okay, so that’s Con Hotels 101.  There is a lot more to it than what I’ve already covered, but this should be the major points.


  1. Thanks for doing this. It's also worth noting, that in my experience, which is not as extensive as yours, that the hotel will try to give you a high rate for the function space and then come down on that rate provided you guarantee that your attendees will take a certain number of room nights--not rooms, room nights. So someone booking a room for Friday and Saturday counts for 2 room nights.

    Some hotels have even have given cons I've been part of a sliding scale for the function space, based on number of room nights actually booked.

    So if your convention uses X number of room nights, the function space is at or close to full price; if your members take X+ (arbitrary number more) room nights, the function space comes down in price by around 50%, and if you get (for example, double of X) room nights, then the function space is "free."

    But TANSTAAFL and all that; so watch the fine print.

    Also, hotels tend to get cranky when you don't make your minimum room nights. Some will even make you pay money to make up the cost of the rooms not taken, above and beyond the cost of the function space.

  2. Good add! Yes, most hotels will hit you with a sliding scale.

  3. Good points all around, but one thing that was not mentioned is to upfront and honest with the hotel. Regardless if this is your first year running an event or your 15th year, be square with your hotel contact. Don't tell them you expect 1000 room nights and 2000 people attending the con if it is not true. This will hurt you in the end. It is better to play it safe and start with lower numbers, and then exceed those numbers, than to exagerate your numbers and come up short.