Management of available space for conferences and events is key to optimising performance, says hotel industry consultant Melvin Gold
These are busy times for the UK hotel industry, and recent performance figures show that the upward trading trend is continuing to gather pace.
For this reason, there was generally a buoyant mood among the attendees at the recent Hotel Booking Agents Association annual forum, a gathering of leading booking agents and their key hotel and venue partners.
However, one particular issue kept raising its head, namely how hard it is for agents and corporate buyers to find space for conferences and events in this phase of the economic cycle.
It's not just because these are good times; the main gripe is that agents and bookers are holding on to multiple provisional bookings at different venues and are not releasing the unwanted space promptly once a venue has been confirmed.
This booking-blocking is occurring at QHotels, where sales director David Taylor has found bookings for the same event at several of its hotels an increasingly common and frustrating occurrence.
Despite the company's systems being designed to pick up such overlaps, it's still difficult to get the unwanted allocations released quickly and efficiently.
If this practice is so blatantly evident within just one group, the mind boggles at the extent of the problem across the whole conference and banqueting sector.
It's not just hotels that are suffering; booking agents' jobs of searching for venues are more time-consuming and frustrating, as provisionally booked spaces clog up the system.
One suggestion would be to introduce a changing rooms-style structure, as can be seen in clothes shops, where only a specified number of garments can be held at any one time. It's undoubtedly a good idea, but how would it be enforced? Could it be made to work?
Until a system such as this, or other guidelines, come into practice, it will remain incumbent on agents, corporate bookers and hotels to manage provisional bookings in a responsible manner. We need to ensure that this positive trading period remains a win-win for all concerned.
Over to you… How can hotels maximise their venue potential?
Julia Hands, chairman and chief executive, Hand Picked Hotels
"By making the space as flexible and versatile as possible, so you can accommodate a wedding as easily as a business meeting. It's down to architectural and interior design, and the right furniture. Be creative. We've built freestanding outdoor venues, which take larger meetings out of the hotel so individual guests' experiences aren't compromised."
Stephen Broome, Hospitality and Leisure Advisory Services, PWC
"You need a clear selling policy. Enquiries and options are not bookings and should not reduce availability of space in any booking systems. You might accept an option from an agent, but if another party requires the same dates and is willing to enter into a contract, then provisionals must decide if they want to take up their option or not."
Michael Hirst, chairman, Business Tourism Partnership
"A recent poll found that bookings are being made later nowadays, so hotels with provisional bookings well in advance are privileged, as most are waiting for bookings to come in. People are leaving it later for varying reasons, including changing company fortunes, budget availability and uncertainties over possible external events."
Richard Balfour-Lynn, chief executive, Marylebone Warwick Balfour
"We're looking at cancellation policies across the board. The traditional systems are no longer appropriate. The conference business is apologetic about its cancellation policies. I suspect we will step out of sync and make our policies more aggressive. Once we do it, I'm sure others will follow."