Monday, May 13, 2019

Are Site Visits an Art or a Science?

This past week I was on the road again -- this time siting a couple of properties for a future Board strategy retreat.

My current association takes the word "retreat" pretty seriously. We're always on the lookout for interesting and exclusive destinations -- places most of our Board members haven't been before, where they can spend some time out of their businesses and in the association, sprinkled with liberal amounts of social activity and outdoor excursions.

It's a pretty successful formula for us, and sometimes it's hard for me not to break it down into an actual formula. In another life, for another association, for example, I was responsible for booking two thousand room nights across half a dozen or more hotels for a large city-wide convention. On those site visits I would see a dozen hotels in a day, spending just enough time in each to get a sense of their quality, amenities, and value.

Back then, probably in order to stay sane, I had a overly simple system for keeping all those properties straight in my head and for picking the best ones. The first hotel I saw, regardless of quality, would get a ranking of "5" on a tally sheet I had already prepared for my visit. The first hotel was always my baseline. Then, after seeing the second one, I would ask myself, "Was that hotel better than the first one I saw?" If yes, it got a "7". If not, it got a "3". Then, onto the third hotel and another question. "How did that one stack up?" It would get a number that reflected its relative position to the first two hotels, say maybe a "4", or perhaps a "9".

I would proceed like this with every new hotel, positioning it in the mix while it was still fresh in my mind, until the day was done and I had a top to bottom list of all the hotels I had seen. Frankly, I would remember almost nothing else about them, but I was certain that the hotel that got a "7" on my tally sheet was better than the one that got a "5". And I would start requesting contracts based entirely on this system, starting with the highest scoring hotel and working my way down until I had all the room nights I needed for the convention.

Now, I live in a much different world. Instead of 12 hotels in one day, on this latest trip I saw only two properties in two days -- and, most importantly, I think, I got to spent a night in each of the properties vying for our business. For most of this time, I am unsupervised by the sales managers that offer the obligatory tour. I want to know what it's like being a random guest in their property -- ordering room service, using the fitness center, sitting in the lounge and seeing how long it takes for someone to come and take my order.

I'm intentionally going for a gut-feel. Will my Board members enjoy staying here? Will they get the kind of attention they expect and we want to deliver? And while I am intentionally trying to make decision based on qualitative factors, I sometimes still find it difficult not to break the process down into a set of quantifiable measures. How much is the room rate? How big is the ballroom? What F&B minimum are they requesting?

It's taken my a long time, but I think I've finally come to understand that while these quantifiable measures are important -- none of them really matter if the property in question has the qualitative factors that one desires. Within a certain range, we can make our retreat work with any set of quantities if it offers the qualities that make the event a memorable one for our Board members and a productive one for our association.

In this way, my site visits of today are much more of an art than a science.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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