By Anne Frey-Mott

AIGA’s 2019 Design Conference at the Pasadena Convention Center

Choosing the right location for an event is among a planner’s most important responsibilities. For those not in the industry, it can be easy to think site selection comes down to a quick Google search, signing a contract with a hotel or convention center, and a few calls to a catering company.

Oh, if only it were that easy!

The truth is, site selection is an in-depth process that involves hours of homework, location visits, and dozens of phone calls to make sure everything is in order. I’ve been doing site selections for more than two decades, and find the process both challenging and fun. There is so much creativity that goes into figuring out how one site may fit a client’s needs over another, and I enjoy building lasting relationships with vendors.

A lot of my love for site selection, though, has come through trial and error. I’m not alone (just ask any seasoned event planner) in having a lengthy list of horror stories related to sites not working out. But over the years, I’ve found that asking the right questions upfront is key to success.

Here are a few questions to ask before (and during) your next site visit: 

1. What is the sense of arrival?

What does a city look and feel like at the airport? How easy is it to get into the city from the airport? Is there an easily navigable subway system, shuttle buses, or ride shares at the ready?

It’s important to note the distance to your desired location from the airport. The longer it takes, the more annoyed attendees can feel. I recommend doing homework prior to your visit and then checking if your research lines up to reality upon your arrival.

2. What are the names of the preferred/required hotel vendors? 

It is common for hotels to come armed with a list of preferred vendors. Depending on the property, planners may be required to employ these companies in order to host an event. These vendors can span everything from ground transportation to audio/visual to outside catering and more. 

During the site visit (or, better yet, before the visit), ask your property contact for a list of their vendors. Ask if working with those vendors is a requirement for the contract. This can help inform negotiations moving forward.

3. What does the back of the house look like?

“Back of the house” refers to those resources and activities that attendees do not see. This can include catering kitchens, AV production plans, loading docks, etc. When doing a site selection, it is always a good idea to meet your point person. Even if you end up not needing to call them, it’s always nice to connect on your site visit, to familiarize yourself with who helps run the show behind the scenes.

4. What are the best and worst rooms at the host hotel?

Every time—and I mean every time—I visit a potential host hotel, I will ask the sales staff to show me their worst room and best room.

Planners do not want surprises when it comes to rooms, so be sure to only schedule visits when a hotel’s staff can open up every style room possible. If they can’t, schedule the visit for another time or look for another hotel.

5. Who are the best DMCs in the area?

DMCs, short for “destination management companies,” are the companies that can help planners with everything from transportation to off-site venue selections to recommendations on restaurants and catering. I recommend interviewing at least two DMCs during every site visit, asking for bids from each, and being transparent with your need for multiple bids.

6. What is the geography of the city—and what is there to do?

While on a site visit, I suggest asking potential DMCs or people around town what there is to do relative to where your event will take place. For example, if you’re planning a 50-person dinner at a restaurant in Rome, it would be good to know what bars are located around that restaurant and what people might want to do after the scheduled dinner.

It also pays to clock how long it will take to get to an off-site location from the main hotel or conference space. For example, if meeting attendees finish their last session at 5 p.m. and a cocktail hour is scheduled to start at 6 p.m., it may make the most sense to book a restaurant that is easily accessible within a 15-minute drive vs. a 40-minute drive, especially when you factor in traffic.

7. What are your site backups?

I’ll never forget planning an event at a hotel in Europe, only to find out a few days beforehand that that hotel was uninhabitable. The ensuing days were a flurry of panicked phone calls, all with the knowledge that a group of executives was set to arrive no matter what. While I lost some sleep (OK, a lot), the event worked out largely thanks to the fact that I had backup locations at the ready and people on the ground to help me out.

It’s always best to have people and other sites on your list should anything go wrong with days to spare.

8. How’s the food?

Long gone are the days of rubber chicken. These days, excellent food is an expectation at events of all types. I strongly recommend not only talking with your hotel salesperson about menu options and personally tasting each dish, but also speaking face-to-face with the chef about his or her ability to be flexible with menus based on dietary restrictions and last-minute requests.

9. What is a site’s renovation plan?

The word “renovation: sends shivers down the spines of many a planner. The reason for this is simple: As a planner, let’s say you walk into a hotel, and it looks ideal for an event you have planned 24 months later. The staff is professional and friendly, the back of the house is impeccable, and all other details line up. 

You sign a contract and off you go. 

Then, as your event approaches, you get a phone call. That hotel you loved is going through a renovation and it’s starting this week. Your attendees will be forced to sidestep dusty two-by-fours on their way to the general session, and may need to have their dinner served in a breakout room because the restaurant will be unusable.

This nightmare can be avoided by asking about a site’s renovation plans. If staff doesn’t know about possible renovations, I recommend writing clauses into your contract to protect you from these types of incidents. Surprise renovations can also happen when there is a change in hotel management. Think about writing a clause pertaining management changes to protect yourself, as well.