Interview with Diane Conti

Meeting Planning

You do a lot of work with citywide conventions. What do you see as the next big trend in that area of the industry?
I think there’s going to be a huge shift in the way we do big conventions. People aren’t buying into the huge mega-conventions anymore. There’s a move toward smaller, regional shows. When that happens, the organizers won’t be selling real estate. They’ll basically be selling appointments. You’ll pay to set up appointments in advance, rather than sitting in a booth and hoping that people come by.

Why the change?
People still need to interact. They still need the face-to-face; they still need to network. But it’s no longer just about ROI. It’s become about ROT, too, “return on time.”

So how do you make the meeting as valuable as possible?
One thing I can do is to offer them the best possible room rates. Another is to provide fabulous personal service. And it helps to give them a compelling reason to show up; a sexy venue just isn’t enough. This isn’t rocket science. And I should know, because before I was doing this, I was a rocket scientist.

What makes a meeting compelling?
Here’s a revolutionary idea: find out what it is people want. When I’m called upon to make a presentation, I go to meet the client and ask the question: ‘What’s important to you?’ If they can answer that question—and I can provide it for them—they’ve just written
my speech.

Thanks to high demand, hotels seem to hold all the cards these days. How do you get them to negotiate?
It isn’t as bad as it used to be. During the dot-com bubble, for example, you couldn’t get a room in San Jose. We had a convention that had met there every other year for years, and when I tried to negotiate for a room, I was told it would cost me $400 a night to stay at the Holiday Inn.

Ouch! What did you do?
I’m never a hardball person. But I told them, ‘Hey, life will change. If you try to screw us over now, it could come back to haunt you years and years later.’ Our per-room rates went down by $300.

What advice do you wish you’d been given earlier in your career?
Listen to your gut. Listen to that inner voice that tells you when a deal’s not good. There was a guy
who came here because he wanted us to do his meeting. He talked on and on about how terrific
he was, but he didn’t give us any information about the meeting. My gut told me it was going to be a train wreck, and I decided not to bid on the meeting. Trust your intuition. I wish I’d always been smarter in that regard.