I arrange quite a few events and have realized the importance of reading and reviewing the contracts carefully and highlighting key dates. I also worked in a law firm in the corporate law section so am always mindful of the fine print. Here are some things I would recommend you go over in a contract with a venue:
Is the date right?
I had an event for November 7th and the contract was signed, sealed and delivered, but then I noticed the hotel had put the wrong date on the contract. They had booked the space for November 8th. In all my correspondence with them I had requested the 7th, but somebody entered it wrong. I called them and thankfully they had space available on the date I needed and we were able to amend the contract, but imagine if I hadn't noticed and we showed up on the 7th?
Hold the space please?
When I receive a contract I highlight the date the hotel needs the contract back signed and put a reminder to make sure I send it back in time. If you don't, the hotel can release the space and if it is a busy time in that city for events, the space could be taken up very quickly and you will be left without a room to hold your event.
What are the dates you can cancel by?
Contracts will have dates you can cancel by. When you receive the contract, highlight that date and put it in your Tasks with a reminder for a week before. At that time you can assess if the event is still going ahead or if you need to cancel. If you miss the cancellation date you will be into some big dollars for cancelling. Hotels usually have a scale they go by such as 40% if you cancel by a certain date, 60% if you cancel by another date and then 100% on the final date. Pay attention or it could cost your company money.
One time we had to cancel at the last minute, but we were a few days past the cancellation date. It was going to cost our company $5,000 plus in cancellation fees. I knew we were going to go back to that city the next year so negotiated with the hotel that if I booked the next event at their venue would they waive the cancellation fee. Fortunately, they were able to waive it and we only lost our $500 deposit. It is always worth asking.
As you saw above, negotiation is possible. You may not get exactly what you want, but it's worth trying. For instance, if you need rooms for your guests, a boardroom and break-out rooms, breakfast and lunch ordered and perhaps ballroom space for a reception/dinner, if they are charging $200 a night for the rooms and charging you for the boardroom and ball room, why not ask if you can have the rooms for $150 and because you are ordering a meal and the food and beverage costs will be high, ask for the boardroom and ballroom space for free or at a reduced price. They want your business and will normally come back with something much better than they initially offered.
It is also good to get rates from other hotels. At my last event I mentioned that the hotel across the street was willing to give me such and such a rate and that really helped in my negotiations.
What are the contract requirements and have you met them?
Take care in what you tell the hotel you need. If you are not sure of the number of people who will be booking, then give them a rough estimate. You can always increase it later, but you might have difficulty if you want to decrease it. Again, check the dates on the contract when you can decrease the number of rooms by. There will be a date you need to give the final rooming list. Highlight that date as well and put it in your Tasks with a reminder to get back to them with final numbers.
Food, food and more food
If your event requires food the venue will send you a banqet event form and you will need to estimate the amount of food you need. It has been my experience that if you are having 20 guests you can probably get away with ordering quantities for 15 and still have left overs. My last Board meeting I ordered lunch for 10, but I had 15 Board members in attendance. Normally some of them leave early so I thought I was pretty safe. As lunchtime came I noticed that nobody was leaving and I started to think I was going to have to give up my lunch so everyone could eat. Finally lunch arrived and we had enough food to feed all of us plus I could have packed a few sandwiches for my flight home. What a relief -- that was the best lunch I ever had.
I also had a reception to organize and I am never sure how many appetizers to order for everyone and normally go by what the hotel staff tell me I need, but I noticed there is always so much food left over that I tried something different this time. I was working with the hotel event person and asked him how many appetizers I should order per person. He suggested four so I went with three for everyone and for some appetizers only two and it was more than enough.
This is something you really need to experiment with and you will gain more confidence to order less and know there will be enough food.
Sit down dinners
Of course if it is a sit down dinner you have to order for the number of guests you have. That is another thing you will have to note on the contract and give them the number of guests. They will have a scale for that as well and after a certain time you will only be able to decrease your numbers by a certain percentage. I tend to estimate I will have less guests and then if I have more I just add them when I have final numbers.
When the invoice arrives...
Once the invoice arrives you should check to make sure everything is accurate. At my last event I went over the bill and was able to get it reduced by $1,000, so it is well worth doing it. When I reviewed the invoice I noticed there was a guest on our bill who wasn't in our party so that amount got taken off. Then they charged us for 25 for lunch on one of the days, but I had only ordered for 20. There were charges for audio visual equipment that we never ordered. I didn't go over the bill with a fine tooth comb either, these things were easily picked out and were evident, so give the invoice a read over. It could save your company some money.
Important relationship building
In all these cases I had much better results because I had established a relationship with the venue contact. There is value in getting to know people, even if it is just over email or the phone. Once they start to have a relationship with you they are much more open to trying to help you. I usually contact the hotel directly, although I sometimes go through a travel agent to find out intial names of hotels in the city that are close to my event, but after the booking I always take over the discussions. I keep a list of the contacts I make at various venues. You just never know when you will be in their city again and just might need to book a room for yourself. If they can't help you, they may be able to recommend another hotel nearby.