MLA Newsletter
Music Library Association No.186 Jul-Aug 2016
Conference [Planning] Reflections

Usually, this section of the MLA Newsletter includes the reflections of attendees at one of their first MLA conferences. This time, we have a special treat as we hear from the out-going Conference Manager, Jim Farrington. MLA owes Jim a debt of gratitude for his service in this position. Thanks, Jim!

By Jim Farrington, Out-Going MLA Convention Manager

Convention managers past and present, Jim Farrington and Diane Steinhaus

Jim Farrington, left, with Diane Steinhaus, his successor as MLA Convention Manager for the 2017-2018 meetings

On June 30th, I completed my last official day as MLA's Convention Manager (CM), a four-year run that started with two years as Assistant Convention Manager (ACM) (to Laura Gayle Green). MLA Newsletter Editor Michelle Hahn asked me to share some of the things I've learned from the experience.

One of the first things I was told was that you'll never look at hotels again the same way. And that's true, even when I travel with family and stay at the kinds of properties that are nothing like what we have to use for MLA meetings. The look and feel of hotel lobbies suddenly becomes important; how many registration desks can be used to

accommodate a throng of librarians checking out Sunday mornings is noteworthy; the proximity of grocery and/or drug stores, not to mention quick lunch spots, is taken into account (and you might be surprised at the number of otherwise fine hotels that we reject just based on location).

Another outlook that the job alters is the one you have of the membership. When we attend our meetings we tend to hang out with those who have shared interests and reasons for attending. However, the CM has to take into account a wide variety of opinions (and boy does the membership have them!) and needs, and then attempt to devise solutions that will serve most people, while constrained by the vagaries of space, money, etc. The phrase "you can't please all the people" is never more apropos. There are members who would be just as happy at the same airport hotel every year because they don't get out to see the locale. Others make the meeting a destination and may bring a spouse or family (which, I suspect, will be especially true in Orlando). As ACM, you are working with our vendors, all of whom are supporting the convention by renting table space in the exhibit area and therefore have anticipations of placement in the hall and hopes of bringing in hundreds of potential customers. The juggling act that occurs is a constant reminder of the very diverse needs and expectations of our attendees.

How the hotel and hospitality industry works--and makes money--is another eye-opening aspect of the job. I came on board just as we were really just starting our affiliation with a meeting/event support company. As that relationship has developed over the past four years, we are starting to reap some terrific benefits with our representative's long experience and evolving understanding of our organization's needs and operations. Once a region of the country is suggested by the board for the CMs to explore, the CMs target various cities for our representative to submit RFPs to hotels. Their proposals come back

Conference [Planning] Reflections, continued

to us in the form of a detailed spreadsheet with side by side comparisons of each property (number of rooms, square footage of meeting spaces, website address, preliminary concessions, etc.). From this information, the CMs choose which hotels to visit in person. For the past several years, we have tried to target two cities that were within driving distance. Sometimes the choice becomes obvious once we walk through the properties, and sometimes we have to weigh the pros and cons of each site very carefully.

"The juggling act that occurs is a constant reminder of the very diverse needs and expectations of our attendees."

At this point in the process, costs have not been a strong consideration. Often hotels with too high a room rate or food&beverage minimum are weeded out before we make the site visit. But more importantly, everything is negotiable. A hotel has a bottom line number that they would like to get from a meeting of our size. They make their largest percentage profit (75% on average) on room nights (MLA attendees typically account for about 1100 room nights for the week-this figure is higher if more attendees stay in the host hotel, which in turn helps MLA in negotiating the rest of

the costs). The second major source of income for them is food and beverage at 35% profit. Simply put, if we can provide them with more attendees staying on site, we become a more attractive business for them. Another thing that makes MLA more appealing is if we can reduce our need for meeting space, which opens up rooms that the hotel can rent for other purposes. That is how we were able to negotiate successfully with the Portland Hilton, a property that on paper seemed too expensive. If we meet certain metrics (e.g. a negotiated percentage of our room block), the meeting room space is provided gratis.

Being ACM/CM is a very demanding, yet equally rewarding job within MLA. There is a certain amount of pressure in putting on an annual party for 400 of your friends. You want them all to have a memorable experience. My time was certainly made easier with the great people I've worked with: Laura Gayle Green and Diane Steinhaus in CM/ACM roles, Jim Zychowicz and Katie Cummings in the MLA business office, four Program Chairs, Local Arrangements representatives, and of course dozens of hotel representatives in the last four hotels and the next three. I think the membership will be quite pleased with the locations of the next three meetings, and I look forward to being able to actually take in the meeting content from now on.