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What's Trending: The Cost to Connect

By Selena Fragassi


If you haven’t looked closely at your latest invoices, you might have missed that Wi-Fi and A/V services are becoming more expensive—at some venues, that is.

The future is looking SMART. We are on the brink of having widespread public Wi-Fi, with Chicago and Halifax, Canada leading the charge in plans to develop hot spot kiosks and municipal broadband access, according to recent developments. And that’s a very good thing since, in America alone, 229 million are smartphone users—a figure that’s expected to jump to 264 million in four years, according to Statista.

Yet, with so many users and access growing by the day, how is it that the cost to connect is only going up and up, particularly in large proportions in the meeting and event industry? The rules of supply and demand would make sense for airplanes, for example, where there is only one option for Internet accessibility, and therefore a premium price. But why would the same be the case for hotels and other traditional venues, especially when there’s so much competition in attracting meetings business?

Planners that were polled in a recent Meetings Today survey about 2017 trends cited complimentary Wi-Fi and in-house A/V services at hotels continue to be some of the biggest hurdles. “I continue to see bids as high as $31,000 for a 400-person, three-day program,” said one planner. The issue is so extensive that some have now started requiring packaged and affordable A/V and Wi-Fi as an RFP criteria.

Corbin Ball CSP, CMP, DES, a former planner and meetings technology expert, knows the struggle all to well. “I used to grapple with this all the time,” he says. The reason, in the case of hotels at least, is that these services are a not-so-secret revenue stream and commission comes into play as well. “You’re paying for the convenience of not having to go to an outside, separate firm to [supply] those services,” Ball says. “Oftentimes, the price tag is in surplus of 30-50 percent, and service charges are added on top as well.”

And Wi-Fi is no better, he says. “It’s the Wild West out there with so many variations; some hotels offer it for free, some have outrageous prices.” Unlike the public hotel spaces, like lobbies and guest rooms where Wi-Fi is becoming more of an automatic amenity, Ball says, “for the meeting space it’s actually a cost center.”

While he suggests always negotiating with your hotel contact (up to 95 percent are willing to negotiate on Wi-Fi and up to 82 percent on A/V fees, according to the “American Express 2017 Meetings Trend Report”) or bringing in an outside agency, there is another way to get these meeting essentials with an affordable price tag. Go to schools. “At venues like universities, it’s been a standard for years,” says Ball. So the price is more economical.

To his point, Unique Venues uncovered the cost differences between a hotel and campus in two major markets, Chicago and New York City. The results are staggering.

For Wi-Fi

In New York:
-The New York Marriott Marquis Hotel charges $40 per person per day for 100 people (the fewer people, the higher the rate)
-At Manhattan College, Wi-Fi is complimentary for groups

In Chicago:
-Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile charges $20/person/day for 100 people (again, the fewer people, the higher the rate)
-Loyola University Chicago charges $10/device for the day regardless of head count

For A/V

In New York:
-At the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, the cost to use a LCD projector, sound system, wired microphone (with labor cost and service fees
-At Manhattan College, the cost to use projector, screen, mic, and speakers is $200

In Chicago:
-At Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, the cost to use a LCD projector, sound system, wired microphone (with labor cost and service fees) is $1,350
-At Loyola University Chicago, the projector, screen, mic, and speakers are included in SMART classrooms that range from $50-$100.

The model on campus is so drastically different because they are not a commercial profit center, and Wi-Fi and A/V are already necessities for students. “Higher education makes an investment in it because they recognize that’s part of what students require and expect,” says Ball. That’s unlike the investments hotels and other conventional venues also make to offer good quality Wi-Fi, but then expect to recoup their money—and then some. “Planners are paying so much in premium kickback that goes right back to the hotel,” says Ball.
That discrepancy could change in the near future for all meeting and events venues, says Ball. “We’re still pretty early in the game of Wi-Fi. It’s only been around since about 2003, and really only in the last five years it’s become the lifeblood of communications. It’s a must-have demand right now, but eventually it will all work its way into the woodwork and be considered a utility like lights or water that are expected for meetings to function.”

How to Get the Best Deal
Corbin Ball shares his tips for getting plugged in without getting priced out, at any venue:
-Know your needs. Take the time to wholly determine your connectivity requirements before putting out an RFP. “Make sure your needs are specifically broken out or expressed to the venue,” says Ball.
-Ask for utilization reports from past events. “They are widely available,” says Ball. Use them to see what other planners needed for number of connections and bandwidth size.
-Request references. In the same token, it’s good to have a vote of confidence about a venue from another planner—ask for contact info of those that recently hosted a similar group size.
-Go right to the source. Instead of just working with the sales person at a venue, make sure to touch base with the tech team as well. Not only can they give you more info upfront, they will be your point of contact if any kind of issue arises.
-Put stipulations in the contract. This is essential for short-term functions, says Ball, “but with events three to five years out, it’s a futile effort since so much can change in that time.”
-Consider flat rates. If your head count is large, flat rates are the way to go, though you might want to opt for a per person price if your group is smaller.

Get Connected

Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, DES

Loyola University Chicago
(773) 508.8090

Manhattan College
(718) 862.7579