**For clarification, this article is mostly for people just looking to book a room block, it is not advice for booking hotels for catered functions. But if you have questions about that, you can contact me and I can help with that too!
Some of you may be wondering "why is a photographer writing a blog post on how to choose and book a hotel room block for my wedding?" And that's a fair question. And the answer is simple: before I was a photographer, I worked for 6 years in Hotel Guestroom Sales. As a hotel sales representative, I have booked and managed around 300+ wedding room blocks. And all I can say is that MOST hotels will come at you very selfishly in favor of themselves, and could potentially screw you out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. In this blog post I will give you insight into how hotels approach room blocks for social events, everything you want to know about hotel shuttles, how you can make their contract work for you, and most importantly... how you can get free stuff!!! And boy do I have some good tips for you, the consumer! So let's get started!
First, a very simple tip that I recommend for anyone wanting to make their out-of-town guests feel welcome in a hotel room while they are there visiting for your wedding.
Welcome bags are an amazing amenity for your beleaguered and tired guests to find in their room after a long day (or more) of traveling. In order for it to make the most impact, talk with the hotel and ask them to put the bags IN THE ROOM! It is not as impactful, and sometimes annoying, when guests are handed welcome bags at check-in. Just another thing you have to carry up to the room!
Itineraries and "Things to do"
Including an itinerary of events (and proper dress for each event) is a fantastic touch to put inside welcome bags. You can include a map of the town, and a list of things to do in the area (such as museums to visit, great restaurants, parks, farmers markets, etc.).
Knick-knacks and helpful items
You've probably already thought of the main things every welcome bag has, but let me recap them for you here (none are necessary, but all are delightful to be given)
Bottle of water (or 2)
Ibuprofen or Tylenol (personally I think Ibuprofen works better)
A sweet treat (candy bar, chocolate pretzels, etc.)
Bag of chips (not necessary, but it can be really nice to tear into after the reception before bed!)
Mints or mouthwash (just nice to have minty-fresh breath just in case!)
The Boring Stuff: Finding, Negotiating, Organizing, Sleeping
Part 1. Finding a Hotel
Now let's move on to the lesser-known tips and tricks for having a fantastic experience booking and negotiating a hotel room block!
If you are planning a wedding in a major city (or suburb of a major city) you probably cannot name every single hotel in the area, and the thought of calling every single hotel to get a proposal sounds daunting (and it should. That's lunacy!).
While I do think you should do something LIKE calling them all, I suggest narrowing down to 5-10 within a 5 mile radius of your venue (or as close as you can find). The reason I recommend calling the hotel directly, is that you can often get better rates than any other method (including anything online), and you get to speak to person in charge of managing your hotel block. Talking to a sales rep may be enough to make you want to book, or even better, be enough reason to to not want to book with them (maybe attitude, professionalism, personality, response time, etc.)
"What about free online tools that let you organize and request proposals from everyone?" -- There are a number of online resources that allow you to request proposals from as many or as little hotels as you want. Some examples include: hotelplanner.com, Weddingwire's hotel block tool, Kleinfeld's hotel tool, and others. These tools MAY be perfect you, and you MAY get the best deal and top notch customer service. But you may not!
Here is why you SHOULD NOT use any of these tools. One, hotel sales reps get something like 10-30 leads from these tools every single day. Often they do not put forth a lot of effort in response, nor do they put forth their best rate. And all of them are free for the USER to use, but the hotel has to pay a 10% commission (at least) to these companies after your guests have left. Which can sometimes mean that hotel sales reps inflate the room rate by that 10% to compensate for the loss. Instead ask to get that 10% discounted from the room rate directly. And like I said, sales managers tend to provide better service to the ones wanting to talk to them individually, rather than just mass communication.
Lastly, be on the lookout for large city-wide events during your wedding week. Things like large political events, sporting events, youth sport tournaments, or local festivals, may impact the availability of rooms from the get go, and you want to be in front of those as best you can!
Part 2. Contract Negotiation
Rule number one in working with businesses you are paying money to is ALWAYS SIGN A CONTRACT. ALWAYS! Now that you've decided on a hotel that you like, and you're ready to start the negotiation! You may be surprised that you have quite a bit of leverage in contract negotiation if you are willing to make a few small sacrifices. There are quite a few pieces of contract negotiation, so I'm going to take them bit by bit.
Everyone wants something back when they are paying a lot of money to one particular vendor, and that's reasonable. ANNNDDD it's something many hotels offer! How can you get a free room? (Or a few free rooms)? There are a lot of ways:
BOOK EVENTS THERE: If you book any events at the hotel (reception, rehearsal diner, ceremony, etc.) they will often provide you with a free room for the duration of your stay. This is not always true, but it never hurts to ask!
VOLUME: there are two ways to get enough volume to qualify for free rooms. But really you should ask for only one, and be okay with the other. You want to ask for comp rooms PER TOTAL ROOMS. The hotel will try to offer you PER NIGHT. The difference between the two is simple math: If you ask for a comp room night for every 20 rooms total, and you and your guests reserve 15 rooms on Friday, and 25 rooms on Saturday you have 40 TOTAL rooms (ie. two free comp room nights), BUT if you do per night room comps, you would only get one comp room on Saturday (since that is 20 rooms per night. You'd need 5 more reservations to get a comp on Friday.
GETTING READY SUITE: If you ask, many hotels will simply provide you a free room for the day of the wedding to get dressed and hang out in before the ceremony. Just ask!
What to look for in hotel contracts:
This may come as no surprise, but hotel companies draft contracts that are HEAVILY in their favor if your booking fails to produce as much as promised, or any other potential issues that may arise. But if you ask, you might get all of these items removed from the contract!
The most important thing to ask for is a COURTESY BLOCK (I'll explain what that is at the end of this section)
Deposit: Just don't do it. That's all I can say. If any hotel demands you pay a deposit, just go to another. Deposits are massive events, not wedding room blocks. If you see it in a contract, line it out and initial next to it, or ask to have the contract re-written to remove the deposit
Attrition: Some of you may already know what this is, but it is a fancy word that means "if you don't deliver on your promise, you owe the hotel money". A standard hotel attrition clause will be set at 20%. This means that if you promise the hotel 40 total room nights, that at least 80% (32 total room nights) must book, or you are on the hook to make up for that number up to 32 total rooms. And you want to be stuck with a bill for hundreds of dollars if that number doesn't come to fruition. In exchange for a courtesy block, ask to remove this, or line it out and initial it.
Cut-off Date: This is the date by which all rooms must be reserved. After this date, the discounted group rate is no longer available. Ask to have this be as close to the wedding date as possible. A standard contract will be 30 days prior to the wedding. But you can sometimes get it to be as late as 1 week prior to the wedding!
Breakfast: If you choose a hotel that does not have a free breakfast buffet in the morning, ask them if they will include vouchers for free breakfast in the restaurant for 2 each day for your guests. You'd be surprised how many hotels are okay with this, and will provide it!
Most hotels will concede all these things if you ask for a courtesy block. A courtesy block is when you want 30 rooms per night, but the hotel will only put 10 rooms per night in the group block at a time. When those 10 rooms are reserved, then 10 more are put into the group code, and so on. As long you don't demand all 30 rooms are available to book each night, you will get your guest rooms booked and not have any of the nasty requisites above.
Part 3. Organizing a Room Block, and Common Issues
Now that you have hammered out all the details of your contract, it's time to let your guests know that they have a discounted rate, and get them all organized!
All large hotel franchises (Marriotts, Hyatts, Kimptons, etc.) will provide with a link to give to your guests to make reservations with the discounted rate under the room block. That url is typically very long so... **PRO TIP: use www.bit.ly to shorten this url if you are going to print it on your invitations**
One way to stay on top of your room list is to ask the hotel for a copy of the names that are booked under your room block. At first, I recommend asking for this list every month or so, then as the wedding date nears, weekly, and for the last week before the cutoff date, daily.
Common Issues (and How to Fix Them)
The most common issue you'll run into is after asking for the group roster of names, you might see that someone who said they booked is not listed as booking under the group name. They could have booked at a different hotel, but that is rarely the case, more often than not, what happened, is that your guest (being a savvy consumer) found a cheaper rate somewhere else. This can be true for things like Priceline (which don't let see where you're staying until you book) or Expedia, or even with their corporate or government rate for their business travel. If this happens, you can ask the hotel to find the name you don't see under the group, and have them re-code the reservation to be under the group block. It is more difficult if it is an online booking than a corporate one, but it can be done most times. If the hotel cannot re-code, you could ask the guest to cancel and re-book under the group code.
The big reasons you want them to book under the group code are: counting toward your comp room nights, and if their is free breakfast (if they book outside the group, they may not get free breakfast).
Part 4. What to do if You Have a Bad Experience
During a hotel stay, you or your guests might encounter a service issue, a physical room issue, or just have an overall bad experience. That happens, and no one should expect any business to always be perfect, but you SHOULD expect them to make up for it!
I always recommend calling, or visiting in person, rather than email. Businesses tend to feel more confident and bitchy in email than they are over the phone or in person!
If you run into an issue during your stay, or before or after, the first thing I suggest is to contact your sales rep. They are there to make sure you are happy and comfortable. If they are not there, then I recommend contacting the front desk (for anything small or room related). If you have a larger issue, contact the manager directly. If you feel that the service recovery you have received was not to your satisfaction, then contact the hotel group corporate office (Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Etc.).
I cannot stress enough how little the corporate office cares about the hotel's side of the story of your complaint. If you have a complaint, the corporate office will tell the manager "give the customer whatever they want." it is not worth it for a large company to engage in he-said-she-said spats between you and the hotel. They want YOU to be happy, so they will do whatever it takes.
If you do not want to be that confrontational, then be honest on the survey you get after your stay. A small secret is that if hotels do not get a 9 or 10 in a particular category, then it counts as a 0. So if you give them an 8, you might as well give them a 0 (that's how much corporate offices value enthusiastic satisfaction). And enough bad surveys and the hotel could lose the endorsement by the corporate company (ie. not allowed to be a Hilton anymore).
And finally, if none of that works, put the hotel on BLAST! Give them negative reviews on Weddingwire, TheKnot, Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor (especially Trip Advisor), etc. It may not get you anything in return, but you can at least warn future hotel guests of potential pitfalls in service!
Bonus Section - Hotel Shuttles
It's hard for me to say with certainty that a hotel that promises to include free (or deeply discounted) shuttle transportation to and from your venue is a good idea. I would say that it is a bad idea most of the time, however.
If you are interested in booking a hotel because they have shuttle transportation to and from your venue, I strongly recommend you ask for references. Ask for a past client or two that used the shuttle to see if it really worked as well as you hope it will.
When I managed hotels, even when we had a really good shuttle system that had support of 4 nearby hotels, it was still very difficult to secure good and reliable transportation to and from wedding venues. In fact, every hotel I worked at eventually stopped providing shuttle transportation for events, and here's why:
High Volume: A wedding typically has around 50 guests that need transportation to and fro. If a standard hotel shuttle accommodates 12 passengers, that is at LEAST 5 FULL SHUTTLES before everyone is safely where they need to be.
Timing: If you need 5 trips to get 50 people to your venue, that is 10 minutes away from the hotel, say; then the first 12 people will need to arrive for the ceremony almost 2 hours in advance (providing 20 minutes of roundtrip travel time -- not including loading and unloading). Also this means that each shuttle trip MUST be fully loaded with 12 passengers each time, or the last group could be late!
T.I.M.I.N.G: I mean it. Every single guest must work like a well oiled machine. If any one person straggles, the entire group is affected. This is already not great when you're talking about arriving to the ceremony, but it's even worse at the end of the night when maybe 12 people aren't ready to leave your party 2 hours early and then there is a big bottle neck of people waiting to go home after the venue closes.
Non-wedding Hotel Guests: Remember that people in your group aren't the only ones who will want use of the shuttle. Especially if the hotel you chose does runs to the airport. Those guests need to get to the airport, or may be waiting to be picked up, and they are just as important as your wedding guests. Imagine having to wait over an hour to be picked up from the airport in the freezing cold! It happens! On top of that, the hotel may offer standard regular transportation to local spots and they need to still offer that service. Some hotels have sister properties that can help with the load, but if the sister property has a sudden surge in shuttle needs, they will not prioritize your wedding group first. I promise.
I know a free or cheap hotel shuttle sounds like a great value-add, but unless they can expertly manage it, it is not worth it for your wedding. Contact a local limo company, or even a service that uses retired school buses, for your guest transportation. Or use an Uber or Lyft discount code! And again ask for references, because if the hotel can't handle the task of moving your guests, you 100% will be on the phone with the manager and corporate for days after the wedding to solve your complaint!
So there you have it! All my secrets for making hotel blocks work for you, and other tips for making sure your guest are happy! I hope you enjoyed it!
If you have questions feel free to comment, or just email me at email@example.com and I'll be happy to help :)
There are a lot hotels out there. Some are good, some might need more motivation to be good. But you have the power now! Good luck!
Written by Eric DeHaven
Owner and Lead Photographer at Modern Frames Photography