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Housing: The Atlanta Effect in San Francisco?

What could Atlanta and San Francisco possibly have in common? Is it anything ASA members should worry about? The answers are that both cities are Annual Meeting sites, both have terrific meeting programs with substantial attendance, and yes, there are some areas for concern.

At the 2003 Annual Meeting in Atlanta last summer, the ASA room block at one of the official hotels was significantly underbooked. The power outage that occurred in the northeastern region of the country certainly affected the travel plans of many attendees, some arriving a day or two later than expected and others not able to get to Atlanta at all. The issue pertinent to future meetings, however, is—in the hospitality business—called the “internet factor.” When hotels have empty rooms on their books and no conventions or groups in sight, they look at creating special offers and publicizing them online to encourage visitors to come through their doors. With the ASA convention being the only big meeting in downtown Atlanta that week, most smaller hotels were looking for business. The net result for ASA was that members scattered across the town instead of staying in the co-headquarters hotel. Thus a contractual commitment was not met at the Marriott Marquis, and major attrition fees were billed to the Association.

By dint of careful negotiation and a willingness of both parties to consider returning to Atlanta for a future meeting, outright payment of penalties was avoided. While the particular situation was resolved for 2003, a long shadow has been cast on future meetings.

How does this affect an individual ASA member? In order to secure a large block of quality hotel rooms at competitive prices in convenient locations, ASA has to make major commitments to the headquarters hotels. This is as true for San Francisco this summer as it is for Philadelphia in 2005 or New York in 2006, and beyond. ASA is legally bound to fill these rooms. Not to do so has severe financial implications for ASA and affects its negotiations and ultimately each member’s costs for future conventions. ASA is not alone in this challenge; most associations are experiencing an “Atlanta Effect”—even in San Francisco.

If the ASA is unable to achieve its room block commitments for the Annual Meeting because attendees make reservations at other hotels or cancel/shorten their length of stay at the ASA hotels, the headquarters hotels will charge ASA attrition fees to make up for the lost sleeping room revenue. Depending on how small or large the gap is between the room commitment and the actual room pickup, such penalties range from $20,000 to over $250,000. Should this trend continue, ASA will be forced to increase registration fees to cover these expenses and cut back on services provided at the Annual Meeting, such as the Welcoming Party, free provision of audio-visual equipment, free meeting space for member-sponsored evening activities, etc.

Reducing room block commitments in future contracts will be accompanied by a reduction in the meeting space made available to ASA, which translates to less room for formal program sessions and no room for sister associations/societies and member-sponsored evening meetings/sessions. This would significantly change the opportunity window for professional presentation and networking at the national level.

The ASA Council and the ASA Committee on the Executive Office and Budget spent considerable time this winter discussing Annual Meeting contractual commitments and approaches to housing and registration for future meetings. Some associations are moving toward a registration fee structure that differentiates between those who stay in the official hotels and those who do not (local members exempted, of course). Others are inextricably linking registration and housing, so that one cannot be accomplished without the other. Regardless of the strategy, all organizations that sponsor meetings are taking a hard look at the housing-registration connection and its potential to affect contract fulfillment.

For 2004, ASA has opted to make efforts to inform members about the importance of staying within the official room blocks at the headquarters hotels. We also want to make this choice as financially attractive as possible for all members attending the meeting. ASA staff have worked with the hotels to develop incentives (beyond the normative one of “doing it for the good of the Association”). These are now outlined on the official housing form and also on the ASA website (see

Reports on reservation bookings and contract status for the San Francisco meeting will be provided to the budget committee and ASA Council this summer. The success of the educational efforts and incentive offerings will be evaluated when fees are set for the centennial Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

ASA recognizes that its members have a number of options when securing hotel accommodations for the Annual Meeting. If you require a hotel in San Francisco, we would appreciate it if you would review the list of ASA hotels and reserve your room through the ASA housing service. It’s just one of those things that will come back to haunt us all if you don’t.