Instant Booking – Is It All That?

November 17, 2022

Chris Peacock, Owner & Director, Conference Care


I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit it – I don’t like being told what’s good for me. This is probably why at age 16, I found myself leaving a perfectly nice home, sporting a Mohican hairdo and off on life’s big adventure. Now 40 years on, I find myself having the same reaction when being told that I really must adopt an instant booking tool for small meetings. 

Why? Well – “it’s the future”, small meetings are simple & transactional, and apparently all agency clients are clamouring that they have to be able to book their smaller meeting requirements instantaneously. With demand for small meetings generally accepted as being on the decline thanks to Teams & Zoom, I decided to put this to the test…

Like most agencies, we have close working relationships with our customers, and since I hadn’t heard any of this client demand decided to take a closer look at what’s currently being offered. I strongly believe that technology, innovation and creativity all have strong links to events, when they can add benefits to a process or solve a problem. We’ve shown this to be true by adoption of our own virtual & hybrid platforms, Event Apps and most recently our Carbon Consultancy – but they all have a human element in the solution.

So not withstanding my previous admission, I approached my initial research with an open mind and started venue searches with three of the leading platforms available.

First impressions were positive, all the platforms were relatively user friendly and easy to navigate. Some of the venues featured even had reviews which is always nice to see. There was the ability to look for sustainable options although definitions do vary.

So then, onto some quick venue searches which straight away throws up my first issue – availability. Picking the simplest of meetings (10 delegates for a full day), I started with a London search, but only 8 out of over 4,000 venues were showing actual live availability – the remainder being “enquire” or “request to book” (ie. send an RFP to the venue). The further north you search, the worse this gets – a Birmingham search yielded 1 / 137 venues with live rates, while Liverpool had 0 / 397 and Manchester likewise 0 / 799. I tried a variety of date ranges from two to eight weeks in the future but always got the same results.

So with real live availability of rates proving disappointing, my thoughts moved to costs. As an agent, our role is to add value (both in price and less tangible ways) to what an organisation can achieve directly. Our team conducted a research project comprising ten different venue searches for different delegate numbers over three cities – London, Manchester and Edinburgh – with the aim to see what rate differences there would be between instant book (where we could find live rates) and making an enquiry by means of sending an RFP. 

The results ranged from interesting to startling. In one search, an instant book room hire rate of £1,000 was offered at £300 on RFP. Overall, room hire rates quoted by RFP were 10% – 40% lower than the rates showing on the live platforms – and that’s before any active negotiation on our part. If you’re booking several hundred small meetings in a year, this cost could easily run into the £100,000’s. 

It was difficult to benchmark the venues on the live platforms for anything other than room hire rates, since offerings were inconsistent with some including certain AV, others including different AV or none at all. Also surprising was that in more than one instance, half day room hire rates were more expensive than a full day.

Rooms offered were often an unsuitable size for the layout required, and it was difficult to enter your specific needs early in the process. Strangely, catering prices varied wildly between live & RFP rates, as did cancellation policies – with RFP quotes showing lower rates and more flexible terms. Car parking rates were mostly unstated on the live sites, and DDA compliance / accessibility of rooms not shown. Another point worth noting is that not all spaces offered by the live sites were actually private meeting rooms, which isn’t made that clear.

Day delegate rates (often the most cost-effective way of pricing a small one-day meeting) aren’t available for comparison on the live sites, and if you need any bedroom accommodation for your attendees, you’ll need to get on the phone or start searching other sites for availability.

Many of our customers specify that no direct competitor is in house at the time of their meeting, which is impossible to check. Likewise we often work to a number of other contract addendums which the client needs from the venue before making a commitment or payment of any kind.

So while instant booking might be possible in some circumstances, I keep picturing a corporate event planner sat with a platform in front of them, and the amount of time it’ll take them to work out what’s (really) available, what constitutes good value, and what will suit their stakeholders attending. I’m in no doubt that it’ll take more time than it would to raise an enquiry with their agent. And whilst the ability to book and pay instantly sounds enticing, our customers want to have all the information they need to hand – and then check with their colleagues or a manager before committing.

Overall, whilst the live booking sites look appealing at first glance, we found them to be too frustrating and inflexible to be using with any regularity at this time. As our customers agent, we have to be very clear about what we need from venues before paying for a service, and that doesn’t translate well into the platforms.

So to those who’d tell me that the technology is here and ready to go, I’d smile and say.… just not good enough…… yet!

(Disclaimer – no venues were harmed during this research by asking them to hold space unnecessarily!)