I photographed a fantastic pre-wedding party at the East Village bar, Dream Baby, on Friday night. The bash was a wonderful way to say thank you to friends and family who had traveled from as far away as Australia to help celebrate Sarah and Dave’s upcoming nuptials. With so many out-of-town guests in one spot, I thought it might be a good time to address an issue that has been on the minds of my clients: how do you book hotel blocks for your wedding guests?
First, let’s dish on all the details of Friday night’s party. With so many guests in town from so many different countries, how better to let everyone meet and greet than by throwing a party at a bar right next to the wedding venue? The idea was genius: Sarah and Dave kept the actual rehearsal dinner as an intimate affair attended only by the bridal party. A larger party with only drinks and desserts (provided by a local Italian pastry shop) allowed them to accommodate more guests. For two hours, the group had the bar all to themselves, and the rental included an open bar and a DJ. Two special drinks were concocted for the evening as a nod to Dave’s Australian background and Sarah’s southern roots: introducing the Ozzy and the Southerner. Make sure to request either of these drinks when you stop in to Dream Baby for a tipple.
With a drink in hand, let’s now dive into the topic of hotel blocks. How do you go from guest list to reservations? Hotel blocks, or hotel rooms reserved for guests at a specially negotiated price, are typically done if you need at least nine or more rooms. If you are having a small wedding and only need a few rooms, then do the research ahead of time for your guests and give them an idea of what to expect in terms of hotel room prices and a list of recommended hotels that are close to your reception. If you need ten or more rooms, however, hotel blocks come in handy especially if you are having a destination wedding or if your event is in a location where accommodation is limited to only a few hotel options.
When do I book hotel blocks for my guests? I recommend booking your hotel blocks as soon as you have an event venue reserved and a handle on the number of your guests who will need a hotel. Time is of the essence, especially if you are getting married in a popular destination during a popular time of the year (NYC at Christmas, anyone?). Pay particular attention to a calendar so that you know of any holidays, sporting events, or conventions that may conflict with your event or pose a traffic nightmare for guests. Research a local events website, such as Time Out NY or the local tourist board website, so that you will be aware of who will be competing for your guests’ hotel rooms. And don’t forget about regional phenomena, such as fall leaf peeping season in the northeast or the flock of snow birds coming to Florida in winter, which can factor into a rise in hotel room prices.
How many hotel rooms should I book? Knowing how many rooms to book is never an exact science, but one mathematical equation to go by is to take the number of out-of-town guests you are inviting and divide this number by two. This will be the highest number of rooms you will need. You will want to book two hotels with two different price points, so divide the number of rooms needed between the two hotels. Keep in mind that if your guest count is 100 guests or more, you can count on only a 70 to 80% attendance rate. Always book fewer rooms rather than more, as you can add reservations but may be charged if the rooms don’t get booked. Only you know your family, but I recommend gently asking any close friends and family what they plan to do for accommodations before you start making reservations. In my own family, I would be expected to have cousins sleeping on the floor of my studio apartment before anyone would book a room, so perhaps your family is the same.
Why book more than one hotel? This will depend on the number of rooms needed, but if you have a substantial number of guests arriving, then having two different hotel options would be appreciated. The hotels you choose should be located within ten miles of the wedding reception venue, and should vary in price by more than $50 per room so that guests have both budget-friendly and luxurious vacation options if they so desire.
How many nights should I reserve? If your wedding is in a vacation desirable location (NYC!), then you will need to consider adding ‘shoulder days’ where guests stay two to three days before and after your wedding in order to see the sights. If you are not having a destination wedding, or if guests are coming in from a relatively nearby location (Connecticut or Long Island, for instance), then guests will likely only stay the night to help you celebrate. In this case, make sure that the hotel has an early check-in time. There is nothing worse than a guest arriving for your 2:00 p.m. wedding only to be told that check-in time is at 3:00 p.m. Make sure that your guests have enough time to get to their room and unpack before having to get to the church on time.
Types of hotel blocks: closed and open. There are two types of hotel blocks: closed, where the number of rooms is guaranteed and a penalty is imposed if you do not book all the rooms requested, and open, which is a courtesy reservation made by the hotel.
With closed reservations, you are responsible by contract for any unsold rooms. You will have to pay either for the actual number of rooms that go unsold or if 80 to 90% of the rooms are not booked. While this is a costly type of room reservation, it is guaranteed.
The other option is an open reservation. This is a free service offered by the hotel, though the reservations normally expire 30 to 90 days prior to the date of arrival. Furthermore, you can normally only make an open reservation for 10 to 30 rooms at a time, so if you need more rooms than this at a time you are left with only the closed reservation option. The way around this is to check with the hotel to make sure you can add more reservations as necessary. Once you book your set of 10 open reservations you simply go back to the hotel and request 10 more open reservations, as long as you are within the cut-off date stipulated by the hotel.
How do I start making a hotel block? Get a map and pinpoint all the hotels within a one- to two-mile radius of your reception venue. If your reception is being held at a hotel, you should start here to inquire about reservations. Otherwise, figure out the hotels within stumbling distance so that your out-of-town guests don’t have far to navigate after the wedding.
Next, check out hotel prices online. There are several hotel room comparison price websites, including Hotels.com/Groups, Skipper, Jetaport, Kayak, and Trip Advisor. No matter what site you choose, make sure the online search tool has an actual map so that you can see where the hotel is located in comparison with your reception venue.
The next step is to make a call to the hotel. An email will not get you the best rate. Rather, you need to speak to an actual human – most likely titled the Group Sales Manager – to negotiate the best rate for your guests.
What do I ask the hotel? Here are a list of questions to ask the Group Sales or Reservation Desk manager, in order of importance:
- What is the group rate for hotel rooms, including taxes and fees?
- Is there a minimum stay requirement?
- Do you offer a courtesy block? What is the maximum number of rooms for the courtesy block?
- Do you require a deposit for the hotel block? If so, when is the deposit refunded?
- If we need additional rooms, can we add to the courtesy block?
- What is the cut-off date for adding rooms to the courtesy block?
- Will reservations be accepted after the cut-off date at the discounted rate as long as there is availability?
- What time is check-in? Is there a guaranteed early check-in?
- What time is check-out?
- Is there a special number guests must call to make the reservation at the discounted rate?
- How often will you send a list of guests who have reserved rooms, and who is the hotel contact person?
- Is there a fee for parking? Does the parking fee include in/out privileges?
- What sort of amenities come standard (airport shuttle, breakfast, Wi-Fi)?
- Is there a bar and/or restaurant onsite? What are the hours of the bar/restaurant?
- Are there private rooms to host pre- or post-events onsite?
- Is there a hospitality suite or ‘getting ready’ room available?
- What are your gift bag delivery fees? Can the gift bag delivery fee be waived if the bag is delivered at check-in?
- Do you offer a shuttle or transportation service to get guests from the hotel to the wedding?
What hotel perks can I request? If you are going to be booking all these rooms, then you should be able to ask for a few perks. You are never going to get everything, so I recommend that you pick the top perks that benefit your guests the most and concentrate on getting these amenities included in your deal. Here is a list of what you can ask for:
- Price discount on each room booked, especially for guests who reserve early
- Early check-in or late check-out time
- Guest gift bag delivery; most hotels have a delivery fee of $2 to $4 per gift bag, so ask if delivery can be included in your group rate or if you can at least offer the bags to guests at the front desk upon check-in
- Complimentary honeymoon suite for the bride and groom
- Free rooms; hotels often offer a ‘comp ratio’ of 20:1 or 25:1, meaning for every 20 nights booked, you get one free night at the hotel
- Upgraded rooms
- Complimentary airport shuttle
- Hotel bar or restaurant staying open late or opening early for an after party or morning-after brunch; most hotel bars or restaurants will accommodate this request so long as there is a guaranteed minimum
- Private dining space; if a free breakfast is included, you might ask if you could secure a private room so that all of your guests can eat together (there may be a cleaning charge)
What should be written in the contract? Once you have nailed down a good rate and a set of perks, it is time to sign a contract with the hotel. First, know that the contract is mainly for the hotel’s benefit, not yours, so make sure that you have read the document thoroughly and that you understand all of the verbiage. Here are some common (and confusing) phrases that will likely turn up in the contract:
- Allowable Shrinkage Clause: this is the percentage of hotel rooms that are allowed to go unbooked and is normally a target percentage of between 10-20%; in other words, if you book 10 rooms, but 1 to 2 go unbooked, you will not be penalized with a fee
- Attrition Rate or Minimum Commitment: this is the percentage of rooms that must be booked in order to avoid a financial penalty and is normally a target percentage of 80 to 90%; in other words, you have to pay for at least 80% of the rooms you book even if the reservation is never filled; this only applies to closed reservations, not to open reservations or courtesy blocks
- Mitigation Clause or Re-sell Clause: the hotel must try to book unused rooms in your block so that you are no longer responsible for the rooms if they are later sold to other customers; in other words, you should not pay for rooms that other guests are paying for
- Cancellation Policy: be absolutely clear about the hotel’s cancellation policy and any deadlines for cancellation; also check to see if there is a force majeure clause whereby you will not be held responsible for any emergencies that are beyond your control (such as a hurricane)
- Cut-Off Date: for the majority of weddings, invitations go out six to eight weeks before the big day, so make sure that your hotel has a guaranteed rate cut-off date within a convenient window of time for your guests; for most hotels, the cut-off date will be 30 days prior to the date of arrival, but it could be up to 90 days prior
- Deposit Amount: double check that the amount of deposit you agreed upon is the amount listed in the contract for any closed reservations; if you are requesting a courtesy block or open reservation then the deposit amount should be zero
- Perks: as with your deposit, make sure that any verbally agreed upon perks (such as room upgrades, complimentary honeymoon suite, etc.) are listed directly in the contract
Get the information to your guests, pronto. Once your hotel rooms are blocked and ready to be reserved, get this information out to your guests via email or your personal wedding website. Make sure there is contact information for the hotel and links to the reservation website, as well as for a family contact or event planner so that your guests can contact you if any problems arise. If there is a special phone number guests need to call in order to get the discounted rate, make sure that information is clear. I’ll go into more detail about what to include on your wedding website later, but make sure for now that you give your guests ample information about where the hotel is located, public transportation options, and a little bit of information about what is located near to the hotel. Most guests will need to pick up last minute items, and knowing that Walgreens is known in NYC as Duane Reade or where to find a Target is always helpful.
Final words of advice. When negotiating with a hotel, do your research beforehand to get the rate (and perks) that you want. Always be nice, but always be prepared and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and to let the hotel know what the competition is offering. In cities such as New York, you may not have as much leverage since the city sees so many visitors a year. That said, you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Get everything in writing. Always remember it is easier to book more rooms than to try and wiggle out of a contract. How the hotel treats you in the negotiating process is a small window into how they will treat your guests. If the hotel is uncompromising or downright inhospitable, then it may be time to look elsewhere. Finally, think about having the hotel split guests between floors so that you can separate the night owls from the grandmothers.
Here are the rest of the photos from Friday night’s pre-wedding party. I’ll have photos from the wedding later in the week. Enjoy!
Venue: Dream Baby
If you would like to view more images from my portfolio, please visit my website – www.KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com