By Barbara F. Dunn O’Neal
Partner, Barnes & Thornburg LLP
Remember when you undertook a home improvement project you thought would never end? After having my kitchen renovated several years ago, I was counting down the days when the project – dust, noise, odors, people coming and going, and microwave dinners – would be completed. While I am most pleased with the completed project, living through it proved more of a challenge than expected. Now, picture a construction or renovation project on a large scale – at a hotel or convention center facility. While the artist renderings and décor samples are a treat for eyes, the work going into these updates is anything but a treat. Newly constructed or renovated space is ideal for meetings AFTER it is completed. But if the work is ongoing during the meeting, it could spell disaster to the group’s meeting.
As an example of how much construction can affect a meeting, I recently received a phone call from a group onsite at their meeting. While they were told by the hotel that the major renovation to its lobby and function space would be down to just the “finishing touches” at the time of their meeting, that statement proved far from the truth. Instead, the group was met with jackhammering in the lobby, contracted function space out of commission and even asbestos removal! The group scrambled at the last minute to make it work including securing function space at nearby hotels. Yet despite these efforts, the group’s meeting received many negative reviews from attendees and sponsors alike – some of whom have stated that they may not attend next year’s conference. While the cosmetic and functional effects of construction are lasting, so too are the effects of construction during a meeting.
With the increased demand for hotels and convention center space, these facilities now have the revenues they need to make necessary and desired improvements to their property. Again, while this work is great if completed before the group’s meeting, ongoing work during the group’s meeting can have a lasting impact on the success of the group and its meeting. So, short of donning a hard hat and hammer, what can meeting professionals do to protect their organization and its meeting? As I often do, I recommend a before, during and after strategy:
Before the meeting
Before the contract with the hotel or convention center is signed, meeting professionals should gather as much information as possible as to any planned or possible construction or renovation. Such information can come not only from the hotels but also the convention and visitors bureau. If there are no planned projects, I recommend including a standard provision in the contract such as follows:
“Construction or Renovation – In the event the Hotel will be undergoing any construction or renovation during the Event dates, the Hotel shall promptly notify Group, and Group shall have the right to cancel this Agreement without liability upon written notice to the Hotel if, in Group’s reasonable judgment, such construction or renovation may tend to unreasonably affect the use of the facilities or the quality of service to be provided under this Agreement.”
If construction is planned or if the hotel is being contracted in a pre-opening phase, the contractual provision should be modified to specify key dates by which the project will be completed. Ultimately , as noted above, if the group determines that the construction or renovation will negatively impact their meeting, they have the right to cancel the agreement without liability. Beware of provisions which allow for cancellation without liability based on the parties mutual consent. Such provisions open up the issues for debate and take the ability to make the best choice for the meeting out of the group’s hands.
Once the contract is signed, monitoring for possible projects is critical. This “babysitting” phase from after the contract is signed until the start date of the meeting is when most issues will be uncovered. Keep in mind that the notice of the project may not come from the facility but from news stories or industry updates. As was the case with one of my clients, they did not find out the convention center would be out of commission for their meeting until they saw it on the news.
Ongoing construction and renovation before the meeting requires diligence to ensure completion dates are met. In many cases, I recommend the meeting professional undertake additional site inspections (at the facility’s cost) to ensure the project is on track. Any issues identified during a site inspection should be documented in writing and along with the corresponding commitments of the facility to address such issues. If needed, an addendum to the contract should be signed by the parties. Often, among the additional terms include an agreement is to have the hotel cease work during the meeting dates.
Finally, intelligence as to any onsite issues can also be gleaned from third party websites such as TripAdvisor. Regular monitoring of these sites can also help to identify any potential issues with construction at the facility.
During the meeting
When construction is ongoing during the meeting, meeting professionals must work together with their counterparts at the facility to ensure the space is in safe condition and that all possible measures are being taken to ensure the noise, dust and odors associated with the construction have been addressed. One of my client’s learned of construction at its meeting hotel on the day of their arrival. While the jackhammering during the general session was a significant issue, the bigger problem came the next day when the group’s CEO got up early to head to the fitness center only to fall along the way due to an improperly marked construction area. Fortunately, his back injury was treatable but the medical bills were ongoing and caused a lengthy dispute between the group, the hotel, the hotel’s insurance company, and the CEO to get the issue resolved.
Lighting, signage and alternate pathways are often impacted by construction work. As such, meeting professionals must be extra vigilant in checking on these items before the group’s guests arrive and, after their arrival, ensure that all remedial measures are working properly. Signage and décor can be very helpful to combat any complaints. In some instances, clients who worked with the facility to make the ongoing construction a positive rather than a negative by delivering guests hard hats with goodies and an apology note.
Documenting construction and renovation onsite is critical. The client whose entire meeting was significantly affected by ongoing construction was able to take photos, videos and audio recordings of the noise and other chaos caused by the meeting. Unfortunately they had help in documenting these issues as many attendees posted pictures to social media websites and the group’s Twitter hashtag including a photo of workers in Hazmat suits removing pallets of asbestos marked with warning signs.
After the meeting
As with any issue encountered onsite during a meeting, meeting professionals should be prepared to articulate their concerns in writing after the meeting and to provide information and documentation to substantiate the issues. Photographs, recordings along with evaluation results from attendees, allowed the group to be compensated for its damages and the additional efforts necessary to ensure the following year’s meeting will be a success.
It is often difficult to assign a monetary amount to construction affecting a meeting. What’s the value of the general sessional being interrupted by jackhammering? My recommendation to groups is to look at the cost/overall value of the portion(s) of the meeting which were impacted and work to assign a proportional dollar amount to that issue.
Before pursuing the facility for a reduction in fee due to the construction issues, meeting professionals must ensure that they have paid the undisputed portion of the master account. Without making this payment, the matter will likely take a fast track to the hotel’s attorney. Paying for the undisputed portion buys the group credibility to have the conversation about the monetary settlement due group as a result of the construction issues. After some discussion, most groups settle with their facilities on construction related issues. But, as noted above, the lasting effects of the construction to the group for its future meetings will remain. As a result, meeting professionals must be vigilant about ensuring that such issues do not occur for future meetings.
So the next time you are in a building and see a “Pardon Our Dust” sign, consider all of the meetings and events that work may be affecting. With planning before, during and after the meeting for construction, meeting professionals will stand a better chance over having the construction have a minimal impact on the meeting.
Barbara F. Dunn O’Neal is a partner with the Associations and Foundations Practice Group at Barnes & Thornburg, where she concentrates her practice in association law and meeting, travel and hospitality law. Barbara can be reached at (312) 214-4837 or [email protected]
This article shall not be considered legal advice. In all cases, groups should consult their own legal counsel.
©Copyright 2015. Barbara F. Dunn O’Neal, Esq., Barnes & Thornburg LLP. All rights reserved under both international and Pan American copyright conventions. No reproduction of any part may be made without the prior written consent of the copyright holder.