Starting the search for out of town accommodations always includes an element of the unknown. In fact, it can be a little like a blind date: you don't know who you're going to get, and you're not sure how the relationship will go.
And that's just for your own vacation. Add in the additional risk factor of booking for an entire team (or more than one) and the task becomes a lot more formidable. How can you make sure your group will be satisfied with the quality of the lodgings? Will they like the location? And of course, will everyone be able to get a good night's rest in time for the big game?
Everyone's go-to these days seems to be the travel sites on the Internet. There are deals to be had on airfares, rental cars, entertainment -- and these days, hotels. You can just point and click your way to accommodations.
Time out. Put the mouse down and back away from the computer. There are plenty of options at your disposal, and only one is the D-I-Y method that involves using an Internet travel site. In fact, you might want to consider that your last resort. I'll explain why later.
The first point to make is that everyone traveling in the group understands the need to work together in order to get the best accommodations at the best rates. Full disclosure: I am partially retired from a long career in a travel agency. I'm obviously in favor of teams having professional assistance when they make their travel arrangements. But I can tell you honestly it's not about the commission, and it's not about the business. It's about getting the best deal for everyone who will be traveling with you.
When we sit down to meet with people who are planning group travel, we know there are always going to be people in the group who think they can do better for themselves than an organizer can. They'll say, 'Well, my brother-in-law has a connection' or 'I can cheat and get a government rate,' or 'I'm going to book our travel separately' -- which usually means they want to use the Internet.
On the other end of the spectrum are the teams where nobody wants to take on the responsibility of making travel arrangements. (Since they'd be the target of complaints if something went wrong, who can blame them?) No matter which side your group is on, I can tell you that if you're working together, everything will go more smoothly.
Your Wish List
When you go looking for a hotel, you're probably trying to balance four specific items: openings on all the nights you'll need accommodations, a decent room rate, enough available rooms for your group, and a location close to your competition venue. It can be time-consuming. In many cases, you may be able to get a few of these factors, but perhaps not all -- and you know that's going to make your team unhappy. What to do next?
A travel agent does all that legwork (and phone work, and computer work) for you. They have access to information about rates and dates that event owners do not have, and are sent information on packages and promotions not available to people outside the travel industry. They can talk to the hotels and work to arrange the type of rooms you want (double/doubles, for example, are popular for team travel). A travel agent can also be your point person in case the unexpected arises. They can work on your behalf to help find a solution. An Internet travel site? Not so much.
Consider how much time and resources you can devote to other things once you hand off your travel arrangements, and you'll realize substantial savings, even after paying the agent's fee. In addition, as professionals, travel agents are able to negotiate perks like room upgrades and more. Check to make sure you have a travel agent who has experience with group travel and if possible, with sports teams as well. Not all of them will; for example, there are some agencies that specialize in vacation travel, cruises and more.
Working with a travel agent also means you can gain a corporate relationship that you can use for future team travel. It really is a beneficial arrangement.
If you're organizing a larger event, particularly one in which multiple teams will be competing in one area, a housing service is a great choice. A housing service works to provide rooms to traveling groups, and is generally able to obtain consistent rates for attendees. The service receives information on tournament participants, and makes reservations on their behalf. It can also forward confirmation numbers for hotels to you, or to your attendees, in advance.
Some housing services specialize in sporting events, while others work to provide lodging for all types of events, including conferences, trade shows and more. Check references and make sure you have found a good partner for the services you need. As in any successful business relationship, communication is key. Make sure the housing service understands your preferences and is willing to accommodate them. For example, do you want all the members and personnel for one team to be located in one hotel? Do you want separate room blocks for referees and other officials?
A housing service can obtain competitive rates for your group -- usually far better than a layperson could get, and can work with you. Many times, individuals outside the travel industry think they have good negotiation skills. They may, but they don't have the clout of a housing service (or for that matter, a travel agent).
Yes, it's an option, but as I've stated before, it's risky. Why? Because you're dealing with the unknown -- flying blind, as they say.
Travel agencies and housing services have reputations to uphold. They also have contacts and connections you don't have. If, for example, a travel agency or a housing service has heard complaints about a particular property, or about specific areas of the city, they won't send their clients there. If you use a discount travel site, or just book a property you've seen on the Internet, you won't have that advance knowledge. And if something goes wrong, you won't have a professional on your side to intervene and help you out. You're on your own. Is that a chance you really want to take?
What happens if the place you book turns out to be not quite as conveniently located as it was advertised? What if the 'charming neighborhood' surrounding it offers few options for restaurants or shopping? What if there isn't great transportation to get you where you need to go? Booking your travel sight unseen is great until suddenly, something isn't great. Then you have trouble.
Travel sites in particular offer low rates, but the rates won't buy you peace of mind if your team members are dissatisfied with the place they're staying, or worse yet, if they don't feel safe there. Professionals who work on your behalf will look for properties that have the things you're looking for. A shuttle bus that can take athletes to the soccerplex? Check. A swimming pool and hot tub so they can blow off a little steam after the games? Check. Restaurants, stores and entertainment? Check, check, check.
Do Your Homework
At the end of the day, finding suitable lodging is not just about finding space. It's about finding a place where your athletes and their families feel at home, and feel safe. It's about having the amenities you need, not the ones you don't. It's about a reasonable rate, and about a dependable experience. Obviously, you're looking for a satisfied customer, not a chorus of complaints. Do the work in advance, find a professional partner, and you're on your way to a better experience.