When I started in the event planning industry 19 years ago, coordinating group transportation was not part of my responsibilities. I worked for a North American concert promoter, and the events I managed were held at an outdoor amphitheater where, if you brought the music, the attendees would come.
Fast forward a few years, and I began managing executive meetings and VIP hospitality arrangements in conjunction with U.S. and international motorsports events. Getting the delegates from the hotel to the meeting site and then on to the racetrack didn’t seem to be a great challenge. However, I quickly learned this was novice thinking. Throughout the years, Murphy’s Law and attendee transportation have danced around each other like competing gangs in “West Side Story,” where anything that can possibly go wrong usually does.
Whereas attendees usually remember an event’s food and beverage, whether good or bad, planners are likelier to recall the meeting’s transportation. Happy or sad, a smooth ride or a broken-down bus, you will remember.
Having a backup plan is a necessity when coordinating air and ground transportation. Unless attendees are driving to the meeting or renting a car once they land, airport transfers are usually their first meeting experience. Air dictates ground, and ground gives the first impression.
Understanding your attendee level and demographic is the first step in determining the most efficient, least expensive method of transportation. Does the group include your association’s executive director and board members? Are they mostly male traveling with colleagues, or female association members traveling alone? If the attendees are executive management, consider hiring separate sedan cars on standby, or in lieu of group shuttles. If your event is an annual meeting hosted by the association’s national headquarters, consider grouping association members coming from the same city, state or chapter. Chartering a group flight can be less expensive in both airfare and ground transfers; a 55-passenger bus is more economical than booking multiple 11-passenger shuttle vans.
However, it often is challenging to arrange flights for a large number of people on the same airline, the same day, at the same time. If attendees are flying on different airlines yet landing during a similar time period, it is possible to group them on shuttles. Analyzing your flight manifest for potential groupings is then crucial to saving costs.
It’s equally as important to understand the airport’s terminal system and map out the distance between gates, concourses and baggage claim. For example, if two delegates are landing in the international terminal, concourse E, and four are landing in domestic terminals, concourses A and B, it might not make sense to have all six attendees share a shuttle. Consider how long it takes to walk from gate to gate and how rapidly the airport’s transit system operates. Research airport information on the Internet by visiting the airport’s official website and by reading blogs and social media sites that provide traveler feedback. A group coordinator at the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau also might provide excellent information about travel time, both inside the airport and once attendees depart baggage claim.
Airport transfers are probably the most challenging to coordinate, not only because they are influenced by airline delays and slow baggage return, but also because attendees new to the city or airport might get lost trying to find their way to the main terminal. Attendees will walk by large directional signs and placards with their last name in big, bold letters, especially if they are reading email on their smartphones or are trying to read airport signage. It is important to provide concise directions from the gate to baggage claim in your pre-conference materials, and explain in detail who and what attendees are looking for once they reach baggage: Is it a meet-and-greet representative wearing a transportation company’s shirt or a sedan driver in a traditional suit?
Be sure to include an emergency, off-hours phone number in case a flight is delayed or canceled. If you are using a travel agency to book group air, this company usually can provide an 800 number answered by a representative familiar with your group. If attendees are booking their own air, provide a meeting manager’s cell phone number or the number to the association’s on-site office. The more communication you can encourage between attendees and the transportation coordinator, the better. Tip: Hire a transportation or destination management company that freely offers this contact number; don’t hire a company that can’t or doesn’t want to communicate.
Once the delegates are safely to the hotel or meeting venue, the next step is making sure they are expertly shuttled to any off-site functions. This coordination is a bit less challenging than airport transfers; generally the entire group is meeting at the same location at the same time. However, if your conference uses multiple hotels, it’s important to time the shuttles so all delegates arrive at approximately the same time. You then can start your meal functions and entertainment on schedule rather than waiting for a late bus to arrive. Translation: You save costs on multiple elements of the meeting and are not paying overtime charges to a demanding entertainer.
Nineteen years later, I’m still not sure I’ll ever have a foolproof plan for transportation coordination, but I do know this: Having a Plan B, C and maybe even D makes me sleep a little better when I go to bed at night.
Monica Compton, CMP, is a writer and event-marketing consultant with Pinnacle Productions Inc., based in Atlanta. She has 19 years experience as a global meeting planner, managing a variety of programs both domestically and internationally.