Buyers Approach Hotel Purchasing Like Grandma Buying Zappos

The hotel request for proposal died a brief death here last week, and there were few mourners.

During an educational session at an Association of Corporate Travel Executives conference, buyers, sellers and consultants tossed out ideas to answer the question, "Is it time to eliminate the hotel RFP process?" They did so under the guise of a game__an educational session format that usually inspires me to head to the exit before a session starts. But I'm glad I stuck around for this one. The premise was to randomly match types of people with commonly purchased items, asking how Person X usually would buy Item Y, and try to apply that method to hotel procurement in a world where the RFP never existed.

This, of course, produced plenty of nonsense unrelated to travel purchasing. How do teenagers buy real estate? They don't. Next. How do stockbrokers buy lunch? They go to the most expensive joint in town and find a way to bill it to their clients. Try to get that idea for a hotel program past your CFO.

My table of highly experienced buyers and consultants finally settled on "how a grandmother buys shoes" as the basis of the new hotel program: a tactile experience. Some of it was admittedly whimsical, such as developing virtual-reality technology that allows buyers and travelers to experience the condition, odor and layout of a hotel as well as whether room service deliverers are snatching fries off a guest's plate en route. The basic idea, however, centered on turning over more choices to travelers: setting per-diem caps in key cities and letting travelers do their own shopping for hotels within those parameters; doing the research to predetermine which hotels are safe and appropriate for travelers, but letting them stay at their favorites if they can do so within budget; and tracking those travelers through pre-trip reporting, technology like TripIt or whatever else is appropriate for your program so you can handle emergencies if necessary.

We might not have technology for virtual tours yet, but we're surprisingly close. Room 77 lets travelers try to book in their preferred room at a property, and some hotel providers, including Hilton's Homewood Suites, years ago debuted suite-selection tools. I couldn't even begin to list all the other booking technologies that have come out in recent years that often will let the most casual of travelers get rates on par with all but the most aggressively negotiated corporate rates while filtering by whatever search criteria is most important to them.

Even though I wasn't able to give much helpful input to my highly experienced table, I'm proud to say it received the highest score from the judges' panel of all the tables in the room.

With the other tables, it usually was obvious whether a hotelier or a buyer had crafted the idea. Hoteliers favored such solutions as long-term, dynamically priced contracts. Buyers' ideas were similar to my table's, turning over more decisions to the travelers, perhaps using so-called gamification methods. Reverse auctions came up more than once, though certainly not from anyone working in hotel sales. The common ground, however, was that the RFP process was tedious, drawn-out and overdue for an overhaul.

As the lights came up on the session, resuscitating the RFP back into existence, it was clear the old boy isn't going anywhere anytime soon. As fun as the suggestions seemed, they probably are not going to help a buyer who needs to procure rooms in ultra-high-occupancy markets like New York. Even so, they open up the possibility of trying different approaches for portions of a program.

No matter how much many buyers and hoteliers loathe the RFP process, it's still going to be the dominant way to do business for the near future. A slow chipping away, not a quick dismissal, looks to be the likely candidate for its demise.