When times are flush, air accessibility is a big factor in meeting planners' site decisions. But these days — when nearly 10 percent fewer people are traveling by air, according to the Air Transport Association of America — drivability is gaining traction as a key site-selection criterion. What's behind the shift? Simple — the recession is forcing more attendees to take to the highways to get to meetings.

As a result, if your meeting is more than a five-hour drive, attendees may think twice about registering. But if the site is close to your attendee base, you have a great attendance-driver.

The Gospel Music Workshop of America, for example, expects 70 percent of its 8,000 attendees to drive to this year's meeting in Cincinnati — up from 55 percent in Nashville in 2008, says Mark Smith, convention manager at Detroit-based GMWA. “We have found that holding a meeting in a location that is central to our delegate base is probably the most important factor in increasing attendance.” Not only will they drive in, he says, but they'll also bring a carload of friends and colleagues.

Freeway Marketing

GMWA is far from alone in marketing specifically to potential attendees who are close enough to drive to the meeting destination. Receptive Services Association of America, a Lexington, Ky.-based organization, marketed aggressively to driving markets around New York City for its annual meeting this past February.

RSAA staff sent e-mails and made personal calls to potential attendees in the greater New York area, asking them to attend. It worked, says Todd Hamilton, executive director at RSAA, as the association saw a 20 percent increase in attendance.

Barb Dunlavey, executive director at the Biomedical Engineering Society, Landover, Md., says that it's critical to customize your marketing message to those within driving distance.

“We have segmented e-mails and brochures that we send out to local people telling them that they can drive to the meeting,” she says. The society also asks members to forward those e-mails to colleagues. “We want to market to everyone in the area (in the field), not just our members.” Dunlavey's group is meeting in Austin in 2010 and Hartford in 2011.

Laura Shelton, president, Fusion Meetings and Events, Alexandria, Va., is adopting a similar strategy with her clients. “We have been increasing marketing efforts to focus on potential local participants.” Specifically, in all marketing materials she touts the cost savings of driving. In addition, she says, more focus is being made on phone calls and targeted e-mails to potential participants within a one- to four-hour drive. These efforts have helped to increase attendance, she says.

Destinations Pitch In

Destinations are doing their part to help groups build attendance.

The Philadelphia CVB, for example, helps planners locate potential attendees in the region. The CVB offers a service, in cooperation with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, that can identify people within a given radius by company type, job title, field, and more.

“We can do an analysis within 60 miles or 100 miles or 120 miles or whatever they want, and we can tell them what that universe looks like,” says Jack Ferguson, executive vice president, Philadelphia CVB. “They can then market the event to those specific people.” The CVB did it in March for the AIIM/On Demand Exposition and Conference, produced by Questex, Newton, Mass., and the show attracted 20,000 people, which was 2,000 more than expected.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority takes it a step further. For events, trade shows, and conferences, the LVCVA has established an attendance-building program in partnership with a local call-center company. At the request of clients, the LVCVA can have the call center contact potential attendees using databases provided by the group. Since it launched last year, the LVCVA's call center has made 200,000 calls on behalf of clients, explains Chris Meyer, vice president of LVCVA convention sales. To date, about 8 percent of the people they call end up registering.

Some destinations, such as Madison, Wis., are dangling incentives for people to drive to a conference. The Greater Madison CVB had a promotion this summer offering $10 gas cards for attendees who booked hotel rooms in Madison through the CVB's Web site. The promotion ended June 30, and was open to both convention and leisure visitors.

Explore Minnesota, the state's destination marketing entity, also is aiming to keep attendees close to home. It has a new campaign called “Meet in Minnesota,” in which it is asking local groups to keep their meetings in the state.

Regional=Affordable

In addition to using drivable destinations for national meetings, organizations are looking to make face-to-face meetings more accessible and affordable by offering regional events, says Tim Brown, partner at Meeting Sites Resource, Irvine, Calif. A lot of organizations are scaling back on national meetings. “Even with hotel rooms involved, there are economies of scale (with regional meetings),” says Brown.

The regional concept is viable because a lot of organizations that have a national meeting might chop it up into four, six, or eight regional meetings where you get the majority to drive, he says. Many groups are holding regional meetings in second- and third-tier cities to save on hotel room rates.

Organizations are having success with the regional approach.

“Certain folks come to our annual conference no matter what,” says Deborah Vieder, director of communication at NPES, The Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies, in Reston, Va. “And there are folks who had never been to an annual conference, so we thought we'd take some of that content and bring it to them.”

Consequently, in 2007, NPES launched four regional meetings: Boston; Teaneck, N.J.; Dayton, Ohio; and Chicago. The meetings have grown in attendance each year, and this year, they were expecting even higher numbers after moving the meetings from January to June.

“Travel budgets have been slashed, and money is tight, so we figured that we'd have meetings just around the corner, where it's convenient,” Vieder says. People need information and education more than ever, she adds, and this is a good way to help more members get it.