Meeting planner Suzette Eaddy remembers a particularly pleasurable convention experience. The city was centrally located for members; it was affordable, and the convention staff was hospitable and “truly wonderful.”

The city? Cleveland.

The popularity of smaller cities for meetings is growing, says Eaddy, CMP, director of conferences for the National Minority Supplier Development Council in New York City. “Smaller cities are more flexible. They're hungrier. They'll do whatever it takes to get your business.”

The recession has certainly contributed to that popularity. “Successful second-tier cities market themselves as affordable alternatives,” says Loretta Lowe, CMP, an independent meeting planner in San Francisco. “The weak economy is requiring everyone to watch their bottom line, and more than ever associations need to make their meetings affordable.”

But in the long run, the recession will probably have less of an impact on rates than the jump in supply will, according to Michael Hughes, director of research services for Tradeshow Week. According to Tradeshow Week's statistics, North American exhibit space is expected to increase to 81.9 million square feet by 2005, up from 61 million square feet in 1995. “It's a competitive marketplace right now,” Hughes says. “Usually when one venue expands, it sets off planning processes in other cities.”

He thinks the growth is a double-edged sword: great for top-tier cities that are doing well, but less auspicious for many smaller markets. “Large cities may not feel the pinch as much, as it's still challenging to find quality dates in many top cities.”

What do planners think? “I wouldn't go so far to say that it's a buyers' market,” says Peggy Pryor, CMP, director of meetings and conventions, Sweet Adelines International, Tulsa, Okla. “But it's better than it has been. Even in cities I've previously booked, I've been able to renegotiate a better rate.” Eaddy, however, suspects it is a buyer's market. “Even rates in New York have come down,” she says.

What's in a Name?

The affordability of a site may be a selling point, but saving money doesn't help if the No. 1 consideration — the meeting facility — doesn't meet the group's needs.

For example, Pryor's group of female barbershop quartets and choruses needs a large area with risers for musical competition. She often ends up in arenas rather than convention centers. Other groups may look for lots of break-out meeting rooms or a large exhibit area. But thanks to a convention center building boom in second- and third-tier cities, Pryor and other planners have many more venues from which to choose.

In fact, many smaller cities now have convention centers that are newer [than first-tier cities], says Doug Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. “There are big advances in today's market. It's less expensive to build a new convention center than it is to retrofit [for technology]. Second-tier doesn't mean second-class,” Ducate adds. “In fact it may mean state-of-the-art.”

For example, the expanded convention center in Minneapolis includes a new 3,400-seat auditorium that can rotate to form three 425-seat lecture halls. And Fort Worth's expanded convention center boasts fiber-optic wiring.

“Second-tier is unfortunate terminology — it connotes inferior,” remarks Greg Ortale, president of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “Our convention center with our recent expansion is as fine a convention center as any. Rather than saying second-tier, I wish the industry would adopt a nomenclature of ‘midsized.’” Ortale notes that Minneapolis has hosted the Super Bowl and an Alcoholics Anonymous convention that drew 50,000 people. “We've booked groups that have been to alleged first-tier destinations, and they're able to have just as much fun and as productive a conference as anywhere.”

But other sites welcome the term. Syracuse considers itself a second-tier city and markets itself around that concept, stressing affordability and its location five hours from major East Coast cities, explains Jerry Keohane, vice president and director of sales and marketing for OnCenter, the city's convention and entertainment complex.

Some planners say you can tell a second-tier from a first-tier by how hard they work to get the business. “With first-tiers, you call them. With second-tiers, they're more likely to call you,” Pryor says.

The Transportation Issue

Following 9/11 and the subsequent drop-off in air travel, major air carriers cut back on some routes. And although service has been rebuilding to pre-9/11 norms, as traffic picks up, some planners worry that it may be too difficult to get enough airlift to smaller meeting destinations. Fret not, say airlines and smaller city convention and visitors bureaus. “There are some very small communities where service will not be restored,” says US Airways' spokesman David Castelveter. “But they're places like Jonestown, Altoona, and Lancaster, Pa. They're not meeting destinations.” Some smaller cities that are meeting destinations, like The Greenbrier in West Virginia, may be serviced by US Airway Express turbo props instead of jets, at least until demand rises. But attendees still will be able to get there, he says.

“All except one of the flights that were canceled at the end of last year have been picked up,” says George Helmstead, vice president of sales, Grand Rapids/Kent County (Mich.) CVB. “It wasn't as if the lack of airlift caused a lack of business,” he explains. “It was the other way around: The lack of business affected the airlift.” His city has flights to most major association attendee bases, and he's confident that by 2005, when a new convention center opens in Grand Rapids, the city will pick up even more flights.

“The typical question we get isn't ‘Do you have sufficient airlift?’” says Tim McNeil with the Omaha, Neb., CVB. “It's more, ‘Do you have an airport?’ I think they're worried they'll have to land in Wichita and take a covered wagon to get here.” But Omaha in fact does have an airport located a five-minute drive from the site of a new convention center that is scheduled to open in August 2003, and plenty of direct flights from prime locations like Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. “We were down about 30 percent last September, but we've already regained half of what was cut, and by summer we should be flush,” says McNeil.

Until the air travel market rebuilds to its former glory, airlines say they're prepared to help planners concerned that the lift they need just won't be there. “If for some reason we had to eliminate a market your group was traveling to, of course we'd work with you to make arrangements with another carrier,” says Castelveter.

George Coyle product manager, group and meeting travel, for Dallas-based American Airlines, says American is open to working with planners. While its policy is to block 60 percent of every flight for groups — a group being defined as 10 or more travelers — that percentage can be expanded if need be. The important thing, he says, is to give enough advance notice to the airlines.

According to Juan Carlos Cruz, manager of industry relations for United, his airline also is flexible with groups. “We are willing to add extra sections for groups,” he says, adding that it's not something United's had to do since September 11.

Expectations

Sweet Adelines' Peggy Pryor admits that second- and third-tier cities may be a harder sell for planners the first time they seek to bring their group to these destinations. Pryor found that to be true for Indianapolis. She had to do a little more marketing to get her membership there, but the group plans to return. “Those who went there were amazed,” she recalls. “They found there was more there than they thought, including a new arena and convention center.”

Especially now, there's a lot to be gained by dispelling misperceptions about the suitability of smaller cities for meetings. As Greg Ortale, president of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, remarks: “Certainly the competition [for convention business] is always intense, and I'd have to say that now, in the mid and smaller markets,it is truly intense. It's really scary.”

Buyer's market anyone?

Where the Action Is: Convention Center Boom

The boom in convention center construction and expansion involves many second- and third-tier cities around the country. The following is just a sampling.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

▪ Minneapolis Convention Center

Renovations completed in April doubled the exhibition and meeting space in the Minneapolis Convention Center to more than one million square feet. The first-of-its-kind 3,400-seat auditorium can be used as one hall to seat 3,400 or divided in five minutes into a 2,000-seat auditorium with three 450-seat lecture halls. The center is connected to Minneapolis' skyway system linking 50 city blocks.
Exhibit space: 480,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 145,000 sq. ft.
Contact: The Greater Minneapolis CVA
Phone: (612) 661-4724
www.minneapolis.org

Omaha, Nebraska

▪ Omaha Convention Center and Arena

Opening in August 2003, the center includes an attached arena with movable walls that allows for larger exhibition space, as well as seating for hockey, basketball, concerts, and other activities. Off the ballroom is a 9,000-square-foot open-air terrace.
Exhibit space: 195,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 32,000 sq. ft.
Contact: Greater Omaha CVB
Phone: (800) YES-OMAHA
www.visitomaha.com

Denver, Colorado

▪ Colorado Convention Center

Beginning with groundbreaking on April 29, 2002, the Colorado Convention Center will double in space by December 2004. Besides expanded exhibit and meeting space, new ballroom, auditorium, and parking garage space is being added. Two glass-enclosed lobbies bookend the exhibit floor, offering mountain vistas to the west and downtown views to the east.
Exhibit space: 584,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 100,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Contact: Denver Metro CVB
Phone: (800) 888-1990 or (303) 892-1112
www.denverconvention.com

Portland, Oregon

▪ Oregon Convention Center

An expanded Oregon Convention Center's design stays true to the original facility, with spacious interior concourses and large banks of windows and skylights to bring in natural light. Artworks of regional and nationally renowned artists are displayed.
Exhibit space: 255,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 28,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Contact: Oregon Convention Center sales office
Phone: (800) 791-2250 or (503) 235-7723
www.oregoncc.org

Wildwoods, New Jersey

▪ Wildwoods Convention Center

This new facility, celebrating its grand opening May 9 to 11, is located in the resort communities of Wildwood, New Jersey's southernmost barrier island. The new 260,000 convention center is in the midst of the Wildwoods boardwalk, featuring a '50s theme and family-oriented activities.
Exhibit space: 75,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 8,675 sq. ft., plus 11,500 sq. ft. of ballroom space
Contact: Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement & Development Authority
Phone: (609) 729-9000
www.wildwoodsnj.com

Chattanooga, Tennessee

▪ Chattanooga Convention Center

The convention center is tripling the size of its facility — to a total of 312,000 square feet, with bookings available in the spring of 2003. An enhanced lighting system uses sunlight filtered through openings in the 30-foot ceilings as the primary light source. The center is within a day's drive of half the population of the United States.
Exhibit space: 100,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 27,500 sq. ft., plus 19,000 sq. ft of ballroom space (after expansion)
Contact: Chattanooga Convention Center
Phone: (423) 756-0001; (800) 962-5213
www.chattconvention.org

Fort Worth, Texas

▪ Fort Worth Convention Center

The expanded center will be complete in early 2003. Billed as one of the most high-tech convention facilities in the world, the convention center is wired with thousands of feet of fiber-optic cable and high-speed data lines. A connection to the Fort Worth Water Gardens creates a grand new south entrance to the facility.
Exhibit space: 252,718 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 41 breakout rooms; expansion added more than 35,000 square feet of meeting space, plus 30,000 square feet of ballroom space)
Contact: Fort Worth CVB
Phone: (817) 570-2222
www.fortworth.com/02meetplan/02meetplan.shtml