“Accessibility to good entertainment and good dining is a must for most groups,” says Carey Rountree, executive vice president of sales at the Atlanta CVB. “The closer the better. I don't think I've seen any changes in those criteria — the demands have been fairly constant. They want more activities, more amenities, close at hand.”
Downtown is also best for trade shows, says Carol Crossland, CMP, vice president of membership, meetings, and expositions for the National Arborist Association in Manchester, NH. “I want a hotel as close to the convention center as I can get,” she says. “And for committee meetings, attendees want to be around other activities, so they want to be in town, as well.”
For many associations, deserting downtown isn't an option in daily life, and conferences are no different. “With lawyers,” says Martin D. Balogh, director of meetings and travel for the Chicago-based American Bar Association, “part of it is that law firms are located downtown. It's one of those businesses, like banking, that even in the worst of times never abandoned the downtowns of cities — even those that don't have very good downtowns. Lawyers are still there because that's where the courts are. And because of that they tend to be pretty downtown-oriented. They want to be near restaurants, they want to be near the amenities that a good downtown offers. I've been at ABA for 20 years and I really have not seen much change. If anything, in some ways it's actually gotten stronger as certain cities have improved their attractions.”
What has changed, says Sandi Lynn, CMP, a Chicago-based meeting and marketing consultant with 30 years of experience planning government conferences, is the emphasis on security. “It has always been a consideration,” she says, “but now it's where you begin in talking with service providers. All of us have heightened our awareness of the need to come together and define what security measures we'll take. But it doesn't change our choice of location. That choice comes more from the program perspective, and what's appropriate for the event.”
In the current economy, the deciding factor is often the deal you can cut. “Rates and prices are still paramount,” says Barb Dunlavey, CMP, director of meetings and exhibits for the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va., “especially now that organizations and attendees know that rates can be very competitive. As organizations grow conservative about their room block — and many are cutting 5 to 15 percent off the top — it gets to be a real balancing act. What space can you get in relation to the number of rooms?”
There's also a new emphasis on relationships with vendors. “I've become very brand-loyal,” says Crossland. “If the hotel brand that I like is in a city, that will make me go there. There's a level of comfort and confidence in using them, so that if, for example, I have to put a committee meeting in a city where I can't do a site visit, I feel pretty comfortable putting them into one of these hotels sight unseen. We've developed a relationship over time that allows me to do that.”
Taking that lesson, CVBs are trying to foster similar relationships between planners and their cities. “The whole industry has changed — travel, tourism, meetings…even associations are merging and reconfiguring their membership,” says Beverly Gianna, director of public affairs for the New Orleans Metropolitan CVB. “So we have also restructured. We want to be sure we can give the customer whatever their profile requires. That takes research, so we know our customers and our competition.”
New Orleans' CVB has undertaken a program to improve the people skills of front-line hospitality workers, and it is in the process of creating a unified arts and entertainment ticketing system, to give visitors one-stop shopping for events. “We want to be a role model for best practices,” says Gianna, “and we know we have to excel at customer service.”
“For our annual meeting, we look for a partnership relationship with the city,” explains John Crump, chairman of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners and executive director of the National Bar Association. “We want a local chapter that's interested in sponsoring the meeting, and maybe to have the local mayor or representative come in to address the group.” Cities that don't take that approach may suffer.
“We're going to see the entire meeting and hospitality industry retract a whole lot more,” he adds. “In cities like L.A. and Dallas, people are ticked off with the CEOs of their CVBs, but it's not the [CEO's] fault. People don't want to face up to the fact that these are trying times. In some cities, the hospitality taxes, the room taxes, and airport taxes are going to kill off [business]. The people who have to pay those bills don't live there, so they don't get to vote on them. But they'll stop coming.”
One factor that has yet to be assessed is the influence of airline route cutbacks on destination choices. “You'll start to hear about places being harder to get to,” says Balogh. “Our meetings are booked pretty far in advance, so it hasn't worked its way into the process yet. But just recently, we happened to be trying to get one of our officers from Charleston to San Antonio, and you couldn't do it in an afternoon. That was the first time it's affected me. I haven't been to Charleston in a while, but it seems to me there used to be flights in the afternoon. And there just weren't any. So I did make a mental note: Will this become an issue once people start to realize it's going to be harder to get some places?” If so, it may be a boon for cities that are airline hubs or those that have more than one airport.
Those served by airlines like Southwest and JetBlue may also be a good bet for groups whose members need to economize. “We've always offered a range of hotels for our attendees,” says Crossland. “Since they pay their own rates, we've always been cost-conscious, so we have one full-service hotel and also a budget option. And we may start looking at cities that have a budget airline option, too. When we go to Washington, D.C., I have my staff fly into BWI. It takes a little work, but it's cost-effective.”
In the end, cities draw meetings for the same reason that they draw population, and possibly for the same reason meetings exist: A vibrant community, whether geographic or interest-based, creates its own excitement. “I'm an urban person,” says Crump. “I don't like to listen to crickets.”
In Praise of Suburbia
After 9/11, some associations saw a shift to local and regional meetings, with a new emphasis on making it easier for attendees to drive in, rather than fly. “We've held our own despite a real drop in travel overall because we do a lot of local business,” explains Brenda Littell, senior sales manager for the Lisle, Ill., CVB, outside Chicago. “People are thinking more regionally now, choosing destinations where they may have the option to drive.”
And of course, the suburbs were born to accommodate drivers. “We're geared for the driving market, for smaller, regional-type meetings,” says Steve Sutton, of the Brookfield, Wis., CVB, outside Milwaukee. “We offer easy-on and easy-off the freeway, free parking, and none of the hassle of downtown parking or driving.” But flying isn't the only thing travelers are more hesitant about since 9/11.
“We have a meeting that's usually held in conjunction with another group,” says Carol Crossland, CMP, vice president of membership, meetings, and expositions for the National Arborist Association in Manchester, NH. “They've always met in D.C., and we meet outside it, in Alexandria, Va. But after 9/11 they chose to join us in Alexandria.” Although there hasn't been a big exodus from the cities, “There are always people who are afraid to be in a big city,” notes Nina Miller, of the Lisle CVB, “and we're going to be more comfortable for them.”
Moreover, a low-key event may also benefit from being out of town. “I don't see the economic factors pushing our groups to the suburbs,” says Sandi Lynn, CMP, a Chicago-based meeting and marketing consultant. “The choice depends much more on what's appropriate from the program perspective. I recently did the celebration for an organization's 40th year “We wanted to do it in a leisure style, with a lot of downtime, something that didn't require a lot of time in meetings. So we went to a suburban resort, where there was a spa, and golf, and just a leisure-oriented setting for people to relax and enjoy.”
“Size and price sensitivity seem to be the issues that dictate whether a meeting will be in the suburbs or the city,” says Carey Rountree, executive vice president of sales at the Atlanta CVB, which serves both. “The smaller, more price sensitive meetings seem to be more focused on suburban locations.”