Giving Good Value If you're feeling like your group's been priced out of the big cities recently, you're not the only one. "The latest Coopers & Lybrand projections show that hotel rates will outpace inflation by three to four percentage points a year," says Doug Ducate, senior vice president of PGI and president of PGI Exhibitions, an Arlington, VAbased events, entertainment, exhibitions, and business communication company. Add to that a lack of major hotel construction in most cities, and "we're facing a shrinking inventory of convention hotels," says Ducate, "which indicates we're going to see a continuing seller's market."

In very real terms, that means some groups might find traditional convention cities becoming just too darned expensive. Ducate suggests planners take a good hard look at the economic strength of the group. "Bankers might be willing to spend more than schoolteachers," says Ducate. "Planners who aren't sensitive to those issues are going to find themselves seeing declining numbers of attendees."

The good news, though, is that smaller cities throughout the country have "seen this coming," says Ducate. Over the past several years, smaller cities have been building or expanding convention centers, adding hotels, and improving airline access, blurring the lines between the traditional convention cities and smaller second-tier cities. Many of these cities now offer first-class amenities at second-tier prices.

Ducate suggests meeting industry exhibitions as a good way to become familiar with new cities. Other options include talking to peers about their experiences, checking industry lists to see what cities consistently pop up, and clipping articles about cities you're considering. In addition to written planner's guides, most cities now have World Wide Web homepages, many of which are linked with the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus' (IACVB) Web site at www.iacvb.com.

Within cities, Ducate also stresses taking a second look at hotels other than standard convention hotels. If the convention is taking place in a convention center, or if meetings will center in one headquarters hotel, then the number of meeting rooms within other hotels might be a moot point. "Brands such as Hampton Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, and Residence Inn are building 200- to 300-room properties in many smaller cities with no meeting space and limited services," says Ducate. "They're geared to business travelers and can work well for convention groups."

Check it Out Although many smaller cities do offer the conveniences of larger cities, some of fthem are still in the process of getting up to speed. "Meeting planners have to be better planners than ever," says Ducate. "If a group is going to a facility where they will really stretch its capacity, or to one not accustomed to providing the level of service a group demands," he says, "meeting planners have to be very clear about what they need and make sure that it happens."

The best way to ensure there are no unpleasant surprises is to make no assumptions about what services might be available in a city. "If a group has special needs in plant maintenance and security, for example," says Ducate, "they might have to bring along their own specialized florist." But doesn't that add to the cost? Maybe. Or maybe the extra cost of bringing a contractor would be offset by the lower cost of plants in a smaller city. It's all in the legwork--and in proper negotiation.

"The old strategy was to assume that certain benefits and perks were standard," says Ducate, "but just because some attendees have been upgraded or received complimentary fruit baskets in the past doesn't mean that will happen in the future if you haven't included those items in the contract."

Ducate emphasizes that the ways of doing business in this industry have changed across the board. "People talk about more professionalism, but I think some of it is really more 'formalization,'" says Ducate. "This used to be a handshake business, but now it's a contract business."

Friendly Sure, you're not going to consider bringing your group to a city unless it has adequate meeting space, whether in the hotel or convention center; enough hotel rooms of the grade you require; decent air access; and appropriate entertainment opportunities. But when we took an informal random poll of association meeting planners' favorite cities, one other thing became immediately apparent: Planners--and associations--want to go back to cities where they've had a good experience with the people.

Although the names of the cities that planners chose as their favorite varied widely, the reason for favored status was almost always the same. Sally Maloney, director of meetings and conventions for the Equipment Leasing Association, Arlington, VA, summed it up when she described her group's experience in San Antonio, TX: "The thing that really made it pleasant was that the city as a whole had a very welcoming feel, and people acted very glad to have us there. The whole city jumped on the bandwagon--from the time we got in a cab at the airport, through our official events, and including unofficial ones, like sightseeing and shopping."

Ann Weinberg, meetings and exhibits manager for the National Telephone Cooperative Association, in Washington, DC, had a similar experience when the group's fall conference was held in Seattle, a city she praises for its "infectious spirit and enthusiastic reception." Weinberg, who is also responsible for the association's smaller regional meetings, has found that in very small cities, such as North Dakota's Fargo or Iowa's Cedar Rapids, "a meeting can mean so much to the local economy that the whole community gets involved in providing a welcome."

In addition to community spirit, "less hassle is the key in secondary cities," says James Trombino, CAE, director of conferences and professional development for the Princeton, NJbased Metal Powder Industries Association. Trombino, who counts Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland among his favorites, says, "They're often easier to work with and things are easier to plan because the infrastructure is not as complex as in larger destinations."

Along the same lines, Cheryl Russell, director of convention and meetings for the Rockville, MDbased American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, praises especially the package plan available at the Seattle Convention Center: "With the package plan, you get what you need, save money, and know exactly what you're getting--they don't nickel and dime you to death like some other centers do."

Cost is also a factor for Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, an independent meeting planner who recently relocated to Charlotte, NC. "Nashville, TN immediately comes to mind," says Wallsh, "especially the Opryland Hotel, which is an experience unto itself and costs so much less than comparable facilities in a larger city."

While Nashville fits the less expensive, smaller city stereotype, the city--along with numerous others--blows away certain other typecasting. "Transportation is easy, and there are so many attractions. As part of one meeting, we included free admission to the Grand Old Opry, Opryland Amusement Park, and a city tour."

For much the same reason, Deborah Midford, CMP, Marketing Research Association education and training manager, based in Rocky Hill, CT, chose Denver as one of her favorites. "There's an awful lot going on there--much more than people realize--and it's such an active, fun city. And," she notes, "it's a lovely airport."

And Jane Nordstrom, vice president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, based in Vienna, VA, hailed San Antonio, "hands-down. You can count on the climate no matter what time of the year, and the variety of experiences we can give our members is outstanding."

Some planners have found cities that work so well for them that they return year after year. "We've held our annual meeting in Monterey, CA for at least ten years, and are booked there through the year 2000," says Susan Russell, the conference and meetings manager for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, DE. "It's extraordinary in terms of the education and hands-on experience our members can get there. Plus, there's not a big turnover in staff, so going in for a pre-con is more like going to a reunion than to a meeting."

On the opposite end of the spectrum are planners like Marie-Louise Settem, who plans the national conferences for the Library and Information Technology Association and the Library Administration and Management Association, both based in Chicago, in a different city each year. "We need to move around the country so I don't have a favorite in terms of places we've gone back to," says Settem, "but we've had fabulous experiences in many smaller cities--Pittsburgh; Lexington, KY; Santa Fe, NM. These cities are second-tier only in terms of actual size; in every other respect they're first-class."

The Personal Touch If "friendly" is the key word for the experience of attendees of meeting in smaller cities, "service" is the hallmark of the planner's encounters. "We try harder because we're number two," is a slogan that might well have been coined with second-tier city CVBs in mind. The people in these bureaus don't just give lip service; they do whatever is necessary not only to acquire business, but to make the overall experience as pleasant as possible.

"Being a second-tier city, we have to be known for our personalized hand-holding," says Judith Grizzel, president of the Greensboro (NC) CVB. "It gives us a chance to get to know people better, and the staff really enjoys doing it." Some surprises the staff has recently arranged: a hot-air balloon ride for a planner who had casually mentioned she had always wanted to try it; an extra-large cookie with a welcome message to a planner with a sweet tooth; and delivery of the area's famous barbecued chicken to the home of a planner.

Often the personal touch takes an unexpected form, a little something that makes a planner or association feel welcome and valued. "When we held our meeting in Hershey, PA," says Stacy Smith, assistant convention director of the Kansas City, MObased American Business Women's Association, "our attendance was double what we expected. At the Hershey Lodge, they had complimentary beverages, and Hershey's Kiss characters to greet the attendees and entertain them while they waited to check in. They didn't have to do that--I didn't ask them to, they just told me they would because they knew how impatient people could get waiting to check in."

Sometimes going that extra mile is so ingrained in bureau and hospitality personnel that they don't even realize they might do things differently from their counterparts in larger cities. "Planners from big cities sometimes look at me funny when I pick them up at the airport and then personally drive them around," says Bob Winkelblech, national sales manager of the Akron-Summit CVB in Ohio. "They think it's even stranger when I drive them back to the airport and wait for them to get on the plane, but that's just something we do."

By the same token, it's not unusual for Chuck Davis, vice president of association sales for the Milwaukee CVB, to have planners to his home for dinner, or in the case of a planner who was a gardening buff, for breakfast on the deck overlooking his garden. Similarly, Bob Desautels, convention services and community relations manager of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, says it's a matter of course for staff there to give planners their home telephone numbers.

Desautels, who says the bureau will be "as much in or out of a planner's hair as the planner wants," recounts numerous stories of personal service. Some are business-related, such as the time a planner realized he had left the gavel at home and the bureau found one, and had it engraved, within four hours--in time for the meeting. Others develop out of more personal relationships, such as the planner who brought his son, who had been in a serious automobile accident, with him to Indianapolis. The bureau arranged for the planner and his son to attend an Indiana Pacers game and had the mascot and cheerleaders present the injured youngster with a ball.

In the case of Wendy Christner, manager, conference and exhibits for the Alexandria, VAbased International Association of Chiefs of Police, the most notable personal touch in Albuquerque came from the bureau's president, Dick Gilliland. "I spent as much time with the top brass there as I did with the rank and file," says Christner.

In many smaller cities, though, it's not just the hospitality industry that goes the extra mile. "During our meeting in Indianapolis," says Barbara Hayward, vice president of educational programming, meetings, and conventions for the National Community Pharmacists Association, "everyone--not just the CVB, convention center, and hotel people, but also the shopkeepers and wait staff--wore 'welcome' buttons. I heard so many comment on how clear it was that the community wanted us there."

Even more important than the fun things bureaus might do for planners are the emergencies they can help out with. Tracy Kegebein, director of sales for the Syracuse (NY) CVB, recently helped a planner with whom she had been working for months who had a medical problem during a site visit. When Kegebein called the hotel, she found that the planner had taken a cab to a doctor. Kegebein called to be sure the planner was okay and drove to the doctor to pick her up. "I knew she was all alone in the city," says Kegebein, "so I gave her my home number and checked up on her myself several times during the weekend."

Start Spreading the Word hile the pros and cons of meetings in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Atlanta are pretty well known, smaller cities can find themselves passed over simply because no one thought of them to begin with--or a planner had a misperception about the city. Here's a group of smaller cities that take an active part in shaping the way they're perceived.

On to Ontario? Did you know that in between Los Angeles and Palm Springs lies Ontario? That's Ontario, CA, of course. "We were getting lots of phone calls from planners and stops at our tradeshow booth from people who were thinking of Ontario, Canada," says Angelica Echevarria, director of sales and marketing for the Ontario Convention Center Corporation, "so we changed our logo on our advertising, tradeshow booth, and other printed material to make 'Southern California' more prominent."

A relative newcomer to the convention business--the city's first convention center is set to open in November with a total of 225,000 square feet--Ontario has made several changes recently as it experiments with the best way to market itself. In January, two organizations were combined and reshaped to form two new entities: the Ontario Convention & Visitors Authority, which will handle membership services and tourism in general, and the Ontario Convention Center Corporation, responsible for marketing both the new center and the entire city as a convention and meetings destination.

Although planners who book now might not be able to get the same fabulous price breaks as early planners--who had to imagine the dirt they stood on as a real convention center--Echevarria says price incentives are still available. The city is especially eager for conventions with 1,000 or more room nights, so those who fit the bill might have some additional negotiating power.

Plans are still being developed for next fiscal year's marketing campaign, but Echevarria expects it to include advertising, direct mail, familiarization trips, and continued tradeshow exhibiting. The city more than tripled its print run for its new visitors guide, published in April, and is working on a meeting planners guide.

Been to Birmingham? The CVB in Birmingham, AL knows that one of the best ways to show off its city is to give decision-makers a reason to come in the first place. "We've hosted a lot of industry events," says Jim Smither, president of the Greater Birmingham CVB, "as part of a very conscious building process." In the past few years, the city has hosted the Convention Liaison Council (CLC) and the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, as well as a leadership retreat for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA)--based in Birmingham--and an IACVB meeting.

Smither also attributes an increase in meetings and conventions business to "spending more dollars on advertising and getting the word out." A relatively new ad campaign, for example, focuses on golf, spurred by the creation a few years ago of the statewide Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, of which the Oxmoor course in Birmingham is a link. "The trail was a new amenity we could offer groups, and we took advantage of it in marketing," says Smither. "Our package keeps changing, just like it should in a healthy city," he says, "and we want to portray Birmingham as it is today."

In addition to large-scale convention facilities, the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center has the Medical Forum, a dedicated medical conference facility with a wet lab for hands-on learning, and videoconferencing facilities allowing for interactive participation at a distance. The city is also the new home of the Alliance for Continuing Medical Education.

Adventure in Anchorage If Alaska sounds inaccessible, think again. Anchorage has doubled its convention business in the last six years, since planners have discovered they can combine adventure with cost-efficiency. The Anchorage CVB has put a lot of energy into educating planners.

"Over the years, we've placed a lot of emphasis on educating people about our destination," says Bill Elander, president and CEO, Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Associations learn that we're not so far away, not so expensive, and not so hard to get to." Another benefit--Alaska offers delegates a totally different destination. "How many other destinations can brag about all the adventure that is right outside their front door?" asks Elander.

The One and Only Bloomington Like Ontario, CA, Bloomington, MN's first challenge is to let planners know where they are. "There are other Bloomingtons in the country," says Bonnie Carlson, president and CEO of the Bloomington, Minnesota Convention & Visitors Bureau, "so it's always important for us to emphasize that we're in Minnesota." Bloomington's proximity to St. Paul and Minneapolis--the Twin Cities--is both a boon and a challenge when it comes to meetings. "With very large conventions, we can be overflow for both St. Paul and Minneapolis," says Carlson. But with the Mall of America in the city's backyard, Bloomington has become a destination in its own right. "By the end of 1997, we'll be up to 7,000 guest rooms in 30 hotels," she says. "That's more than downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul."

The Mall of America surely helped put the city on the map when it opened in 1992, but it's the bureau's own hard work that has made it the second-largest CVB in the state. "We've stayed very consistent and aggressive in the marketplace," says Carlson. "We're out there at trade shows, sales meetings, conferences. We advertise. Every year we have a large direct-mail campaign very targeted to meeting planners." The bureau also has a marketing partnership with the Mall of America that encompasses both the meetings and leisure markets, what Carlson calls a "good and smart alliance."

Keeping the Old, Wooing the New Memphis understands that there's at least one easy way to make sure its facilities meet the needs of planners: Ask them what they want. That's just what the city has done as it prepares for a $65 million expansion of the Memphis Cook Convention Center, slated for completion in 1999.

"Our first priority is to retain the groups that have already been meeting in Memphis," says John Oros, senior vice president, convention development, of the Memphis CVB. "Many of those current customers have been involved in the planning from the start--critiquing the plans, making recommendations, pointing out areas that need to be addressed."

Oros says the CVB is in the process of developing its pre-opening budget to get the word out on the expansion. With the increase in space--the 240,000-square-foot center will be augmented with a 5,000-square-foot ballroom, a 2,500-seat performing arts center, a 35,000-square-foot exhibition hall, and 15,000 square feet of new breakout space--Oros says the city is anxious to work with new market segments, especially medical associations. "The medical meetings market is a great opportunity for Memphis," says Oros, "because of the presence of leading research hospitals, such as St. Jude's."

In addition to the famous Beale Street, numerous museums, and a riveting civil rights history, Memphis is undergoing other changes to increase its appeal to meetings, including a proposed expansion of the Crowne Plaza connected to the convention center (at press time, the hotel was in the process of being purchased by the Marriott Corporation, which intends to add 200 guest rooms).

The explosion in casino development in northern Mississippi, less than half an hour from Memphis, and a downtown redevelopment that includes construction of the mixed-use Peabody Place also add to the city's appeal.

"We already have a central location, great price value, and fabulous air accessibility as a hub for Northwest Airlines," says Oros. "With the changes, we'll have the right product to reattract groups that had outgrown us or those that hadn't previously considered Memphis."