What makes second-tier cities worth a medical conference organizer's while? They may require more hands-on attention, but they give good value, they're friendly, and they can be extraordinarily helpful. Here are three takes on these benefits, plus snapshots of some second-tier cities worth considering.

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, VA-based 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. "Doctors might be willing to spend more than nurses," 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 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 meeting planner's guides, most cities now have Internet home pages, many of which are

accessible through links with the International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus 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."

Although many smaller cities do offer the conveniences of larger cities, some of them are still 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 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 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 medical meeting planners' favorite cities, one other thing became immediately apparent: Planners--and organizations--want to go back to cities where they've had a good experience with the people in a city.

Barbara Hayward, vice president of

educational programming, meetings, and conventions for the National Community Pharmacists Association (formerly the National Association of Retail Druggists), based in Alexandria, VA, sums it up when she describes her group's experience in Indianapolis: "The hospitality industry worked together to make sure the delegates felt welcome." Hayward, who explains that the association holds the majority of its meetings in second-tier cities, says her experience in Indianapolis echoes what she has found in other smaller cities. "These cities really want your business, and they make that very clear to your attendees."

Kay V. Granath, CMP, says second-tier cities are almost always used for the conventions she arranges for medical groups in her role as director of meetings and conventions for the Glenview, IL-based Association Management Center, a full-service association management firm with a predominance of clients in the healthcare area. "Many of our groups choose second-tier cities for the simple reason that first-tier cities are too expensive," says Granath. Two of her favorite cities, Seattle and Cincinnati, make her short list because her groups of some 2,000 attendees are large enough to be the main group in town while not so large that they tax the cities' infrastructures. "We can be the only large group and take up the majority of the space," says Granath, "and therefore we receive a lot of attention and a high level of service."

Dobby Wall, director of meeting services for the American Physical Therapy Association, based in Alexandria, VA, also appreciates being the only show in town in second-tier cities when she brings in her group's meeting of 5,000 to 7,000 attendees. She says her association has had exceptional experiences in numerous second-tier cities, especially San Antonio and Minneapolis, both of which she recommends.

Minneapolis is also a favorite for James Youngblood, director of meetings and exhibits for the Dallas-based American Heart Association, who says the association has held several meetings there. "Our people come from all over," says Youngblood, "so Minneapolis is attractive to us because it's in the center of the country."

While a central location draws many groups, others find certain cities have a built-in base for their meetings. Lisa Meyers, meetings manager of the Optical Society, based in Washington, DC, has planned the association's annual conference in San Jose, CA in 1992, '93, '94, '96, and '98. "When we hold the meeting there," says Meyers, "we draw heavily from the optics community in nearby Silicon Valley." With attendance of nearly 7,000, Meyers says the group also saves on transportation costs because the city's light rail system goes right to all the major hotels.

For the George Washington University Medical Center, in Washington, DC, the presence of a university in a city is critical to its choice of cities. "We're tied to universities, and we rotate so we don't go back to the same city," says Elizabeth Paine, senior conference coordinator of the center. "But San Antonio and Fort Worth are both standouts. They're both compact and the hotels are within walking distance of the main activities."

Helpful If "friendly" is the key word for the experience of meeting attendees in smaller cities, "service" is the hallmark of the planner's encounters. Whoever coined the phrase, "We try harder because we're number two," might well have had 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; home delivery to a planner of the area's famous barbecued chicken.

"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.

Granath says that the Baltimore CVB has been especially helpful to her as she plans the October 1998 meeting for the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses. "Kitty Ratcliffe [director of convention marketing] really took the time to find out what was a hot button for our group, which is primarily women," says Granath. "She really focused on what would interest them."

In many smaller cities, though, it's not just the hospitality industry that goes the extra mile. "During our meeting in Indianapolis," says Hayward, "everyone--not just the CVB, convention center, and hotel people, but also the shopkeepers and wait staff--wore 'welcome' buttons. I heard so many comments on that and how clear it was that the community wanted us there."

Even more important than the fun things a bureau might do for planners are the emergency situations 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."

Smaller cities can find themselves passed over simply because no one thought of them to begin with--or a planner thought of them but had a misperception about what the city was like. 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 conventions business--the city's first convention center is set to open this November with 225,000 total square feet--Ontario has created the Ontario Convention & Visitors Authority, to handle membership services and tourism in general, and the Ontario Convention Center Corporation, to market both the new center and the whole 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, negotiable on an individual basis. The city is especially eager for associations with 1,000 or more room nights, so those who fit the bill might have some additional negotiating power.

Been to Birmingham? The CVB in Birmingham, AL knows that one of the best ways to show off their 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 International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus (IACVB) meeting.

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--you can always drop in on Bruce Bellande, the Alliance's executive director, with a question about CME.

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 your 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 say 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," says Carlson. "That's more than downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul."

Keeping the Old, Wooing the New Memphis, TN understands that there's at least one easy way to make sure their facilities meet the needs of meeting planners: Ask planners what they want--which is 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 groups that have already been meeting in Memphis," says John Oros, senior vice president, convention development, of the Memphis CVB. "Many of them have been involved in the planning from the start--critiquing the plans and making recommendations."

Oros says the CVB has a plan in place to get the word out on the expansion that calls for increased direct mail, advertising, and sales personnel, as well as "taking Memphis on the road to the cities where national associations are headquartered." 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 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 city is also offering incentives to other hotels to add to their room inventories. 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."