Accessibility and a good selection of facilities have always been key reasons why associations prefer downtown locations for their meetings. For example, an airport with easy transcontinental connections is a key reason that the Philadelphia-based Soroptimist International of the Americas will hold its next conference in New York. "We need accessibility for people coming from out of the country, and things to do when we're not in meetings, " states Amy Drum, meeting manager.

Moreover, downtowns that have new convention centers, or "centers that are being reborn," are the key for Wayne Smith, executive director of the United Motorcoach Association in Alexandria, VA. He also believes that it's critical to find the right working chemistry with the area's convention and visitors bureau.

"I'm one of the biggest proponents of meeting with the bureau from day one. I won't meet with hotels and the convention center until I'm satisfied that I'm dealing with the right bureau," he says. Among his recent choices: Columbus, OH in 1996, Charlotte, NC in 1997, and Sacramento, CA in 1998.

But the icing on the cake for downtown meetings--what gives these meetings their extra drawing power--goes beyond issues of accessibility and adequate meeting and hotel facilities. "Go downtown; that's where the lights are bright," Petula Clark once sang. In many ways, "bright lights" still represents the huge drawing power of city centers. "The ability of a city to provide a viable downtown area is critical to attracting conventions," says Cheryl Nordstedt, associate executive director, management services, for the American Academy of Dermatology, Schaumburg, IL.

To Nordstedt, the primary issue is that attendees be able to leave their hotel and find attractions such as shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues including theaters and museums, "It makes the difference between whether people like where they are or not."

Here's a close-up look at some of the ways planners are taking advantage of downtown attractions to add sizzle to their meetings.

Dining Opportunities Attendees travel on their stomachs. To feed appetites stalking everything from haute cuisine to comfort foods, Holly Hospel believes in starting with the local CVB because "the bureau may already have done a lot of your legwork." Hospel is the director of conventions for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, Alexandria, VA.

She especially appreciates booklets with coupons, maps, and restaurant and nightlife descriptions like the ones offered in Philadelphia and Boston. For smaller restaurants not able to afford CVB representation, Hospel ferrets out information by reading city newspapers like LA Weekly or the Friday weekend edition of the Washington Post. Her goal is to match the profile of her attendees, who, by and large, prefer a casual sports-bar ambience.

Hospel says she also "does the 90's thing" by going online to Internet restaurant review sites. For example, the Washington, DC "Checkbook's Guide to Washington Area Restaurants" offers complete food and cost profiles throughout the district and adjacent Virginia counties.

Privately produced dining guides with sponsor tie-ins are sometimes mailed to specific attendees. At the recent Video Software Dealer Association's convention in Los Angeles, for instance, Paramount provided 6,000 participants who paid full registration fees with the comprehensive Los Angeles Top 40 Restaurants, Nightlife and More.

Recommendations may also come from local hospitality committees; smaller organizations often rely on host members' knowledge to double-check CVB suggestions. It works well for the Richardson, TXbased Federation of Genealogical Societies, whose members are older and less prone to experiment, and for the National Association of County Engineers, Washington, DC, whose core of rural-based attendees may not know the city firsthand.

And at the Albany-based New York State Public Employees Federation, a committee not only checks out restaurants, but also asks for discounts or other tangible signs of welcome, like a glass of wine with dinner. Planning usually takes place three months before their meeting. At the event, attendees receive a guide listing all participating venues, and restaurants are encouraged to put identifying signs in their windows.

On site at the convention center, special booths to make restaurant reservations for meeting attendees represent a growing trend. Deborah Hafer, meetings director for the National Association of Home Builders, says Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas are three cities with great restaurants backed up by CVBs who can provide such kiosks.

To dine around or not? Opinions vary sharply. Meeting directors either won't run such a program or warmly embrace multi-venue restaurant options. "Let them do their own thing in the evening. Some are quite happy with a sports bar, others want a fancy dinner," notes Diane Koogle, meetings and exhibits manager for the Denver-based American Water Works Association, who prefers to offer discount dining coupons or use the bureau's reservations service.

On the other hand, Wayne Smith from the Motorcoach Association plans dine-around venues for events sponsored by exhibitors. He personally checks out sites, then advises sponsors, who make the final plans themselves usually about six months in advance.

If you don't know a city well, a destination management company (DMC) can be a big help. Denver's Sylvia Rottman, president of Great Events, Inc. in Denver, says she prefers scheduling dine-arounds or special dinners for local host committees or boards of directors from ten to six months out.

Cultural Attractions "Attendees who do more are better off. It gets them out of the hotel and convention center thought-process," says Smith, of the Motorcoach Association. "I think you've got to help them break through that [process] by incorporating or encouraging them to take advantage of cultural and special events."

Smith says that one of his group's most successful expeditions was a trip to the new Sea Aquarium in New Orleans followed by music and dancing aboard two riverboats.

How do you know what to choose? Rottman of Great Events suggests finding out what delegates have liked in the past. "People who don't know Denver are surprised when I suggest theater at the Denver Performing Arts complex." She says that, remarkably, cultural events consistently outsell sports in the city.

Lois Woods, annual meetings and exhibits manager for the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Dallas, works with a spouse committee to find out their interests, then packages events through a destination management company. In Denver, a recent hit tour of the city combined famous Victorian homes with lunch at the historic Oxford Hotel.

Local committee hosts may also influence choices. In downtown Indianapolis, for example, the arrangements committee for the DC-based National Association for Gifted Children sought out the Children's Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art so that teachers could bring back resources from the museums for their classrooms.

Like all outings, off-site cultural events have their perils. Meghan McSkimming, general manager of Executours/PGI in Wellesley, MA, recalls an early autumn party at one Boston museum where the weather unexpectedly turned cold. Because the venue had insufficient coatracks, hangers, and coatroom staff, the resulting bottleneck of 600 people was a nightmare she'll never forget. Today, she personally checks even the smallest details.

That advice dovetails with Cheryl Nordstedt's experience in Washington, DC, when she planned a sightseeing program in conjunction with a dermatology conference. She was unaware that President Reagan was headed for the Lincoln Memorial the same day as her tour. As a result of that presidential visit, four busloads of unhappy visitors were shut out. Nordstedt says she would never run a sightseeing tour in Washington without a disclaimer of responsibility "if the tour needs to be changed due to movement of high-level government officials!"

Special Venues Holly Hospel of the Remodeling Association warns of the need to get a letter of intent for any nonmeeting venue used for a special event, saying "When it comes to show time, there will be miscommunication." Diane Koogle of the Water Works Association and Deborah Hafer of the Home Builders both say hidden costs may appear in surcharges for small groups who don't meet their minimum guarantee at such venues. And Gregg Balko, senior vice-president of PROMAX International, a not-for-profit group for promotions and marketing talent in the entertainment industry, bemoans the fact that RFPs (requests for proposals) to caterers in Los Angeles were met with a stony wall of indifference.

With these kinds of hassles, when does it pay to use special venues? Smaller groups may use them for the bonding experience. For a committee meeting in Portland,OR, Koogle booked a paddleboat on the Columbia River. In Baltimore, a harbor cruise was "a logistical solution because the hotel did not have a room large enough to do banquet seating, [and it was] a break from meetings," she said.

In spite of his frustration, Balko says the next time his group returns to Los Angeles in 2002, "I will push harder, knowing the kind of business done in LA, so that we already have catering menus in our back pocket." Balko wowed industry bigwigs by his arrangements for a downtown high-rise floor with a view, so that Paramount could bring in a coterie of super-chefs, including Wolfgang Puck, to cook for nearly 250 invited guests. Among other sites he used were the Water Court at California Plaza, home to spectacular fountains; and the Museum of Neon Art. Balko used a variety of sources to find downtown venues, including the CVB and an outside event planner. He learned of the Museum of Neon Art through CNN.

Planners like unusual off-property sites because, in the words of David Rencher, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, whose group went to Tillicum Village in Seattle for a special event, "It was a fabulous evening."

In 1995, Rencher's group, composed of private individuals, paid for Tillicum out of their own pockets. When the National Association of County Engineers went there in 1996, its event was fully sponsored by a single vendor. The reason is simple, says Brian Lagana, member services manager. "Most of our vendors like working with county engineers. We're a good source of business and they like to return a favor when they can."

For the entertainment industry, sponsorship is a way of life. During the Encino, CAbased Video Software Dealers Association's meeting in Los Angeles, Buena Vista Studios had an Aladdin parade in the city's Griffith Park, led by superstar Robin Williams. At MCA Universal, 6,000 delegates took over the use of the theme park, including the newly opened Jurassic Park ride.

Why do sponsors make the investment? PROMAX's Balko responds: "The visibility is important. Just sponsoring a reception won't increase sales, but it may reassure customers that sponsors are there for the long haul."

But at least one nonprofit organization sounds a cautionary note. Amy Drum with the Soroptimists contends, "When you're running an event, you can get into competition from different companies. [If you're trying to provide] a networking, sharing experience, you don't want to override that with people bombarding you to buy their services or product."

For associations without resources dedicated to sponsor acquisition, Holly Hospel recommends that the task not be given to support staff, especially if you're approaching large corporations. "CEOs should talk to CEOs, directors should talk to directors. The executive vice president, highest person on our staff, calls his counterpart and solicits [him or her] on that basis, because," she says, "it's insulting to have an administrative assistant or secretary say 'Would you give us $10,000 for an event?'

LANDMARK LOCATIONS: A SAMPLER Every city center offers unique venues. The following list is based on recommendations of meeting planners interviewed for this article.

Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Designed in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palace by Isabella Stewart Gardner, a famed member of 19th-century Boston society, the museum houses more than 2,500 artworks in galleries that overlook a flower-filled central courtyard. The museum is two miles southwest of the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center.

Capacity: 300 for reception, 100 for banquets.

Information: (617) 278-5129

Columbus, OH: Ohio Statehouse Just 2.5 miles from the convention center, the Greek-style Ohio Statehouse with its 24-karat, gold-leaf dome was restored to its original 1860's splendor in 1990. Using limestone from the original quarry, the Statehouse and Senate buildings were joined together. Where they meet is the reception/dining area, with glass roof, windows overlooking the surrounding gardens, and marble and granite patios.

Capacity: 800 for reception, 350 for dining

Information: (614) 752-9777

Denver: The Molly Brown House Museum Denver's pioneering spirit is preserved in the home of that "unsinkable" character, Molly Brown, who could shoot and swing an ax with the best of the male sex. Amid Victorian-era furnishings and art objects, Molly's life is recreated in her home where it's always 1910.

Capacity: 40 for tea or 20 for lunch

Information: (303) 832-4092

Greensboro, NC: Carolina Theater First opened in 1927, this restored vaudeville theater is one of Greensboro's principle performing arts venues. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the theater is four miles from the Greensboro Coliseum Complex.

Capacity: The theater seats 1,091. The lobby, with its dramatic circular staircase, accommodates 300 for cocktails. Upstairs the Renaissance Room holds 306 for cocktails, 160 for dining.

Information: (910) 333-2600

Indianapolis: Indianapolis Artsgarden Opened in 1995 as part of Indianapolis's $315 million Circle Centre downtown revitalization program, the Artsgarden is an eight-story glass dome suspended over a busy downtown intersection. Walkways link it to Circle Centre, six major downtown hotels, and to the convention center.

Capacity: 600 for receptions, 400 for theater events, or 250 for banquets

Information: (317) 631-3301

Los Angeles: Museum of Neon Art It seems fitting that Los Angeles should have been the first spot in the nation to use neon (way back in 1923). The museum is located two blocks east of the convention center.

Capacity: 300 for receptions, 100 for dining

Information: (213) 489-9918