It's no exaggeration to say that the universe of second- and third-tier convention destinations has expanded dramatically in the last decade. From Omaha to West Palm Beach, smaller cities across the country have opened new and expanded convention centers, as well as top-tier hotel properties. This growth, combined with a still-recovering economy, has created a buyer's market in many of these cities.

Indeed, some cities have revamped their whole approach to association meetings business. A great example is San Jose. After experiencing a dramatic nose dive in corporate tech meetings when that industry crashed, the city decided to make a long-term commitment to convention business. There's been a big payoff: The city's convention center recently signed the American Public Transportation Association's 2006 Annual Meeting, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists 25th Annual Convention in 2007, and the Ecological Society of America's 92nd Annual Meeting in 2007.

The revamping began last summer when the sales and marketing teams of the convention center were consolidated with those of the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau to make the booking process simpler and more consistent for planners. Next, the city council approved flexible pricing structures for the convention center. “We had sort of off-the-shelf pricing,” says Dan Fenton, president/CEO of the SJCVB. Now rates are customized for each group based on room nights, food and beverage, rentals, and the group's overall economic impact on the community.

Most recently, the convention center rental contract was rewritten to make it more customer-friendly. The old contract “put all the liability on the planner,” says Fenton.” Most facilities that are run publicly are inflexible,” he adds. “We worked hard with the city council to get that changed.”

Another example: The Greater Cleveland CVB recently kicked off its new “Rock Your Bottom Line” campaign to attract meetings business. Groups that book a meeting with a participating Cleveland hotel in 2004 or 2005 will get 10 percent off their total room revenue. That savings are then applied to the bottom line of their master account.

“The more rooms you fill with attendees, the greater the savings to your organization's bottom line,” says Joe Zion, executive vice president, Greater Cleveland CVB. Planners also get free tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for attendees and a discount on speakers if they book through the Ohio office of the National Speakers Association. Playing off the city's rock 'n' and roll image, planners who visit the CVB's new Web site, www.rockyourbottomline.com, can win concert tickets in their local area.

Other Tactics

Many second-tier cities are in hot pursuit of the minority meetings market, one of the fastest growing segments of the convention industry, (See AM December, “New Clout for Minority Meetings,” page 27.) Scott Phelps, president of the Hartford (Conn.) Convention and Visitors Bureau, is well aware of the economic impact of the group. Hartford rolled out the red carpet in bringing the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals delegation to Hartford for its 2003 annual meeting.

“We really treated it as a fam tour,” says Phelps, picking up travel costs and sponsoring the entertainment, as well as the opening-night reception. “We felt it was worth that kind of investment,” Phelps says, “because it is one of the fastest-growing market segments.”

Phoenix is one of the leaders on this front, hosting more than 120 minority meetings since 1996, representing 130,000 room nights and $125 million in economic impact. For fiscal year 2003 to 2004, the bureau has already booked 30,000 room nights for minority meetings, such as the National Council of La Raza, and the National Black Police Association. The 30,000 room nights booked for 2003 to 2004 is nearly as much as Phoenix attracted in the 10 years prior to 1995.

Long before the influx of new product in the second-tier market, however, many smaller convention destinations competed on service — and they still do. The best way to tap the “service fountain” is to start with the convention bureau. CVBs are the essential resource for planners on everything from marketing a meeting to providing recommendations on local vendors and suppliers.

Depending on what you bring to the table, a CVB can help you increase the wow factor at your meeting by leveraging the power of local talent and attractions. Receptions in city parks or historical venues, entertainment by talented local bands and choirs, and CEO speakers from area businesses are just a few examples of programming options that CVBs in small cities might be able to help engineer. That's the advantage of being a big fish in a small pond.

Affordable Cities

Menlo Park, Calif.-based online corporate travel provider GetThere last year released the findings of a survey that identifies the country's 10 most affordable cities. The 2002 first-place winner, Jacksonville, Fla., came in first again in the 2003 survey. Columbus, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C., neither of which made the list in 2002, were ranked second and third. Rounding out the list were Knoxville, Tenn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Indianapolis; Greensboro, N.C.; Norfolk, Va.; Milwaukee; and Harrisburg, Pa.