Sure, you can always use the convention center or a hotel ballroom for a special event or function, but you certainly don't have to. Although they might not be well known outside of their own cities, second-tier cities have a wealth of unusual and interesting attractions that can be used for groups. And the selection is ever-expanding. Consider:

* The Makoy Center, Columbus, Ohio: Emulating the style of a 1920s luxury hotel ballroom, the center's main hall is a French art deco masterpiece with 7,000 square feet of space for a sit-down dinner of 640 or a reception for 600. By the end of this year, the center will have added 25,000 square feet of space, including another 15,000-square-foot hall as well as smaller conference rooms. The lakefront outdoor area should also be usable for functions by the end of the year.

* Hale Farm and Village, Akron, Ohio: An outdoor, living-history museum, Hale Farm recreates a 19th-century village of the Western Reserve with 21 historic buildings, workshops, and an operating farm. Attendees can watch craftspersons demonstrate glassblowing, candle making, and weaving. The farm accommodates up to 250 people for a special event, which can include hands-on programs.

* Skydeck at Carousel Center, Syracuse, N.Y.: In the Carousel Center mall, the Skydeck offers a spectacular panoramic view of downtown Syracuse and Onondaga Lake. Minutes from the airport, downtown, and major hotels, the Skydeck can accommodate 500 for a reception. Other features at the site include more than 170 stores, a 19-screen cinema, and the 1909 antique carousel for which the center is named.

* The National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev.: Groups can take over all 80 lanes and more than 18,500 square feet of banquet space for combination theme parties/bowling tournaments. The main concourse adjacent to the lanes can accommodate 1,050 people for a reception or 830 for a sit-down meal, while two other areas hold 400 and 450 for receptions.

* United States Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio: In the hometown of the Wright Brothers, on the grounds of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the museum has several facilities for group functions, including the Modern Flight Hangar, which can accommodate receptions for 1,000 (dinners for 450); the B-36 area (receptions for 200; dinners for 100); and the Protocol Room for more intimate receptions of up to 50 people or dinners for 25. The Carey Auditorium seats 500 people theater-style.

* Kentucky Horse Center, Lexington, Ky.: A working thoroughbred training facility, the center can be used for functions and meetings. The Pavilion, where thoroughbred auctions take place, has amphitheater seating for 920 th eater-style; the 10,000-square-foot Holding Area has a barnlike atmosphere suitable for barbecues for up to 600; the Banquet Room/Lounge, decorated in classic equestrian style, can seat 250.

* San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, Calif.: As part of a landmark collaboration with New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, the museum is showcasing four large-scale exhibitions from the Whitney's permanent collection through the year 2000. Indoor banquets for 750; outdoors for 1,500.

* Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati: The first of its kind when it opens in 2002, the $70-million facility will highlight Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky's role in the Underground Railroad's efforts to help African-American slaves escape to freedom.

* Historic Railroad Shops, Savannah, Ga.: The oldest antebellum railroad repair complex and a National Historic Landmark can accommodate 2,000 for a reception.

"I try not to use the term 'second-tier city.' It irritates me," says Douglas Bennett, director of sales, Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. "First- and second-tier cities have been equated with first- and second-class service." And that connotation is just not true, Bennett says. "Unlike New York or Chicago, we have the ability to bring a group into center stage."

It is that kind of special treatment, as well as better prices, that have caused organizations to broaden their search to smaller cities, Bennett says. "Planners are looking for that new destination that will partner with them."

For example, smaller cities will help planners in promoting the meeting two years out, instead of just one year, Bennett says. "There seems to be a willingness from [smaller] cities to work harder," points out Bennett, "to create some things that are not done for Mr. Joe Everyday Account." CVBs will help you develop direct mail pieces, Bennett says, produce promotional videos for your chapters, and invest time to help you get the message out about the city's virtues.

Although more associations are turning to smaller cities, Bennett says that those lesser-known destinations have to do a better job marketing themselves. At a Second-Tier Cities Roundtable, which Bennett facilitated at the January Professional Convention Management Association annual meeting, he says, "We all agreed that we haven't done a good enough job of amplifying the negative impact of higher tax rates, labor rates, and airport user fees [at first-tier cities]. "When you compare, for example, San Francisco, to a Midwest city, the cost savings per day per attendee is pretty dramatic."

Asked if second-tier cities will follow the example of Orlando and San Francisco, which have opened a joint sales office to better promote their destinations, Bennett says, "Joint sales won't be confined to first-tier. You will see noncompeting second-tier cities coming together."