When considering destinations for her, Dallas-based Patti Kriss, meeting manager, Baptist General Conference of Texas, looks at a variety of criteria, including whether the convention center is downtown. In other words, it has to be walkable for her attendees.
“It's not all-defining,” but it is important, says Kriss, whose planning responsibilities include four meetings a year that have attendance of roughly 2,000.
“In dealing with our constituents, this subject is probably the main complaint we get for the annual meeting,” she says.
One common complaint: “The hotel is too far from the convention center.”
Another typical complaint: “The convention center meetings, workshops, and special events are too spread out.”
“Ninety percent (of attendees) don't mind walking, but they prefer their hotel and venue to be in the same building or as close as possible for required-attendance” parts of the meeting, Kriss says.
Defining the Term
So, lodging being in close proximity to the meeting venue is crucial. What else makes a city “walkable”?
For Kriss, walkability means a downtown area that:
Is easily accessible to restaurants; and
Has public transportation for attendees arriving and departing.
Patricia Longfellow, program assistant, Presbyterian Women, Louisville, Ky., plans a five-day triennial gathering attended by 3,000. She adds these elements to the definition of walkable:
Shops and restaurants that are open in the evenings
Weather is a factor, too. The Southern city that seemed oh-so-walkable on your February site visit might not feel the same way to your attendees during the scorching heat and dripping humidity of July.
There's also the issue of convention centers that have been built on a scale so large that they don't seem fit for human beings.
“The experience I've had with most convention centers is that they are so big that to walk a distance to the venue and then maneuver within the facility is physically taxing,” Kriss says.
It All Depends
Walkability also can be age-dependent. “The age of the attendees plays a huge role in their ability and desire to walking to and from meetings and events,” Kriss says.
Longfellow's largest meeting includes a high percentage of elderly attendees, so any walking “needs to be compact.”
Longfellow says her attendees enjoy walking if they're able to.
“The older women don't like to spend a lot of time walking from one place to another, though,” she says.
Kriss' experience primarily is in Texas. She believes many Texas cities aren't very walkable, because of the weather and how spread out the cities are. But, “if walking is required, I would prefer San Antonio or Austin, and maybe Houston.
Longfellow rates Sacramento, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and St. Louis high for walkability. (See sidebar on page 19 for more opinions on the most walkable cities.)
Separate Issues for Huge Meetings
Deirdre Ross plans two major meetings a year for the Chicago-based American Library Association: a 25,000-attendee annual meeting and a 10,000-attendee midwinter meeting. “They like to be downtown, and they like to walk to things” — theaters, restaurants, museums — and enjoy all the convenience and activities that cities offer, she says. “We want our attendees to be happy, and we need the attendance.”
It's so important for ALA attendees to be downtown that it's actually written into the association's guidelines that all hotel rooms must be within a 12-block radius of meeting rooms. It's not always possible, but that's what Ross shoots for.
It's not just librarians who like to get out and stroll the meeting destination sights. As a regular attendee of her organization's annual meeting, Sharon Harrison says that she too prefers to meet in pedestrian-friendly destinations.
“Having the hotels in close proximity to one another is important,” says Harrison, associate professor, economics department, Barnard College/Columbia University, New York. She frequently attends the American Economic Association's annual meeting, including this year's convention, held January 3-6 in New Orleans, which is often cited as one of the more walkable U.S. cities. Because attendees often have private meetings and reunions with friends and associates at a convention, it's nice to be able to get from one hotel to another quickly and easily, says Harrison. Plus, Harrison says she doesn't like waiting for shuttle buses. “I prefer to walk.”
One highly walkable city is Indianapolis, which is in the process of expanding its convention center by 24,000 square feet and building a new 63,000-seat downtown stadium for exhibitions and events, slated to open this August, that will be connected to the center expansion and eight downtown hotels. The projects will cost $1 billion and nearly double the amount of exhibit space. Also, some 1,500 new hotel rooms are being built around the convention center — all within walking distance of the center and stadium.
Doug Bennett, vice president of sales at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Authority, says the stadium space will be used primarily for standalone state and regional events. Accommodating these space-heavy, hotel room-light regional events will take pressure off the convention center, says Bennett. However, it also gives the destination the ability to handle mega-events that require space in both venues. Lucas Oil Stadium will be used for events 185 to 200 days a year, he adds.
The old stadium, the RCA Dome, is being demolished this summer. The expansion will be built where the RCA Dome sat.
The Most Walkable Convention Destinations
Every year, publications come out with lists of the most walkable cities in America. But just because tourists find them walkable doesn't mean that they are pedestrian-friendly for conventiongoers.
Here is a list, culled from conversations with industry experts, of the most walkable convention cities, based on the number of hotel rooms within roughly a quarter of a mile of the convention center and accessible by foot to downtown.
Do you and your attendees appreciate beautiful cities? You can thank FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED (right) for that beauty. During the latter half of the 19th century, more people were moving to the cities than ever before. It became evident that cities needed to be transformed into more hospitable places, not just centers of commerce.
City beautification became an issue that leaders followed and explored. The theory behind this movement was that the more aesthetically pleasing you make a city, the more people will want to live in that city, and the happier they will be.
One of the greatest champions of the City Beautiful movement was Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Stanford University campus, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Mount Royal Park in Montréal, and the Emerald Necklace in Boston. Olmsted was a leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War generation, and has long been acknowledged as the founder of American landscape architecture.
Olmsted's primary objective was to improve American society. He had visions of vast recreational and cultural achievements in the hearts of cities. He did not see parks as just vast meadows, but rather as places of harmony; places where people would go to escape life and regain their sanity.