Midsize (or second-tier) cities and their CVBs offer religious meeting planners a new array of convention center facilities and lots of negotiability in these recessionary times. Religious conventions that appreciate a little extra attention can find it in second-tier cities, say planners who have experienced it firsthand. “You can negotiate a better contract because you are it,” says Charles Snow, CMP, an independent meeting planner. And, he says, second-tier cities treat you better. “They often go that extra mile.”

The recession has certainly contributed to that popularity. “Successful second-tier cities market themselves as affordable alternatives,” says Loretta Lowe, CMP, an independent meeting planner in San Francisco. “The weak economy is requiring everyone to watch their bottom line.”

But in the long run, the recession will have less impact on rates than on supply, according to Michael Hughes, director of research services for Tradeshow Week. According to Tradeshow Week's statistics, North American exhibit space is expected to increase to 81.9 million square feet by 2005, up from 61 million square feet in 1995. “It's a competitive marketplace right now,” Hughes says. “Usually when one venue expands, it sets off planning processes in other cities.”

He thinks the growth is a kind of double-edged sword: It's great for top-tier cities that are doing well, but less auspicious for many smaller markets. “Large cities may not feel the pinch as much, as it's still challenging to find quality dates.”

What do planners think? “It's getting better now,” Snow says. “Right after 9/11 it was definitely a buyer's market, but it's leveling off.”

“The conference industry is hurting,” says Melea Edwards, conference manager for The Gathering, an association of Christian foundations. “They want our business. Now is a good time to be negotiating, particularly in off-seasons.”

Edwards negotiates room rates, related charges, even food charges. “You'd be surprised at what they'll negotiate. It feels like it's a buyer's market.”

Misleading Name

The affordability of a site may be a selling point, but saving money doesn't help if the No. 1 consideration — the meeting facility — doesn't meet the group's needs.

For example, Edwards' group has unique needs, in that the 300 to 400 members like to meet at higher-end properties, such as four-star hotels and conference centers. She's now finding that more second-tier cities are building resort-type properties.

In fact, many smaller cities now have newer convention centers than those in some in first-tier cities, says Doug Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. “There are big advances in today's market. It's less expensive to build a new convention center than it is to retrofit [for technology]. Second-tier doesn't mean second-class,” he adds. “In fact, it may mean state-of-the-art.”

And state-of-the-art often means flexibility. When Minneapolis added to its convention center, it included a new 3,400-seat auditorium that can rotate to form three 425-seat lecture halls. Fort Worth, Texas' expansion to its convention center added miles of fiber-optic cable and high-speed data lines.

“Second-tier is unfortunate terminology — it connotes inferior,” says Greg Ortale, president of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “Our convention center with our recent expansion is as fine a convention center as any. Rather than saying second-tier, I wish the industry would adopt a nomenclature of ‘midsized.’”

Ortale notes that Minneapolis has hosted the Super Bowl, as well as an Alcoholics Anonymous convention that drew 50,000 people. “We've booked groups that have been to alleged first-tier destinations, and they're able to have just as much fun and as productive a conference [here] as anywhere.”

But other cities welcome the term. Syracuse considers itself second-tier and markets itself around that concept, stressing affordability and its regional location, five hours from major East Coast cities, explains Jerry Keohane, vice president and director of sales and marketing for OnCenter, the city's convention and entertainment complex.

Some planners say that you can tell a second-tier from a first-tier by how hard it will work to get the business, Keohane says.

The Transportation Issue

After 9/11 and the subsequent drop in air travel, major carriers cut back on some air routes. And although service has been rebuilding to pre-9/11 norms, as traffic picks up, some planners worry that it may be too difficult to get enough airlift to smaller meeting destinations. Fret not, say airlines and smaller city convention and visitors bureaus.

“There are some very small communities where air service will not be restored,” says US Airways' spokesman David Castelveter. “Places such as Jonestown, Altoona, and Lancaster, Pa. [But] they're not meeting destinations.” Some smaller cities that are meeting destinations, such as Greenbrier, W. Va., may be serviced by US Airway Express turbo props instead of jets, at least until demand rises. But attendees still will be able to get there, he says.

“All except one of the flights that were canceled at the end of last year have been picked up,” says George Helmstead, vice president of sales, Grand Rapids/Kent County (Mich.) CVB. “It wasn't as if the lack of airlift caused a lack of business,” he explains. “It was the other way around: The lack of business affected the airlift.”

His city's airport has flights to most major association attendee bases, including Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and Chicago, and “we're working to pick up a flight from Denver, which would give a good connection point to West Coast attendees.” He's confident that by 2005, when a new convention center opens in Grand Rapids, the city will pick up even more flights.

“The typical question we get isn't ‘Do you have sufficient airlift?’” says Tim McNeil with the Omaha, Neb., CVB. “It's more, ‘Do you have an airport?’ I think they're worried they'll have to land in Wichita and take a covered wagon to get here.” But Omaha does have an airport, which is a five-minute drive from the site of a new convention center that is scheduled to open in August 2003, and plenty of direct flights from prime locations such as Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. “While we were down about 30 percent last September, we've already regained half of what was cut, and by summer we should be flush,” says McNeil.

Other smaller cities admit to being hurt by the cutbacks. “We've been hit hard, and there is concern over lift,” says Pat Phillips, vice president of convention marketing for the Convention and Visitors Association of Lane County (Ore.). “But we do have an advantage because we're located in the middle of the state only about two hours drive from Portland and its airport.”

Until the air travel market rebuilds to its pre-9/11 levels, airlines say that they are prepared to help planners concerned that the lift they need just won't be there.

“If for some reason we had to eliminate a market your group was traveling to, of course we'd work with you to make arrangements with another carrier. It's our goal to work with you to find suitable solutions,” says Castelveter.

George Coyle, product manager for group and meeting travel at American Airlines, also says his airline is open to working with planners. While American's policy is to block 60 percent of every flight for groups (a group being defined as 10 or more travelers), that can be expanded. The important thing, he says, is to give enough advance notice.

According to Juan Carlos Cruz, manager of industry relations for United, his airline also is flexible with groups. “We are willing to add extra sections for groups,” he says, adding that it's not something United has had to do since September 11.

Get 'Em While They're Hot

Second- and third-tier cities may be a harder sell for planners the first time they seek to bring their group to these destinations. Snow says you have to tell people what the city has to offer. In Memphis, he was pleasantly surprised to find a number of things to do, including outstanding music venues.

There is a lot to be gained by dispelling misconceptions about the relative suitability of smaller cities as meeting destinations.

As Greg Ortale, president, Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, says: “The competition [for convention business] is always intense, and I'd have to say that, now, competition in the mid[size] and smaller markets is truly intense. It's really scary.”

What's new in convention centers?

COLORADO

▪ Colorado Convention Center, Denver

After the groundbreaking in April, the Colorado Convention Center will begin work to double in space by December 2004. Besides expanded exhibit and meeting space, new ballroom, auditorium, and parking garage space is being added. Two glass-enclosed lobbies bookend the exhibit floor, offering mountain vistas.

Exhibit space: 584,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 100,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Contact: Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau Sales Department
Phone: (800) 888-1990
Web: www.denverconvention.com

MINNESOTA

▪ Minneapolis Convention Center

Renovations completed in April doubled the exhibition and meeting space in the Minneapolis Convention Center to more than 1 million square feet. The first-of-its-kind 3,400 seat auditorium can be used as one hall to seat 3,400 or be divided in five minutes into a 2,000-seat auditorium with three 450-seat lecture halls.

Exhibit space: 480,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 145,000 sq. ft.
Contact: The Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association
Phone: (612) 661-4724
Web site: www.minneapolis.org

NEBRASKA

▪ Omaha Convention Center and Arena

Opening in August 2003, the center includes an attached arena with moveable walls, which allow for larger exhibition space, as well as seating for hockey, basketball, concerts, and other activities.

Exhibit space: 195,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 32,000 sq. ft.
Contact: Greater Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau
Phone: (800) YES-OMAHA
Web site: www.visitomaha.com

NEW JERSEY

▪ Wildwoods Convention Center

This new facility, which celebrated its grand opening in May, is in the resort communities of Wildwood, N.J.'s southernmost barrier island. The new 260,000 convention center is in the midst of the Wildwoods boardwalk, featuring a 1950s theme and family oriented activities.

Exhibit space: 75,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 8,675 sq. ft., plus 11,500 sq. ft. of ballroom space
Contact: Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement & Development Authority
Phone: (609) 729-9000
Web site: www.wildwoodsnj.com

OREGON

▪ Oregon Convention Center, Portland

An expanded Oregon Convention Center's design stays true to the original facility, with spacious interior concourses and large banks of windows and skylights to bring in natural light. The work of regional and nationally renowned artists are displayed.

Exhibit space: 255,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 28,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Contact: Oregon Convention Center sales office
Phone: (800) 791-2250
Web site: www.oregoncc.org

TENNESSEE

▪ Chattanooga Convention Center

The convention center is tripling its size to a total of 312,000 square feet, with bookings available in spring 2003. An enhanced lighting system uses sunlight filtered through openings in the 30-foot ceilings as the primary light source. The center is within a day's drive of half the population of the United States.

Exhibit space: 100,000 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 27,500 sq. ft., plus 19,000 sq. ft of ballroom space (after expansion)
Contact: Chattanooga Convention Center
Phone: (423) 756-0001

▪ Knoxville Convention Center

The new convention center, which reflects the architecture of the area surrounding it, opened in July in the heart of downtown Knoxville.

Exhibit space: 120,000 sq. ft.
Meeting space: 27,300 sq.-ft. divisible ballroom, 14 breakout rooms
Contact: Knoxville CVB
Phone: (866) 790-5373

TEXAS

▪ Fort Worth Convention Center

The newly expanded center will be complete in early 2003. Billed as one of the most high-tech convention facilities in the world, the convention center has been wired with thousands of feet of fiber-optic cable as well as high-speed data lines. A connection to the Fort Worth Water Gardens creates a grand new south entrance to the facility.

Exhibit space: 252,718 sq. ft. (after expansion)
Meeting space: 41 breakout rooms; expansion added more than 35,000 square feet of meeting space, plus 30,000 sq. ft of ballroom space)
Contact: Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau
Phone: (817) 570-2222

What's a Second-Tier?

It's getting harder to tell a first-tier city from a second-tier, say meeting planners and convention center managers.

“Sometimes second-tier cities think they're in first-tier,” says Michael Hughes, director of research services for Tradeshow Week magazine. “Big convention sites may not mean the largest city, but the largest convention infrastructure.”

The observation plays out in data released by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. A survey of events in the year 2000 found that 16 cities each hosted more than 200 individual events. The top 10:

  1. Orlando
  2. Las Vegas
  3. Toronto
  4. Chicago
  5. New Orleans
  6. Atlanta
  7. Dallas
  8. New York
  9. San Diego
  10. Washington, D.C.


But five of the next six are usually considered second-tier, including Nashville, Denver, San Francisco, Anaheim, San Antonio and Boston.

The survey looked at events using more than 3,000 net square feet of exhibition space and featuring 10 or more exhibiting companies.