Hotel guest room and meeting room rates, as well as food and beverage costs, certainly play an important part in determining if meeting planners will make budget, or have higher costs than expected, pushing well-crafted plans way over budget. During site selection, however, savvy (and frugal) meeting planners also must take into consideration the less obvious costs that can either squeeze the last few dollars out of a budget or enable the event to be held right on, or even under budget! And much of this has to do with the specific meeting destinations selected to host the group.
City taxes, labor costs, resort fees, parking and ground transportation all play a major role in overall budget consideration, and organizing a meeting or convention in a “budget friendly” destination is often priority No. 1 for many planners. Below are some budget friendly U.S. cities that, in most cases, will offer lower than national average prices for almost all venue and offsite services.
Few cities can beat Atlantic City for great pricing on offsite group venues. Yes, the casinos offer top food and beverage outlets, as well as gaming, theaters and nightclubs, at competitive prices, but taking meeting or convention groups out of the casino and into local establishments adds flavor to the destination experience that will not be detrimental to most group budgets.
The Atlantic City Aquarium (100 reception) offers a 25,000-gallon exhibit featuring a variety of sea life native to the Atlantic waters off of New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic region. Meeting planners should ask about the 1,000-sf Harborview Room, or renting the entire Aquarium after hours.
The Buena Vista Country Club (275 reception), just outside Atlantic City, turns 50 years old this year and is the perfect venue for a private luncheon or dinner banquet in a colorful atmosphere and with a wonderfully affordable price. Another historic venue, right in downtown, is the Carnegie Center, a unique building operated by Stockton University, offering options for meetings, seminars and receptions (205). The center features completely restored 19th century architecture with 21st century amenities, including the latest in media and technology. The Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University — the cornerstone of the new Arts District in Atlantic City — is another interesting venue for offsite meetings, and budget friendly as well. The venue is adjacent to Tanger Outlets, the Convention Center, Boardwalk Hall and Dante Hall Theater.
For an in-depth look at Atlantic City’s offerings, see our destination feature on page 36.
Boise, Idaho’s state capital, offers association and convention visitors an accessible, lively city with upgrades to virtually every aspect of business travel. The Boise Airport is a 10-minute drive from the downtown core where association facilities are located, and meeting and convention attendees can take advantage of free shuttles that are offered by every hotel in Boise. The city’s compact, walkable downtown also reduces transportation costs.
The Boise Centre on the Grove recently completed an expansion, adding 45,000 sf of space. It now offers a total of 85,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space in two buildings.
The largest space for overnight guests is the Riverside Hotel on the banks of the Boise River. It has 303 rooms, 22,000 sf of meeting space and a resort-like feel. The Grove Hotel is a block from the convention center and has 250 guest rooms and 14,000 sf of event space. A new Residence Inn and Hyatt Place will both open this year, and the 111-room boutique Inn at 500 Capitol debuted in December.
The Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau provides free services to planners, including logistics support, site visits and RFP distribution.
Association planners who choose Irving, Texas, as their host destination receive not only VIP treatment from hotels and the local CVB, but accommodations, amenities and attractions without the big-city price tag and urban distractions.
Irving was rated the fourth least expensive city in the country by GoodCall Research, and this city of about 236,000 residents offers many sweet budget-saving amenities, such as being close to either coast in flying time, and just 11 miles from DFW and eight miles from Love Field, a 20-minute drive to either airport. With more than 75 hotels and 12,000 rooms, from a AAA Five Diamond resort to all-suite extended stay and economy motels, Irving offers a diverse selection of rooming options. The city’s 14 full-service meeting hotels provide more than 200,000 sf of meeting space, and that much competition assures very affordable rates year-round.
With the completion of the pedestrian-friendly visitors district in 2018, planners will be able to choose from a variety of entertainment venues to book offsite events and meetings, all in the heart of Irving’s Las Colinas Urban Center, saving money on long-haul bus transfers to offsite attractions.
Construction is well underway on the site of the $173 million entertainment complex, the Irving Music Factory at Las Colinas. This project is the second phase of Irving’s vision for a distinctive visitors district. The Irving Convention Center was the initial anchor, and the opening of a $110 million, 350-room Westin brand convention center hotel will mark the completion of the district in 2018. Meeting attendees in Irving can easily walk between the Music Factory, the convention center and the future headquarters hotel. Plus, they will have prime access to Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s (DART) Orange Line and the Las Colinas Area Personal Transport (APT) people mover system — a great way to stay “green” and offer a low-carbon event.
Last fall the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas held their annual training conference at the Dallas Marriott Las Colinas in Irving. “We had about 250 participants at the Las Colinas venue, and it worked out beautifully for the attendees, especially because the meeting spaces and costs were so ideally suited to our group,” says Lupe Morin, the association’s executive director. “We received a great rate from the hotel, parking was free for all our guests, which was great since so many had driven to the venue, and high-speed broadband was complimentary as well. Food and beverage functions at the property were equally as cost-friendly. The Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau also provided us with great assistance with our group, enabling us to offer the training conference to our members for a terrific rate,” says Morin.
WINSTON-SALEM. The three big meeting and convention cities in North Carolina are all favored by meeting planners who want to keep costs down while enjoying a friendly environment, comfortable facilities, high-tech amenities and good offsite options.
Centrally located in downtown Winston-Salem, the 100,000-sf Benton Convention Center is undergoing a $20-million-dollar renovation, which includes significant structural, design and technological upgrades to the interior and exterior of the building. The multiphased “reinvention” project has completed the expansion on the lower level, which offers greater flexibility. The project, which is expected to be finalized this May, also will add more windows and skylights along the upper level to give the venue a contemporary, open and inviting aesthetic. The center remains operational throughout all phases of the project. To celebrate the renovation, Visit Winston-Salem has introduced the Wake-Up Rewards program, which offers planners up to a $3,000 credit plus incentives for meetings booked with Visit Winston-Salem and at the Benton Convention Center Complex by June 30, 2017.
“The lower costs in Winston-Salem really help us to keep our prices down for our conference participants. …They provide a generous supplement on rent in return for the economic impact of our conference attendees over 3 1/2 days.”
— Pat Hall
“The Raleigh-based North Carolina Music Educators Association (NCMEA) Professional Development Conference took over downtown Winston-Salem in November, 2016,” says Pat Hall, executive director of the NCMEA. “We held sessions, clinics and concerts in a number of venues, including The Benton Convention Center, Marriott Hotel, Embassy Suites, The Hawthorne Inn & Conference Center and the Stevens Center. Due to renovations at The Benton, we also held rehearsals and concerts in two downtown churches, Centenary United Methodist and First Baptist.
“At this conference we had over 1,600 paid attendees, more than 500 student musicians and 4,000 audience members for our Sunday Honors Choral and Orchestra Concerts,” Hall says. “NCMEA has been holding our conference in Winston-Salem for more than 40 years, and there doesn’t seem to be another city in North Carolina that meets all our space requirements for the value. The lower costs in Winston-Salem really help us to keep our prices down for our conference participants. We appreciate our long-standing relationship with Twin City Quarter and Visit Winston-Salem. They provide a generous supplement on rent in return for the economic impact of our conference attendees over 31/2 days. This is very important to us.”
Both Winston-Salem, and Greensboro, located just 30 miles from each other, offer association planners great meeting facilities, budget-friendly shopping and restaurant venues, and lots of assistance from local convention bureaus that give new meaning to the term Southern hospitality.
GREENSBORO. Greensboro offers more than 135 visitor attractions, almost 90 lodging venues (16,000 hotel rooms) with competitive pricing and more than 500 restaurants. The Koury Convention Center, located at the Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons, together offer one of the largest meetings/accommodations venue in the Southeast, with 985 guest rooms and suites, and more than 250,000 sf of meeting and event space, accommodating up to 3,000 guests.
The Greensboro Coliseum Complex offers 197,000 total sf of exhibit space, and includes the Special Events Center, the 23,500-capacity Coliseum Arena and the adjacent 2,376-seat War Memorial Auditorium, the 298-seat Odeon Theatre and the outdoor White Oak Amphitheatre, which seats 7,688.
In Business Travel News’ 2016 Corporate Travel Index, Greensboro was rated 71st out of 100 (the higher number, the least expensive) in average daily hotel costs. The city’s average daily rate in all hotel size categories was $130.56, with average sales tax, occupancy tax and surcharges $16.65, under the national average of $22.13.
RALEIGH. North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, also was rated quite affordable based on Business Travel News’ U.S. city per diem ranking, with one of the country’s lowest food cost per diems $87.95 and a low $44.52 daily car rental average.
“I organized the annual conference of The Wildlife Society in October 2016 at the Raleigh Convention Center, using the Marriott Raleigh City Center and the Sheraton Raleigh, both very close to the convention venue, right in downtown. Over 1,900 attendees participated in the event, which made it a very successful conference,” says Kerrell McNeal, owner and principal planner for “the next great event LLC,” based in Phoenix.
For McNeal, the affordability of meeting in Raleigh was quite influential in deciding that the North Carolina capital was going to get their business. “Working with the Raleigh Convention Center was like a breath of fresh air after working in countless venues where everything you need seems to cost ‘extra,’ ” says McNeal. “They may sound like small things, but when you add them up, they make a difference, things such as exhibitors being permitted to hand-carry in their materials, complimentary water stations, flexibility of how the client may utilize the contracted meeting space, no additional fees to host an event outside on the plaza, and so many other things. Additionally, this group really likes to do one night offsite, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was a great fit for us, and we found transportation to be affordable as well.”
Saving money for her client was evident in almost every aspect of the conference, says McNeal. “Downtown Raleigh offered a full spectrum of dining options within walking distance of the convention facilities, and that is an important factor for us when selecting sites. There were several lunch spots near the convention center that allowed our attendees to get off-property, eat and return within our tight one-hour lunch breaks, without missing a beat. Our attendees from across the country also enjoyed the availability of North Carolina originals, such as local breweries and Carolina barbecue — all within walking distance. Having a compact, walkable downtown not only was great logistically, but the diverse eateries in the area saved our attendees money as well.”
Oklahoma City has one of the lowest city per diem corporate rates in the country, meaning that OKC is a true low-cost meeting destination. Everything from room rates and facility rentals to restaurants and entertainment is relatively inexpensive, especially given the variety of options meeting planners find in the city.
Since 1993, Oklahoma City has seen more than $5 billion of public and private investment in quality-of-life projects and improvements throughout the city. Many sports-related associations make good use of the city’s Boathouse District along the Oklahoma River, a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site and home to USA Canoe/Kayak. Along the river are unique spaces like the Chesapeake Boathouse, Devon Boathouse and Chesapeake Finish Line Tower, with views of the Oklahoma River and Downtown.
Oklahoma is a right-to-work state, with more than 16,000 affordable hotel rooms in Oklahoma City, and a safe, walkable downtown packed with everything association and convention planners need for a successful event. “I arranged for our Annual Conference & Exhibits event in Oklahoma City with approximately 1,900 participants,” says ReBecca J. Murray, CEM, manager, corporate member services, conference, meetings and events for the National Rural Water Association, based in Duncan, Oklahoma.
“We used the Cox Convention Center, and the center’s costs, along with the reasonably priced hotels in the area, was certainly influential in deciding to hold the event in Oklahoma City,” Murray says. “We utilized the Renaissance, Sheraton and Courtyard by Marriott for our own board and staff rooms, and those of our co-located groups. In addition we had room blocks at the Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn & Suites and Homewood Suites, and our attendees absolutely loved all of them, especially the great breakfasts, which was an added value to their stays. We also utilized the Residence Inn as well.
“I would like to add that the layout for the downtown Oklahoma City Cox Convention Center as it currently sits, along with the surrounding hotels, works well with the Bricktown area of the city, and all the restaurants, shops and nightlife in the area. It offers easy access, a clean and safe atmosphere, lots of things to do at your fingertips, and everything the attendees wanted to do was really very affordable.”
The big news for meeting planners thinking about Oklahoma City as a future meetings or convention site is the opening of the city’s new Oklahoma City Convention Center and an Omni convention center hotel in 2020. Omni Hotels & Resorts has proposed a 19-floor hotel with 600 rooms, approximately 50,000 sf of meeting space, and several food and beverage outlets including two restaurants. The hotel will be located next to the new convention center and is targeted to open with the convention center in early 2020. Construction of the $287 million convention center is expected to start in 2018, and its opening in 2020 will coincide with completion of a new, 70-acre park and a streetcar system that will connect the park and convention center with Bricktown, Midtown, Automobile Alley and the Central Business District. The building will top 500,000 sf, including 200,000 sf for exhibit halls, up to 35,000 sf for the ballroom and 45,000 sf for meeting rooms.
Greater Ontario, California, offers an abundance of things to see and do, and the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau is your official guide to the area. The Mediterranean climate provides year-round outdoor activities. Known as a shopper’s paradise, the massive Ontario Mills Mall, which the CVB says attracts more visitors annually than Disneyland, is a good offsite venue for association participants, boasting the largest concentration of movie screens west of the Mississippi River. The 10,000-seat Citizens Business Bank Arena hosts world-class performers and entertainment as well as private events. In addition, the city offers NASCAR sanctioned races at Auto Club Speedway, and a nearby wine region dates back to the 1800s.
Ontario is easily accessed by three major freeways, and is under an hour from Big Bear mountain resorts, freshwater fishing lakes, Pacific beaches, golf, Disneyland and Hollywood. The Ontario Convention Center is a beautiful, modern venue frequently used by filmmakers as an onsite location for movies and commercials. The building offers more than 225,000 sf of flexible exhibit, meeting and function space, and is a great venue for conventions, trade shows, exhibits and meetings, providing a full range of technology services, including Wi-Fi, internet, DS3 and video-conferencing capabilities. Some of the venue’s early 2017 events include the Landscape Industry Show, the So Cal Retro Gaming Expo, and Dance Educators of America competition events.
As a non-union building, costs are kept low, and there are 6,000 hotel rooms nearby (2,500 hotel rooms are within walking distance of the convention center), all offering competitive room rates. Association and convention planners also save money on airport transfers, with LA/Ontario International Airport just two miles from the convention center and most hotels.
Thanks to its miles of beaches, Navy presence, and affordable restaurants and bars, Virginia Beach is not only one of the most visited leisure destinations, but the city has been rapidly becoming an important association and convention site as well — from surfing competitions to the Coastal Virginia Wine Fest to the Virginia Fire & Rescue Conference. According to Smith Travel Research Virginia Beach’s ADR for 2016 was a very budget-friendly $130.11.
”Located within a few hours of our nation’s capital, Virginia Beach was recently named among the nation’s Top 20 Meetings Cities by SmartAsset,” says Todd Bertka, CASE, vice president of convention sales and marketing for the Virginia Beach CVB.
“Our easily accessible mid-Atlantic location makes Virginia Beach an extremely desirable destination for meeting planners. An ideal, affordable destination with a wide range of meeting hotels, Virginia Beach offers a state-of-the-art convention center and a variety of unique meeting spaces. Boosted by amenable year-round weather, the city’s diverse entertainment and dining options make our vibrant coastal city an enjoyable, group-friendly meeting destination for associations and organizations of every size, style and market,” says Bertka.
The Founders Inn Conference Center offers 25 meeting rooms and 25,000 sf of total meeting space, and is connected to the Founders Inn & Spa, with 240 guest rooms, 18 meeting rooms and an additional 24,000 sf of flexible meeting space. The Holiday Inn Virginia Beach-Norfolk Hotel & Conference Center provides 307 guest rooms, 17 meeting rooms and a total of 22,000 sf, while the Wyndham Virginia Beach Oceanfront offers 244 guest rooms, 11 meeting rooms and 16,000 sf of available meeting space. AC&F