Meeting planners are benefiting more than ever from the competition among Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs). That’s because DMOs nationwide are vying to attract more meetings and conventions by building new convention centers, enlarging existing facilities and adding services.
More DMOs are providing what planners want and need. “Planners seek partnerships to save time, better understand what’s going on at the local level, and enhance meetings and exhibits” says Christine Shimasaki, CMP, CDME, managing director of empowerMINT, a Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) initiative that educates planners on the value of DMOs. “Planners are asking, ‘What kind of local partnerships do I need through DMOs to be more productive if I can’t grow my own staff?’”
Seeking to address such issues, DMAI formed a new industry-wide advisory board of meeting professionals, which is meeting this year for the first time. Some DMOs have had advisory boards for a few years or more, but DMAI’s effort is industry-wide. The DMAI board will consist of 25 to 30 planners nationwide who will hold one face-to-face and two or three online meetings this year, says Shimasaki. A professional facilitator will conduct the meetings.
The advisory board will examine ways to improve DMO services, encourage more planners to use the organizations and overcome industry misperceptions. “Some planners don’t know about the breadth of services that DMOs provide,” says Shimasaki. “Or there are perceptions that DMOs prefer to send leads to their member hotels. There are misperceptions that DMOs have a membership bias and about what it means to be a membership or non-membership DMO. At the same time, DMOs have to challenge themselves. What is it that they don’t do on a consistent basis?”
Shimasaki adds: “We want to get to the next level of what it will take to make a shift within the industry. An advisory board can give us some perspective on how to help the industry get beyond some of those longheld beliefs.”
In addition, EmpowerMINT educates planners on the value of DMOs. During 2012, EmpowerMINT conducted 12 sessions at major industry events and hosted 10 webinars, mostly for planners, on topics such as site inspections and negotiating with hotels. More activities are planned for 2013.
Educating planners and expanding convention centers and services are vital keys to attracting meetings and conventions. In fact, convention centers are a destination’s most important revenue producer for hotels, according to a recent study of 15 major cities by Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago-based firm specializing in real estate services and investment management. The study “FocusOn: Convention Centers’ Impact on Hotel Markets” reported that convention center expansion increases revenue per available hotel room (RevPAR) 1.6 percent annually over five years following the construction. Cities without convention center expansions had a 0.4 percent decline in RevPAR over the following five years.
Another recent study confirms the importance of DMOs in increasing group hotel bookings. During 2011, DMOs influenced 19 percent of total group room bookings in 275 markets where the organizations conduct group sales, according to a DMAI study. New group room bookings increased 4.8 percent in 2011.
With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that so many destinations are racing to build or expand convention centers and increase services.
One outstanding example of a convention center expansion is the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO), which recently finished a $52 million project that renovated and reconfigured existing spaces into the 60,300-sf, column-free Great Hall, which debuted in January. The project also added 25,400 sf of multiuse, prefunction space, a 4,660-sf junior ballroom, a 3,420-sf rooftop terrace, a 5,700-sf executive club lounge and a 980-sf indoor balcony. The MCCNO now has 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms and the 4,000-seat New Orleans Theatre.
The expanded convention center is helping to attract more meetings and conventions. “For 2012, we are about 20 percent ahead of 2011 in terms of room nights on the books coming through the CVB,” says Nikki Moon, vice president of sales for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (NOCVB). “This year is looking excellent. We are 4 percent ahead so far. We have a strong mix of associations and corporate meetings. The first quarter of this year started strong with the Super Bowl. That helped a lot.” It was the 10th time that the game was played in New Orleans, tying it with Miami for the city that has hosted the most Super Bowls.
Also, Robin E. Slye, CMP, CEM, director, meeting and event planning, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) based in Arlington, VA, holds the distinction of staging the first association event in The Great Hall. NRECA has held its annual meeting in New Orleans eight times in its 71-year history, and in 2012 New Orleans was selected as one of four annual meeting cities on a future rotation schedule. “New Orleans is a location that is favored by the NRECA membership, which is comprised of CEOs and directors from more than 900 rural electric (consumer-owned) cooperatives all across the country. The new grand entrance at the MCCNO and the column-free Great Hall created a memorable meeting experience for approximately 9,000 attendees at its February meeting. The NRECA staff and membership are excited about the future partnership with the city of New Orleans,” says Slye.
Robert L. “Bob” Johnson is the president and general manager of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the executive vice president of the New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority (Authority), the convention center’s governing board. Johnson, a 39-year veteran of the assembly facility industry, oversees the operation of the facility and acts as the primary liaison between the Authority, city and state governmental agencies, and the convention center. Johnson has initiated $82 million in upgrades, including The Great Hall and various technological and aesthetic improvements. “Over the course of the last five years we have spent $82 million on improvements, including The Great Hall and new arrival plaza, toward the goal of being the best convention center of this size. We are now looking at other opportunities in the immediate surrounding areas to build new and exciting demand generators for New Orleans.”
The NOCVB continues to spearhead the destination’s successful comeback from Hurricane Katrina. The president of the NOCVB, Stephen Perry, received a 2012 World Travel Market Globe Award for his role in helping to lead the city’s comeback as a destination. In addition, the City of New Orleans received a 2012 World Tourism Award for outstanding accomplishments in the travel industry.
Visit Denver, the Mile High City’s CVB, reports that the city’s meeting and convention business is healthy and growing. Convention attendance rose about 2 percent in 2012, and the outlook for 2013 is even better, says Rachel Benedick, vice president of sales and service for Visit Denver.
Most of the increase stems from association meetings and conventions. Benedick says, “About 80 percent of bookings overall are associations. We love that mix because you can count on associations. They got us through 9-11 and this last recession. Their meetings may get smaller in tough times but they continue to meet. When the economy was struggling, they pulled back their booking windows. Now they are looking out further into the future.”
Many groups seek assistance in several areas from Visit Denver. For example, Educause, a Boulder, CO-based association of information technology professionals in higher education, held its 2012 Annual Conference in Denver in October. The four-day conference attracted more than 7,000 attendees and encompassed 16 hotels. Most meetings and workshops were held at the Colorado Convention Center (CCC).
Gretchen Bliss, CMP, Educause director of conferences and educational activities, sought Visit Denver’s assistance from the very beginning. “We booked the whole convention with their help,” she says. “They helped me with booking the convention center, and they handled hotel RFPs at the very start. They sent out leads to the hotels and we got an idea of who was offering what. Then I have a (hotel booking company) take it from there. They also partnered with us to build a microsite about Denver that we put on our conference website.”
Educause will be working with Visit Denver for years to come. The organization has committed to meeting in Denver every four years starting in 2018, says Bliss. “There were some concessions, but it’s not necessarily about that. We wanted to lock in the dates because we know how popular October is for meetings. We are a big enough convention that we are competing, trying to find a lot of space and a lot of hotels. Our priority is to get the right dates in the right city. That’s why we booked so far in advance,” she says.
Visit Denver is among the DMOs that has its own planner advisory committee. The group, formed in 2004, has about 30 planners and meets twice a year. The meetings are run by a professional facilitator. Such groups are beneficial because they encourage planners to know destinations and spread the word about them, says Bliss. “You end up creating ambassadors in the marketplace who help you sell your destination. The key to success with these is you structure them as a business meeting. A professional facilitator runs the advisory board. We get their input. They help guide us in areas like advertising and marketing,” she says.
For example, Visit Denver’s advisory committee offered a suggestion regarding the 40-foot, 10,000-pound statue of the Blue Bear outside the CCC. “One of the most valuable ideas we got from them was to use the Blue Bear to brand our destination. Now we sell replicas of the bear and give them to clients,” says Bliss.
Oklahoma City plans to construct a new convention center, scheduled to open in 2018. The facility will provide more than 250,000 sf of exhibit space, a 35,000-sf ballroom and 50,000 sf of meeting space. The current convention facility, the Cox Convention Center, has more than 100,000 sf of exhibit space, a 25,000-sf ballroom and 21 meeting rooms totaling 27,500 sf.
The new convention center will make Oklahoma City more competitive. “It will give us the chance to solicit more and larger meetings,” says Mike Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Most meetings now are in the 750- to 1,250-(attendee) range. With the new building, our sweet spot will easily be 2,000 (attendees) and more. We will be more heavily in the national market in addition to the regional meetings market. We will also better handle concurrent meetings, which are now challenging for us.”
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s meetings business is strengthening. During the 2011–2012 fiscal year that ended June 30, bookings from meetings, conventions and horse shows totaled about $185 million. The destination is on pace for this year’s bookings to match or exceed last year’s numbers, says Carrier.
There are also initial plans to construct a convention headquarters hotel. “We have had conversations with major flags about a convention headquarters hotel. The city is in the early stages of a serious conversation about that, and we will bring on a consultant in the near future to guide the process,” says Carrier.
In addition to improving meetings infrastructure, Oklahoma City offers considerable value. “While we are not cheap, groups get good value for the price paid. We also have strong hospitality here. The community understands the travel and tourism business. Groups feel good about being here because they are so well received,” Carrier says.
The San Jose Convention Center (SJCC) plans a $120 million expansion and renovation that will add 125,000 sf of new convention space, including 39,000 sf of meeting space and 35,000 sf of flexible ballroom space. The project, scheduled for completion by this fall, includes more outdoor event space and upgraded technology. The SJCC currently offers 425,000 sf exhibit, meeting and ballroom space.
As an additional incentive to groups, the SJCC and Team San Jose, the city’s CVB, are offering up to three days free convention center rental for groups that sign contracts by June 30, 2013 and meet by December 31, 2014. The offer also includes free housing registration for groups using at least three hotels; free move-in and move-out days; free tables, chairs microphones, podiums, linens and water services; and free wireless in public areas.
In Florida, the Miami Beach Commission has voted to initiate a project to expand and renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC). Initial plans include additional meeting space, a new 60,000-sf multipurpose ballroom, an 800-room convention hotel as well as proposed retail, entertainment and residential developments surrounding the MBCC. Plans call for hiring a developer this year.
Detroit’s Cobo Center is undergoing a $300 million expansion and renovation that is scheduled for completion in 2015. Improvements will include a new 40,000 sf ballroom, 25,000 sf of additional exhibition space and a new entrance. Cobo Center currently offers more than 700,000 sf of exhibit space and 70 meeting rooms with more than 178,000 sf of space. In addition, the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau launched a new website, www.meetdetroit.com, which showcases the city’s attractions and services for planners. The site has a 50-language translation feature.
The Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center (LBCEC) is one of the most modern and elegant in the U.S. due to a $35 million renovation over the last three years. The makeover includes the Long Beach Arena, which is undergoing a $7 million renovation that will add 45,000 sf of multipurpose event space.
The LBCEC’s renovation also includes meeting rooms, lobbies and hallway areas as well as new carpets, plants, furniture and artwork. There are also networking “pods” and mini meeting spots where people can sit and network. Other enhancements include free Wi-Fi in public areas and new seats in the LBCEC’s 3,000-seat Terrace Theatre. The LBCEC currently offers more than 400,000 sf of exhibit and meeting space.
The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority (LVCVA) reported that Las Vegas hosted 21,615 meetings, trade shows or conventions in 2012, up 13.6 percent from the 2011 total of 19,029 — and highest number since 2008. The trend is certain to continue with LCVA’s recent announcement of new plans to develop a $2.5 billion Las Vegas Global Business District, which will encompass major renovations of the Las Vegas Convention Center, creation of a World Trade Center facility and the development of a centralized transportation hub. To be completed in three phases over several years, the first phase, extending through 2014, focuses on the convention center and will include expansion of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space, upgraded technology, a grand concourse connector with more lobby space and more F&B outlets.
In Nashville, the Music City Center (MCC) is scheduled to open in May. The MCC will be about three times larger than the existing Nashville Convention Center (NCC), with 1.2 million sf space including 350,000 sf of exhibition space, a 57,500-sf ballroom and 90,000 sf of meeting space. The headquarters hotel for the MCC, the 800-room Omni Nashville Hotel, will open late this year with 80,000 sf of meeting and ballroom space.
The NCC will continue to be part of Nashville’s meetings infrastructure in some way. “There are several re-use proposals on the table, including a hotel, museum, performance venue and conference center. No decision has been made yet,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation.
Nashville’s new projects are paying big dividends. As of early January, advanced bookings for the MCC exceeded 800,000 room nights, mostly from associations, says Spyridon.
The MCC will help make Nashville a top convention destination by enabling the city to book larger meetings and conventions. “It will put us in the top 10 in terms of room nights and number of groups,” says Spyridon. “The new building opens up 80 percent of the market in the country for us and triples the size of the average group. Attendance-wise, we were averaging groups with 1,000 to 1,500 people. Now, we are averaging 5,000 to 6,000 per group.”
In March 2012, more than 6,000 people attended the Commodity Classic, the annual four-day convention and trade show for four associations — the National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association and National Sorghum Producers. Attendees stayed at about a half dozen hotels. Meetings were held at the group’s headquarters property, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which offers more than 100,000 sf of meeting space and is located about 20 minutes from downtown.
The Commodity Classic last met in Nashville in 2008. “We go to Nashville every four years or so and typically stay at the Gaylord because of the space. Attendees love the city. We considered downtown, but the package was better for us at the Gaylord. They enjoy the various tours and museums downtown, and they certainly loved the nightlife,” says Peggy Findley, show director of the Commodity Classic. The highlight of the activities involved renting the Grand Ole Opry for an evening of entertainment, she adds.
In San Francisco, the Moscone Center has finished a two-year, $56 million renovation of the North and South buildings, which offer a total of 1.2 million sf of space. The project included upgraded escalators, elevators and HVAC systems as well as new carpet, paint, lighting, ceiling and restrooms, and a new wireless system that provides high-speed Internet for up to 60,000 devices simultaneously.
Moscone Center also recently received LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The center’s sustainable features include a solar array that saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, intelligent wireless lighting controls technology and low-flow plumbing fixtures. AC&F