Second-tier destinations have always been a popular option for associations looking for value and geographical convenience. Since the recession, however, the traditional distinction between first- and second- tier destinations has blurred as more and more destinations have joined the competitive fray, while more and more planners seek more bang for the buck.
In addition, there are other key benefits that are appreciated by a growing number of planners.
“One of the good things about a so-called second-tier destination is that when you come in, you really are a focal point for everybody in town, as opposed to a destination that has major conventions coming in every week, says Cliff Reis, managing director and director of meetings and education for the Rosemont, IL-based American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE), which held its bi-annual meeting and exposition for 4,500 attendees in Charlotte, NC, last year. “And that kind of personalized attention is particularly nice for a medium-sized association like us.”
Britt Jackman, CMP, deputy senior director, conventions and meetings, The Optical Society, Washington, DC, is another planner who is sometimes drawn to the unique appeal of a particular second-tier destination. “It’s not rare for us to use a second-tier destination,’” says Jackman, who has used San Jose, CA, every other year as home to one of the scientific society’s three largest meetings, for almost 5,000 attendees. “But we only do it when it fits our criteria for a particular meeting. We don’t do it just as a way of reducing costs. The meeting has to fit the destination well. But that’s true whether we’re looking at a first- or second-tier destination.”
Diane Rehiel, meetings manager at the West Conshohocken, PA-based ASTM International, a global standards society, found a new home in Jacksonville, FL, in December 2010 when she hosted a meeting for 900 attendees. ASTM returned in January of this year for a meeting with 700 attendees.
“I guess the meeting industry, in general, would consider Jacksonville a so-called second-tier destination,” Rehiel says. “And I guess it is, compared to destinations like New York, Chicago or Washington, DC. But we usually don’t look at that kind of distinction as our primary consideration. Our primary consideration is how well we fit into the hotel properties and venues we look at. That is always our first concern. And if you look at things that way, there are tons of good options out there with second-tier destinations. And they’re available all across the country and on both coasts.”
Over and above that, Rehiel says, the relative value proposition of a second-tier destination such as Jacksonville is always appealing to her and her attendees.
Because of the unprecedented budget pressures placed on many association planners as a result of the recession, destinations such as San Jose have gained significant market advantage by delivering clear value compared to A-list neighbors such as San Francisco.
“We have been going to San Jose for years, in an every other year rotation with Baltimore,” Jackman says. “San Jose is a preferred destination for us, partly because we can save money over San Francisco, which is very close by. But there are other important reasons, too, why we like San Jose. One is that we are a technical society, and San Jose is located in Silicon Valley and there are top educational institutions like Stanford. But cost and accessibility are also major factors for us, as they are with most organizations that are looking for a meeting destination.”
Another factor in San Jose’s favor is the highly regarded local convention and visitors bureau (CVB), known as Team San Jose.
“We have a great relationship with the city and with Team San Jose,” Jackman says. “We work very closely with them, and we’ve been invited to participate on their advisory board.”
As a result of its consistent success and high marks from attendees in post-meeting surveys, The Optical Society has now committed to San Jose as the destination for its key meeting this year through 2016.
Team San Jose has been a key driver for many planners who have used the destination in recent years. Unlike most CVBs, which hand off a planner to any number of other contacts after a meeting is initially booked, Team San Jose provides comprehensive, fully integrated support services in housing, event services, food and beverage, permitting, marketing support and technical consultation.
The city’s compact downtown area also offers a nice assortment of excellent restaurants, museums, performing arts venues and hotels with sophisticated facilities because of its role as the business hub of Silicon Valley.
The San Jose Convention Center is currently undergoing a $130 million renovation and expansion that will be completed in September, adding 125,000 sf of meeting space to its existing 425,000 sf.
The thriving metropolis of Charlotte has followed an evolutionary path similar to San Jose’s by challenging Atlanta as the dominant business hub of the Southeast. And its brand enjoyed a major enhancement last September when it hosted the 2012 Democratic National Convention to stellar reviews and worldwide media coverage.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport now ranks as the sixth busiest in the world, and the city features a modern Center City convention district that boasts more than 4,100 hotel rooms within easy walking distance of the Charlotte Convention Center, which recently upgraded its wireless technology to make it competitive with any facility in the U.S. The convention district features nearly 100 restaurants, as well as a long list of entertainment options, including acclaimed museums, such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where Reis hosted his opening night reception with great fanfare.
“Charlotte was an excellent choice for us,” Reis says. “For example, the walking distance from the hotels to the convention center and dining or music/entertainment venues is very short. Everything you want is contained in a nice little area. So that means we didn’t have to worry about transportation. People could walk everywhere.”
Another factor for ASPE was the driveability of Charlotte for attendees, since a large proportion of its members live along the East Coast.
Reis also applauded the convention center. “They were really great to work with,” he says. “For example, we got excellent food and beverage service. And the costs were very reasonable for a convention center.”
And finally, Reis says he got superb support from the local CVB. “They did an excellent job for us,” he says.
As a result, Reis received all favorable feedback from attendees. “They really enjoyed the destination,” he says. “It was a very positive experience for everybody.”
The 438-room Charlotte Marriott City Center, one of the city’s premier meeting properties, with 20,000 sf of meeting space, has completed a $1.5 million renovation of its 9,108-sf Grand Ballroom and 2,250-sf Junior Ballroom.
Located on the Atlantic Coast in northeast Florida, Jacksonville is the largest city in the continental U.S., stretching over 840 square miles. Known as “the river city by the sea” because of its positioning between the St. Johns River and ocean, Jacksonville offers 21 miles of beaches, more than 70 golf courses, the state-of-the-art Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center and 200 hotels totaling almost 18,000 rooms.
“One of the reasons that we chose Jacksonville the first time, and one of the things that makes us a little unique as an association, is that we do not do large general sessions,” says Rehiel, pointing out one key reason why Jacksonville worked for her. “We are a technical association, so we do a lot of breakout sessions, so we need a particular amount and configuration of breakout space. And we found that at the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville. They were able to accommodate us with the exact amount and type of space we needed.”
That was true despite the fact that ASTM fell short of the room-to-meeting space ratio typically sought by hotels these days in a seller’s market. “We require a large amount of meeting space in proportion to our sleeping rooms,” Rehiel says. “So the fact that the Hyatt Regency could accommodate those requirements at reasonable cost was another important factor in the hotel’s selection and the fact we have been back. They were willing to work with is, so that just made the hotel a good fit.”
In addition, Jacksonville was a hit with attendees. “The feedback we got was good for both of those first two meetings,” Rehiel says. “We were there during winter months, and who wouldn’t enjoy Florida in December or January?”
As a result of the combination of timing and venue, Rehiel and ASTM will return to the city for three back-to-back meetings in October, November and December.
Much like Portland, OR, Minneapolis is a city that artfully combines urban chic with abundant natural beauty and unique charm. Known as the most bike-friendly city in America, Minneapolis also offers kayaking on the Mississippi River and an almost endless list of parks and other outdoor attractions, such as famous St. Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge.
Its meeting infrastructure includes nearly 7,000 hotel rooms in the business/convention district downtown, with 4,500 of them connected to the convention center via an indoor Skyway system.
Kimberly Akoto, CMP, meeting and event planner at the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) in Washington, DC, chose Minneapolis for the organization’s bi-annual meeting last July for 7,000 attendees from all 50 states.
Akoto and NALC do not make a distinction between first- and second-tier destinations. They make the decision based on destinations that have a unionized convention center and unionized hotels — typically more common in first-tier cities.
“Minneapolis was selected because it offered the best price for a convention center and because it had hotels that could accommodate our room block,” Akoto says. “It’s also an easy destination to get in to and out of.”
Akoto had high praise for the local convention center. “Their service is excellent, and the way the facility is built is very good because it’s stacked, which means that even though you’re doing a lot of walking, you don’t feel like you’re doing a lot of walking,” she says. “It’s also easy to get to several of the major hotels because there are the skywalks.”
Akoto does no formal research after her meetings. However, she says, there was no doubt Minneapolis was appreciated by attendees. “Our attendees are very outspoken,” she says. “So I know on the spot whether they like a destination or not. And I got great feedback on Minneapolis. Everybody enjoyed it, because it’s such a convenient, walkable city. So it’s not a matter of whether we will go back. It’s just a matter of when.”
The big meeting news in Minneapolis is the much-anticipated debut of the $137.5 million, 500-room Radisson Blu Mall of America, with 26,300 sf of meeting space.
Based on the burgeoning demand nationwide for the upper-upscale hotel brand, a California investment group recently purchased the Radisson Plaza Hotel and announced plans to transform it into a second Radisson Blu in Minneapolis, scheduled to open next year.
Less well-known than most of its second-tier competitors, Oklahoma City has a surprising amount to offer.
Denise Morris is state adviser for Stillwater, OK-based Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, a statewide high school student association that has held its annual convention for more than 7,000 attendees in Oklahoma City every spring for more than 60 years.
“It’s a fun destination, although most people who aren’t familiar with it probably don’t think of it that way,” Morris says. “But for example, Oklahoma City has some of the best steak houses in the country, like Cattleman’s. There are a lot of hotel options, at various prices, from budget to luxury. So there are a lot of choices for our attendees, depending on what fits with their school budgets.”
Morris uses the Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel as her headquarters property. “It’s connected to the convention center, so that makes it a very convenient choice,” she says. “And because it’s connected by a skywalk to the convention center, we also do some of our meeting sessions at the hotel, as well as hosting meeting sessions and hosting our exhibits at the convention center.”
The Cox Convention Center, located at the heart of the downtown business district, is an excellent facility, Morris says. The facility features 100,000 sf of exhibit space, 27,500 sf of meeting and event space, and a 25,000-sf ballroom.
In 2018, Oklahoma City will debut a new, $252 million convention center.
In the meantime, everyone else in town works well together to deliver top-notch meeting infrastructure and service, Morris says. “All of them — the CVB, the convention center, the hotels — they all know each other very well, which makes it easy to work with them as a team.”
And, she says, that kind of integrated, personalized teamwork is one of the most obvious benefits of a second-tier destination.
Nashville has steadily gained popularity over the last decade, thanks to its status as Music City USA and major meeting venues such as the sprawling, world-class Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Nashville debuted its new 16-acre Music City Center in May. The complex’s official headquarters hotel, the new Omni Nashville Hotel, with about 800 rooms and 80,000 sf of meeting space, will open in October.
Centrally located on the Atlantic coast, 20 minutes from Norfolk International Airport, is the fabled vacation resort town of Virginia Beach, which features more than 10,000 hotel rooms, with 3,500 of them within 2.5 miles of the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the first convention center in the country to achieve LEED Gold certification for existing buildings.
The facility offers 500,000 gross sf of space, including a 150,000-sf, column-free exhibit hall and 29,000 sf of meeting space.
And finally, just as San Jose has positioned itself to compete with San Francisco, Long Beach, CA, has challenged Los Angeles for West Coast conventions. The city has recently invested $35 million in a renovation of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. And last December, the city debuted the results of a $140 million renovation and modernization of Long Beach Airport. AC&F