Many cities offer “value” to association meeting groups on paper: Reasonable rates for meeting space, lodging, F&B and other vendor services combine with unique attractions, quality dining and entertainment, and cultural activities. But much of the value only becomes evident when the planner begins working with the city, and the group begins its visit. How negotiable are the hotels, and what concessions will they offer? What kinds of free services does the CVB offer? What are their turnaround times? How “walkable” is the downtown? How efficient and resourceful is the convention center’s culinary staff? Are special event spaces and guest room views “as advertised”?
Myriad factors such as these go into a destination’s value proposition, but they are only revealed on a site inspection visit, if not the group’s actual visit. Thus, no estimation of value based on Internet research and a conversation with the CVB is complete without an experience of the city and its group service.
That experience turned out quite well in the case of Williamsport, Pennsylvania-based Little League International’s latest Congress, which brought more than 1,200 delegates in April to the Minneapolis Convention Center and the 821-room Hilton Minneapolis. Connected by skywalk to the convention center, the Hilton offers 77,000 sf of meeting space. While the affordability of these venues was “definitely a factor” in the site choice, Dr. Jerry Sandler, Minnesota District 1 Administrator and planner for the event, highlights several virtues of these facilities that became apparent only during the onsite experience. For example, “the audiovisual opportunities in the (convention center’s) auditorium were first rate and allowed us to do a great job of presenting visuals and videos,” he notes. “And the Hilton staff went the extra mile to help in every way possible. They set up an area in the main lobby and served fresh-made popcorn and offered microbrew tasting. We had an information table in the lobby with a lot of informational materials supplied by Meet Minneapolis; we had a lot of trash and the hotel kept our area clean. Because I was in the lobby every day helping with the information table, the staff all learned my name quickly and offered assistance repeatedly. The bellmen were all very friendly and helpful. One even helped me clean the snow off of a van that had a foot of snow on it.”
Meet Minneapolis’ assistance went well beyond supplying informational materials at no charge. “They got us discount cards to Macy’s. They helped with the tour company (for the Twin Cities Highlights Tour). They offered assistance with just about everything: restaurant listings in the vicinity, church offerings, entertainment, etc. There was no charge for any of their services,” Sandler explains. Plus, the city’s extensive entertainment and cultural offerings surprised some delegates, he adds. “We got great feedback on the Twin Cities. People loved all of the restaurants and bars so close to the Hilton, they loved the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, they loved the Mall of America, they loved the Nicollet Mall. Most people were impressed with the beauty and cleanliness of the city.”
The 1.6-million-sf Minneapolis Convention Center, which is the largest indoor, contiguous, convention center in the Upper Midwest, recently announced a two-year, $14.5 million improvement project. Among the improvements: a mezzanine level is being added that will add flexible space, which can be used to hold events, and includes seating and a lounge area for additional networking and meeting space; and The Visitor Information Center located in the main lobby is being completely renovated. The center currently offers nearly 480,000 sf of trade show space.
The development of an entertainment district typically adds value for incoming convention groups and sometimes brings with it new lodging options. The 1990s saw Oklahoma City turning a neglected warehouse zone into an entertainment and nightlife hub known as Bricktown, now home to diverse attractions such as Bass Pro Shops, Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, Bricktown Canal and Harkins Theatre. Bricktown’s trendiness was not lost on Starwood, which recently debuted the 134-room Aloft Oklahoma City Bricktown, housing 8,000 sf of meeting space.
Most attendees of the National Association of Sports Commissions’ 22nd annual Sports Event Symposium visited Bricktown during their free time, remarks Beth Hecquet, CMP, CMM, director of meetings and events for Cincinnati, Ohio-based NASC.
“The first night we put together drink specials and fun contests. We picked five restaurants that were able to offer attendees discounts, and if an attendee went to all of them and turned in a contest card (he or she was) entered to win prizes,” Hecquet relates. “And then we had two evening lounges, in two different bars in Bricktown. (The area) is huge for our group, who are tourism professionals and want to get out and explore. Oklahoma City has invested a lot of time and money into making sure that their city is walkable and that you can feel safe promoting attendees going there.”
“Oklahoma City has invested a lot of time and money into making sure that their city is walkable and that you can feel safe promoting attendees going there.” — Beth Hecquet
In fact, the Sports Event Symposium had its highest attendance ever (813, up from 772 in 2013) in Oklahoma City, which was partnering with NASC for the first time. Following the successful bid, the Oklahoma City CVB “helped us negotiate all of our hotel contracts and the rental fee at the Boathouse District, where our reception was held,” says Hecquet. “When I asked them to put me in touch with the right person (NASC needed a transportation company, DMC and local speakers), they told them who I was and who my group was, and that I was really important to the city. So it wasn’t a cold call.” In sum, “it was definitely one of those CVBs that went the extra mile and did more than they needed to in order to ensure not only that my planning experience was good, but that the attendee experience was good.” Once again, value is revealed in the experience, not just in the city’s initial proposal.
A major part of the attendee experience is the hotel product, and the Jacksonville, Florida, area has seen multiple improvements on this front. A property-wide enhancement of the 510-room Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach has refurbished the resort’s 56,000 sf of function space and opened two new restaurants. And last year, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation reopened after an $85 million renovation that added 155 oceanfront rooms, bringing the total to 404, and a new state-of-the-art conference center offering 80,000 sf of meeting space. More recently, the reflagged 72-suite Four Points by Sheraton Jacksonville Beachfront completed a $2 million renovation.
Jacksonville’s main convention facility, the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, adds historical value to events held within this former railroad station, the largest in the South when it opened in 1919. The center offers 78,000 sf of exhibit space and 22 meeting rooms. The Grand Lobby will surely impress delegates with its 75-foot ceilings and marble walls. A lesser-known venue in the meetings industry is the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership. Located near Downtown Jacksonville, the center offers 50,000 sf of training and banquet space, 16 meeting rooms and advanced AV and Wi-Fi. In addition, many convention groups choose to meet exclusively at the 963-room Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, billed as Northeast Florida’s largest convention hotel with 110,000 sf of meeting space, including a 27,894-sf ballroom.
For a taste of the cultural side of Jacksonville, planners can consider renting the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, whose largest space, the Terry Gallery, accommodates up to 300 attendees. Old Florida is well represented in the city with the Mandarin Museum and Historical Society, with its restored homestead on the the St. Johns River, and the recently renovated Theatre Jacksonville, the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country.
On the opposite coast lies a city that has dramatically augmented its convention facilities. Last October, the capital of Silicon Valley debuted the San Jose McEnery Convention Center’s $130 million renovation and expansion. The convention center now offers 169,957 sf of new, flexible convention space, including 27,834 sf of new meeting space and a new 35,194-sf Grand Ballroom. This summer, the center began offering free Wi-Fi throughout the facility and a new technology package for all sizes of groups. Housing 550,000 sf of usable space, the convention center is just the beginning of the meeting spaces San Jose offers aside from its hotels. Parkside Hall, City National Civic and the Center for the Performing Arts all can accommodate roughly 3,000 delegates. The California Theatre seats 1,122, while the Montgomery Theater (across from the convention center) seats 475. The Club Auto Sport recently debuted a new 10,000-sf venue, with floor-to-ceiling windows, that features a display of rare collectible cars.
Along with its meeting venues and balmy West Coast weather, San Jose’s added value comes from Team San Jose, which manages the convention center and other major meeting venues while partnering with the CVB. Among Team San Jose’s many distinctive services include SJCCnet, a high-performance communications network that spans the convention center and neighboring facilities, and catering that showcases fresh ingredients grown in the Bay Area. Indeed, Team San Jose delivers two things California-bound groups would expect: healthful food and high-tech.
A shining example of East Coast eco-consciousness, Virginia Beach is home to the nation’s first convention center to earn LEED Gold Certification for Existing Buildings. The VBCC’s more than 516,000 gross sf includes 150,000 sf of column-free exhibit space, nearly 29,000 sf of meeting space and a more than 31,000-sf ballroom, complemented by 2,209 free parking spaces. Planners will note state-of-the-art lighting and HVAC systems, a top-notch recycling program, and numerous hotels and restaurants around town that bear the Virginia Green certification.
The 34-foot beachfront statue of King Neptune signals to delegates that they are arriving in a locale that is proud of its nautical culture. One of its major offsite venues, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, welcomes up to 2,500 attendees for a reception. Other memorable options include the resplendent Sandler Center for the Performing Arts (up to 1,300), the Military Aviation Museum (about 1,000), and 18th century plantation houses such as Francis Land House (125 for a reception). And Virginia Beach delivers a tremendous value for active delegates, with venues such as the 94,000-sf Virginia Beach Tennis & Country Club, one of the largest in the country and a past winner of the prestigious Tennis Club of the Year Award. Its sister property is the 295-suite Virginia Beach Resort Hotel and Conference Center, situated on the scenic Chesapeake Bay and offering 16,000 sf of meeting space.
Most value destinations are second- or third-tier, and that can raise concerns about accessibility for a widespread convention audience. Not so in the case of Milwaukee, whose downtown is a mere 10 minutes from General Mitchell International Airport, which services 55 markets nonstop. The 300,000-sf Wisconsin Center has 3,300 hotel rooms within walking distance, and booking those hotels is now easier with Visit Milwaukee’s new Citywide Hotel Contract, available for conventions of at least 800 rooms peak night that utilize the Wisconsin Center and at least two hotels.
Milwaukee boasts numerous performing arts venues, such as the Repertory, Northern Lights and Sky Opera theaters. But there’s no denying its blue-collar cultural charm, represented by the world’s only Harley-Davidson Museum (with rentable spaces accommodating up to 1,000 for a reception) and a life-size “bronze Fonz” statue of the iconic Happy Days character.
Features like these have made Milwaukee very popular for conventions. Visit Milwaukee hosted 288 conventions in 2013, an increase of 9.9 percent over the 262 conventions in 2012. These conventions brought in more than 582,701 attendees, an 8.6 percent increase over last year’s 420,618. More than $121 million in estimated economic impact resulted.
Like Milwaukee, Cleveland combines affordability, accessibility and Americana — all attributes that contributed to the Republican National Committee’s decision to host the 2016 Republican National Convention here. Cleveland’s $2.7 billion investment in meetings infrastructure didn’t hurt, either. The new Cleveland Convention Center offers 225,000 sf of exhibit space, a 32,000-sf ballroom and 35 meeting rooms. The 484-room Westin Cleveland Downtown is being renovated this year, and the 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown convention center hotel will open in 2016 with 55,000 sf of meeting space. The hotel will feature a rooftop bar as well as underground connections to the Cleveland Convention Center and the Global Center for Health Innovation.
Positively Cleveland, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, is working on complementing this new meetings product with improved wayfinding and connectivity. Plans are being developed to augment digital signage and street lighting, and beautify the pathways that allow visitors and delegates to explore this value-added all-American city.
Among unique venues is The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which offers numerous rental packages and accommodates up to 2,500 attendees for a reception. The music theme also can be played up by renting the House of Blues’ concert hall (accommodating up to 1,000) or Severance Hall’s 2,000-seat theater, home to the Cleveland Orchestra.
The Crescent City has long been considered to deliver a great ROI for association groups due to the combination of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (whose 60,000-sf Great Hall debuted in January 2013) the inimitable delights of the French Quarter and bayou culture. Getting to New Orleans is now even easier thanks to Southwest Airlines’ new service between Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and both Washington, DC, and San Diego. Planners who have not visited the city recently will note guest room renovations at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans and the Courtyard New Orleans Downtown/Convention Center.
The Louisiana legislature recently approved plans for a new large-scale development for The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Corridor from Poydras Street to the Market Street power plant along the city’s riverfront. The project will include a new headquarters hotel on the upriver side of the convention center, a linear park, outdoor entertainment, arts and cultural venues, and new retail and housing options.
Last August, more than 1,000 delegates of the Union City, Georgia-based National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association arrived in New Orleans for the NFDMA’s 76th Annual Convention, and found the experience truly reflected the moniker “The Big Easy.” With the 1,193-room Hyatt Regency New Orleans’ 200,000 sf of function space, the group avoided the bus transfer to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Ella Young, NFDMA meetings and convention planner, points out. “Everything was right there at everyone’s fingertips, and the hotel wasn’t too far from shopping.” Areas such as Magazine Street, the French Market and the Shops at Canal Place are among the many options. “We did have a minor issue as far as getting into the registration area, but the Hyatt staff made it happen,” she adds.
Special events during the program included a 150-motorcycle and 50-hearse rally against gun violence, held in tandem with the Louisiana Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, and the Undertaker’s Ball at the Hyatt, which featured live entertainment and demonstrations of how funeral directors perform their services.
Both of these fairly complex events went smoothly, Young relates. It’s another case of a second-tier city complementing its affordability with a well-managed meeting experience whose value goes far beyond reasonable room rates. AC&F