No association meeting planner welcomes post-meeting feedback such as this complaint: The hotel was too far from the convention center, restaurants and other venues hosting meetings, events and workshops.
That’s why choosing a walkable city is an increasingly important consideration for both planners and attendees. Compact downtowns greatly reduce or eliminate local transportation costs and wasted travel time to and from the hotel, convention center and offsite meetings and events — with the added sustainability bonus of reducing the meeting’s carbon footprint. Walkable cities also offer myriad opportunities for cultural and educational activities, not to mention proximity to fine dining, shops and entertainment. That’s important because board members, executives and exhibitors often host dinners and events at offsite restaurants. Attendees also can network by conveniently scheduling dinners among themselves.
Moreover, walking is good for attendees, especially these days as leading a healthy lifestyle is top of mind.
Zorianna Smith, CMP, DMCP, director of marketing and product development for San Francisco-based AlliedPRA Northern California and Hawaii, notes that although finding adequate meeting and exhibit space is a planner’s primary concern, “Walkability goes toward the desirability of a destination. Associations want destinations that people want to come to because they need to attract attendees. So the more walkable a city is, the more interested people are in visiting it because there is more of it they can see, so attendance goes up.”
Many planners find it important to include walkable destinations in meeting rotations whenever possible. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), for example, met in Las Vegas this year, after gathering in Chicago in 2014, in Atlanta in 2012 and Anaheim in 2011. The AWEA will return to Anaheim in 2017 after meeting in Orlando in 2015, according to Stefanie Brown, vice president, education and conferences, for the Washington, DC-based AWEA. Brown says she would like to meet in more walkable cities but some don’t have enough exhibit space or open dates. “We have a fairly large exhibit component so we are limited in the cities we can choose,” she says. “There is especially one very walkable city we would love to go to. They have the facilities we need and the added benefit of being walkable, but they don’t have available space in the time frame that we need.”
Anaheim’s walkability is one of the reasons for the AWEA’s return in 2017 after the 2011 meeting in the city attracted 15,000 people. “We don’t necessarily build specific meetings around walkability, but it’s a big factor with Anaheim,” says Brown. “In some cities, we need 20 to 40 hotels. That involves several bus rides and lots of coordination to get people around. Anaheim, with its hotels near the convention center plus a number of other properties within walking distance, makes it easier for attendees. They come and go as they please and aren’t restricted to bus schedules. It seems to make attendees happier overall if they don’t have to deal with buses and waiting.”
The AWEA has another important reason for choosing walkable cities. “In addition to the cost savings for not having to use as many shuttle buses, the green aspect is important to us,” says Brown. “After all, we are the American Wind Energy Association so we definitely have a robust green program for our events. It is part of our values as an association.”
Both attendees and meeting planners are happier when they spend less on transportation. According to Leslie DiLeo, CMP, meetings manager, events management, for the New York City-based American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), keeping budgets in check is important. ASME has two meeting planning departments that plan hundreds of meetings a year, including the International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition (IMECE), which attracts about 4,000 delegates. DiLeo notes, “Walkability usually cuts costs. If you don’t have to spend what can be up to $65,000 or $70,000 shuttling people back and forth, you are saving a lot of money in the conference budget.”
Groups also save on the costs of transportation to dinners and other events at local restaurants and venues. “Having dining and event venues nearby is an important part of being a walkable city,” says Smith. “If exhibitors hold receptions in the evening, people can easily walk to the venue and then maybe walk to a restaurant for dinner.”
Smith says San Francisco is a great walkable city, and cites this example: “We have a group coming in, and an exhibitor wants to put together an event or reception within walking distance of the Moscone Center. We want to capture people as they leave Moscone and make it easy for them to attend.”
Because the Moscone Center is located downtown and there are dozens of restaurants within walking distance, attendees don’t have to worry about coordinating transportation or going to a restaurant in a different area. That allows attendees to network easily with colleagues, clients and others.
Smith also cites the Moscone Center’s proximity to convention hotels as another good example of walkability in San Francisco. “You don’t have to worry about what times shuttles run because you can walk over to Moscone and go to your session,” she says. “If you forget something in your hotel room, you have time to walk back and still get to your meeting. It makes it a more enjoyable conference and trade show experience because they can come and go as they please.”
Walkability is so important to some associations that their guidelines specify that hotel rooms be located within a specific distance from the convention center. According to planners, walkability also is important for the following reasons: Attendees don’t usually have access to cars, so convenience is king. Also, in some cases, they are visiting a destination for the first time or returning after a long absence, so after sitting in meetings all day, they are ready to explore the city, walk and get some fresh air.
DiLeo agrees. “One of the reasons we consider walkability and nearby attractions when booking meetings is because, unless there are reasons to keep people sequestered in a meeting, you want them to get out in the city and associate a good experience with your conference. That’s why walkability is so important.”
DiLeo says ASME sought a walkable city for a three-day meeting earlier this year. “We had about 200 engineers coming to this meeting, and they would sit all day together in different technical sessions,” says DiLeo. “We wanted them to step away from the meeting, walk out the door, recharge, network with their friends and fellow committee members, and come back to the conference refreshed the next day. We specifically needed a city where people could do stuff at night so we didn’t have to plan receptions.”
ASME selected the newly renovated Tropicana Las Vegas, a DoubleTree by Hilton, on The Strip. “Besides the Tropicana, we were within walking distance to other hotels packed with entertainment, restaurants and activities,” says DiLeo. “New York-New York Hotel & Casino is right across the street. The MGM Grand Hotel & Casino is nearby and Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino isn’t far away.”
Walkable cities also provide the opportunity for fun educational activities. For example, DiLeo has set up walking tours for this year’s IMECE conference in Montreal in November. Entitled “Flavorful Montreal,” attendees will start the five-hour guided walk near the hotel and will stop at a variety of restaurants and other venues such as a vintage grocery store to sample local foods. The guide also will provide a little history and local color about Old Montreal.
Such walking tours enhance the whole meeting experience in a meaningful way. “Part of the experience is educational,” says DiLeo. “Besides meeting their needs with hotel packages and price points, we as planners have to be always looking out for what their experience will be in other ways.”
In San Francisco, groups also take advantage of historical and culinary walking tours. “We do what we call wake-up walks in the morning,” says Smith. “They are shorter tours, maybe an hour to 90 minutes, which focus on different aspects of San Francisco history. We do a Barbary Coast tour and a 1906 earthquake walk with a guide who shows them what things looked like before and after the earthquake. You can also leave your hotel and walk to Chinatown where you can tour places such as a tea shop, a temple and a fortune cookie factory.”
Walking tours and similar activities are popular with associations because they are cost-efficient activities. “Associations are looking to provide things that will be financially palatable because attendees have already paid for their own airfare, hotel and registration fees,” says Smith. “So associations are looking for affordable, fun activities for guests when they aren’t in sessions. Some associations provide maybe five or six different walkable tours to choose from because they are a lot less expensive than those that require transportation.”
Planners suggest that every type of group, regardless of its demographics, enjoys walkable cities. Younger groups enjoy nearby nightlife. Science, medical, environmental and health groups lean toward walking because they tend to be more health-conscious and concerned about sustainability. Groups composed of older attendees prefer more compact, walkable cities.
Groups from other countries, particularly Europe, tend to embrace walkable cities. “It is a bigger factor for international groups,” says Smith. “Walkability is more important because it’s part of their culture. They are more used to living in walkable cities than American groups, which tend to have a shorter range of walkability.”
While groups don’t often ask specifically about walkable cities in post-meeting surveys, attendees often comment on walkability. “We get positive responses to the fact that people like being able to walk from their hotel to the convention center and other places,” says Brown. “There are years when that’s not the case because the city isn’t walkable, and we hear about that, too; that people wish things weren’t so spread out so they didn’t have to take buses or taxis everywhere.”
It’s also important for planners to assess safety when choosing a walkable city. “You want to make sure attendees can walk safely and have a good experience,” says Brown. “We work with the cities to make sure they place safety personnel in highly trafficked areas and along routes our folks will be walking. A lot of cities have ambassador programs or something similar in place where they put people on the street to provide information, but also for safety and security. We also make sure they know our meeting schedule.”
“You want to make sure attendees can walk safely and have a good experience. We work with the cities to make sure they place safety personnel in highly trafficked areas and along routes our folks will be walking.” — Stefanie Brown
Safety is one of many factors that planners should consider when assessing a city’s walkability. Planners who want to get objective walkability assessments can turn to online tools such as Walkscore (see sidebar).
Every walkable city isn’t right for every group. Planners must match a city’s walkability with the needs of each group and the objectives of the conference or event. However, one thing is certain: Walkability allows attendees to safely experience a memorable connection with a city while at the same time they are contributing to the greening of the event and improving their own personal health. Most important, as Leslie DiLeo noted, attendees will associate a positive experience in the city with the conference and their association. AC&F