Finding value is more important than ever because a seller’s market has hiked costs in many large destinations.
But the good news for planners is that value comes in all destination sizes and finding it is easier than you think. In fact, smaller destinations are becoming less expensive and more popular, according to the 2017 global meetings and events forecast by American Express Global Business Travel.
According to the forecast, “Experts suggest a growing interest in second-tier cities for many meeting types as a more affordable alternative.” The forecast further states that “meeting planners and owners are increasingly looking beyond the traditional property choices in large cities to more unique, smaller properties, often outside the metropolitan area.”
The forecast predicts that in 2017, 73 percent of meetings will take place in large locations, down from 80 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the share for second-tier cities will increase to 27 percent from 20 percent in 2017, according to the report.
Long one of the nation’s meetings powerhouses, Atlantic City offers more than 15,000 hotel rooms, eight casino resorts and several beachfront hotels with views of the Atlantic Ocean. Hotels, convention centers and various venues offer meeting spaces that range from a few dozen square feet to 500,000 sf.
Atlantic City has transformed itself from a gaming hotel-oriented destination into one that offers a range of non-casino attractions, activities and restaurants. Atlantic City is also attracting more groups nationwide while maintaining its base of groups in the Northeast that return year after year.
Groups are attracted by Atlantic City’s ability to provide value with casino properties that meet all planner needs under one roof, as well as a range of budget-friendly offsite venues.
Atlantic City continues to be recognized for the unique things it offers meetings. Travel + Leisure magazine’s America’s Best Places survey named Atlantic City the nation’s 11th Best Beach Town. In addition, USA Today cited Atlantic City’s Boardwalk as the 10th Best Boardwalk in the United States.
Austin attracts more than 22 million domestic visitors a year and continues to gain popularity due to its range of meeting properties, attractions and more than 250 live music venues.
Planners want music to play an integral part in activities, entertainment and functions. “Being that we are the ‘Live Music Capital of the World,’ visitors want to experience it for themselves,” says Michael Carter, account manager, AlliedPRA, Austin. “DMCs seek creative ways to tie the city’s title into themes for attendees such as rock star-themed events, use of local musicians, and hosting events at the city’s most iconic and intimate venues. We try to make sure that all of our clients leave the city with a hop in their step.”
But Austin offers much more than music. “While many people come to Austin for its music, many come for its outdoors,” says Carter. “The Colorado River runs through the city, so many people enjoy paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing on Lady Bird Lake. Our Mexican free-tailed bat flights also are a major attraction and staple of the city. Groups enjoy taking riverboats out to spend the evening on the water watching the bats take flight from underneath Congress Bridge.”
Carter describes one activity requested by many groups. “Something popular among clients is the Corporate Rock Star event,” says Carter. “Clients have the ability to break off into teams, rewrite a popular song, and perform it with a live band with the props, special effects, lighting and sound. Everyone gets the chance to feel like a rock star for the duration of their song. It’s a great teambuilder and a lot of fun.”
Austin’s technology-oriented culture enhances the fun. “With the emergence of startups and technology in Austin, the city as a whole has been encouraged to take the lead on becoming technology driven,” Carter observes. “Whether it is in the venues or on the streets, technology has played a big role in the success of what makes Austin so great. We are starting to see vast improvements in AV, lighting and décor that wasn’t here before.”
The latest technology is evident in the 900,000-sf LEED Gold-certified Austin Convention Center with a communication infrastructure that can move voice, video and data at over 1 billion bits a second.
Austin hotels also are upgrading technology. As part of a $23 million renovation, the Hilton Austin recently completed a lobby upgrade that includes a new digital media wall, designated workspaces and social zones for networking and socializing. The 801-room Hilton Austin also revitalized its lobby, public areas and 80,000 sf of meeting space with new décor. The project also includes The Reverbery, a new banquet hall with indoor and outdoor space.
Marriott International recently opened the Aloft Austin Northwest, the second Aloft property in the city. The Aloft Austin features 130 loft-style rooms and 1,000 sf of meeting space as well as live local music at the W XYZ Bar as part of the property’s Live At Aloft Hotels music series. Guests enjoy free Wi-Fi, the Splash indoor pool, fitness centers and a food and beverage area.
Looking to retain more meetings and improve the city’s ability to better compete with similar-sized destinations, Cincinnati is expanding the Duke Energy Convention Center (DECC) and adding a new headquarters hotel. There are now more than 3,200 hotel rooms in the three blocks next to the DECC and thousands more rooms nearby.
Cincinnati’s moves follow studies sponsored by the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau that ranked the Queen City as one of the nation’s top 12 convention cities by MeetingSource.com.
The study ranked 176 cities according to affordability, ease of access, safety, walkability and promotional appeal. Cincinnati received four out of five stars for safety, access, promotional appeal and walkability.
Based on the results, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said that he intends to expand the DECC. The facility’s last significant exhibition space expansion was about 30 years ago, although the facility was renovated in 2006.
According to the studies, the DECC lacks about 100,000 sf in exhibition space, compared to its main competitive destinations. Many of Cincinnati’s competitors can host two or three events simultaneously. The expansion would enable the DECC to host several events at the same time.
Columbus is on a roll. In October, a J.D. Power study ranked Columbus as the “Highest in Visitor Satisfaction in the Midwest.” The study is based on costs and fees, activities, lodging and travel/arrival, infrastructure, and food and beverage.
In addition, according to Experience Columbus, in 2016 hotel occupancy increased 1.7 percent, the average daily room rate (ADR) climbed 2.5 percent and the RevPAR (Revenue Per Available Room) increased 4.2 percent.
Groups visiting this year include Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which will hold a two-day meeting in May 2017 for 300 employees, executives, doctors and researchers at the Hilton Downtown Columbus.
“Columbus tends to surprise attendees…the city is bursting with things to do and places to go, and only continuing to grow.”
— Kate Wagener
Kate Wagener, CTA, senior education conference coordinator for Nationwide Children’s Hospital, expects Columbus to exceed expectations. “Columbus tends to surprise attendees because they typically come in with a preconceived notion of it being a small town that has nothing to offer,” says Wagener. “In actuality, the city is bursting with things to do and places to go, and only continuing to grow.”
Wagener believes that most planners aren’t aware of all that Columbus offers meetings. “Columbus is the 15th largest city in the U.S., and yet one of the most affordable locations,” says Wagener. “Attendees love the big city vibe with the small town charm. There is an abundance of venues and properties to accommodate all different sizes and types of events. And Columbus is an extremely accessible centrally located city in the U.S. with its airport only 10 minutes from the downtown area.”
Hotels such as the Hilton Downtown Columbus also are an advantage for planners. “Meeting rooms and amenities are more than sufficient for our group needs,” says Wagener. “The conference rooms vary in size and are all located near each other, making the overall experience easier on our participants when navigating the hotel. Plus, it’s located within walking distance to two of Columbus’ most vibrant neighborhoods — the Short North Arts District and Arena District.”
Another plus is the Greater Columbus Convention Center, which is undergoing a 100,000-sf expansion from 1.7 to 1.8 million sf that will increase the number of meeting rooms from 65 to 75. The expansion includes 10,000 sf of meeting space on two levels and 37,000 sf of exhibit space.
Improved properties include the Embassy Suites by Hilton Columbus, which recently completed a $7 million renovation that includes an expanded 9,200 sf of meeting space encompassing seven meeting rooms and upgrades of all 224 guest rooms. The project also included a transformed open-air atrium with a new second story Wi-Fi connection zone and The Exchange, a lounge and restaurant.
Jacksonville’s tourism growth is beating every other Florida city.
According to a report by STR, February 2017 was Jacksonville’s 40th consecutive month of RevPAR growth, making it the only Florida destination to hit that mark. During the first two months of 2017, Duval County, home to Jacksonville, recorded 1.7 percent occupancy growth compared to a .3 percent increase statewide. During 2016, Jacksonville recorded 4.7 percent occupancy growth compared to a drop of .3 percent for all of Florida.
According to Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville, “The impressive success for the destination is a combination of many things, but primarily it is due to growing awareness of what makes Jacksonville so unique. Our great waterways, our natural wonders and eco adventures, our young and vibrant arts and culture scene, and the big sporting events we host.”
Jacksonville’s popularity is receiving wide recognition. Last year, TripAdvisor named the city No. 10 on its list of Destinations on the Rise in the U.S. as part of the TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice Awards. Last year, Forbes cited Jacksonville as one of “The 20 Best Cities for Travel This Summer” while Travelocity rated the city as the No. 8 “Best Summer Vacation Destination for 2016.”
Part of Jacksonville’s success stems from the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center with its 78,000 sf of exhibit space and 22 meeting rooms. A popular convention hotel, the 963-room Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, boasts 110,000 sf of meeting space including a 27,894-sf ballroom.
Oklahoma City touts its affordability. “Our low cost of living in Oklahoma translates to a low cost of meeting in Oklahoma City,” according to the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau website. “Everything from room rates and facility rentals to restaurants and entertainment is relatively inexpensive, especially given the variety of options here. We certainly are affordable and stack up well against cities of similar size.”
Oklahoma City is building on its advantages by making a big investment in its future. Since 1993, the city has pumped more than $5 billion of public and private funds into citywide improvements including the new $288 million Oklahoma City Convention Center (OCCC).
The Oklahoma City Council has approved the preliminary report to commence construction of the three-level OCCC, which will feature 200,000 sf of exhibit space, a ballroom exceeding 30,000 sf as well as 45,000 sf of meeting space and 27 distinct meeting rooms.
The OCCC is scheduled to open in 2020, the same year an adjacent 19-floor, 600-room Omni convention center hotel is set to open. The Omni will offer about 50,000 sf of meeting space as well as two restaurants and several food and beverage outlets.
The OCCC will team with the existing Cox Convention Center (CCC) to anchor Oklahoma’s meeting and convention space. The CCC offers 21 meeting rooms, 100,000 sf of exhibit space and a 25,000-sf Grand Ballroom as well as a 15,000-sf arena.
The Visit Milwaukee’s website boasts, “Discover why more meeting planners are choosing Milwaukee, an easy access destination featuring a three-venue convention campus with three connecting hotels. A blend of acclaimed restaurants, nightlife, festivals and offsite venues adds up to meetings at incomparable value.”
Milwaukee looks to attract larger meetings by expanding the Wisconsin Center (WC) convention facility through the transformation of a nearby parking lot. The city received two expansion proposals, one of which includes three hotels and adds 100,000 sf of convention space as well as 22,000 sf of food and beverage outlets.
Located within walking distance of more than 3,000 hotel rooms, the WC offers 189,000 sf of exhibit space and 80,000 sf of meeting space, and connects via skywalks to the 481-room Hyatt Regency Milwaukee and the 729-room Hilton Milwaukee.
VISIT Milwaukee also plans to sharpen its online marketing by revamping its website. The upgrade will include content, interactive maps, itinerary builders, international translations and other resources. The website will integrate Visit Milwaukee’s other sites — Milwaukee365.com and VisitWauwatosa.org.
Traffic to visitmilwaukee.com increased 65 percent over the last five years with visitors to the site being four times more likely to visit the city, according to VISIT Milwaukee, which expects the new site to attract even better results.
Minneapolis is climbing the ranks of the nation’s most popular meeting destinations.
Condé Nast Traveler named Minneapolis No. 14 on its list of Top Large Cities in the U.S., and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as the 10th Top Domestic Airport. The magazine also named three hotels — the JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America (No. 2), Radisson Blu Mall of America (No. 6) and the St. Paul Hotel (No. 7) — among the Top Ten Midwest hotels.
Another popular property, the Hilton Minneapolis, recently hosted a corporate group of 800 employees and executives for a five-day meeting.
The Hilton Minneapolis was a perfect fit for the group. “The property has hosted the group many years in a row due to the large number of sleeping rooms, ballroom sizes and number of breakout rooms for trainings,” says Meredith Olson, program manager, conference and meetings, metroConnections, based in Minneapolis. “The space and rooms met the group’s needs well, as the property is easy to navigate and the meeting areas are centralized on two floors.”
Minneapolis is a favorite of the group for several reasons. “There is good value for the space and service,” says Olson. “Minneapolis is easy to fly into, with many daily flight options. The airport is close, making it easy to transfer attendees. Downtown offers many hotel properties close to sporting and entertainment arenas like Target Field (Minnesota Twins), Target Center (Minnesota Timberwolves) and the new U.S. Bank Stadium. It has a walkable downtown with lots of skyway access for attendees to use during winter.”
In addition, the Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC) is the largest convention center in the Upper Midwest. The MCC can host meetings for up to 2,500 attendees and features 475,000 sf of exhibit space.
Looking to attract more visitors, Meet Minneapolis recently announced its first-ever master plan, Destination Transformation 2030, which sets the following goals by 2030:
Planners embarking on a site selection tour will be pleasantly surprised at the myriad opportunities for find value for groups of all sizes and types from coast to coast. C&IT