First-, Second- and Third-Tier CitiesJune 1, 2015

What Do the Designations Really Mean? By
June 1, 2015

First-, Second- and Third-Tier Cities

What Do the Designations Really Mean?

Christine-Shimasaki-110x140Christine ‘Shimo’ Shimasaki, CDME, CMP is Managing Director of and E.I.C. Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI). She joined DMAI in 2009. Previously, Shimasaki served as E.V.P. and chief strategy officer for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. She has served the tourism industry as a board member of PCMA, co-chair of the Performance Measures Initiative for DMAI and chair to DMAI’s Accreditation Board. Currently, she serves on the Convention Industry Council’s APEX Standards Review Committee as chair of eRFP Efficiencies Workgroup and is authoring the Event Room Demand Study, quantifying for the first time the volume of rooms booked outside the contracted room block.

When thinking about meeting destinations, there is just about every type and size: from major convention hubs to smaller, boutique style cities. The key for meeting planners, is finding the right fit for their specific meeting. Oftentimes, you might hear a planner say that their annual meetings are only held in first-tier destinations. Or that a specific destination is a second-tier city. What specifications determine whether a city is a first-, second-, or third-tier destination?

Defining tiers in the meetings industry has been a topic often discussed, yet not a lot of substantial research has been conducted to help define and clarify them. We do know that tiers are descriptions, not designations, and descriptions are subject to perception. Unfortunately, some of the perceptions or assumptions planners make could keep them from a great destination find.

Whereas hotels have a rating system that awards three, four or five stars to properties based on their quality, size, services and amenities, no such system exists for rating meeting destinations. While there are some common tier realities, there is a lot of gray area when defining tiers. And in that gray area, there are many advantages planners can explore.

When looking at different destinations in which to hold your meeting, you should be able to ascertain the many distinct attributes of each tier as well as the advantages each tier offers, which may spur you on to consider a few destinations not previously on your radar.
Here’s what we currently know about destination tiers:

  • An official list with specific tier qualifications doesn’t exist.
  • There are general characteristics or attributes that apply to each tier.
  • A first-tier destination to one planner may be a second-tier to another planner.
  • Tiers do not denote quality or services.

Don’t let tier designations define what destinations you consider. While second- and third-tier cities might be known for being more affordable, there are still plenty of affordable options in first-tier destinations, especially if you are flexible with dates. Additionally, second- and third-tier destinations, depending on the meeting size, can offer just about everything a first-tier destination can. The key is keeping your own meeting objectives in mind first and then understanding how destinations, regardless of tier, will be the perfect complement.

“Don’t let tier designations define what destinations you consider.”

Convene magazine recently conducted a survey of meeting planners, which is the source for the following material. One of the questions asked was, “What attributes must be present for you to consider a destination a first-, second- or third-tier meeting destination?” Based upon the responses, there are general attributes that can be applied to each tier.

Essential Attributes of a First-tier Destination

First-tier destinations might be the easiest to define. They are typically the biggest convention cities in the country such as Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, etc. While each of these cities is very different in terms of size and location, there are certain characteristics they all have in common such as:

  • Airport with ample nonstop national and international access (69 percent).
  • Hotel inventory that includes major hotel brands (60 percent).
  • Abundant dining, entertainment and attraction options for attendees (57 percent).
  • 10,000 minimum committable sleeping rooms (47 percent).
  • Convention center with a minimum of 500,000 gross sf of exhibit space (44 percent).
  • Considered one of the top 25 destinations for group business (43 percent).
  • Distinctive leisure-travel appeal (37 percent).

Other measurable first-tier attributes include:

  • Major metropolitan hub.
  • Strong destination travel infrastructure in place (rail, public transportation, taxis).
  • Reputation for world-class services and amenities.

Essential Attributes of a Second-tier Destination

We know first-tier destinations are fairly easy to identify based upon certain measurable attributes (size, airport, airlift, etc.). But how do you measure and/or perceive what is a second-tier or third-tier destination? This is where it gets a little more complicated. Often, a destination is categorized to be a second-tier destination simply because of its size, and thus may also be perceived as being more affordable.

  • Affordable, better value (59 percent).
  • Attracts a regional drive market (49 percent).
  • Convention facilities with less than 500,000 gross sf (36 percent).
  • Regional airport with less nonstop or direct airlift (36 percent).
  • Largest convention venue generally a single hotel or conference center (32 percent).
  • Productive local industries and business climate (32 percent).

While a second-tier destination may not have a lot of international airlift, 10,000 committable hotel rooms or large meeting/exhibit space, it doesn’t mean that these destinations don’t have world-class meeting facilities and amenities.

Essential Attributes of a Third-tier Destination

The key is to not consider a third-tier destination as being third-class as it really is just based on the size of the city and its convention offerings, not quality or even cost. For example, some of the most luxurious resorts are located in destinations considered third-tier, simply because of the destination size.

  • Measurable attributes include:
  • Regional airport with less nonstop or direct airlift (37 percent).
  • Largest convention venue generally a single hotel or conference center (20 percent).
  • Convention facilities less than 500,000 gross sf (16 percent).
  • Attracts a regional drive market (13 percent).
  • Distinctive leisure travel appeal.

Often, third-tier destinations are the choice for incentive travel and find themselves competing for the business along with first- and second-tier destinations.

How Do You Find the Right Destination?

The key is understanding the strengths and attributes each tier represents. Do you want your medium-sized convention to feel like the “big fish” in a destination? If yes, go with a second- or third-tier destination. Or, what if you have a small meeting but need the convenience of a large international airlift? A first-tier destination might be the best fit. The key is to look at each destination with fresh eyes and determine how it can work for you.

Also,’s Destination Finder is an invaluable tool, and helps planners search and compare meeting needs across multiple destinations.

Suppose your meeting requires the flexible travel options of a first-tier destination, but the accommodations of a second-tier destination? Or you are looking for a high-end meeting experience but in a smaller, more intimate destination? That’s where the experts at the convention and visitors bureau (CVB) can help.

The CVB sales professionals are the best first point of contact to help planners find the right fit for any size or type of meeting. They offer a comprehensive view of the destination, local expertise, extensive in-market relationships and more. CVB services are free to meeting planners.

To research destinations, find out what’s new and connect to CVB experts at more than 145 top meeting destinations, visit C&IT

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