Looking to host a corporate event in a centrally located state with amazing culture and entertainment options, high-quality food and beverages, state-of-the-art conference facilities and safe, walkable communities? There’s no better place than Ohio. The major cities in this ‘Rust Belt’ region have undergone a renaissance in recent years, adding accommodations and attractions that meet the needs of modern consumers and planners. Find out what’s new in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.
Cleveland re-emerged as a top meeting destination in 2016 when it successfully hosted the Republican National Convention. “That was a large undertaking and everything went stellar,” says Craig Campbell, area director of sales and marketing for InterContinental Cleveland. “It demonstrated to meeting and event planners around the world what Cleveland’s event capabilities are.”
In the last several years, the city has gained a number of new hotels or had old properties go through major refreshing. Updated and new properties include the 400-room Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower, the 206-room Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland and the 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown. In addition, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, home to the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, just wrapped up a major renovation. It now has 45,000 sf of event space available to planners.
“That was a large undertaking and everything went stellar.” Craig Campbell
Campbell emphasizes that many properties have all of the technological requirements meeting planners need. The InterContinental Cleveland is located on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic and hosts a number of medical and healthcare conferences. The facility includes a 12,000-sf, 500-seat amphitheater from which groups can broadcast live talks or conference in speakers from anywhere in the world. “It really allows groups that have a very high-end nature to their programs the opportunity to do it in a setting that was built specifically for those types of conferences,” he says.
People who fly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport will find it’s a short trip into downtown. And once they get settled into their hotels, there’s plenty to see. In addition to the Cavaliers, Cleveland has two other major sports teams in the NFL’s Browns and MLB’s Indians. And the iconic Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a popular venue that offers special event space. The city is also home to the second-largest playhouse district in the country, a high percentage of the restaurants are chef-owned, there’s a large microbrewing community, and plenty of boutique shops. Consider directing attendees to the Flats District, which has a number of new restaurants opening.
“There’s a crazy amount of culture and history and architecture in the town that, when you look at the other cities in this state, they don’t really have,” says Gordon Taylor III, vice president of convention sales and services for Destination Cleveland. And no matter what hot spots guests want to check out, they should be able to find their way around. “It’s easy to figure out the city because there are all these districts, like the Warehouse District and the Civic Center district. The signage is terrific, so you never really get lost,” he says.
Brian D. Stevens, CEO of ConferenceDirect, cites several of these features — notably walkability and the city’s wide variety of cultural attractions — as chief among the reasons his company hosted its biannual CDX event in Cleveland. The 2 1/2-day gathering brings many of their top customers, partners and associates together for education and networking opportunities. “The city of Cleveland is a very notable city to host a conference, with ease of distance from the airport to a variety of off-site venue options to host receptions,” he adds.
The main event took place at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown and Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland. The fact that the facilities are connected made access a breeze. “Our attendees had a great opportunity to experience many features the Huntington Convention Center can provide,” Stevens says. “On-site, they have a sustainability farm to help produce food in-house for catering events, which was a unique experience to offer. Additionally, we had food trucks for one of our meal functions. The space they have, made this feasible and provided yet another fun opportunity to add for any event.”
Destination Cleveland was integral to bringing the event to the city and assisting ConferenceDirect as their gathering took shape. Stevens has nothing but positive things to say about them and the host facilities. “From start to finish they were amazing partners that helped coordinate and plan one of our most successful CDX events to date. The teams at Destination Cleveland, Hilton Cleveland and Huntington Convention Center were terrific in providing our attendees a well-rounded experience of what Cleveland has to offer for conventions and meetings.”
Taylor has been in his position for just a few months, and since he started, he’s frequently asked groups why they chose Cleveland over another city. “People tell me, ‘We like coming here, because we’re not just another number. When we bring our convention, we feel like we’re the only ones in town. The feeling we get from the community is, they’re genuinely thrilled we’re here.’”
“Meetings in Cincinnati are about meaningful connections,” says a former meeting planner with Cincinnati USA CVB. “We create a setting where attendees can connect with the city, with the meeting’s content and with each other.”
Creating those connections starts by establishing relationships with the CVB, potential host facilities and other partners. Cincinnati doesn’t lack for great meeting venues. Accommodations include a 170-room AC Hotel by Marriott Cincinnati at The Banks, the 117-room Holiday Inn & Suites Cincinnati Downtown and the 323-room Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown Hotel. The Hyatt Regency Cincinnati recently underwent a $23 million renovation to refresh all 491 guest rooms, and a Kimpton Hotel with 153 sleeping rooms is expected to open next year.
The Summit, a Dolce Hotel, which opened last year, is another one of the city’s newer properties. The lifestyle hotel, owned by Wyndham, has 239 guest rooms, more than 52,000 sf of meeting space and an 11,600-sf terrace for outdoor gatherings. One of their areas of emphasis is providing nourishing, healthy food at multiple dining outlets, including the new Overlook Kitchen + Bar. But, people who want to venture farther than the facility’s front door will find plenty of options.
“Lots of new restaurants have opened up in Cincinnati. Lots of breweries too,” says Denise Bayless, director of sales and marketing for The Summit. “The bourbon scene has opened up from across the river in Kentucky.”
That’s important, because the next step in finding a community where meeting participants can create meaningful connections is finding interesting off-site events or casual gatherings. “Once attendees are here, they’ll be pleased with Cincinnati’s friendly Midwest pricing and vibrant mix of entertainment destinations and amenities,” the former CVB planner says. “We are a city built on beer — literally. A network of lager tunnels below the streets of downtown Cincinnati help tell the story of our region’s rich brewing past. The first phase of Cincinnati’s Brewing Heritage Trail broke ground this year, which will provide a new opportunity to learn about the historic buildings, breweries and beers that shaped downtown Cincinnati. The microbrewery scene here is erupting, bringing us back to our roots and back to what makes us a great city.”
There are plenty of interesting things for art enthusiasts to check out as well. “With a quick walk or ride on the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar, attendees can experience a variety of unmistakably Cincinnati features like the hundreds of public art murals around town,” the former planner says. The Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal recently reopened after a $224 million renovation. In recent years, the community has invested more than $160 million in upgrading and expanding local theaters, including three popular venues in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Convention Center has played host to many National Training Conventions for Pure Romance because the company’s headquarters is located downtown. Jenna Miller, the company’s event manager, has plenty of love for her hometown partners. “The Cincinnati CVB is always such a huge help with our events,” she says. “Pam Boeing-Rogers, the CVB’s director of convention services, helped me find our location for our block party event and even helped with some logistic pieces. I really enjoyed working with her. She was always available and always extremely helpful whenever I needed her.”
The convention center also provides an exemplary level of service, Miller says. “Food and beverage is always what we expect it to be. The convention center is always so easy to work with and mixes it up every event, every year. Prestige AV & Creative Services has always gone above and beyond for us. We love working with them and have an incredible partnership.”
Miller recommends that event planners look at the community’s many great restaurants and sports teams when plugging entertainment options or looking for off-site venues. Depending on the time of year, sports fans can enjoy a performance by MLB’s Reds, the NFL’s Bengals or Major League Soccer’s FC Cincinnati, which began play earlier this year.
Many business owners are also willing to create personalized experiences for groups so attendees can get a glimpse of Cincinnati’s authentic culture. “We have great relationships with a lot of the businesses here, which makes it fun to let the consultants experience some of the things we love,” Miller says.
One more thing: Getting to Cincinnati is easier than it’s ever been. “The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is one of the top-ranked and most-affordable airports in the country, and the Cincinnati region is within a day’s drive of 60% of the U.S. population,” the former planner says.
Columbus is the capital of Ohio and also holds the distinction of being its largest and fastest-growing community. “People often think of us as a small city, but we’re not,” says Lexi Sweet, CTA, public relations manager for Experience Columbus. “We’re the 14th-largest city in the country and the fourth-fastest growing city in the U.S.”
Despite its size, Columbus still has some of the benefits of a small town. The John Glenn Columbus International Airport is 10 minutes from downtown. The Greater Columbus Convention Center encompasses 1.8 million sf and offers 75 meeting rooms. By 2022, there will be 2,700 hotel rooms connected or adjacent to the Convention Center, and the city center will have a total of 5,000 hotel rooms. New properties within a mile of the convention center include Moxy Columbus Short North, a boutique property under the Marriott flag, and Canopy by Hilton Columbus-Short North, both of which opened this year.
Companies looking to glean some best practices from their peers will find plenty of firms to reach out to in Columbus. “We have five Fortune 500 companies and 15 Fortune 1,000 companies, which is the largest concentration of any city in the country,” Sweet says. On the entertainment front, the city has a thriving arts district and college district around Ohio State University. The National Veterans Memorial and Museum — the only such facility dedicated to telling the stories of veterans from American conflicts in all eras and countries — opened last year.
Sweet notes that summer and early fall are an ideal time to visit because there are festivals every weekend. They include the Creekside Blues & Jazz Festival, Columbus Greek Festival and Columbus Oktoberfest. These special events give meeting attendees a chance to experience the community on a more unique, intimate level.
Groups interested in art might consider the Hilton Columbus Downtown, an atrium-style hotel with 532 rooms, 32,000 sf of meeting space and a $1 million art collection. “In the next couple of years we’re going to expand across the street so we’ll be a 1,000-room hotel connected to the convention center,” says marketing manager Presley Burley.
Burley says Columbus is a great place for foodies and fun-loving folks as well. There are more than 300 dining and entertainment venues within four blocks of downtown, including the German Village and Brewery District, two adjacent neighborhoods with interesting architecture and plenty of food and beverage options. There’s also the North Market, a public market with interesting small restaurants.
New Avon Company took more than 5,000 sales representatives to Columbus for three days of training, product launches, recognition events and rallies. “Our conference has grown over the past couple years and we’ve sort of grown out of the single property,” says Jason Sigala, director of events. “This was our first citywide event in a long time. We wanted to pick a city where we felt our representatives would feel safe.” The host city also needed to offer accommodations that met a variety of price points, and be a place where attendees could easily walk from their hotels to meeting spaces, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. Columbus fit the bill on all of those fronts.
New Avon Company had its product expos, meals and breakout sessions at the Convention Center and Hyatt Regency Columbus. Nationwide Arena hosted its general sessions and a concert. The CVB helped bring together all of the partners and also served as housing coordinator for the event. “Everyone was very easy to work with,” Sigala says. “We found them very accommodating. The CVB was probably the strongest I’ve worked with in terms of communication and working together as a unit with the entire city. The newly renovated convention center was very impactful. It was nice and open and people didn’t feel crammed like you do in a convention center in a hotel. They were able to spread their wings.” C&IT