Value is the lifeblood of meetings. That’s why destinations of all sizes compete fiercely to offer value by building new hotels, convention centers and meeting venues while renovating and expanding existing ones. New attractions, restaurants and entertainment options are part of the efforts.
Small and mid-size destinations are stepping up attempts to vie with larger competitors by increasing value. The efforts are succeeding in some destinations, which are attracting more meetings and increasing occupancy rates, while gaining recognition as top value destinations.
MeetingSource’s “Top 25 Convention Cities in the USA for 2018” include Cincinnati, Charlotte, Norfolk, Austin, St. Paul, Salt Lake City and Providence in the medium category. Cities in the small category include El Paso, Madison, Chattanooga, Tempe, Portland (ME), Raleigh, Tacoma and Silicon Valley. MeetingSource ranked 163 cities by hotel affordability, ease of access, safety, walkability, promotional appeal and weather.
We’ve picked out several more destinations that, no matter their size, aren’t shy about touting their value.
Visit Jacksonville’s website leads with its value, saying “Visit Jacksonville and its partners offer incredible value. Take advantage of our Value Season from June through December to realize great offers such as free convention space, discounted room rates and much more.”
Jacksonville was the only American city on Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel 2018” list of the world’s “Top 10 Best Value Destinations,” ranking No. 9. Lonely Planet cited Jacksonville’s affordable hotel rates, beaches, park system and family-friendly food scene.
New properties include the Hyatt Place Jacksonville, scheduled to open later this year at The Strand at St. Johns Town Center, a new 45-acre development featuring retail outlets, restaurants and apartment homes. The Hyatt Place will offer 160 guest rooms and 3,000 sf of meeting space. Other properties include the Omni Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Marriott, the Sheraton Jacksonville and the 963-room Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront (110,000 sf of meeting space) located near the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center.
As with many destinations, Columbus depends partly on regionally based companies that attract attendees locally and nationwide.
Last year, Columbus-based Nationwide Children’s Hospital held a three-day meeting at the Hilton Downtown Columbus for 300 employees and other attendees from around the world. It was the first time this group has met at the property.
The Hilton Downtown’s meeting space played a big role in choosing the property. “The meeting space and amenities provided were more than sufficient for our group’s needs,” says Kate Wagener, CTA, senior education conference coordinator, Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “The conference rooms vary in size and are all located near each other, making the overall experience easier on our participants when navigating through the hotel.”
The Hilton Downtown’s location also was an advantage. “It’s located within walking distance of two of Columbus’ most vibrant neighborhoods — the Short North Arts District and Arena District,” says Wagener. “Both locations give attendees many activity options including local restaurants and bars, and some of the city’s many art galleries.”
Wagener says that more planners are discovering what she already knows about Columbus. “It is affordable, walkable and accessible,” she says.
“Columbus tends to surprise attendees who come in with a preconceived notion of it being a small town with little to offer. In actuality it is bursting with things to do and places to go. Attendees love the big-city vibe with the small-town charm.”
— Kate Wagener
Columbus may be a small town, but it is taking dead-aim at attracting large meetings, and it is yielding results. The city expects to attract a record number of conferences and visitors this year. According to Experience Columbus, the destination booked a record 508,859 room nights in 2017. This year, Columbus expects to attract 28 large citywide conventions — a 17 percent increase over 2017.
Columbus officials hope the recently expanded Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC) will help attract larger events. The $140 million project added 137,000 sf of new space and refurbished 800,000 sf of space.
Additional hotel rooms are coming near the GCCC. The Columbus Dispatch recently reported that city officials will announce plans to expand the existing 532-room Downtown Hilton by adding 468 beds, an 18,000-sf ballroom, and 42,000 sf of meeting and conference rooms. Plans call for the expansion to start later this year and conclude in late 2021.
According to Wagener, “The renovation of the GCCC as well as the many hotels located within walking distance make choosing Columbus an easy decision for meetings. Columbus is an extremely accessible, centrally located city with the airport only ten minutes from downtown.”
Value is top of mind at the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA). “In Charlotte, budget-friendly accommodations and a variety of meeting spaces gives you the flexibility to plan an event your attendees will remember for years to come,” says the CRVA’s website.
Charlotte is also collecting its share of kudos. The Queen City was included in USA Today’s “Top 50 Best U.S. Cities” in which to live. Meanwhile, Charlotte is becoming more meeting-friendly. The city expects to add over 8,000 new hotel rooms through 2020, including 2,130 rooms this year alone.
Other major improvements include a $110 million expansion of the Charlotte Convention Center (CCC), which will feature additional breakout and meeting space totaling 50,000 sf. There also will be a newly constructed pedestrian bridge connecting one wing of the CCC to the 700-room Westin Charlotte Hotel. The project is scheduled to start in spring 2019 and be completed in December 2020.
Visit Milwaukee’s website calls out a big-city competitor while chatting up its value. “We’ll tell you how we’re a naturally thrifty bunch and refuse to pay Chicago prices,” says the website.
Value is one reason why Milwaukee is cited in last year’s destination rankings. Conde Nast Traveler included Milwaukee as one of six “Cities to Watch.” Travel + Leisure named Milwaukee the No. 6 “Most Underrated City in America” and the “No. 10 Friendliest City in America.”
Milwaukee hopes to attract more meetings and events with a larger Wisconsin Center (WC). The Milwaukee Center District is considering proposals to expand the WC after a consultant hired by the district recommended that the facility add 215,000 sf that would include a larger exhibit hall and ballroom, more meeting space and 22,000 sf of food and beverage outlets.
Currently, the WC offers 265,835 sf of exhibit, meeting room and banquet hall space, and connects via skywalks to the 729-room Hilton Milwaukee and the 481-room Hyatt Regency Milwaukee.
Santa Fe offers spectacular desert and mountain vistas, and 2,500 hotel rooms. “As far as hotels, we have more than 10 years ago, and most have gone through renovations,” says Marcia Skillman, owner, Destination Services of Santa Fe Inc. “Every year there are new restaurants and exhibits to see. I would cite the town’s walkability; the amazing culture; museums and restaurants; and outdoor resources like hiking and skiing.”
Topmost among meeting spaces is the 72,000-sf Santa Fe Community Convention Center. There are also dozens of nearby properties including the Eldorado Hotel and Spa, which can host groups of up to 700, and La Fonda on the Plaza, which accommodates up to 600 people.
An intangible value is derived from meeting in venues that reflect a strong sense of place and local culture. Planners will find that at the luxury Inn & Spa at Loretto, an architectural recreation of the Taos Pueblo and national historic landmark in the heart of downtown Santa Fe. With Native American-inspired décor and warming fireplaces, the 12,000 sf of indoor and outdoor spaces showcase original artwork provided by local galleries and artists.
Santa Fe’s unique offsite meeting venues include four museums, which have interior and exterior meeting spaces, and the Santa Fe School of Cooking, which can host teambuilding cooking events.
Santa Fe’s development as a meeting destination is now attracting groups from outside the region and the United States. “We get groups from all over the world,” says Skillman. “I just did a site visit with a group from Norway that is coming next year. As far as American groups, we have a lot of interest from Midwest and East Coast groups. I have groups of every size. Last month I had a seven-person incentive group. This summer I have several that are in the 600 range.” Santa Fe is attracting larger groups in part by overcoming perceptions about the destination.
“Some people think the remoteness of Santa Fe is going to be a problem, but once they come for a site visit they change their minds.”
— Marcia Skillman
“I think planners are attracted to the small-town feel and sense of friendliness they get in Santa Fe versus going to a big city where they are just another group,” says Skillman.
Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau says “its 16,000 hotel rooms, affordable rates and friendly atmosphere make it an ideal location for any size meeting, from a corporate conference of 25 people to an international convention with 20,000 delegates.”
The mainstay of Oklahoma City’s meeting space, The Cox Convention Center (CCC), features 100,000 sf of exhibit space, a 25,000-sf ballroom, 21 meeting rooms and a 15,000-sf arena, all connected by a skybridge to the Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel. A total of about 1,600 hotel rooms are located with a few blocks of the CCC.
In addition, The Oklahoma City Council recently approved a design for the city’s new $288 million Oklahoma City Convention Center (OCCC), newsOK reported. Construction could begin by June this year for a mid-2020 opening.
The proposal calls for a 200,000-sf exhibit hall; 45,000 sf of high-tech meeting rooms on three levels; and a 30,000-sf ballroom. Plans also call for construction of a 600-room Omni hotel adjacent to the OCCC that will offer 50,000 sf of meeting space and two restaurants. A skyway will connect the Omni to the convention center.
The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau touts the city as “both accessible and affordable.” Memphis is enhancing its value further with a $175 million expansion and renovation of The Memphis Cook Convention Center (MCCC) that will be completed in the fourth quarter of 2019.
The project will increase the MCCC’s total number of breakout rooms to 52, and add upgraded wall finishes along with a newly constructed exterior pre-function concourse to the 125,000-sf Main Exhibit Hall. A new skybridge will connect the MCCC to the 600-room Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel with 16,000 sf of flexible function space.
Fort Worth also is racking up its share of national accolades. Last year Conde Nast Traveler named Fort Worth among the six “U.S. Cities to Watch.” The destination’s 13,477 total hotel rooms, including 2,622 located downtown, are helping to attract larger groups.
Nation’s Best Sports (NBS), a Fort Worth-based purchasing organization that provides services to sporting goods retailers, holds five meetings annually in the city ranging from 175 to 2,850 attendees. The meetings use a range of downtown hotels and are held at the Fort Worth Convention Center (FWCC), which offers 250,000 sf of exhibit space, 60,000 sf of meeting space and a 28,000-sf ballroom.
NBS has held meetings in Fort Worth for about 50 years and benefits fully from its strong relationships with the FWCC, hotels and Visit Fort Worth. “As a repeat customer, we have an advantage,” says Angela Mooney, NBS corporate secretary and event manager. “We have great relationships with all of our event colleagues including the FWCC and their service providers, hotel properties, restaurants and Visit Fort Worth. All of our partners know us and our attendees, which creates a great sense of family for our group.”
Above all, NBS receives top value. “We are very pleased with the rates we receive from all event venues, including hotels, restaurants, etc.,” says Mooney. “Compared to other larger cities, Fort Worth is extremely competitive.”
Cincinnati is gaining recognition as one of the nation’s up-and-coming destinations. The city ranked No. 5 on Lonely Planet’s “2018 Best in the U.S.” list, No. 5 on The New York Times’ “Best Places to Go in 2018,” and earned a spot on the American Express Essentials’ “2018 Trend Destination Hot List.”
According to Mike Laatsch, interim president and CEO of Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, “It’s evident that Cincinnati has caught the nation’s attention, and is being recognized as a world-class, must-visit destination. The Cincinnati region is thriving, with an impressive amount of development either completed or in the works, and a community that takes pride in supporting and showing off its assets.”
Improvements in Cincinnati’s meetings infrastructure include a recent $135 million expansion and renovation of the Duke Energy Convention Center (DECC), which now offers 200,000 sf of exhibit space; a 40,000-sf Grand Ballroom and 17,400-sf ballroom; and 30 breakout rooms. Plans also call for construction of a new headquarters hotel. The property will add to the over 3,200 hotel rooms that now exist within a short walking distance of the DECC.
The improvements come as studies by the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau show that the DECC needs at least 100,000 sf of additional exhibition space to compete with its primary rival destinations for meetings and conventions. Competitors can host up to three events simultaneously, and an expanded DECC would allow Cincinnati to do the same.
Located near the Appalachian foothills, Birmingham is a hip, cosmopolitan city with plenty of Southern charm and cuisine.
Birmingham’s meeting venue variety is led by the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which offers 350,000 sf of exhibition space that includes 90 meeting rooms as well as a 19,000-seat arena and two theaters with a total of 4,000 seats. The complex also includes two hotels.
Other venues include the Harbert Center, which seats up to 400 guests. The Bessemer Civic Center offers a 13,000-sf Main Hall and three meeting spaces. In addition, the Workplay entertainment complex includes a performance theater with cabaret-style seating for up to 500 guests.
Birmingham’s notable historic sites include a Civil Rights District, which is a federal national monument that encompasses sites in the downtown district that were instrumental in the 1960s civil rights movement. The district includes the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park.
Earlier this year, Team San Jose launched a new website and created a new consumer brand: Visit San Jose. The website will promote the San Jose McEnery Convention Center — the largest convention facility in Silicon Valley, with 550,000 sf — to potential clients. The site will also include new content and images, as well as engagement tools and a focus on mobile users.
Meeting planners have different ideas about value depending on a group’s budget, meeting needs and goals. They determine value by examining factors such as food and beverage costs; rates for sleeping rooms, meeting rooms and venues; convention center and CVB concessions and services; and vendor prices. Other factors include air travel costs, accessibility and entertainment.
And even when landing a great deal seems harder than ever in today’s challenging seller’s market, there are still plenty of value opportunities to be had when planners are willing to explore worthy destinations that may fly under their radar. C&IT