Planning a city-wide meeting requires attention to more than the usual detail. And there’s one thing expert planners all agree on: Relying on and partnering with a city’s CVB is critical to the success of the event, wherever it’s held.
Rebecca Fazzari, CMP, CMM, DES, director of meetings & events with the Geological Society of America (GSA), says CVBs play a very important role. “They’re the boots on the ground. They know the ins/outs of what’s happening in their city, what new hotels are being built, any renovations/repairs to the hotels or convention center, and they’re a great partner when it comes to negotiating and working with the hotels to get the concessions needed to host our meeting in that city.”
Others point to CVB assistance with street closures, permits, traffic patterns, security, health and safety issues, and their value in terms of connections and resources. Beyond that, each city is different, and each has specific attributes that may make it the perfect fit for a particular city-wide event. That was the case with Portland, Oregon, where GSA held GSA Connects last fall with 3,000 attendees. “Our members are geologists, so all the geology around Portland makes the city a good choice for our meeting as we run field trips before and after the meeting to various geological sites,” Fazzari says. “In addition, hosting our meeting in the Pacific Northwest allows many of our international geologists to attend.”
Travel Portland was instrumental in GSA’s ability to move forward with an in-person meeting. “They were our partners 100%-plus in navigating the COVID guidelines, locating testing sites and making sure the hotel partners understood our meeting goals,” Fazzari says.
Hyatt Regency Portland at the Oregon Convention Center served as the primary hotel, but Fazzari notes that GSA tries to offer hotels from every major brand and at various price points. “Hotels were chosen based on GSA having hosted its meeting in Portland in 2009, so we kept with the same hotels and added the Hyatt Regency as the headquarters hotel since it was directly across the street from the center.”
GSA used all the convention center space except Halls D and E, as well as meeting space at the Hyatt Regency and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Portland. “All staff were eager to have our meeting and to make it a success,” Fazzari says. “The convention center worked well for us as we had a lot of technical sessions spread throughout the venue, which helped with social distancing. The existing signage at the center made it easy for most to navigate their way from one side of the center to the other, but we also added additional directional signage.”
She also praises the catering staff, and says she received great comments from attendees about the food and staff. “They’re key players in making the overall event successful,” Fazzari says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for menu customization, as many times they can accommodate your needs.”
Fazzari’s biggest challenge in planning a city-wide event is comparing all of the proposals from various cities, then presenting them to leadership and convincing them to go with the city that makes the most sense for GSA’s budget, which isn’t necessarily the most popular city with leadership. And, she adds, “It requires looking at cities at least five to seven years in advance to make sure the cities can fit our preferred dates/pattern, number of meeting rooms and number of hotel rooms needed. For smaller meetings, you can usually get away with booking one to two years out.”
Fazzari advises those planning a city-wide event “to speak with other planners who have hosted a city-wide in Portland or elsewhere about their experiences working with that city’s CVB, convention center and hotels as they vary greatly,” she says. “There are a lot of planner groups out there, such as on Facebook, that are more than willing to help and share advice, so don’t be shy to ask.”
Las Vegas is a favorite destination for city-wide meetings, with good reason. “The city of Las Vegas has a strong international brand,” says Tom Gattuso, vice president, events, with the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). “By hosting our event in Las Vegas, we benefit from the awareness of the inherent value of the city and familiarity our attendees have with it. In addition, Las Vegas has grown the international flights in and out of its airport and that gives us a great global reach.”
The SEMA Show draws more than 100,000 attendees, requiring a block of 40-plus hotels throughout the city. “With an event this size, you really need all of the hotels in the city to be part of the plan,” Gattuso says. “Our visitors are all over the spectrum of how they represent their brands at our show, and Las Vegas offers an unmatched variety of world-class hotels at all price points. Many of the hotels are connected via the monorail system, and those that are not participate in our shuttle-bus program. As a 55-year-old event, we find that our attendees now know their favorite properties and tend to return to them year after year. With the support we receive from the taxi companies, ride-share providers, shuttle buses and the monorail, we find the city is well connected to the convention space we host our event in.”
SEMA uses hotel and convention-center meeting space. “We use meeting space in many hotels throughout the city. Our industry comes from all over the world for this four-day celebration of performance automotive innovation, and attendees can find the perfect space to connect with their peers or clients to help them achieve their goals,” Gattuso says. “We typically use every available square foot of the convention center. Recently, the [Las Vegas Convention Center] added a brand-new exhibit hall. That will allow us to build a foundation for growth over the next decade.” He continues, “The new hall is among the best in the world, and our buyers and exhibitors enjoyed being the first full-facility event to use all of the space. In fact, the new West Hall was an attraction in and of itself. It was easy to see what a purpose-built facility with the newest technology can do to energize a trade show. Over the next several years, we’ll be working closely with the convention center as they renovate the rest of the buildings and continue to raise the bar for events.”
The convention center’s growth has already necessitated the launch of the new people-mover, the state-of-the-art, underground transportation system built by Elon Musk’s Boring Company. “That tunnel system was the first of its kind at a convention center, and eventually will connect with the hotels in our block, the airport and many of the popular attractions in the city,” Gattuso says. “When you truly partner with the convention center, you’re also connected to its support system and the people that run it. We’re fortunate to work with the best people in the industry to support everything from concessions and catering, to safety and security.”
Gattuso calls SEMA’s partnership with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) one of the organization’s highest priorities. “All levels of our management and operations teams are connected with all levels of the [LVCVA] stakeholders. We’re continually looking to evolve our show and innovate the ways people connect,” he says. “As we push the limits of what can be done, it’s nice to have a partner we can lean on to help make things happen. We share our success with every event that takes place in the city throughout the year. LVCVA is the central place where we learn about the event innovation that’s taking place and new ways we can create the optimal experience for our attendees.”
In terms of planning a show the size of SEMA, Gattuso says from a fundamentals standpoint, it’s similar to planning any meeting. “There are just more moving parts. Fortunately, a lot of things are built to ‘scale up’ when needed, so we can be prepared for just about anything. Having great partners helps to make it all work because we all benefit from a successful event,” he says. “We make it a goal to focus on the customer experience as much as possible, and that helps our support-structure partners know what they need to do to make our event the best it can be. Once you have that shared goal, the rest comes together.”
The biggest challenge is awareness of how far out you need to plan. “We’re generally working three years out on the foundational planning for SEMA Show,” he says. “It’s hard to focus that far out when you have an event just a few months away; however, you won’t be successful if you do it one year at a time, because there are too many changes you’ll be too late to anticipate. It’s also hard to get all vendors and partners aligned on a common goal. We’ve built a few programs to educate everyone on our mission and rally around the common goal of providing the best customer experience. That camaraderie has proven to be invaluable, and is one of the reasons our customer-service scores are so high.”
Gattuso has three recommendations for those planning a city-wide event. “First, the earlier you start planning, the more opportunities you’ll find as you explore what a city has to offer. Second, make sure to connect with other event organizers that host events annually in the city,” he says. “Having a network of people with whom you can collaborate on ideas is valuable as you develop your tactics unique to that city. We have an open-door policy with other event organizers who want to attend our show because we want to know what they think as we continue to find ways to improve. Finally, you want to partner with your CVB. They’ll be invaluable in all aspects of the event and have the connections in the city you need to be successful.”
Houston is another excellent location for city-wide events. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) held Cattlecon 22 early this year with 6,200 in attendance. Kristin Torres, executive director, meetings and events, NCBA, says Houston is well set up for a city-wide event. “Two 1,000-room hotels connected to the convention center makes it very comfortable for attendees, and multiple hotels within walking distance make it easy as well.” The group uses hotels in the downtown area because proximity to the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) is a priority, as is the ability of hotels to provide a large room block.
Torres also likes Discovery Green, the park just outside the convention center. “Discovery Green creates a nice atmosphere for people walking to and from the center. The convention center is also very easy for attendees to navigate,” she says, “with exhibits on the ground level, offices and beautiful reception space on the second level and breakout space on the third level.”
Many NCBA members live in close proximity to Houston, so they’re able to drive in, Torres says. “Additionally, Houston has great airlift for those not within driving distance.”
NCBA used meeting and function space at the hotels and convention center. “We needed some larger spaces that we weren’t able to make fit in the convention center,” Torres says. “It worked great with the [Hilton Americas-Houston] being attached to the center as attendees could easily move back and forth. At the convention center, we found the second-floor balconies to be perfect for receptions. They have beautiful views and were a great size. We had our welcome reception in the exhibit hall, and were able to set up our general session right next to it, which made for great flow.”
Visit Houston was integral to the success of the meeting. “They’re the connection in helping us get things done in the city. We couldn’t have done it without them,” Torres says.
She thinks city-wide events are more complicated than smaller events. A major challenge, she says, is managing the flow of everything while making sure attendees have a great experience. “Transportation, sleeping rooms [and the hotel package], are so much more than with an in-house event. You use so many more suppliers and facilities. You want attendees to have a great experience and get the feel of the city, and that’s harder to do with larger groups.”
Austin is also capable of handling city-wide events. The Austin Convention Center (ACC) is located in a prime Downtown Austin location with more than 12,000 hotel rooms nearby. The center has five contiguous exhibit halls and offers nearly 250,000 sf of column-free exhibit space, and there are several convention hotels nearby. The JW Marriott Austin hotel offers 1,012 rooms, seven bars, three restaurants, the posh Spa by JW, the new Edge Pool Bar & Cabanas, and more than 120,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space. Fairmont Austin, which has direct access to the ACC, has 1,048 guest rooms and suites, an array of amenities and dining experiences, such as the acclaimed Garrison, a seasonally heated pool on the seventh-floor terrace, the top-rated Fairmont Spa Austin, a state-of-the-art fitness center and nearly 140,000 sf of event space. Hilton Austin, also connected to the ACC, has 801 rooms and offers more then 95,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space, an on-site Cannon + Belle restaurant featuring local cuisine and a bourbon bar, a full-service Starbucks and spacious rooms. Other amenities include a business center, fitness center, complimentary Wi-Fi and a heated rooftop pool with beautiful views of downtown.
Smaller cities accommodate city-wide events, too. ReBecca J. Murray, CEM, manager, conferences and events with the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), held their WaterPro conference in Milwaukee early last fall. She says the city’s location, great airlift, affordability, and excellent convention center and hotels were all factors in the choice, Plus, she says, “It’s friendly.” She added that attendees offered “resounding reviews on the city.”
The Hilton Milwaukee City Center, Hyatt Regency Milwaukee and SpringHill Suites Milwaukee Downtown were the primary hotels. “Hotels chosen were the top three brands we normally work with,” she says. The fact that they were close to the convention center and provided the number of sleeping rooms needed also factored in.
“We used meeting space at the Hilton extensively for association board meetings, committee meetings, training, receptions, lunches, breakfasts and breaks, as well as a board reception. Using the hotel space is a convenience for our board members and staff as we house our own block of these individuals in one hotel,” Murray says. “And it’s a beautifully maintained space. COVID provided some challenges, but overall the hotel was great to work with. This is a beautiful historical property. While Hilton has preserved the historical beauty of this property, I’d like to see the meeting rooms enlarged if permissible and still maintain that base.”
As for the Wisconsin Center, Murray says, “Hats off to [the catering team] as they knocked it out of the park with our presidential luncheon. Surveys raved on the quality of the food. The only challenge we had there was probably due to COVID and supply-chain issues — small cups for beverages during lunch that constantly had to be refilled.”
She says flow at the center works well. “It’s stacked, with ballrooms and some meeting space on the ground floor, more meeting space on the second floor and exhibits on the third level. It’s easy to find meeting rooms and easy to navigate from one area to the next.” The group used exhibit space for two receptions, she says, “to bring our attendees closer to exhibitors and provide the networking everyone wants.”
Murray thinks that, overall, the main challenge in planning city-wide meetings is the hotel piece. “Keeping track of the pickup and communication with attendees when they’re not located in one general area is a challenge, as is ensuring they have all they need and feel as though they’re part of the big event.”
She credits Visit Milwaukee with being a great partner, and instrumental in helping facilitate many facets of the planning process. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Like others, Murray says it’s never too soon to start planning for a city-wide event. And she advises, “Enlist partners such as Visit Milwaukee. Your conference will run so much smoother with their help.”
Raleigh has a vibrant downtown that offers a variety of entertainment, from historic neighborhoods, world-class museums and Southern diners, to outdoor green spaces, performing arts venues, local shops, breweries and underground cocktail spots. Downtown is broken up into five distinct districts: Glenwood South, the Warehouse District, Capital District, Fayetteville Street and Moore Square. The Raleigh Convention Center (RCC), in the heart of downtown, offers nearly 150,000 sf of contiguous exhibit space. Convention hotels include Sheraton Raleigh Hotel, which offers nearly 20,000 sf of recently revitalized meeting and event space, a full-service restaurant, bar, room service and workout facility. Raleigh Marriott City Center, located in the center of Raleigh’s revitalized downtown and connected to the Raleigh Convention Center, offers 400 guest rooms, 10 suites and 15,000 sf of versatile meeting space. Enjoy the indoor recreation pool, jacuzzi and fitness center, including Peloton bikes, spacious bar (sports TV), restaurant, Starbucks and business center.
Chicago is another good choice for hosting a city-wide event. “Chicago offers an extremely versatile convention center with space options that provide flexibility to city-wide conventions of varying sizes,” says Michele Donohue, director of meetings, American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO). “ASTRO has used the West Building at McCormick Place for several annual meetings, which generally draw more than 10,000 attendees. It’s an ideal fit that allows our meetings to be self-contained. And Chicago has a wide range of hotel options throughout the city, including several properties connected via skybridge to McCormick Place. ASTRO attendees also enjoy the dining, entertainment, museums and cultural options Chicago offers. The city is easy to get to and has numerous flight options for domestic and international travelers.”
Hotels for the meeting last fall were chosen based on proximity to McCormick Place and ability to accommodate large room blocks, as well as experience from the group’s 2019 meeting in Chicago. In addition to meeting space at the convention center, ASTRO also used space at Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and The Marriott Marquis Chicago.
Donohue calls the layout of the West Building at McCormick Place easy for attendees to navigate. “The space on the central concourse created a natural hub where attendees could register, connect with colleagues and staff, visit the Exhibit Hall, view posters and attend our general sessions. The McCormick Place staff was extremely friendly, knowledgeable and available to address any question or concerns. Given that we were planning our first in-person event since the pandemic began, the team worked with us to think through and implement protocols to help ensure the health and safety of our attendees.”
One “wow” location the group used for its president’s reception was VU Rooftop, located on the 22nd floor and next door to McCormick Place. “This venue offered indoor and outdoor space with incredible views of the downtown Chicago skyline and lakefront.”
Donohue says the biggest difference in planning a city-wide event and the biggest challenge in planning it are the same: the level of coordination. “When planning a city-wide event, there are often more meeting aspects to coordinate, and they exist on a larger scale. With a city-wide, you often deal with a larger number of attendees, events, exhibitors, show partners/vendors, hotels, etc., so there’s a lot more to juggle and orchestrate to create a memorable meeting experience for your attendees.”
Donohue echoes earlier views, saying planners should leverage the CVB, convention-center team, hotel partners and show contractors. “With their collective years of experience, they can provide insights and help for organizers new to planning a city-wide event. It’s also important to remember that the meeting-planning skills already in your toolbox are simply being applied to a larger event. While it may seem overwhelming at first, lean into your team of experts to help guide you, and recognize that the ultimate reward is that you’re shaping and designing the experience that your attendees will have not only at your event, but in the host city.”
As the saying goes, “It takes a village.” That’s true for planning and executing a successful city-wide event, too. Fortunately, many cities have that “village” ready, willing and waiting when it comes to their CVBs. | AC&F |