CVB UpdateJuly 6, 2023

Perspectives on the State of the Meetings Industry By
July 6, 2023

CVB Update

Perspectives on the State of the Meetings Industry
The Seattle Convention Center has 1.5 million sf of meeting space, including its new Summit building and the original Arch building. Photo by Alan Alabastro / courtesy of Visit Seattle

The Seattle Convention Center has 1.5 million sf of meeting space, including its new Summit building and the original Arch building. Photo by Alan Alabastro / courtesy of Visit Seattle

From coast to coast, north to south, the nation’s convention and visitor bureaus tell us what they’re seeing across the meetings landscape and their own regions — from trends and developments to challenges, some persisting even as the pandemic recedes into the past.

Washington DC

Melissa A. Riley, senior vice president, convention sales & services, Destination DC, says, “Planners are looking for venues that have the dates and space but also for destinations that are engaging for their attendees outside of the program. DC offers value with its many free museums and monuments, Michelin-starred dining, arts, entertainment and nightlife.”

Planners and groups also want meetings to have meaning, she adds. “People meet with purpose in Washington, DC. Attendees want meaning behind where and why they travel.”

There’s a lot to be upbeat about in the nation’s capital. “Citywide attendance numbers this year are exceeding expectation,” Riley says. Development is also strong across various sectors, from hotels like the Royal Sonesta opening this summer and the new Capitol Hill Marriott to museums, the Wharf and airports. “The Metro Silver Line and Dulles International Airport expansion provide access to downtown via subway from Dulles International, and Reagan National’s expansion project includes expanded gates and a terminal,” Riley notes, adding that eight DC restaurants have been added to the Michelin guide this year, giving attendees a lot of new options.

Riley says 2024 is on par with pre-pandemic levels. While attendance at 2023 city-wides has exceeded planner expectations with 354,623 room nights booked, 2024 is even better — 440,121 room nights.

Sustainability remains a focus for Destination DC, with programs including an e-bike expansion, new Mobility Innovation District and greater sustainability initiatives around social equity.

Filling shoulder season remains challenging, and long visa wait times are hampering international visitors, but Riley says the CVB is on it. “Elliott Ferguson, DDC’s president & CEO, works with USTA as the advocate for policies to ease travel and visa wait times.”

Staffing shortages, not surprising, are still impacting the hospitality industry. “The March jobs report showed growth in hospitality but we’re still down. One way we’re addressing this is through Destination DC’s affiliate nonprofit foundation, the American Experience Foundation (AEF). Through educational programs, scholarships, internships and career-bridge learning, AEF is a pipeline for DC high school students to careers in hospitality and tourism,” she says.

High F&B prices are another issue, and though Aramark finds creative solutions at the convention center, Riley says she’s seeing more groups opting for concession carts and stands, guests on their own, more box lunches and slimmed down receptions. Bars, however, are up.

Looking ahead, Riley believes the city is in good shape with all it offers and with shifts in the industry. “Groups are able to leverage DC’s Connected Capital to access experts, legislators and thought leaders,” she says. “Groups can also capitalize on DC’s airlift and diverse neighborhoods.”

To planners who want to similarly capitalize on all that Washington DC offers, Riley encourages them to embrace DEI, DEI District and DEI Business Fellows/CSS services, to experience local, and to consider legacy and CSR projects to support and connect with local community.”


Tammy Canavan, FCDME, president & CEO, Visit Seattle, calls 2023 exciting. “Seattle has a number of ongoing developments that are physically and culturally reshaping our downtown. In the beginning of the year, Seattle Convention Center opened the gorgeous, innovative Summit building. As part of that project, we’re seeing bike-lane access and pedestrian walkways increased throughout the area. We also have a massive reimagining of the Seattle waterfront occurring alongside an expansion of our beloved Seattle Aquarium. In tandem, those developments will allow for a seamless walking path between downtown and the waterfront, while allowing for panoramic water and mountain vistas. It’s full steam ahead as we host the 2023 MLB All-Star Game at T-Mobile Park July 7-11 — just one of the major sporting events that will call Seattle home over the next three years; the others being the 2024 NHL Winter Classic, NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball and the 2026 FIFA World Cup.”

As for trends, Canavan says, “There’s no normal anymore. Booking patterns are disrupted, and people’s decision-making processes are different. It’s an entirely new world. We’re seeing things that used to book well in advance booking much closer and we’re seeing different needs.”

Kelly Saling, SVP & chief sales officer for Visit Seattle, elaborates: “The future is less predictable and stable. Many models were a bit of a rinse and repeat. I don’t want to make that sound like a bad thing, but they were known. Now they’re not known. That translates into not knowing what space you need or what place works best. It’s less formulaic and there are different contributors that cause changes in the timelines. Certainly, there is risk assessment in a way that wasn’t present historically and more consulting of stakeholders along the way, which takes more time.”

Forecasting remains a big challenge, Saling continues, knowing if what you booked is how it will perform. “There are groups who are outperforming and underperforming how they booked. There are groups who don’t yet know how they’re coming into Seattle in two months. That creates a challenge for the destination to alert the community to be prepared for the arrival of something when they don’t know how it will fully impact,” she says.

Uncertainty also affects destinations internally. “That’s reflected in the workforce and people’s capacity. There’s still some residual psychological effect on workforce mindset from Covid affecting how we work, where we work or whether we work.” And although frontline staffing is still a challenge within hospitality, Canavan says the light at the end of the tunnel is opportunity.

“We need to embrace a different future and understand that life is permanently changed in many ways. There are opportunities to think more creatively about how we deliver now versus the traditional labor-intensive ways of doing things. It’s not that we want to eliminate jobs, but if we don’t have people to fill them, we need to be a lot more creative. That’s the light. We’re starting to see people get away from the panic of ‘we don’t have enough people to do that,’ and leaning into ‘what are the things we can do to address that and still surprise and delight our customers?’”

Bookings for 2024 look great, notes Saling, but 2025 is currently a bit below pre-pandemic levels. “We’re booking so near-term that those numbers will not be the final result of 2024 or 2025,” Saling says, adding that there will be business coming in next year and hopefully the following year as well.

Incentives can help. “Incentives are a real opportunity for this market and will grow into the future. Incentives are embracing urban destinations in a way that’s new and refreshed. We’re a destination with the luxury of having access to nature in addition to an urban environment. That’s compelling. We have an abundance of fresh food and an award-winning beverage scene with wine and the fact that Washington is the second largest hop grower in the world outside of Germany.”

To planners thinking about Seattle, Saling adds, “If a group is considering a meeting in Seattle, our job is to make that successful regardless of where or when it is. Our guidance can really help them thread the needle on what’s most important, whether it’s value, timing or location. We can steer where it will be most successful.”


Very short booking windows are the norm in Milwaukee, too. Leslie Johnson, VP of sales at Visit Milwaukee, says the trend applies even to groups of significant size. “Availability can be tricky, so we ask that groups be more flexible,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot of groups being overly conservative with hotel-room numbers at first, then coming back asking for more rooms, which is great to see. When this happens, our team works to source more rooms so we’re constantly working with hotels on flexibility.”

Johnson points out that business travel has not yet rebounded, which impacts hotels. “We’re not sure when business travel will completely rebound, so hotels are thinking differently since they no longer have that business-travel segment to rely on.”

Expansion of the convention center is Milwaukee’s big news. “The $456 million expansion of The Wisconsin Center, due for completion in May 2024, is something I’m very excited about,” Johnson says. “The finished space will feature 52 meeting rooms, a 300,000 contiguous sf exhibit hall, 22 loading docks, a 400-stall indoor parking garage, and a spectacular new rooftop ballroom featuring seating for 2,000 and sweeping outdoor terraces. The expanded venue will also include quiet rooms, nursing-mother rooms, dedicated gender-neutral restrooms and a robust public art program telling the story of Milwaukee. We now have the exciting opportunity to participate in putting forward proposals for more types of groups and events. Planners want to bring groups where there’s growth and exciting things are happening! Milwaukee is hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention, so next year will be a very exciting time. We’re so glad to be seen by a national audience as a thriving city with plenty of amenities and experiences for conference attendees.”

Like the rest of the country, Johnson says, Milwaukee has been impacted by inflation. “Part of the reason business travel is still struggling is due to inflation. We continue to see prices go up. Organizations and companies are being very particular with the conferences their employees are attending since cost is more of a factor right now.”

Like other central and midwest destinations, however, Milwaukee is able to benefit as travel costs increase. “Milwaukee is in a unique position that we’re using as a benefit due to our central Midwest location and proximity to so many major cities,” Johnson notes. “We can attract an audience that may have previously held their conference on the east or west coast. Companies losing attendees due to the high cost of airfare are now looking at the Midwest to capture that audience that can drive to the event. We’re seeing more and more interest in the drive market.”

Additionally, she’s seeing planners more open to destinations they may not have considered before. “They’re looking at smaller, more intimate destinations where their attendees can get out and enjoy the history of the city. Planners want to sell the history of the city and the overall experience to their attendees. This will continue to be important to planners and organizations. They want to make sure the conference is memorable and worth their time. They want to truly feel their investment. Planners want attendees to come away from their event with something they learned.”

Given the higher costs of many aspects of meetings today, Johnson believes CVBs are an invaluable asset for planners. “Our services are free.”

That’s not a statement planners often hear these days.

The 2022 Annual Meeting of the Commodity & Energy Markets Association (CEMA) took place in Chicago, IL at the Illini Center and DPI. Courtesy of Lynn Osmond

The 2022 Annual Meeting of the Commodity & Energy Markets Association (CEMA) took place in Chicago, IL at the Illini Center and DPI. Courtesy of Lynn Osmond


Lynn Osmond, president & CEO of Choose Chicago, is optimistic about this year. She has noticed three prominent trends: First, people are returning to in-person meetings and events in droves. Second, meeting planners and CVBs are enhancing their emphasis on sustainable travel and meetings. Third, there’s an increased focus on risk mitigation from all entities. “CVBs are working to ensure that risk is shared between event organizers and destinations,” she notes.

She’s also seeing the current climate as one of challenges and opportunity. “While Chicago’s rebound from the pandemic makes it clear that meetings and events are back, there are still challenges and opportunities for an industry that has changed dramatically. For example, event decisions are increasingly being made under very tight deadlines, which impacts venue operations, sourcing, logistics and all aspects of the events industry. Furthermore, each event and industry recover at different levels, meaning DMOs and other suppliers are now expected to be experts on our customers’ industries. We can no longer simply rely on historical data for projections. We must do a better job of engaging with our customers closely and asking the right questions to intelligently forecast event performance and communicate properly with our local stakeholders.”

Osmond sees 2023 as a “banner year” for Chicago, full of exciting events throughout the city. “As a destination, we have the enviable challenge of simultaneously juggling major new public events, including the NASCAR Chicago Street Race and three Taylor Swift concerts, with long-time events and conventions such as the James Beard Awards, USA Volleyball Championships and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting.”

Overall, she notes, the number of group bookings are at pre-pandemic levels. “That said, there have been some segments that have rebounded quickly while others have been slower to bounce back, such as the tech industry.” Fortunately, staff shortages don’t appear to be impacting Chicago significantly. “Chicago continues to have an incredibly strong workforce; we’re not experiencing shortages at our hotels and other venues. Our robust workforce is a major reason to hold your meetings and events in Chicago.”

To planners Osmond says, “While it may seem like a sellers’ market, there are many deals to be had in Chicago for event planners of all types. Those willing to be flexible with day patterns and preferred weeks will have success; however, planners must be prepared to make decisions quickly as inventory is not lasting long — lead generation in Chicago is up 26%.”

Osmond adds that there are good reasons to be optimistic about meetings in general and in Chicago specifically. “We’ve seen excellent results at recent shows and look forward to building on these successes as the value of in-person meetings is recognized.”

In 2024, Dallas will break ground on a new $2 billion dollar convention center, pictured here in this rendering. It will have 800,000 sf of exhibit space and 400,000 sf of breakout space, including a 100,000 sf ballroom. Courtesy of Visit Dallas

In 2024, Dallas will break ground on a new $2 billion dollar convention center, pictured here in this rendering. It will have 800,000 sf of exhibit space and 400,000 sf of breakout space, including a 100,000 sf ballroom. Courtesy of Visit Dallas


In Dallas, Craig Davis, president & CEO of Visit Dallas, is seeing demand for more digital offerings at conferences, “from app access rather than badges and microsites for each event, to online check-in and interactive activations. Streaming as an option is a must for meeting planners for most sessions,” he says, adding, “Clients also want more networking opportunities built into conferences and the space needed to make that happen.”

Like others, he says the uncertainty of the economy and staffing shortages continue to have some impact, but overall things are looking good. “There’s been lingering talk about an impending recession and we’re monitoring our customers’ buying habits.  But current demand for business events is booming, and like many other destinations, we’re working hard to keep up with demand. While Dallas has faced the same staffing shortages as the rest of the country, with more and more people moving to Texas, jobs are quickly filled. We’re so proud of our resilient hotels and restaurants that have continued to provide first-class service during a time when the entire industry has been struggling with staffing.”

Challenges aside, 2023 and 2024 are positives. Davis says group bookings for both are far above and beyond pre-pandemic levels. Dallas is also seeing a lot of development, including a new convention center. “In 2024, we’ll break ground on a multi-billion dollar convention center that will be on the forefront of technology, sustainability and size of convention centers in the country. This will be accompanied by an entirely new entertainment district with new headquarter hotels and additional flights. We believe Dallas is the best place in the nation for conferences, and when the new center is finally here there will be no doubt.”

There are other developments as well, such as the newly reopened Longhorn Ballroom, and new restaurants including one in the ball of Reunion Tower called Crown Block.

Industry folks will get a chance to see all that and more as three major shows head to Dallas:  Destinations International (DI), International Association of Expositions and Events (IAEE) and Global Business Travel Association (GBTA). And, Davis adds, planners should take note of the great airlift. “The connectivity of Dallas is unmatched as we have the largest airlift of any city in the country. You can be in Dallas in four hours from any major city in the continental U.S.”


Tania Armenta, president & CEO of Visit Albuquerque, says the entry of Millennials into the industry has created shifts in what groups want. “Millennials are shifting the meetings and incentives space to mimic their experiential travel preferences. Planners are looking for a place to tap into attendees’ creativity.”

Armenta believes the upsurge of remote work has created challenges, especially related to team building and relationship building. “It’s an opportune time to revamp dated breakout offerings to include activities specifically geared toward bonding, meaning fun activities that develop interpersonal relationships but with an interesting twist.”

Group bookings aren’t quite at pre-pandemic levels. Armenta says the uncertain economy continues to impact business travel and the overall meetings and conventions market, so she’s keeping watch on the trajectory of the recovery. However, she points out, “Albuquerque is a destination with much for planners and groups to discover, perhaps especially those who may not have considered the city in the past.”

Much is happening to make Albuquerque even more desirable. “The airport is expanding and modernizing to provide increased airlift. Southwest Airlines is starting nonstop flights between Kansas City and Albuquerque and increasing the number of daily flights to Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego. The city is also located at the crossroads of two major interstate highways, making it an easy drive from Arizona, Colorado, western Oklahoma and Texas, and is home to the longest continuous urban stretch of Route 66.”

Armenta encourages planners not familiar with Albuquerque to build time for attendees to explore. “Our city affords ample opportunities to incorporate exploration and leisure activities into your meetings. Albuquerque is a city steeped in history and culture, with centuries of stories waiting to be uncovered by visitors. For nature enthusiasts, Albuquerque offers a wealth of outdoor adventures. Art lovers will be captivated by the city’s vibrant art scene with its numerous galleries, studios and museums that showcase both traditional and contemporary works. Foodies will delight in our diverse culinary offerings.”

Looking ahead, Armenta says, “Albuquerque seamlessly weaves together old and new, creating a unique tapestry of culture, innovation and natural beauty. As improvements come to the city, such as the enhancements at the Albuquerque International Sunport, and renovations to our hotels like The Clyde and Hotel Albuquerque, meeting and convention planners will have more reasons than ever to consider Albuquerque as an ideal location for their events. We see a bright future for the meetings industry in Albuquerque.”


In Houston, things are also looking positive. “Our group bookings are near, and continue to improve to pre-pandemic levels for 2023 and 2024. Our service levels are in much better shape this year and our client services team does an exceptional job communicating with our stakeholders and partners, who do whatever it takes to meet the needs of our clients,” says John Solis, senior vice president of sales & client services, Visit Houston.

As for trends, he’s seeing conference attendance back to pre-Covid forecasted numbers and a heavy concentration on short-term, small, in-house programs focusing on 2023 and 2024. “There’s also a resurgence of large citywide convention sourcing and site visits,” he adds.

As a huge sports town, Houston continues to host major sporting events, including the recent NCAA Men’s Final Four, with the College Football Championship coming in 2024. That can be a draw for many groups.

Solis says Houston is not really seeing new challenges. “Maintaining Houston’s competitive edge as a premier destination for meetings and business travel is always a top priority. As other cities grow and develop their meeting and convention spaces, Houston must continue to do the same by providing a unique variety of hotel offerings and innovative, cutting-edge meeting spaces that provide easy access to some of the city’s world-class performing arts and attractions.”

His best advice to planners and groups: “Come hungry! Our culinary scene is off the charts. Being one of the most diverse cities in the nation makes for a great foundation to experience many different cuisines, cultural attractions and some of the friendliest people in the world.”

The future for association meetings in Houston is bright,” Solis adds. “Associations are finding that we have a fantastic convention campus with state-of-the-art facilities, first-class accommodations, best-of-service airports (IAH and Hobby), great visitor experiences and a hospitality community that fully appreciates the meetings and convention industry.”

CVB execs may be experiencing some differences, yet the overall takeaway is clear: In spite of a few pandemic-era challenges remaining the future is bright and creative opportunities abound. | AC&F |

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