The Pacific Northwest is a red-hot destination for leisure and business travel right now, which makes it a very smart place to host future meetings and other events. “We often see that national conventions that travel the United States see record attendance when they’re in Portland because their attendees want to come here,” says Craig Stroud, executive director of the Oregon Convention Center.
There are many other good reasons to organize a gathering in this beautiful region of the country. Many of the cities are less congested and more walkable than those in other parts of the country. There can be some cost savings from the lack of sales tax in Oregon and great public transportation in many communities. As airlift improves and the region expands its conference venues, it’s getting more feasible to host larger gatherings. Learn what the Pacific Northwest has to offer modern meeting planners and their guests.
Seattle exemplifies everything that makes the Northwest such a prime place to host an event. “It’s an exciting urban city surrounded by access to nature from the ocean to the mountains,” says Rob Hampton, senior vice president, convention sales and services for Visit Seattle. It has great shopping, farm-to-table and interesting ethnic restaurants and cultural attractions. “Many of the country’s most innovative businesses call this region home, and it’s great to be able to tap into some of those resources.”
The city recently broke ground on the new Washington State Convention Center building, a vertically oriented structure in the heart of downtown. Unlike many communities, Seattle chose to build a second convention center rather than expanding its existing one. It’s located just a few blocks from its sister building and will add 255,000 square feet of expo space, 125,000 square feet of meeting rooms, 60,000 square feet of ballroom space and an outdoor gathering space. It’s expected to open in the first quarter of 2022.
In addition, the Hyatt Regency Seattle, located right next to the new convention center, is on track to open in December. It will be the largest hotel in the Pacific Northwest with 1,260 guest rooms and 103,000 square feet of function space.
“We’re seeing a lot of groups that could never come to Seattle because there was nowhere big enough for them,” says director of sales and marketing Danielle M. Boyles. The local owners incorporated many of the best practices they learned at other hotels to make the Hyatt a very functional and appealing place for large gatherings.
“The Travel Portland team cultivates relationships with the city’s top hotels, chefs, makers and other businesses year-round…. We make it easy for planners to create authentic Portland experiences for their attendees.” — Desiree Everett, CMP, CGMP
The International OCD Foundation has already booked its 2020 conference at the Hyatt. Events manager Melissa Smith, CMP, explains that their conference is somewhat unique when compared to other medical association conferences. Only about one-third of the approximately 1,900 attendees are therapists and mental health professionals. The remainder are people with obsessive compulsive disorder (or related conditions) and their families.
The conference rotates between the west coast, east coast and middle of the country. As she began looking at west coast properties, “we were really drawn to the Seattle area because we’d never been there before,” Smith says. “We try to reach areas that are less populated with therapists that treat this disorder because it builds our resource directory and allows people to have better-trained therapists to get treatment from after the event.
Seattle, compared to some of the cities in California, is less expensive in terms of transportation. The fact that there’s the train being built from the airport was a benefit. The location of this property, and the fact that it’s surrounded by restaurants and shopping and tourist things to do, was a huge draw for us.”
Smith was also attracted by the layout and construction of the Hyatt’s meeting rooms. “Meetings were laid out a lot differently previously,” she said. “Now there’s a lot more customization of sessions. People are doing more breakouts and larger breakouts. Large rooms with airwalls — and airwalls that aren’t so paper-thin you can hear through them — are very important.”
Planners looking for offsite venues in Seattle will find improved facilities at both Pike Place Market, which underwent a major renovation last year, and the Space Needle, which just finished a $100 million overhaul. Hampton also recommends directing conventioneers to The Spheres, a set of enclosed conservatories located at Amazon’s downtown headquarters. “It has more than 400 species of cloud forest plants from around the world, so it’s a very biodiverse building within the urban environment,” he says.
The southern region of Seattle has enough meeting facilities and attractions that it’s worth considering in addition to downtown. According to the Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority, the area lies 15 minutes from Seattle, 20 minutes from Tacoma and very close to the airport. It’s close to major employers such as Boeing and fun attractions such as the Museum of Flight and Des Moines Beach Park. Room rates, on average, are 20 to 30 percent lower than those available downtown. And South Seattle has the second-highest concentration of hotels in the state, so there’s no need to worry about availability.
The Hyatt Regency Lake Washington at Seattle’s Southport is one of those hotels. It opened in July 2017, and offers breathtaking views of the Seattle skyline, Lake Washington and — on a clear day — the Olympic Mountains. “Our orientation allows our large events spaces, our dining spaces and our guest rooms to have windows facing that direction,” says Jeff Ouradnik, sales and marketing director. “There’s a lot of natural light, but what’s so cool about this hotel and that view is it feels like you’re meeting in the Pacific Northwest. You really have that unique opportunity to bring the view of the city and the view of nature into the meeting environment.”
The desire to experience the outdoors and unparalleled scenery is a big reason many people want to travel to this region. It leads Ouradnik to offer this advice: “When you’re sourcing meeting locations for the Pacific Northwest, take a good look at the experiential outcomes you’ve set and make sure your venue lines up with that.” It can help meeting attendees feel like they’ve gotten the true Northwest experience even if they don’t have a lot of time to explore.
Suburban Bellevue has many of the benefits of big-city Seattle in a less-populated setting. “You can come to Belleveue and have the Seattle experience but not need to be downtown,” says Jane Kantor, CMP, director of sales for Visit Bellevue Washington. “There’s a lot of variety in the things you can do downtown or a short Uber ride away.”
These include accessing the outdoors (Bellevue has more than 2,000 acres of parks and natural areas and 92 miles of multi-use trails), visiting museums and art galleries, taking advantage of great shopping and finding great places to eat. “Bellevue is a majority minority city, so there’s lot of diversity,” says Kantor. “That’s true not only in the people who live downtown but also in our culinary options. Being in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a big Asian influence, so there’s lot of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese options for people who are looking for something that will be a culinary delight.” There are also multiple restaurants featuring foods from Russia and several African nations.
The city has made some significant additions to its hotel inventory in the past few years. A Hilton Garden Inn with 254 rooms opened earlier this year. A W Hotel and AC Hotel by Marriott were added last year. “You can get lots of personalized attention in Bellevue,” says Kantor. “Associations of any size and demographic can probably find something that suits them here.”
Spokane, in eastern Washington, is notable for its mix of rural charm and urban amenities — all in a city that’s walkable and bikeable. “The thing you’ll get with Spokane is ease of access,” says Kate Hudson, public relations manager with Visit Spokane. “It’s easy to get here, and then it takes 10 minutes from the airport to drive to downtown Spokane and get to your hotel. Within that 10 minutes, you’re checked in and getting ready to explore the city.”
The downtown core is filled with historic buildings. Inside, meeting attendees will find good shopping, dozens of breweries and wine-tasting rooms and a number of great restaurants. “The culinary scene is stunning and booming right now,” says Hudson. Most hotels have free bike rentals so guests can tool around town without the expense of renting a car.
The outdoors are closely integrated with the Spokane Convention Center, which sits at the edge of the Spokane River. Copious windows offer expansive views of the surroundings. Besides the convention center, other notable facilities include the INB Performing Arts Center, a large theater that’s going through a major renovation; a new 127-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in suburban Spokane Valley; and a Hotel Indigo in downtown that’s slated to open in 2019.
Although Clark County is within Washington, it’s more closely associated with Oregon because it’s immediately north of Portland. Just a short drive from Portland International Airport along Interstate 205, it has plenty of spaces for conferences and other types of events. Vancouver, the county seat, has more than 80 different event venues to choose from, including large hotels, quaint retreats and spacious amphitheaters. Many outlying communities also have great meeting destinations.
The most notable recent addition to Clark County’s inventory is ilani, a casino resort on the outskirts of Ridgefield that opened last year. It has 15 restaurants, bars and shops; a large gaming floor; and a 30,000-square-foot meeting and entertainment center with state-of-the-art technology. A hotel is planned for a later phase of construction. In the meantime, groups that host events at ilani can get special rates at local hotels.
“One of the advantages of hosting at ilani is the event becomes more attractive because the guest knows afterward they can enjoy dinner, slip into an amazing concert or just relax and look at views of Mount St. Helens,” says vice president of marketing Tom Teesdale. “It’s a great way to wrap up your day after an event or trade show.” Unlike many casino resorts, ilani has an abundance of outdoor seating at its dining areas, which makes it easy to enjoy nature without leaving the grounds.
Should event participants want to venture out, there’s plenty for them to do. The area offers peaceful hikes, world-class golf courses and terrific excursion opportunities. “There are day trips to wine country, the Columbia River Gorge and the Pacific coast,” says Teesdale. “Those views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking.” Plus, Portland’s nightlife, culture, world-class restaurants and other features are just a short drive over the Columbia River.
Like Seattle, Portland has excellent meeting facilities that are only getting better. “The Oregon Convention Center is the largest convention center in the Pacific Northwest and is known for world-class features, including customer service and leadership in sustainability,” says executive director Craig Stroud. “We consistently score off the charts on our catering. We’re really well-served by our public transportation system. The MAX, Streetcar and transit lines all intersect and pass by the center, so it’s very easy to get anywhere in the region, including the airport.”
The convention center just started a $39 million renovation that will refresh the new and old portions of the facility and improve wayfinding, among other things. Construction is expected to wrap up in early 2020. The Hyatt Regency Portland at the Oregon Convention Center, the facility’s highly anticipated headquarters hotel, will be finished in the same time frame. It will have 600 rooms, 500 of which will be made available for meeting-goers.
“That differentiates this hotel from many others and is helpful particularly in the summer, when leisure travelers fill many of the hotels in the city and finding hotel blocks is difficult,” says Stroud.
Portland’s reputation as a place that’s friendly to craftsmen, locavores — and pretty much everyone, really — is a big draw for many associations. Desiree Everett, CMP, CGMP, director of convention sales for Travel Portland, says the organization’s staff is always available to help planners deliver authentic experiences to guests. “The Travel Portland team cultivates relationships with the city’s top hotels, chefs, makers and other businesses year-round. We’re there to help connect meeting planners with the best Portland has to offer, and we make it easy for planners to create authentic Portland experiences for their attendees. Our team can tell you who has the best set-up for the kind of event you want to host, as well as help you understand the best ways to get attendees where they need to go on Portland’s famous transit system, whether it’s by light rail, streetcar or using Biketown, the city’s Nike-sponsored bike share program.”
Phil McDonald, executive director of the American Association of Woodturners (AAW), says his association was so impressed with Portland that it’s taken its international symposium to the city twice — even though it doesn’t typically travel to a city more than once. When AAW had their event in Portland in 2007, they had very high attendance, which is one reason the search committee selected it again in 2018. Another was that they wanted a more intimate feel from the space, which the convention center was able to provide.
McDonald was also very impressed by the level of service the association received from the facility’s staff. “Everyone says that their attendees are a demanding crowd, but one thing about us is that we represent individuals, and they pay out of pocket to be at the event,” he says. “With that comes really high expectations that they will be well-served. In 2017 and 2016, we had massive failures with the catering and concession services. That was one of the areas we put highest on our list of things we needed from our next venue.”
When the committee met with the staff at the Oregon Convention Center, “they talked about the failures in previous years and addressed them one by one, which gave us great confidence they were listening to us and proactively working to address them,” says McDonald. “We were so well-served that we came away with attendees that probably had the best onsite service they’ve ever had.”
Boise is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States but hasn’t lost its small-town charm. That makes it an appealing spot to host meetings of all kinds.
The city’s largest event facility is the Boise Centre, which wrapped up a $47.5 million expansion last year. The renovation increased its total space to 88,000 square feet. “The area surrounding the convention center is a thriving downtown,” says communications manager Mary-Michael Rodgers. “Right outside our doors there over 100 shops, 80 restaurants with lots of outdoor dining, a huge and growing microbrewing scene and several wine-tasting rooms. It’s very fun and hip. It’s very walkable. There’s lots to see, and it’s all in an environment that’s not congested. The airport is 10 minutes away, and the air service is some of the best in the west, with 20 direct flights a day from most major markets.
“We’ve been going through a mini hotel boom,” adds Rodgers. “There are three new hotels in downtown and up to 1,200 hotel rooms within a few blocks of the Boise Centre.” These include the boutique property Inn at 500 Capitol with 113 rooms, a Hyatt Place with 150 rooms and the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown with 132 rooms.
Kristine Raper is a commissioner with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and chair of the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners, a regional association of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. One of her responsibilities as chair was to plan the 2018 conference for commissioners in the region’s 14 states and territories. Raper had some very specific things she wanted for the event, including lots of networking space and access to the outdoors. She found everything she wanted — including exceptional service — at the Boise Centre.
“It was very collaborative, which I appreciated,” she says. “I was very particular and, in some ways, very different with what I wanted for my group. The staff at the Boise Centre was so accommodating with everything from menus to room setup.”
One of Raper’s requests was that rounds be set for six to seven people instead of the standard eight. “We have people who come in with a laptop and a bag and one or two phones, so they want space to spread out. They leave if they don’t have enough space to have a little elbow room, and that’s not what we want.” The staff was skeptical at first, but when they saw how much people enjoyed the table setup, they actually thanked her for giving them an idea they could use for future events. She also liked that Centre staff worked closely with the local CVB to connect her with services and local resources.
Conference attendees were very impressed with the event. “I don’t know how many times I heard from people, ‘The city has a vibe, and it’s so cool,’” says Raper. “People were wandering and biking around downtown, and they loved it.” AC&F