Across the Lone Star State, CVB and hotel partners are helping planners facilitate a return to in-person events. In the first part of the new year, Texas, with its wide-open spaces and large meeting venues, is poised to remain an attractive destination for planners and attendees alike, especially as Gov. Greg Abbott recently ended all closures and mandates.
“We remain very optimistic going into later 2021 and beyond based on the news of a vaccine,” says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Austin. “There are so many new and exciting hotels and off-site venues still on track to open for 2021 and 2022. We’re honored to continue to receive great buzz and new interest in Austin for when customers are ready to meet.”
Austin is continuing to add new legions of fans. The venerable Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) is planning to hold its annual scientific session for the first time in the city this summer. “We have not hosted here in the meeting’s long history,” says Erin Wellin, CMP, director, meetings and exhibits. “The culture, kindness and sense of true hospitality drew us to this location. The walkability and fresh hotel product in the convention-center neighborhood and its proximity to the surrounding entertainment district were irresistible. Austin provides a central location within the country for many of our members to join the meeting. Opportunities for attendees range from culture to culinary exploration, to outdoor experiences in nature just steps from the hotels. We anticipate a relaxed atmosphere filled with barbecue, music and Southern hospitality at our convocation celebration.”
Multiple hotels will be leveraged for the meeting of 2,500 attendees. “The Fairmont Austin and all our hotel partners provide extremely close proximity to the [Austin Convention Center]. The center itself is easily navigated, clean and provides safe street access. The hotels all offer indoor/outdoor dining outlets, recreation and fantastic views of downtown and the river,” Wellin says. “The Fairmont’s aesthetic is fresh and inviting, and its restaurants, rooftop pool and fitness center offer something for all attendees. The convention center’s F&B pricing stood out among other cities as high quality and extremely affordable. It’s also customizable and can reflect the culinary prowess of the city — Tex-Mex, barbecue; food trucks. The floor plan is set in a stacked manner so planners don’t have to worry about guests walking miles between courses or the plenary to the exhibit hall.”
Among other things, Wellin appreciates the convention center’s transparency and ongoing updates during the pandemic, as well as Visit Austin’s partnership. “[Information] detailing [the center’s] efforts to welcome groups back safely was produced in a timely and professional manner, and was perfect for sharing with our volunteer leaders and members,” she says. “And the team at Visit Austin has been extremely helpful from the first site visit through the pandemic, and as we enter the final months of preparation for our meeting.”
To planners Wellin adds, “Austin provides a great package of hotels and convention space in an approachable city that will highlight your group instead of them getting lost in the crowd. Austin also provides a great alternative, or depth, to cities planners may currently be offering. The vibe of the city is laid back, altruistic and authentic.”
“We’re ready for recovery in 2021. Dallas led the nation by becoming the first destination to seek the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accreditation, the gold standard for cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention protocols,” says Craig Davis, CDME, president and CEO of VisitDallas. “Since then, we’ve seen our convention center, both airports, sports arenas and some of our top hotels achieve this accreditation . . . I’m very hopeful with where our destination is headed in the coming year.”
The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) has chosen Dallas for its August 2021 annual meeting. Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, chief learning and meeting officer, points to great airlift, two accessible airports and the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) train to downtown among Dallas’s key meeting assets, adding, “Its affordability for attendees and organizations is a real plus.” And, she says, “The hotel package with the variety of hotel brands and price points, as well as proximity to the convention center, are all appealing attributes. And the culinary scene has gotten even better with a plethora of award-winning chefs in the area.”
Ledoux notes the city has evolved significantly since ASAE met there in 2012. “I love a city with options, and Dallas definitely has those. The numerous hotels have unique spaces to consider, and if you need something different, there are museums, concert halls, restaurants, sporting venues and numerous outdoor spaces to consider.” All that, she adds, helps planners “deliver a unique experience that speaks to each group’s personality and the experience desired.”
With 5,000+ attendees expected, the focus is on hotel rooms and meeting space close to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas (KBHCCD). “The [Omni Dallas Hotel] is connected to the convention center and is a great partner,” Ledoux says. “We worked closely with the Omni in 2012. Utilizing its space, we delivered a meeting that was easily navigable and memorable for all the right reasons. We look forward to working with all the Dallas hotel partners and the Omni Dallas again [this year] to deliver a great meeting experience.”
As for pandemic-era protocols, Ledoux stresses that every hotel company has worked tirelessly to implement protocols to make guests and staff feel safe, and hotels along with all other industry segments have worked across organization boundaries, collaborating to lend their expertise for the greater industry good. “One example is the Events Industry Council and its APEX COVID-19 Business Recovery Task Force,” she says. “The focus of the task force is to aggregate standards, and develop and implement industry-wide accepted practices as a result of this new pandemic environment. The task force’s responsibilities include developing recommendations, guidelines and resources needed to support the industry’s recovery globally.” Ledoux continues, “Destinations like Dallas, and its hospitality and community partners, are taking all steps and precautions to ensure visitors feel comfortable when attending or holding a meeting in Dallas. What Dallas can’t do is make people feel comfortable traveling all together, which I believe will happen as vaccines get distributed.”
Meanwhile, she says, “Destinations and hotels are working to be as flexible as they can with contracts and agreements. Planners, too, should be a flexible and reasonable partners, understanding the extreme stress COVID-19 has put on the hospitality community. This is a time for total transparency when talking to destination and hotel partners about your organization’s needs. Guaranteed, the community wants you to be in their city and their venue so they’ll certainly flex as much as they can.”
“El Paso was fortunate to have been close to completion on a few significant hotel projects just prior to the pandemic. Those projects, specifically Hotel Paso del Norte and the Plaza Hotel, have opened and added almost 400 rooms to the downtown hotel inventory,” says Bryan Crowe, general manager of Destination El Paso/Visit El Paso. “The city also invested substantial capital in the renovation of El Paso Convention Center (EPCC), to include modern aesthetics and technology upgrades. With a vaccine . . . I’m hopeful that the meetings and tourism industry will rebound quickly [this year].”
Laura Rooney, managing director of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, canceled the group’s 2020 meetings, but has now booked the group’s 2021 Annual Conference in El Paso. Canceling and booking these days each present hurdles. “The biggest challenges in canceling in 2020 have been how to replace those educational and networking opportunities, and organizational revenues,” she says. “The biggest challenges in returning to in-person events [this year] are not knowing if it will be safe to return, when it might be safe to return, and if attendees will trust that it’s safe to return. The challenge isn’t simply pushing the in-person conference, it’s how the next in-person event is changed by what has happened in the interim, including the economic impact and changing expectations. Moving to a virtual format allows participation from attendees who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend an in-person conference, and accessibility can be increased by using online tools such as closed captioning. How do we move these changes forward in a new in-person environment in sustainable ways?”
Details of the late fall event are still in flux, but Rooney says Visit El Paso has been in contact throughout the pandemic and options are being discussed. “It’s a location where the CVB makes it easy to integrate with the community and with local groups in our field,” she says. We’ll be working with the university, film festival, art museum and other local partners.”
One of the city’s historic venues will be integral to the meeting. “El Paso has a magnificent movie palace in the Plaza Theatre. As a media group, being able to screen materials is important,” Rooney says. The Hotel Paso del Norte, Autograph Collection, within walking distance from the convention center and the Palace Theatre, will provide lodging, with meeting space at the EPCC. “The space is large enough for all of our events and close to the Plaza Theatre, where we’ll be holding many of our screenings,” Rooney says. With the future uncertain, she says contracts are being adjusted. “We have clauses to adjust the contract for space and room nights as well as a penalty-free cancellation in our contract draft.”
Her advice for those planning meetings this year is to work closely with hotel and CVB teams. “They want you to be successful; they need you to be successful in order for us all to rebuild the in-person experience. Be open to change. Listen to your members, and if you’ve done a virtual conference, ask them what worked and what didn’t and take that into your next in-person event,” Rooney says. “Only one thing is certain: things won’t go back to exactly the way they were. Things never do. But we can use this experience to do what we do better, to be more inclusive, to see things in a new way — and, to borrow an expression, to build back better.”
“After hosting MPI’s extremely successful World Education Congress, we recognized the need for people to reconnect again in person was in high demand,” says Paul W. McCallum, executive director of the Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Alongside the MPI team, we followed a strict duty of care to ensure the safety of attendees and were able to prove it’s possible to host safe in-person meetings. It was apparent how excited people were to meet face-to-face — albeit with Plexiglas dividing them. We hope other meeting and event professionals will use WEC 2020 as a blueprint for how to host a safe, successful in-person and virtual meeting.”
MPI’s event, held late last year, went hybrid, setting its World Education Congress (WEC) in Grapevine at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, as well as online for global participation. “The city of Grapevine is in the backyard of our global office in Dallas,” says Melinda L. Burdette, CMM, CMP, HMCC, director, events with MPI. In addition to the Gaylord Texan, the group used the Hilton Anatole for the president’s dinner, downtown Grapevine for the opening party, and Arlington Backyard at Texas Live! to close the event. About the hotel, Burdette says, “The amount of space and the service level of the Gaylord Texan drew us to this venue.”
Not surprisingly, last year presented challenges. “Planning a meeting during a pandemic requires you to work very closely with all vendors, partners and suppliers to make attendees feel safe. While the hotel already had processes in place for its staff, we needed to work together on a plan for our attendees,” Burdette says. Among the safety measures MPI added were temperature checks “where appropriate” and a wristband protocol. It helped that WEC was the only group in-house.
In terms of F&B, MPI wanted to show members that meals and breaks could be safe and creative. “We worked closely with Gaylord’s chefs to devise interesting menus and serve meals in a way that kept our attendees safe. We needed to show examples of plated, buffet and grab-n-go meals, as well as breakfasts and breaks,” Burdette says. “Designing the food rooms in ‘pods’ where all food options were available within the pod area limited movement around the room by attendees. Keeping sustainability in mind, all utensils and packaging were made from sustainable sources and recyclable.”
Obviously, appropriate technology is critical when the vast majority of the 1,739 attendees are virtual. “The ability of digital attendees to interact with speakers was a ‘must have,’” Burdette says. “We developed the digital agenda with that in mind, and had all sessions delivered live to the digital audience.” By all accounts, 2020 WEC was a huge success. “We showed that, given all safety protocols, you can hold an in-person event safely,” Burdette says. “MPI was also the only 2020 industry hybrid event delivered with all live sessions.” As for whether WEC 2021 will be hybrid, Burdette says, “Absolutely.”
The MPI team learned a lot along the way, and Burdette offers this advice to planners pivoting to hybrid: “Given a fixed budget, look for ways to shift funds typically spent on a live meeting to the digital version of the event,” she says. “Some ways to do this include reducing bells and whistles in general session rooms, as well as the number of live, concurrent education sessions.”
“We’re seeing a clear trend of scheduled meetings and conventions moving to the second half of 2021. We’re anticipating even more interest in Houston once [the] vaccine is readily available,” says Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First Corporation. “In the meantime, we continue to take bold action, reimagining our business model at Houston First, and adapting to meet the evolving needs of the meetings industry.”
Among Houston’s new assets is the Avenida Houston Virtual Studio at the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC). Designed to host virtual events and livestreamed conferences, the 5,250-sf studio includes a “catch and kill” biodefense air-filtration system and support staff for IT, production, catering and more. The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) used the studio last fall as well as the center’s General Assembly room. In-person attendees numbered about 75; digital attendees, 2,389. “It was a perfect solution for us, since we were trying to hold our annual awards ceremony and President’s Session on a budget, while creating an environment where in-person and virtual attendees felt like the experience was engaging and special,” says Leigh Ann Runyan, CMP, director, Americas events, operations, North America.
Runyan thinks industry relationships and actions today are more critical than ever. “We’re looking for flexibility from venues and suppliers. It’s a tough time for everyone, but we must have assurances that we won’t be charged cancellation fees or penalized if we must postpone events,” she says. “Venues and suppliers who have worked with us through these challenging times and continue to be flexible have built a relationship with us that will last forever.”
She says venues must establish safety protocols such as temperature monitoring, mask requirements, installing hand-sanitizing stations, etc. “This should be a normal part of a venue’s operations now. We also need venues to be ready with socially distanced room diagrams and advice on room configurations. Some are still struggling with this, which doesn’t build confidence with a client.” She adds, “Proactiveness has been key throughout the last [several] months and will continue to be a priority into 2021. Venues and suppliers must have solutions ready for clients and make these solutions no-charge or affordable. The world has changed forever, and these new solutions are now an everyday function and shouldn’t be used as profit centers. We must get through this pandemic together as an industry so we can be ready when in-person events start happening again.”
Although Runyan acknowledges her group has had successful virtual events, members are anxious to get back together in person. “Nothing,” she says, “can replace face-to-face connections.”
Women of Joy held its annual Christian women’s gathering in San Antonio in late fall with 1,300 attendees. Multiple hotels in the Riverwalk area provided lodging. “San Antonio is a good fit for Women of Joy because it offers convenient lodging, shopping and dining options in relation to the convention center. Due to the nature of our events, many of our attendees are traveling in large groups on a bus or church van. The ability to walk from a hotel to the convention center or to the mall, restaurants or to the Riverwalk makes San Antonio a good fit for our crowd,” says Mackenzie Borden, who does PR for the group.
Visit San Antonio went the extra mile to make attendees feel safe. “They listened to our concerns and suggestions and made sure that the addition of safety protocols didn’t dampen the experience of the event for our guests,” Borden says. “They worked with us and the convention center staff to ensure that all guidelines and our personal safety preferences were met. They also worked long hours of overtime to manage the temperature-check stations and ensure that it was not an inconvenience for guests.”
COVID-19, Borden notes, makes good communication imperative. “With safety protocols subject to change, a breakdown in communication can lead to misunderstandings. We learned it’s important to have a discussion with all parties — our event team, the convention center, Visit San Antonio — about the specific safety procedures and how they’ll be implemented,” Borden says. “COVID is new territory for everybody. It’s important to have detailed understanding about what protocols we personally want to implement and what we need to follow according to state and convention center requirements so everyone is on the same page.”
Borden gives San Antonio high marks as a partner. “I wouldn’t hesitate to move forward with an event in San Antonio. Of all the large cities where we had events this year, no one has exceeded San Antonio in preparation and commitment to safety. Their no-touch, temperature-check kiosks made event planners and attendees alike feel safe without long waits or inconveniences. For any concerns you have, Visit San Antonio will be your partner in working toward a solution so you have a great experience.”
In the end, in Texas and elsewhere, the meetings industry always has been, and always will be, about partnerships. Those critical partnerships are what will help bring back the industry. | AC&F |