Destinations are integral to meeting success. They impact attendance, budget and attendee satisfaction in multiple ways. Convention and visitor bureaus sit at the intersection of the hospitality, travel and meetings industries, uniquely positioned to offer planners insights and actionable ideas as they make decisions about their meetings now and into the future. We asked CVBs large and small across the country what opportunities and challenges they’re seeing in their destinations and what the meetings landscape might look like in coming months. Outlooks were both varied and similar.
Steve Goodling, president & CEO of the Long Beach CVB, says trends in his destination include ticket sales for special events and concerts substantially ahead of 2019 and a 35% pick up over booked room blocks. Additionally, attendees are still seeking unique experiences as part of their conference or added component to their trip.
Not surprising, he says, “Hiring continues to be a challenge for all business in Southern California, including within the hospitality and meetings industries, but is improving.” That said, Goodling adds that group bookings for 2023 and 2024 are near or above pre-pandemic levels depending on the season.
Looking ahead, Goodling says, “Since the conclusion of pandemic-era restrictions and reopening of the economy, our experience has been that there’s a very strong desire to get back out there, start securing business deals, to revive existing business relationships and, of course, to create new ones. This is why, on average, we’ve had a 35% increase in conference attendance above projections. What we’re hearing on the trade show floor is that attendees were eager to get back out and start growing their businesses again.”
What that means for planners is that demand is high. Goodling advises, “Book early and book quick.”
In the Bay Area, the trend is for blending business with leisure travel, or bleisure. “Business travelers are interested in locations that have an interesting leisure component to them — whether that’s outdoor activity options or arts and culture offerings — and we’re seeing them stay a few extra days after conferences or events to explore on their own,” says Nicole Rogers, executive vice president and chief sales officer with San Francisco Travel. Additionally, she says, “The lead time for booking has shortened overall.”
Rogers says the CVB is keeping an eye on potential challenges. “One of the biggest potential headwinds for us over the next year is going to be battling any setbacks that come as a result of inflation and a potential recession. As of now, these economic worries haven’t had an impact on our forecasts but we’re watching them closely.”
Although numbers for 2023 and 2024 are still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels, Rogers says they’re moving in the right direction. “Businesses are realizing the importance of gathering in person, and while we still have some progress to make, we’re hopeful for a strong future. Hotel rooms nights associated with our major convention center, Moscone Center, will almost double in 2023.”
One of San Francisco Travel’s current goals is to broaden its reach. “We’re focused on targeting smaller group events in the coming year and expanding our efforts to attract luxury and international group business,” Rogers says. “Most encouraging is the expected full opening of the Asia market, our No. 1 international market. San Francisco will be on the world’s biggest stage as we welcome back the Asia Pacific market with Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2023.”
Staffing remains a challenge but that, too, is changing. “Right now, there’s high demand for talent in our city’s hospitality industry as we prepare for a busy summer travel season. Businesses in our region are offering higher wages and new, improved benefits to help close the talent gap, which is an encouraging sign,” she adds. The San Francisco Travel team itself is a good example. “The rebound of business travel and events has helped us rapidly expand our team in the last year. In 2021, we had a team of 12 and today we’re a team of 23, allowing us to better serve our clients and expand our business into new markets.”
While most planners know the many things that make San Francisco a desirable location for events, Rogers says one lesser-known offering is the Welcome Ambassador Program, loved by locals and attendees alike. “The program’s ambassadors are assigned locations around our city and are friendly faces tasked with helping visitors with everything from directions and public transportation to translation requests. They also assist with events in our downtown area, helping direct business and event [attendees] between meetings. The program has tremendously enhanced visitor and attendee experience in San Francisco.”
Like many cities, Las Vegas has come out of the pandemic with new challenges and opportunities. One overriding trend is the return to in-person meetings, which help drive innovation, company culture, team building and training. “Las Vegas is the perfect destination to support innovation, team building and bringing together workforces,” says Lisa Messina, chief sales officer with the Las Vegas Convention & Visitor Authority. “With over 14 million sf of flexible meeting space for daytime programming coupled with our evening entertainment and attractions, we make hosting unforgettable meetings easy.”
A new challenge for planners, Messina notes, is meeting the needs of more diverse audiences with diverse characteristics and goals, from more generations in the labor market to religious and cultural food preferences driving menus, to the increased emphasis on DEI. “This means planners must take into consideration multiple preferences, viewpoints and attitudes to plan a successful event,” she says. “Las Vegas takes the stress off our planners by providing a vast array of options to meet those multicultural, multigenerational needs of our attendee base. The idea that one resort can provide an array of options under one roof or is easily connected to one right next door for alternate needs is a standout feature for the destination. Las Vegas is the definition of diversity as it relates to accommodating the needs of all travelers.”
While convention bookings aren’t yet at pre-pandemic levels, recovery is strong. “Our resort partners have suggested that recent combined leisure and group segments translated to another robust, if not record-breaking, month. Harry Reid International Airport posted its single largest visitor volume passenger tally in February 2023.”
As for staffing, Messina says, “Our employees love what they do. Full-time positions are well staffed, though some temporary positions still ebb and flow with the arrival and departure of major trade shows and events. So far, customer-service scores across the destination have remained positive demonstrating our commitment to provide an unparalleled visitor experience.”
An ever-changing tableau on which to build meetings is another factor in the city’s success. “In 2023, we’ll open the MSG Sphere with rock band U2 as headline entertainment. Formula 1 will come to Las Vegas for the first time and provide an unbelievable experience for meeting and incentive customers, as well as a permanent building to activate when the race is over. The Fontainebleau Las Vegas will open near the Las Vegas Convention Center campus by year-end. And it doesn’t end there. Super Bowl will kick off 2024, and the Las Vegas Convention Center will start its renovation of the North and Central Halls,” Messina says.
Like Rogers in San Francisco, Lance Wheeler, vice president of corporate and intermediary sales for Visit San Antonio, is seeing the trend of shorter booking windows. “The lead time from the request for proposal formally being sent to event actualization continues to shrink.” In addition, he adds, “We’re seeing groups dropping their total contracted rooms to help mitigate potential risk.”
Wheeler says addressing the significant demand coming in short-term in regard to leads and bookings will be one of San Antonio’s biggest challenges in the coming months. “Availability exists, but finding the right match in business will take finesse and extra time to fit the puzzle pieces together effectively. We’ve redeployed our sales team to address this demand and are adding two additional key jobs to support short-term demand while allowing the team to also stay focused on our long-term customers.”
Challenges aside, positives abound. “Within the corporate segment, our city is performing at and above pre-pandemic levels, depending on the time of year. Overall, within the citywide segment, we have the same number of large-scale corporate events booked to take place in 2023 as we did in 2018,” Wheeler says.
There’s also much new, including a $2.5 billion plan to build a new terminal at San Antonio International Airport with expected completion in 2028. “This will greatly increase our number of gates and flights. Meanwhile, short-term improvements to the airport include three additional gates being added to the existing terminal facility, an expansion of the baggage claim system and new enhanced concessions. In addition, as part of Hemifair’s three-phase renovation, Civic Park, adjacent to Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, is slated for completion this fall. This five-acre park, designed to match the grandeur of parks such as Millennium Park in Chicago and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, will connect portions of downtown that have been visually divided for years. It will include a sprawling lawn, a promenade and water features. The outdoor amenities will be able to host 10,000 – 15,000 people for large events,” Wheeler adds.
The city still sees staffing shortages across the hospitality industry, yet, Wheeler says, “Our community has done a great job restoring many pre-pandemic amenities and services, even with this decrease in overall staffing. We continue to focus on workforce development, as well as educational awareness of the successes of the hospitality industry to promote opportunities within our local industry. Hospitality represents the third largest industry for San Antonio and continued attention and resources are allocated to support it accordingly. Within the next few years, multiple new higher-end hotel products will be opening in our downtown corridor. Civic Park will be complete, our airport is undergoing a major expansion – these shifts provide a fantastic, updated slate for corporate and incentive meetings to launch from.”
Wheeler advises planners to provide as much flexibility in RFPs as possible. “If there are incentives or elements that would help support additional, event-function space flexibility, include those details so our sales team can exhaust all potential options for your event.”
Kevin Kane, president & CEO of Memphis Tourism, is seeing growth and affordability trends in his city. “Memphis has experienced a flurry of new full-service hotel development that has created renewed interest in the market for site visits, and additional new hotel inventory is on the way,” he says. “This has encouraged existing hoteliers to invest in their properties to keep up with the evolving market of fresh new-build inventory.”
Memphis, Kane notes, is known as an affordable destination for both leisure and business travelers increasingly looking for ways to save money and time with both accommodations and transportation options. He says, “This has led to an increase in the need for and availability of ride-sharing services, new routes and expanded frequencies by airlines and increased competition by low-cost carriers entering the market.”
In terms of growth, Kane labels this “the year of the river in Memphis,” with the enhancement of the riverfront and Tom Lee Park among the city’s biggest projects. “The new park design is grounded and inspired by the dynamic ecological features of the Mississippi River,” he says.
Among its features will be a 20,000 sf Civic Canopy offering a covered space for recreation and events, meditative paths weaving through the riverside forest creating intimate gathering spaces, 1,000 new trees, shoreline pollinator plantings and an endangered butterfly habitat. The park is scheduled to open Labor Day weekend.
Additionally, more docks are under construction to facilitate increased cruise traffic on the river. The city also recently invested $200 million to renovate the convention center, there’s a new concourse at Memphis International Airport and a new $60 million-plus youth and amateur sports complex aimed at bringing sports tournaments to the city.
Staffing remains an issue. “While many industries were able to shift to a remote workforce, hotels, restaurants and airlines faced major layoffs and demand fluctuations and are now playing catch up. Hiring and training staff in a tight market remains a challenge, even though tourism and hospitality jobs now exceed 2019 numbers.”
On the good news front, Kane says that, last year, the local tourism industry recovered by more than 102% of 2019 levels, and the city’s recovery trajectory outpaced U.S. recovery rates by more than 5%. “While corporate has been the slowest market to return, meetings and group business are coming back strong in Memphis, tourism infrastructure was planned and in progress as the pandemic began, and we were ready with new assets as the world started traveling and meeting in person once again. Our destination remains focused on infrastructure development that supports our industry, such as new hotel development, which, while challenging, is not impossible. More than anything, our partnerships with the Greater Memphis Chamber, our business community and local airport authority have grown stronger as we work together as a unit to rebuild critical business and address air-service needs for our destination.”
In Nashville, trends include attendees wanting to experience the destination in unique, interactive ways.
Adrienne Siemers, chief sales officer with Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, says, “Our community is constantly brainstorming custom behind-the-scenes experiences at attractions and venues, partnerships with award-winning local chefs and, of course, unique experiences involving our local music scene.”
Nashville’s music and honky-tonk scene is well known and loved, but Siemers says the city is starting to attract a new upscale clientele thanks to an increase in high-end hotels, including Four Seasons, Conrad, the 1 Hotel and Southall Farm & Inn. A Ritz-Carlton will open in 2025. “Hotel inventory has increased by 18% since 2020,” Siemers says, “so there are several new options available for those who have sourced us previously.”
Nashville International Airport recently unveiled its new 200,000 sf Grand Lobby with a single TSA checkpoint with 24 security lanes and new scanner technology that allows passengers to keep electronics and liquids in their bags. All airport projects and amenities should be completed by the end of the year.
Not surprising, Nashville is also challenged by short booking windows, resulting in groups facing a lack of preferred date availability in 2023 and 2024. “We’d love to see planners start booking out further into the future — 2025 and beyond,” Siemers says. She also advises planners to not underestimate the Nashville Effect. “Book larger blocks than you anticipate in order to accommodate additional attendance due to destination appeal,” Siemers says. “We’re a city in high demand.”
Increased bookings validate that statement. She continues, “In March 2023, STR reported Nashville’s hotel group segment demand was up 19% vs. March 2022 and up 5% vs. March 2019. We were thrilled to see record-breaking hotel performance in 2022. Forecasts indicate we’ll exceed this record room demand in 2023, so we’re encouraged.”
Siemers says there’s light at the end of the tunnel in terms of staffing shortages. “Leisure and hospitality job opportunity in Nashville has increased 14% year over year,” she says. “Most sales teams are now fully staffed. However, there’s still work to do in hiring additional frontline staff, but there’s progress. Hotels are raising wages and providing additional benefits to attract new employees, and we recently hosted another successful job fair to support their hiring efforts.”
Looking forward, Siemers says the sky is the limit. “Nashville is a community full of creatives — musicians, chefs and designers. I’m inspired every day to watch our community work to find creative, custom options for groups. Our city continues to evolve and change for the better with new product. That’s a huge benefit for groups looking to create new experiences. If you’ve not been to Nashville lately, come see the changes firsthand.”
Casandra Matej, president & CEO of Visit Orlando, also points to new building projects. “This year, we’ll welcome several new hotels, including the Conrad Orlando, part of the expansive Evermore Orlando Resort,” she says. “We also offer increased accessibility for business travelers with the addition of high-speed rail connecting Miami to Orlando, and health services are elevated with the new Orlando Health Virtual Care Center at the Orange County Convention Center.”
Matej says bookings for city-wide events are on par with pre-pandemic levels in 2023, and well ahead of them for 2024. Through February 2023, Orange County Convention Center citywide attendance exceeded the prior year by 27% with 27 events and exceeded pre-pandemic (2019) performance by 4%. Demand for convention hotels through February YTD exceeded the prior year by 31% and surpassed 2019 February YTD figures by 1%. Advance hotel bookings for group business are pacing ahead of 2022 during every month of this year so far.
Matej emphasizes that the future for meetings in Orlando is bright. “As a destination that values meetings, we know it’s vital that we continuously expand and evolve to offer new options for planners to create memorable meetings and incentive trips that will keep them coming back. For example, we have an entirely new theme park, Epic Universe from Universal Orlando Resort, opening in 2025, and the MICHELIN Guide is adding new Orlando restaurants for the 2023 edition. We like to say the only thing that limits you in Orlando is your imagination. As a city committed to hospitality, we’ll continue to expand our imagination to welcome meeting and incentive groups from around the world.”
As for planners, she adds, all they need to do is partner with Visit Orlando. “We provide planners with a set of ‘boots on the ground’ to help craft unforgettable events for attendees in our city; we are at a planner’s service.”
In Miami, short booking windows are also an issue. David Whitaker, president & CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, “The decision-making and commitment timeline to confirm a destination continues to dramatically shorten, exacerbating a long trend, but now literally as close in as six to nine months. In such uncertain and fluid times, meeting planners and key decision-makers have to continue to balance uncertain times with the more predictable and forecastable needs and expectations of the lodging and venue industry. Flexibility and predictability are in a constant push and pull.”
An ancillary challenge to the short booking-window issue is the remaining backlog of meetings and events canceled or postponed in the past two years. On the upside for those on the hospitality and event supply side, Whitaker says there’s a renewed need for face-to-face engagement and interaction. Another positive, he notes, is the much-anticipated groundbreaking and construction of the new on-campus host hotel at the Miami Beach Convention Center, which begins in earnest this summer.
Despite challenges, Whitaker says interest in meeting in Miami and Miami Beach has never been stronger, driven in part by the $640 million renovation and expansion of the Miami Beach Convention Center and scheduled 800-room attached hotel. “But the other key factor is the emerging popularity of the destination,” he says, “Miami and Miami Beach are coming off two consecutive years of record levels in hotel occupancy and demand. Dozens of businesses, some quite large and many international in scale, are relocating here and expanding our talent pool.”
With the convention center located just steps from Miami Beach, he adds, “Events held here are reporting record attendance and growing participation, especially from international markets.”
The future indicates continued strong interest, which Whitaker attributes to the destination and CVBs’ “commitment to customer service and overcoming any and all obstacles,” so that planners and their delegates thrive. And, he adds, “That success is a two-way street for our partners.”
The Empire State is far more than its famous namesake city. Many planners and groups are well aware of the beauty — and comparative affordability — of the upstate region. Gina Mintzer, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce & CVB, says the trends she sees include more blending of business and leisure travel, a desire by business travelers to connect with each other and the community outside of meetings, as well as to get a close-up look at the inner workings of hotels and other businesses – back-of-the-house tours and presentations on various topics, such as financials, marketing and staffing.
She’s excited about increased investment in her region. “Several partners in our destination are completing multi-million dollar re-investment in properties and new meeting spaces that can accommodate more people, including the newly expanded Queensbury Hotel ballroom and meeting space and the soon-to-open Carriage House at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center. Both properties now have over 15,000 sf of conference and event space,” says Mintzer.
She adds that the biggest challenges are driven by a sellers’ market. “Property rates have increased tremendously due to inflation, staffing, and cost of food and other goods. Additionally,” she says, “leisure travel and special-event demands are strong, so meetings that begin mid-week with a weekend component may need more negotiation and lead time for planning and booking. Winter, late spring and late fall are the best times in terms of space, rates and engaging activities.”
Corporate groups are coming back stronger than ever, Mintzer notes, and average attendance has been on the rise. “There’s pent-up demand for connections, especially for those corporations that are investing in their remote staff to attend and feel the connections,” she says.
Fortunately, the pre-summer season hiring is up compared to the last two years, and Mintzer says destination partners are excited about the quantity and quality of new hires, leading to some businesses forecasting success for the coming months. “With more qualified candidates, hotels and venues are anticipating greater revenue opportunities.”
Mintzer is very positive about the future. “The Lake George area offers a variety of options for groups to meet and retreat. In addition to unique venues, planners can also find unique activities to enhance the attendee experience. We’ll be able to host larger events because of the continued investment in properties by our partners.”
CVBs across the nation are experiencing many of the same challenges, from short booking timelines to staffing issues. Yet, the overall picture as they see it is encouraging for destinations, as well as for the planners. None of us has a crystal ball, but the signs for a positive 2023 and beyond are encouraging. C&IT