by Leo Jakobson | July 01, 2015

When planning the annual National Business Conference for a brand as unique as Subaru of America, Ted Dicks, the Japanese automaker's shows and events manager, has more than a few factors to consider.

"The major goal of the conference is to get in front of all of our retailers, and our key marketing partners, as well as all of our own field staff," says Dicks. "It's the one time of year we get everybody under the same roof so we can communicate our corporate strategy."

While the content of the meeting is clearly the major draw, Dicks says the company strives to select venues that are "somewhat unique and true to the Subaru brand." That said, "Affordability is definitely a key determinant because all of the attendees pay their own way with hotel and airfare and so forth," according to Dicks. "Even though it's not our out-of-pocket costs, we definitely want to make sure that it's not a deterrent for people attending the meeting."

This year, Dicks picked Indianapolis. The first factor to turn Subaru's attention to "Indy," as the city convention and visitors bureau markets it, was that without a major new model introduction, the company wanted to showcase a significant expansion of its factory in Lafayette, IN, about an hour's drive away. Choosing Indy let the company incorporate tours and time on the factory's test track into the program.

"We did look at the room rates that we got at the various hotels," Dicks says, adding that Subaru ended up choosing the JW Marriott Indianapolis as its headquarters hotel, with two other nearby Marriott properties for spillover and staff. "They were very competitive to other destinations that we were looking at and have been to in the past. We also looked at the airlift into the city. We definitely wanted to make sure there was enough capacity and convenient flights going in and out of the city before we booked it."

The cost of a destination remains a key factor in decision-making, says Bonnie Boisner, vice president of events for Minneapolis-based Aimia, Subaru's third-party planning partner. "Budgets are always tight," she says. "Not as tight as they were two years ago, but people want more for their dollar. [Corporate meeting planners] are getting the same budgets as they did last year -- maybe a little more -- but every year they need to outdo what they did before. So yes, affordability comes up, I would say 70 to 80 percent of the time."

As a result, planners are looking at many second- and third-tier cities that provide a good bang for their buck, but are also interesting destinations that offer something else to attract people while they're not in meetings. This includes great dining options, lively nightlife and entertainment, or an exciting outdoors environment, among other factors.

"Groups have been to a lot of different places, but they are always looking for something new, somewhere different to go," Boisner says.

But knowing which new places to look at is key. "There are some destinations that people are not excited by until they get there, and then they are so blown away," says Mary Ann Grovak, design and purchasing manager of Minneapolis-based BI Worldwide.


Of course, not all of the affordable cities in the U.S. are unknown or even considered second tier, at least from a meetings industry perspective. In a survey of 112 corporate, association, and third-party planners conducted by Successful Meetings this spring, the top three cities mentioned were the top three in Cvent's annual list of the "Top 50 Meetings Cities:" Orlando, Chicago, and Las Vegas. And three more -- Dallas, Denver, and New Orleans -- were in both surveys' top 10.

"Clients are saying, 'I've really kind of done the main cities,'" says Sarah Williams, senior purchasing manager at Chicago-based BCD Meetings & Events. "A lot of people are trying to save money and they're looking for a different kind of experience that a second-tier city can offer."

Subaru's choice, Indianapolis, is one of those. "What we've been seeing in Indianapolis is the convention center expansion is really good," says Boisner. "We've got some big groups that probably didn't go there in the past that are considering it again."

There are more than 250 restaurants, shops and attractions in walking distance of downtown's Indiana Convention Center. "They built this city that is so compact and friendly, and so walkable, that you do not have to pay for ground transportation," says Grovak. "You can build an entirely walkable program. That is very rare."