by Andrea Doyle | July 05, 2016
Orlando, Las Vegas, Chicago…it's no surprise these cities rank high on industry lists of top meeting destinations in the U.S. But Columbus, OH; Carlsbad, CA; and Hollywood, FL are probably a bit more unexpected. Smaller cities are coming on strong as meeting destinations. Thanks to factors such as affordability, air connectivity, modern meeting facilities, and extra levels of service, these smaller destinations are making a big impact with planners.

"Meetings and events are critically important to the economies of cities of all sizes around the world," says Kevin Fliess, vice president of marketing for Cvent's Hospitality Cloud in Tysons Corner, VA. "During the past five years we have tracked how cities across the U.S. compete. Factors that have often created a difference have included investments in infrastructure, hotel renovations within a city, economic factors that make a destination more appealing, and offering an alternative to mainstream destinations."

Many planners have determined that being a big fish in a small pond is better than being the opposite. "With all the destination development occurring, the lines are getting blurred," says Christine Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, managing director of Destination Marketing Association International's, based in Washington, D.C. "I feel that the term 'tier' is really outdated, as planners need to dive into the overall experience of their meetings and events. It's more than just space when it comes to the overall attendee experience."

It's important to understand who your attendees are and match them with a destination they will find appealing. In the "Decision to Attend Study," a collaboration among IAEE, PCMA, and The Experience Institute, 82 percent of respondents report that the destination definitely factors into their decision on whether to attend a meeting or conference.  

According to Shimasaki, a new behavioral profile template is being tested to help planners and CVBs work together to understand the match between the attendee and destination.

Defining tiers in the meetings industry is a topic that has been discussed often, yet there are no steadfast designations. What may be a first-tier destination to one planner may be a second-tier destination to another.'s Destination Finder is a logical place to start the research process as it allows a planner to easily search and compare meeting needs across multiple destinations.

Southern Charm
"Great cities aren't born; they're made," said Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, SC. The city's Main Street is currently undergoing a surge in revitalization. From specialty stores like Uptown Gifts and Mast General Store to the striking exhibits at the Columbia Museum of Art, this is a lively area brimming with culture.

When it's time to get down to business, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center has 142,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including a 24,000-square-foot column-free exhibit hall that can accommodate meetings of 25 to 2,500 attendees, and a beautifully landscaped terrace. The only downtown convention center in the state of South Carolina, it's steps away from restaurants, music venues, and lounges.

Although the city is going through unprecedented growth and revitalization, Columbia also maintains all the great attributes that come with a smaller city.

Take the convention center. It customizes over 80 percent of its food-and-beverage orders. Instead of simply offering a set menu, the chef often starts by asking the planner what type of cuisine and ambience they'd like. He builds a custom menu based on these needs.

"When you are meeting in a smaller convention center like Columbia's, you feel very catered to because you are the only group in-house," says Carla Blanton Sims, executive director of the Carolinas Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association, based in Charlotte, NC. She recently planned a convention here for a group of 475.

Another advantage was the incentives her group received. "The rebates you get when meeting in a smaller city are greater," she adds. Parking, Wi-Fi…items you may have to pay for in first-tier cities are often part of the package in smaller cities.