by Alex Palmer | March 03, 2017

Drivers of Culture
While new infrastructure is helping boost a number of destinations, Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management for AIMIA, emphasizes that incorporating local culture into meetings and events is becoming more expected as the ages in the workforce trend younger and meetings become more experiential -- and destinations rich in culture are attracting more meetings.

"Convention planners are required to think creatively and find ways to show attendees tried-and-true destinations in new ways," she says.

This is making more international destinations with distinctive local cultures a good bet for meetings groups. Boisner points to two destinations in particular: Iceland -- an easy option for both European and U.S. travelers that is "both safe and provides the scenery and 'soft adventure' many attendees desire" -- and Montenegro, "known for the varied landscape and ability to cater to various groups with a superior hotel product."

 

The Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church
is one of Iceland's many stunning
cultural attractions

Iceland includes venues such as Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, in the heart of Reykjavik, which provides terrific views of the surrounding mountains and North Atlantic Ocean, as well as more than 21,600 square feet of conference space. Or there's Blue Lagoon, with a 90-person-capacity meeting room, 12-person-capacity boardroom, and LAVA Restaurant, with capacity for up to 1,000 attendees -- in a venue where visitors can also take a dip in geothermal waters. It also has a strong room inventory, with properties such as the 251-room Hilton Reykjavik Nordica and the 220-room Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura. These attractions are among the reasons Reykjavik was selected as the site of this year's Global Incentive Summit, hosted by Successful Meetings' parent company, Northstar Meetings Group, taking place this November.

Boisner also cites Slovenia, with a central location in Europe, which boasts "a spectacular food and wine scene, and...its lakes and picturesque mountain scenery." She also mentions Colombia as "experiencing a resurgence in meetings due to the increased tourism and infrastructure built around the beach city of Cartagena."

"Millennials are driving planners to consider emerging destinations more seriously," explains Linda McNairy, vice president of global operations and shared services for American Express Meetings & Events, pointing out that according to the American Express Meetings & Events "2017 Global Meetings Forecast," the Millennial demographic makes up about one-fifth of all global travelers. "One supplier responding to our Forecast explained that Millennials 'continue to influence the travel industry by prioritizing unique and personal experiences more than material goods.' This phenomenon has led to planners looking for different types of locations that cater to 'cooler activities' such as musical events or quiet spaces for reflection."

Fitting the bill is the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin, which has invested in new infrastructure to buttress its existing attractions for groups.

"Groups continue to love Austin, and rightly so," says Boisner. "Hotel properties work to keep up with the demand. We like to call it 'the city that has it all,' including hotel product, food, music, culture, and climate." [See our site report about Austin on page 58.]

Seattle and Portland are "growing as second-tier alternatives to larger cities, especially popular with the Millennial demographic," according to McNairy. Then there is Nashville, which continues to add new properties.

 

Nashville is full of country
music-infused venues and properties

Last year, Music City achieved a record 70-month streak of year-over-year growth in the number of hotel rooms sold, a first for any top-50 destination, according to research firm STR, and it hit a record 13.9 million visitors for the year. As groups are seeking one-of-a-kind venues infused with history and culture, Nashville's offerings, from the 2,360-capacity Ryman Auditorium (once home to the Grand Ole Opry) to the 280-capacity Sutler Saloon, are tailor-made for memorable, music-rich events. Next year will see the opening of the 533-room JW Marriott Nashville in downtown, with 50,000 square feet of meeting space.

But Nashville isn't even the only music-oriented destination in the region catching planners' eyes this year. Chattanooga, TN, is having a big, music-filled 2017. This month it is opening the new Songbirds Guitar Museum, a collection of more than 300 classic guitars, celebrating the instrument's history and impact on music and pop culture. The museum is housed in the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex, built in the city's former Terminal Station, with a hotel, restaurants, and event spaces, and which is wrapping up a $20 million restoration. This is establishing an entertainment district in the middle of the city, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the song "Chattanooga Choo Choo," made famous by Glenn Miller.

"Many smaller cities and downtowns are gaining traction for certain features, such as breweries, wineries, or culture and arts," says Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP, chief executive officer of Convention Industry Council. "Many meeting professionals are looking for those special local touches to share with attendees and create an experience rather than just a meeting or event. Having personalized experiences for different audiences is important when a group is catering to different ages and backgrounds."

 

The local craft beer scene (and unusual
meeting spaces it provides) is drawing
groups to Grand Rapids

That's the case with Grand Rapids, MI, a city with a downtown packed with restaurants, clubs, theaters, and museums. Last year saw the reopening of the Gerald Ford Museum, and every fall the city plays host to the citywide international art competition, ArtPrize, over 19 days. The 158-acre Frederick Meijer Garden includes a vast variety of plant species, as well as bronze sculptures by Rodin and Degas and a 1,900-seat outdoor amphitheater. Known as Beer City USA, Grand Rapids includes 15 breweries and two cider mills, many of which are available for events (while properties such as the JW Marriott Grand Rapids and Amway Grand Plaza Hotel offer their own craft beer-themed packages for groups).

Another cultural hub catching travelers' eyes this year is Asheville, NC. Named as the No. 1 "best place to visit in the U.S. in 2017" by Lonely Planet, this city in the Blue Ridge Mountains boasts attractions such as the River Arts District, where almost 200 artists work out of studios in converted industrial buildings, as well as a thriving culinary scene and more than 1,500 new hotel rooms being added to its inventory. The city's event venues are as arty as the city itself. Groups can hold gatherings at the Asheville Art Museum, with an impressive collection of 20th- and 21st-century American art, as well as space for up to 200 attendees; or the Morris Hellenic Cultural Center, set in the historic Montford District, with a 5,000-square-foot banquet hall that can accommodate up to 300 people.

But fun and culture aren't the only aspects drawing in planners. AIPC's Cameron says that he has seen meetings and conventions emphasizing "serious business" over leisure.

"Many planners now seem to be looking more at destination features that complement their event objectives rather than just visitor attractions, and for some, like many medical meetings, even the suggestion that a destination is being selected on the basis of its leisure qualities can create real problems," he says.

That has meant many planners are focusing on the industry-specific resources that cities and destinations offer rather than the leisure elements.