by Ron Donoho | July 05, 2017
The concept of "affordability" means different things to different meeting planners. It's all relative, right? Much of what may be deemed affordable in one planner's eye is directly attributable to the specific needs of his or her conference or event attendees.

To wit: A conference that's heavy on international attendees may need to strongly consider picking a city based on its airport situation -- not just the cost of airfares but also the time and effort required to get from a destination's airport to the convention center.

Then again, airfares might not matter as much to a regional event where the bottom line is based on providing affordable room rates and food-and-beverage bargains.

Yet another group may have very specific Wi-Fi needs, or may need just the right off-site venue that can't be too expensive to rent. Or, a group may be predominantly filled with attendees looking for nightlife options, shopping excursions, golf outings, or just about any leisure activity imaginable.

It's possible to rank destinations on affordability based on collectible data. For example, Business Travel News (owned by Successful Meetings parent company Northstar Travel Group) rates cities' meal, hotel room, and car rental cost breakdowns in its 33rd annual "Corporate Travel Index." Yes, it's more expensive to eat, stay in a hotel room, and rent a car in New York City and San Francisco than it is in Bakersfield, CA, and Biloxi, MS. But that doesn't mean a more affordable city (based on any particular list) meets all the needs of a planner whose sights are set on a successful event.  

According to respondents to Successful Meetings' 2017 Affordable Cities Survey, planners with event budgets ranging from less than $10,000 to more than $1 million, rated the most important factor in determining affordability to be room accommodations (83 percent), followed by meeting space (66 percent), and airfare (57 percent).

Readers who responded to the poll also rated room accommodations (36 percent) as the easiest factor to negotiate, trailed by meeting space (32 percent) and on-site food-and-beverage costs (14 percent).

And the top-three reasons cited in the poll for seeking out an affordable city were: location makes it easy for a majority of attendees to get there (76 percent); budget rules out more expensive destina-tions (56 percent); and cost saved on the meeting will be used to come in under budget (22 percent).

That's all by the numbers. Here's a look at three planners' events and the cities they chose based on the affordability factors most important to their organizations.

Airfares and Wi-Fi
Wendy Holliday, executive director of PLM World, held an annual meeting in Indianapolis last May that attracted 2,235 attendees. The highly tech-driven event included over 500 educational sessions and a trade show with 95 exhibitors.

Airlift and airfare are considerations for Holliday, because roughly 20 percent of her attendees are international visitors. If it takes an hour and a half to get from the airport to the conference site, that's an issue. Holliday also says walkability of a destination is key -- it's a plus to be able to easily get from the convention center to the hotels. Indianapolis offers that, she says.

However, disseminating tech ideas is a huge part of the conference. The group brings in its own servers because they use proprietary software that is not on the cloud. Holliday says they set up three intranets related to the show: for training rooms, for speakers, and a general one for attendees.

"Indy went smoother than other cities," Holliday says. "Wi-Fi costs can vary  as much as $30,000 to $150,000 from city to city. It might be free in some instances, but that free service might not be up to what you need. I'd rather pay for good service."

She says a planner should specifically ask what "free Wi-Fi" means. Does it mean 5,000 simultaneous users? 1,000? 200? If you don't have enough bandwidth it can affect the whole show, Holliday says.

"We offer comprehensive Internet, data networking, and equipment rental services to clients and exhibitors through exclusive provider Smart City," says Debbie Hennessey, convention center director for the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium. "Whether it is booth-to-booth, room-to-room, VLAN configuration, or setting up a cyber café, Smart City will provide the requested design."