by Ron Donoho | May 01, 2018

Every destination has a story to tell. For a multitude of circumstances that may include superior service, budget deals, inviting climate, airline accessibility, and geographic desirability, many cities have wisely learned to focus on and promote to planners the uniquely essential essence of their meeting venues.

The big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have name recognition. While these "tier 1" destinations still must educate meeting planners about their convention spaces and hotel blocks, they don't have to work as hard to attract attention as some small or mid-sized cities.

Rest assured, there are some fantastic stories to be told about destinations -- across the United States and all over the globe -- that don't necessarily house mega convention centers or tens of thousands of hotel rooms.

For example: Internationally, a "Going Dutch" initiative by Rotterdam and The Hague is showcasing the architectural wonders and cultural institutions that exist outside Amsterdam. And Visit Britain is helping groups think outside of London, while Colombia is making a push to show the world it's become a stable and attractive option for meetings.

Just the tip of the iceberg in the U.S.: Louisville is going big in the Midwest with the launch of the Omni Louisville and major renovations on the Kentucky International Convention Center; and destinations like St. Louis, Colorado Springs, and Palm Beach, FL, all have stories to tell about their up-and-coming facilities.

Just because a tree isn't the tallest one in the forest doesn't mean it doesn't have beautiful boughs. Here, then, is a look at more details from a handful of cities getting the word out about their special charms and unique meeting facilities.

Long Beach

A recent $60 million modernization of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center is turning heads in Southern California. It features 400,000 square feet of modern, flexible, and special event space -- and is being labeled "boutiquey" and "Instagrammable."

Instagrammable? "The closer you look at us the more interesting we are," says Jeff Forney, vice president of marketing, membership, and special projects for the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Millennials actually find us very appealing."

The city is in the shadows of Los Angeles, and to some degree competes with Anaheim as well -- but really is in competition with "the big-box hotels, like Gaylord," Forney says.

Long Beach is nestled up against the Pacific Ocean and is selling the "California Coastal" look and feel to groups up and down the state, as well as those in the Mid-Atlantic area (Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Virginia) and the Midwest.

For budget deals, the city's convention center, outdoor patio area, terrace plaza, and theater all offer "turnkey" services that offer savings to meeting planners. These venues come packaged with preinstalled theatrical/event lighting and sound systems.

Long Beach designed its facilities with a theme of "Connect, Collaborate, and Community." This is highlighted by lots and lots of unique seating spaces -- think leather couches, chandeliers, mirrors -- spread all over the entire space. The furniture is intended to provide areas for attendees to keep conversations going after breakout sessions.

Like the lights and sound systems in the city's convention center and 45,000-square-foot Pacific Ballroom, the furniture is also a permanent fixture that does not need to be rented.

Stephanie Stephens appreciates the cost savings and is wowed by the reaction of her attendees to value-added details like the furniture.

"I love how they've added it to the hallway and the foyer," says Stephens, executive director of the California Park & Recreation Society. "I walk by and see people in those conversation pits using them for networking. It's energizing."

The society's 70th Annual Conference & Exposition went to Long Beach this past March with 1,500 attendees (up 9 percent over last year) and 200 exhibitors. Since 2014, the California Park & Rec Society has alternated its meeting between Long Beach and its home base of Sacramento. Prior to that, they met at destinations all over the state, in a North/South rotation.

"Long Beach is a lovely city and their convention center is the perfect size for us," Stephens says. "When we bid to larger cities, we can't afford the $250 room nights. Long Beach comes in at a more affordable $210."

She raves about Long Beach's hip, outdoor party spot called The Cove, and its simulated under-the-pier motif. It's adorned with large-scale street murals, underwater-style decorations, and a giant crystal chandelier.

"We had the most amazing welcome reception at The Cove," Stephens says. "They went all out. We found that we can give Long Beach our craziest ideas and they can create whatever we want. I'll say this, when you find a good conference staff like this, you hold onto them."


Some destinations mix the feel of being a big city with small-town ambience.

Look at Baltimore: It has major attractions like the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor; respected institutions of higher learning like Johns Hopkins University; and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Major League Baseball edifice that pioneered the oft-copied modern-retro design.

Along with a 425,000-square-foot downtown convention center that has accommodated groups of up to 20,000 attendees, Charm City offers affordability and genuine small-town hospitality.

"Our customers already have a fair share of knowledge of our city beforehand," says Amy Calvert, senior vice president of convention sales for Visit Baltimore. "We have ease of access from all along the East Coast, and we have some of the leading medical and educational institutions in the country."

If you'd asked Calvert seven years ago who Baltimore competes with -- especially for medical groups -- she'd have said Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. (Indeed, Baltimore is sometimes seen as existing in the shadow of the nation's capital.) Today, she says the city also competes with Nashville, Austin, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Columbus, OH.

Regarding D.C.: "Yes, we're close to them, but Baltimore is so rich in history and we have such cool neighborhoods," Calvert says. "We're always repurposing neighborhoods and elevating our culinary scene. Add to that, we're close to the airport and you don't need a car to get around while you're here."

Calvert believes the key to selling Baltimore is her team. "We have an incredibly positive team across the whole organization, including sales and service," she says. "Everybody is into what they do -- they love working with clients and exceeding expectations and customizing solutions."

Kathleen Wert points to Visit Baltimore's team as the tipping point for getting her business. "I love the people there -- they are enthusiastic, and they love their city," says Wert, director of the Arlington, VA--based American Statistical Association. "You can trust them, and it's hard to find people you can believe in beyond them just trying to sell you space."

The ASA met in Baltimore in 2017, bringing 6,579 attendees from all over the world, including statisticians from partner societies in Canada, England, and China. It's a program-heavy meeting, running as many as 45 concurrent sessions.

The association usually books its meeting in an East Coast/West Coast rotation. Last year was already supposed to be an East Coast year, but Wert notes that a few years ago she started putting out RFPs to all qualified cities on both coasts every year.

"Baltimore won the business by being truthful and honest and telling us how they could meet our needs," Wert says. "They let us have the whole convention center at a decent price. I understand that they want to keep the center as full as possible as much of the time as they can. But they were flexible."

Wert says cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco get a boost in attendance because those cities excite attendees. "I talked about those challenges, and Baltimore showed me how other groups conquered those challenges," she says.

"We have to be great storytellers," Calvert says. "And we specifically created a director of marketing position to help understand a group's strategy and to help drive attendance."

Huntington Beach

Groups that don't need a convention center but are lured by oceanfront properties and ocean views are discovering the Huntington Beach Collection. This So Cal beach town's four major hotel properties have teamed up to offer groups 1,400 rooms and 185,000 square feet of meeting space.

It's ideal for pharmaceutical groups, product launches, and sales kickoffs, says Huntington Beach Executive Vice President of Sales and Administration John Ehlenfeldt. "Planners deal with my team and my team deals with the hotels," he says.

It's just a three-quarter-mile walk between all four hotels -- Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, Hilton's The Waterfront Beach Resort, Paseo Hotel & Spa, and Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel -- which are proximal to a new retail complex, restaurants, and the iconic Surf City USA pier.


The edge in Seattle: natural beauty, says Rob Hampton, senior vice president, convention sales and services for Visit Seattle.

Yes, at roughly 200,000 square feet, Seattle's Washington State Convention Center is one of the smallest on the West Coast. The facility currently attracts a fair share of medical conventions, especially groups with 3,500 to 4,000 attendees, but has also hosted international groups of up to 10,000.

A new, 255,000-square-foot convention center -- two blocks away from the current one -- is scheduled to break ground this year. A 1,236-room Sheraton anchors the current center; a new, 1,260-room Hyatt Regency will anchor the new one.

"Everybody is competing for association business these days and rotations are not as tight as they have been in the past," Hampton says. "We compete up and down the West Coast and with Denver and Las Vegas. But we have great lift -- plenty of airlines -- and every conventioneer is also a tourist. We're also a world-class destination with restaurants and culture."