Diane Whitsitt showed up for work one day in January 2016 and was greeted by a puzzling request for proposal (RFP) in her general email inbox. Visit Indy's director of sales administration was slightly skeptical -- but highly intrigued. She quickly passed the blind RFP message on to National Sales Manager Minerva Garcia.
"We were excited, but a little confused by the note," says Visit Indy's Arnheim. "There was a space on the form that asked what the group's needs were, and it said '40,000.' We weren't sure if this was for real -- and we honestly didn't know if they meant square feet or attendees."
Within hours of receiving the email and after some quick research, Garcia got on the phone. It turned out that with just a little over a year before its huge biannual convention, financial services company Primerica needed to move the event, scheduled to take place in Atlanta. And they needed space for 40,000-plus people.
For a group of that size, a year is a mere splinter of time. Primerica, which is based in Duluth, GA (a northern suburb of Atlanta), ordinarily has its biannual meeting planned four years in advance. That's somewhat easily managed, since for the past 20 years it has held the Primerica International Convention in Atlanta, where it has made use of the Georgia Dome, home football stadium of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
But the Georgia Dome was being phased out in favor of the shiny, new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, complete with a retractable roof. The new stadium construction was originally slated to be completed on March 1, 2017, three months before Primerica's convention date. But 15 months before it was due to open, it was clear the stadium would not be ready (today, it's open for business).
Meeting planner Lynn Williams calmly began looking for a replacement venue. She and Debbie Thomas, executive vice president of meetings and conventions for Primerica, were considering three to four alternatives, but were immediately impressed with how fast representatives from Indianapolis got back to them.
Within days of Garcia's return phone call, Williams and Thomas had a full proposal on their desks. One week later they were in Indy for a site visit.
Everything continued to move quickly. Visit Indy's Arnheim says the city was able to lock down a room block within a week and a half -- about two to three times quicker than is normally possible.
"We knew this wasn't a typical negotiation -- there wasn't time," Arnheim says. "But we're fortunate to have strong, ongoing relationships with our partners in the city. There were a lot of follow-up emails, and we got it done quickly."
That impressed Primerica's Thomas. "We really noticed the teamwork that exists with their hotels," she says. "They're all competitors for business, but they all worked together as a city to get our convention business." Indeed, the economic impact of Primerica's convention is estimated to be $34 million.
Some perspective: Indianapolis has 7,200 downtown hotel rooms (4,700 of which are connected to the 750,000-square-foot Indiana Convention Center and the 63,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium). Primerica blocked 5,500 of those downtown rooms.
You can do the math -- Primerica was coming in with 43,000 attendees. The convention wound up being spread across 87 hotels -- some located 60 miles out from the primary venue of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Interestingly, Thomas says some of the Primerica attendees made use of rental homes found on Airbnb. It's the first time she's noticed that.
"Our people were adaptable," Thomas says. "This is a meeting for our sales force and they came in work teams, and many of those teams stayed together in the hotels on the outskirts, and rode buses or took Uber together."
Thomas says Primerica's convention is a combination between a rock concert and a business convention. Everybody fills the stadium venue each day for high-energy motivational presentations.
"We kick it off with a DJ or music and people go crazy," Thomas says. "It's exciting and fun. There's a [civilized] mosh pit in front of the stage as people run up while we give out 1,200 recognition awards."
Primerica worked with Visit Indy to slightly rejigger the convention schedule they'd become accustomed to in Atlanta. An extra general session was held in Lucas Oil Stadium; and on "Hierarchy Night" when all the sales teams confer as groups, 60 simultaneous meetings were held in the convention center and four nearby hotels.
The excitement later spilled out onto the street (Indy's Georgia Street, by coincidence) for a big street festival with food trucks and lots of entertainment.
At Political Odds
Idaho hasn't traditionally been a go-to meetings destination for national events, but Boise recently made a $48 million investment in its convention center, increasing exhibition floor space to 88,000 square feet. And before it even opened, the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau got a call from a group -- larger than any it had ever hosted -- that needed a replacement venue 11 months out.
Cities like Pittsburgh offer big-city
attractions, infrastructure, and venues
with a more personal touch than a
major metropolis might offer
The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) was slated to hold its June 2017 annual convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. But the CSTE found itself at odds with the North Carolina state law (since amended) requiring people to use bathrooms based on the gender on their birth certificate rather than the gender they identified as.
"We're a scientific/professional development group, but many of our members are state and local employees," says CSTE Director of Operations Beverly Christner. "And a lot of the states and cities where our attendees were coming from -- especially New York City and Los Angeles -- had restrictions on traveling to North Carolina."
Christner says the travel restrictions on CSTE members probably would have deflated attendance at a Raleigh meeting by 30 to 40 percent. She notes that since North Carolina changed its "bathroom law," CSTE will return to Raleigh for a future meeting.
Boise's recent $48 million investment
in its convention center has allowed
it to better serve larger groups
But for this year's convention, she had to leap into replacement mode. CSTE had previously met in Boise, way back in 2004, but at the time, the epidemiologists group was much smaller (about 500 attendees) than the 1,526-attendee block that it is today.
"It was key that CSTE reached out to us based on a previous relationship that Beverly Christner had with our senior sales manager, Lisa Edens," says Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Carrie Westergard.
Even though it had been 13 years and a lot had changed on both sides of the planner/venue equation, Christner and Edens were still in each other's contact list, and a positive history helped give Boise a leg up on at least two other cities in contention.
The Boise CVB sent out bids to local hotel properties in mid-July 2016, about the same time Christner arrived for an initial site inspection. In September 2016, Christner returned for a second site inspection and an executive board meeting along with CSTE Executive Director Jeff Engel, and local epidemiologist members of the council.
In October of that year, the convention was confirmed, and 13 hotels -- including three brand-new properties with a collective total of 400-plus rooms -- were contractually on board.
Christner offers kudos to the Boise team. "We're now at a point where we are planning this meeting three years out," she says. "You don't want to be in a position where we were, but Boise made the process much less painful. It's a great city that's very service oriented, and I think a lot of people would be surprised to see what they have to offer."
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This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Successful Meetings.