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by Alex Palmer | May 28, 2013
The annual meeting for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is a major event. Over the course of one week, nearly 4,000 attendees take part in the conference, spending time on the trade show floor, in technical sessions, general sessions, and special events. 

While the event offers a huge range of activities and networking opportunities for the engineers who attend, it can also present serious challenges for a planner trying to secure all the space necessary for such a varied and large-scale program.

“It’s a hard meeting to fit because we’re picky about meeting space,” says Phyllis Klasky, director of events management for ASME. 

The association requires 45,000 to 55,000 square feet of trade show floor space, but also needs 80,000 to 100,000 square feet of concurrent space for meeting rooms — they run about 900 separate events and breakout sessions throughout the conference. Klasky admits, “It would be much easier to say, ‘I’m going to just do a big trade show and need a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall,’” than to find a property, or more likely multiple properties, that can accommodate their myriad needs.

But in planning this event, Klasky has found that one of the best ways to meet the group’s needs for space without having to spread things out over half a dozen properties has been to work with convention center hotels. Last year, when the ASME decided to hold its event at George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, a partnership with the nearby convention center hotel, Hilton Americas–Houston proved ideal.

ASME took over all of the Hilton’s meeting spaces, totaling more than 100,000 square feet, with about 30 breakout rooms in the hotel itself and 40 additional breakout rooms at the convention center. While the event had previously averaged less than 30 concurrent technical sessions, this time it had 43 that needed space. 

The third floor of the Hilton connects to the third floor of the convention center via a walkway between the two properties. This allowed ASME to hold many technical and committee sessions in the convention center, while almost all of the other gatherings took place throughout the hotel’s many facilities, including the exhibit hall.

“It was about 45 steps back and forth — it worked perfectly,” says Klasky.

Klasky’s experience has been shared by many other large conference groups that have faced challenges in trying to organize large-scale events with complex needs. Planners have found that convention hotels not only offer planners the benefit of proximity to the main trade show, but also often greater flexibility in negotiating meeting space and room blocks than a standalone hotel might. 

From arranging a wider range of F&B, or entertainment options, to locking in stronger contract terms, working with convention hotels offers a wide range of benefits to meeting planners. 

Building a Partnership
The partnership between convention hotels and convention centers can be a boon to meeting planners. The two organizations typically have histories of drafting contracts that are contingent on operations at both venues, which can provide added flexibility for the planner on many meeting elements. 

“Convention hotels provide more of everything, and meeting planners can host huge conventions under one roof,” says Dan Shaughnessy, director of sales and marketing for the Anaheim Marriott. 

While the hotel itself offers 100,000 square feet of meeting space and more than 1,000 guest rooms, it is only a few steps from the Anaheim Convention Center, which provides more than 815,000 square feet of exhibit space and an additional 130,000 square feet of meeting space. The recent construction of the Grand Plaza means that there is now an additional 100,000 square feet of open-air meeting and event space as well as a landscaped pedestrian plaza of palm trees, citrus trees, and fountains.

Shaughnessy gives the example of a “high-profile Fortune 500 company” that stayed in the hotel in mid-May. It used the property’s catering and event production services, security, shipping, and electrical services while hosting its main event at the convention center next door.

“They basically bought out the majority of our guest rooms and used every inch of our meeting space,” says Shaughnessy. “One of the reasons they selected our hotel is because it was large enough to meet their extensive needs and everything was self-contained. Being able to buy out our hotel as a full house group also provided them with extra privacy from competitors, the public, or other groups in the hotel.”

The value of convention hotels can be seen in their proliferation in destinations that have for a long time gone without them. Chicago’s McCormick Place recently announced plans for a new 1,200-room McCormick Place Headquarters Hotel to be completed in 2014. 

Washington, D.C., will be getting a convention hotel of its own when the Washington Marriott Marquis opens in May of next year. The addition, which boasts 1,175 rooms, 49 suites, and 105,000 square feet of function space, has come as great news to representatives of the destination.

The new hotel will be connected directly to the 2.3 million-square-foot Washington Convention Center via an underground concourse.

“It will be a game changer for us,” says Gregory O’Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, the official convention authority for the city. “Washington, D.C., is a unique market for hotels in that we have a height restriction here, so we have plenty of great hotels, but don’t have the really large hotels with enough rooms to support the convention market.”

In the past, convention groups that have visited D.C. have typically spread out over several properties, requiring transportation to and from the main event. This means not only significant transportation costs, but a more disconnected experience for meeting attendees.

O’Dell reports that they have already seen an uptick in convention interest from convention groups — who have booked more than 200,000 room nights specifically because of the new Marriott Marquee. 
“There are shows that were frankly too big, but now having the additional meeting space to utilize for their convention is bringing in business,” says O’Dell.

Contractual Advantages
In many cases, convention center hotels may be owned by the city, which presents its own advantages in contract negotiations. In particular, they are both able and willing to devote as much room inventory as necessary to attract a group to the city, while a private hotel might be less inclined to do the same.

“This saves the organization the hassle of having to sign separate contracts with one main hotel and several overflow hotels,” says D. Benson Tesdahl, an attorney with the law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, who specializes in corporate and contract law for meetings and conventions. “Instead, you sign a global advance contract with the city and in return you are promised that you will get the space you need in both the convention center and the hotel, although the convention center will eventually produce its own separate contract later.” 

However, Tesdahl points to one disadvantage as well. Since city-owned hotels often refuse to agree to an indemnity clause in the hotel contract, this limits the protection enjoyed by a meeting group if someone is injured. He adds that when a hotel is owned by a private party, usually an indemnity clause is usually included in the contract. 

ASME booked about 900 rooms at the Hilton Americas for the event’s peak night, and worked with several hotels in the area to line up rooms for additional attendees. They set up a registration at the Hilton and had a meeting information booth” at both the hotel and convention center.

After ASME signed the contracts for its space, it realized closer to the meeting that it needed more space for the growing technical program.

“We said, ‘We have a problem, can you help us out?’” says Klasky. “We ended up at the end of the convention center — a 99,000-square-foot exhibit hall, which was a far walk, but at the end of the day it offered what we needed.” 

One of the high points of the event is the Honors Assembly, which the association presents awards to about 10 recipients who have been doing outstanding work — generally older individuals receiving the honors as a kind of lifetime achievement award. The production values for the event are high, complete with an elaborate set, lighting and teleprompters for speakers, which makes it essential for the facilities where the events are held, including rehearsals and the final event, to be close by.

Similarly, Klasky finds working with convention hotels to work well for VIP gatherings where company presidents or boards can gather in one of the hotel’s suites for a more high-level discussion that’s still close to the trade show floor.

“They are going between rooms and sessions, so they need to be nearby if something should come up,” she says.

But Tesdahl adds that convention center contracts tend to be some of the most stringent a planner will face.

“They hardly ever allow any meaningful amendments to their contracts,” says Tesdahl. 

With that said, working with the adjacent hotel can offer a helpful ally that collaborates regularly with the convention center, and may know where opportunities for compromise can be found. 

Keeping It Close
The proximity between venues can also be an attractive offering beyond convenience.

“People like the campus environment of being able to walk from venue to venue,” says Michael Krouse, president and CEO of the Ontario Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Ontario Convention Center. “It gives them the chance to go out and get some air, mingle casually with attendees, and offers them a welcome change of settings — this type of setup has become popular.”

Sometimes the connection between the hotel and convention center can itself present an opportunity to enhance the meeting. The Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, NV, connects directly to the 500,000-square-foot Reno-Sparks Convention Center via a glass-enclosed Sky Bridge.

“You get beautiful sky views just walking to the convention center,” says John Carter, national sales director for the property. 

Meeting planners benefit by tapping into the highly collaborative relationship between the hotel and convention center. Carter often travels with Reno-Sparks representatives to trade shows, and they work together in putting together a package that will meet a planner’s needs.

“We will sometimes get multi-hotel users, where we get it to the CVB sales rep and they will pitch it to a number of hotels, which gives the group a real range of rates,” says Carter. “We may host one night, another hotel will host another.”

Anne Dunlavy, director of sales and marketing for JW Marriott Indianapolis, gives the example of a group that visited in April, after its planners had visited the property prior to its official opening in February 2011. The group used the convention center but also took advantage of JW Marriott’s 103,000 square feet of onsite function space, particularly its 40,500-square-foot grand ballroom. 

“It’s thinking about all of these — the options and amenities you have at your fingertips,” says Dunlavy. “Once they are here they have the offerings of not only the hotel but the option to walk the mall, the museum attractions, and the additional solutions beyond the conference agenda.”