New York's too expensive? Chicago's booked? Already done San Francisco?
So what? There are plenty of other places to meet: smaller, lesser-known cities that have more to offer than you might think. Best of all, they really want your business—as these planners' stories show.
Albuquerque, NM: Green Desert
MaryAnn Browning had never considered Albuquerque for a conference until she went there on a recent familiarization trip. Now, she's singing its praises. "I was blown away," says the meetings manager for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, in Rockford, IL. "It's become my new favorite city."
Browning says the city's strong suits include cleanliness, safety, a "phenomenal" CVB staff, accessibility (everything is a 15-minute drive from downtown—even wineries), proximity to the eclectic ambiance of Santa Fe, and affordability. "The pricing is very reasonable if you're looking for a desert atmosphere," says Browning. "And it's not all brown—there's green stuff, too." A 30-year industry veteran, Browning knows a good thing when she sees one, and is trying to talk her board into Albuquerque for next year.
If she succeeds, she'll be greeted by several new venues: the Embassy Suites Albuquerque, with 260 rooms and 24,000 square feet of meeting space, opened last year, while the Sandia Casino became the Sandia Resort & Casino, adding a 228-room hotel, championship golf course, 35,000 square feet of meeting space, and a 12,000-square-foot spa. Meanwhile, the National Hispanic Cultural Center introduced the Roy E. Disney Center for Performing Arts, featuring various group venues, including a 691-seat proscenium theater. The convention center also recently launched a $6-million renovation.
Columbus, OH: Discover America
This capital city is sometimes called "the crossroads of Ohio," which hints at a major plus for groups: location. Situated at the juncture of two interstate highways, Columbus is a natural for drive-to meetings; it's within 550 miles of over half the U.S. population. Even better, its airport is just 10 minutes from downtown and offers nonstop flights to 35 airports across the country.
Planner Jeanne McCormack of the American Composites Manufacturers Association in Arlington, VA, assumed Columbus was "a nothing little town" until her meeting there last September. "It's a great city for a convention," she says, citing Columbus' walkability and plethora of unique, non-chain restaurants in the convention area. For off-site events, she recommends A.D. Farrow—the oldest Harley-Davidson dealership in the country, where she held her opening reception for 1,800 people.
"Attendees loved Columbus," McCormack sums up. "We got record attendance and great feedback"—so much so that she's contemplating a return to the city in 2009. And if her group does go back, they'll find even more unique restaurants and shops in the Cap at Union Station, a new retail neighborhood that links Columbus' convention area with the eclectic galleries and boutiques of its arts district.
Hartford, CT: Ensuring Success
Until her counterpart for the New England region proposed it, "I would never have thought of Hartford for a meeting," says Edith Guffeye, conference organizer for the United Church of Christ, based in Cleveland, OH. It proved a felicitous suggestion, for not only is Hartford close to many UCC churches in the area, but with the unveiling last June of the Connecticut Convention Center, the city can now accommodate the 8,000 attendees expected at Guffeye's biennial convention in June 2007.
Hartford was once known as the insurance capital of the world. It's still the state capital, and is now aiming to become a meetings capital. Shortly after launching the convention center, the city unveiled the Marriott Hartford Downtown, with 409 rooms and 13,000 square feet of meeting space. And the 540,000-square-foot center that this headquarters property is adjacent to just happens to be the largest meeting place between New York and Boston.
Guffeye was also sold on Hartford because it's reasonably priced, accessible from many different places (plus the airport is only 12 miles from downtown), and easily walkable. "The bureau does a very good job of marketing the city," she adds. "That's key, because we use the CVB a lot between now and the conference, and if they weren't helpful, we wouldn't go there."
Pittsburgh: From Iron to Silk
When Albert Sunseri first told his members he was sending them to Pittsburgh for their next committee meeting, the reaction was predictable. "Several people called me to ask, 'What's wrong? Couldn't you find a better place?' " recalls the executive director of the American Society of Healthcare Engineering, in Chicago. "But it was first rate from beginning to end. Two years later, people are still talking about it." Why Pittsburgh? "I was talking about it with some folks from the bureau and they said, 'You must come and try it.' "
Sunseri confesses he took a bet on the erstwhile Steel City partly because he originally hails from there. But there was more—namely, its compact downtown area and high-quality, reasonably priced restaurants and hotels: "We got more for our money there."
In fact, although his group of 80 or so VIPs—heads of hospitals, government executives, and other health-care leaders—were accustomed to meeting in first-tier cities, Pittsburgh was such a smash hit that Sunseri has subsequently changed his whole method for site selection. "Now we've been meeting in places like Kansas City, Indianapolis, Austin, St. Louis—destinations [our attendees] don't generally go to—and really enjoying them," he says. But he's also plotting a return to Pittsburgh, possibly as soon as next year.
Salt Lake City: Solid Gold
You'd think having been the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics would put to rest any doubts about Salt Lake City's ability to host groups. Yet Carol Mack-Cudworth, CMP, meetings manager for the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration (SME) in Littleton, CO, had "very mixed emotions" about taking her 2005 conference there. She'd lived in Salt Lake City in the past and feared Utah's conservative culture wouldn't go over well with the 4,000 mining-industry professionals who were attending.
She was wrong. "Since the Olympics, Salt Lake City has really stepped up to become modern," says Mack-Cudworth, adding that she was "very pleased" with the service she received at the hotels (her headquarters was the Marriott Downtown) and the Salt Palace Convention Center. "I think most planners fall back on the stereotype of Utah instead of seeing [it for themselves]," she concludes. "Because of the level of service we got from the bureau, plus our attendance level, we're going back in 2008."
The SME will probably have company. Because of last summer's hurricanes, Salt Lake City recently picked up three conventions that New Orleans was unable to host, along with a fourth group originally headed to Orlando. The largest of these include next January's annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, with 5,000 attendees, and Rotary International's yearly convention in June 2007, with 25,000.
SIDEBAR - Three More to Watch
"The convention center staff bent over backward for us," says Janet Wallace, who runs one of the largest African-American expos in the country: the Marietta, GA-based International Hair Show. Indeed, her show last May was so successful she inked a four-year contract with the city.
"We were a small group but got treated like a big guy, which I appreciated," says Chicago-based independent planner Sue Walton, who took 120 academics there last summer. "The CVB staff was super-friendly and even arranged for a local government official to speak to our group."
"The CVB is great," says Washington D.C.-based planner Diane Melton, who will be sending up to 1,600 attendees to California's capital city for the National Hydrogen Association's annual meeting in 2008. "Both my local rep here in D.C. and the one in Sacramento have been wonderful."
(Originally published February 2006, Successful Meetings)