Seizing the Moment

As meetings retrench from hotels and resorts due to the bad press, conference centers swoop in to get the business.

With Corporate America needing to prove that meetings and events are serious endeavors and necessary for business growth, dedicated conference facilities have ramped up their efforts to grab more of the meetings market from hotels and resorts.

These days, with the likes of senator John Kerry and CNN's Lou Dobbs repeatedly using the words "junket," "boondoggle," and "resort" whenever they address Corporate America's meetings and events, planners are desperate to emphasize the serious nature of the meetings they're planning for 2009 and 2010. As a result, one segment of the hospitality industry, conference centers—traditionally under-the-radar properties—is using the current climate as an opportunity to mobilize, en masse, to gain short-term and long-term meetings business.

In addition to the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), several major players in the conference center niche have gone on the marketing offensive. Their campaigns center on more one-on-one interactions with planners, publicizing their robust websites, stressing the meetings-focused nature of their facilities, and demonstrating the value that their complete meeting packages (CMP) provide in this down economy. The goal of all these efforts: to land a larger share of existing clients' total meetings business, plus bring in new clients who have not used conference centers.

Drawing up battle plans

Recalling a Feb. 27 IACC marketing committee meeting, board member Steve Sackman, regional director of sales and marketing for two Northeast conference centers run by Destination Hotels & Resorts (DH&R), said the trade group did not seek to change "what we've been saying all along—that IACC-member facilities are where productive meetings take place and lend themselves to solid return on investment [for planners]. But we did want to find ways to publicize the relaunch of IACC's website, such as targeted news releases to planners and media outlets, as well as RSS feeds and other electronic means."

Continued Sackman: "We need to tout the site's ability to let planners find a distraction-free meeting environment and also show their executives that a specific venue is well-suited to the purposes of that meeting. It's a deep site that wasn't built in cookie-cutter fashion; individual IACC properties populate the site with their own property details and packages."

Sackman added that the seven conference centers in DH&R's 32-property portfolio are being represented at various DH&R marketing events taking place in major cities this year, in order to create personal customer interactions and get the message out to planners.

Another company that operates conference centers, Dolce Hotels & Resorts, is embracing the personal approach as well; it has sent property reps to the offices of independent meeting-planning firms and large corporations over the last several months to educate them on conference centers. One of the reps' most potent weapons: testimonials that show planners the expanding range of meetings conducted at conference centers, and how each venue's staff adapts to the specific needs of each meeting.

"We're making a full-court press to get out the message that we're productive venues whose core business is meetings, and that we're not fluffy or posh or over the top," said Phil Mattia, senior director of marketing for Dolce, which has 17 North American properties. And, given the current climate, "we think we can get not just more of the types of meetings we are known for, but also the executive meetings that traditionally go to resorts," he said.

Eric Terry, VP of sales and marketing for Benchmark Hospitality—a conference center mainstay—noted the 23-property firm is participating in the pro-meetings initiatives by the U.S. Travel Association as well as Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International. What's more, Benchmark is embarking on a brand-specific campaign that focuses on the benefits of "the fixed, upfront meetings cost— with no surprises—that the CMP provides." (One other large conference center firm, Aramark Harrison Lodging, did not return a call for comment.)

At a time when transparency is a critical factor in corporate spending and when traditional hotels and resorts are fighting to maintain their meetings business, between conference centers' use of testimonials and the all-inclusive CMP, some planners feel these venues just might succeed in broadening their client base.

"With the economy going the way it is, most planners are looking at a wider variety of venues where they can take a meeting, so I think conference centers are coming onto everyone's radar," said Shelby Greene, manager of purchasing and key accounts for meetings management firm Concepts Worldwide, in Carlsbad, CA.

Stated Greene: "Of course, a venue has to be the right fit for the client, the type of meeting, and its goals. But it makes an impact on us when we learn from conference center reps how events similar to ours were serviced at a conference center, how well attendees responded to them, and how the groups achieved the necessary results. Also, getting the information on meeting-package elements and pricing at the very start of the process is huge in today's decision-making."

Originally published March 23, 2009