Reeling Regionals?

Anticipating a drop in drive-to meetings demand due to high fuel prices, many hotels and venues have begun to offer incentives such as gas cards and free parking to attract regional business.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts last month announced it will offer $25 gas credits and reduced rates through Sept. 30 at more than 100 properties in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Southeast regions. The offer is good for Thursday through Sunday stays and requires a two-night minimum stay. Conference center chain Benchmark Hospitality
International is offering a complete meeting package at the Chattanoogan Hotel in
Chattanooga, TN, with reduced room rates and $25 gas cards. North of the border, 18 Canadian properties under Marriott International are offering free parking and $25 gas cards for each night's stay.

"Our attendees have a set amount for their training budgets, and from this budget, they have to pay for the meeting registration, hotel room, meals, parking, mileage, etc. So things like discounted room rates, discounted parking, etc, are direct benefits to our attendees," said Jennifer Green, assistant vice president of the Louisiana Credit Union League and vice president of communications for the Gulf States chapter of Meeting Professionals International.

"I don't know if gas cards would make a difference for multi-day programs, but when we provided $25 gas cards for a committee meeting we believe it helped ensure attendees made the trip," said Cindy Butts, CEO of the Maine Association of Realtors and the author of the association management blog AE on the Verge.

Decisions span spectrum

Butts said, "I'm finding two things related to fuel prices and the economy generally. Greater consideration for not holding meetings at all or replacing them with webinars/conference calls. But, when we do hold meetings (such as forums or industry courses), we're holding twice as many, recognizing that the decision to participate in even free events depends on the cost to travel there—so the more locations, the greater the chance [attendees will] participate. Maine is large, so there are large distances to drive."

The crunch is having many effects on the value meetings sector. At June's Affordable Meetings show in Long Beach, CA, planners "were willing to shop harder to find a destination that could accommodate budgets for this year and next," said Bob Gilbert, president and CEO of show organizer Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI). And "destinations and hotels were responding by offering more value dates than in years past," he added.

Remote conferencing and virtual meetings technologies are finding stronger demand as fuel costs rise. According to the latest annual FutureWatch survey by American Express and MPI of 1,643 industry buyers and suppliers, more than one in three corporate and association planners are looking for alternatives to face-to-face meetings.

Technology giant Accenture has installed 13 telepresence conferencing rooms at various offices and plans another 22 telepresence rooms by the end of the year, according to The New York Times. The virtual meeting technology replaced 240 international trips and 120 domestic trips in May alone, translating to potential millions in savings for the year, company executives said.

"Only in the last two years has the technology gotten to the point where it really makes sense to use it," Alan Minton, vice president for marketing at Bloomington, IN-based Cornerstone Information Systems, told The New York Times, estimating that online conferencing has cut his company's travel costs by 60 percent.

Originally published Aug. 11, 2008