Road Block

Given the choice, most of Sue Walton's attendees would prefer to drive to a meeting rather than fly. "It's just less hassle," says Walton, an independent planner based in Chicago. Besides the economic advantages, driving to the meeting can sometimes cut down on travel time since drivers do not have to worry about airport delays, security lines, or checking baggage. But a road trip is not always a hassle-free experience. Think you are ready for your group's drive-in meeting? SM surveyed 101 planners to find out what some of the biggest challenges are when planning a drive-in event. So, before you load up the car and head for the highway, check out these scenarios to make sure you and your attendees will be fully prepared.

Wheelin' and Dealin'

According to 67 percent of planners surveyed, parking is one of the biggest hassles when attendees drive in from different areas. In a meeting in London, Ontario, Walton arranged for her group to use the hotel's valet parking service at a bargain rate of $5 a day. However, says Walton, "Every time attendees needed to leave the property they were waiting 15 to 20 minutes for their cars. People do not want to wait that long and this was a big issue for our group."

This year Walton has learned her lesson. She is using self-service parking at a secure garage close to her group's event. However, she could not completely avoid parking hassles. At $25 a day, the garage's rate was much too expensive for her attendees, but Walton cut a deal with the garage to charge her group the early-bird rate of $14 a day.

While many planners think negotiations with private or city-owned parking facilities are impossible, Walton says this is simply not true: "Both hotels and private garages will negotiate rates, but planners need to think about this ahead of time when they are crafting the hotel contract." Hotels will often tell you that they cannot negotiate rates because they don't own their own parking areas. Walton's advice: Ask the hotel to help you negotiate rates with the parking facility. Have them lead you to the right person who will discuss rates with you. With the down economy, most garages are willing to bend on price much more than they would have a few years ago. If they want to keep the business, hotels and garages will likely work with you and make it happen.

Spacing Out

One of the biggest problems with drive-in events is finding enough parking spaces to accommodate everyone. While this may not be a problem for small meetings, larger events are often held in major cities where parking is at a premium. Take Boston, for example, which profits from its location within driving distance of a large share of the nation's population. Every year the 21,000-attendee Yankee Dental Congress meets in the city, with 70 percent of attendees coming by car. "Those people know that parking is going to be a challenge but they come anyway," says Larry Meehan, director of public relations for the Greater Boston CVB. "Many of them park at the ends of the commuter rail lines where parking is cheaper and take the subway into the center of the city for a dollar." While this arrangement may not work for all groups, it is an option for those attendees who don't mind navigating a different route through the city.

However, Meehan is quick to admit the challenges of parking in a city like Boston: "Business hotels in major cities were not designed for everyone to show up in their car on the same night." A temporary solution is to set aside space for short-term parking for a specific convention that needs a considerable amount. Meehan had done this before for MacWorld, a 58,000-attendee show, which required short-term parking lots to be set up near Boston's World Trade Center. "The walk to the convention was five to ten minutes from the satellite lots," says Brooke Selby, a spokeswoman for MacWorld. "It all went pretty smoothly."

Jeff Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City CVA, says reducing the flow of traffic between the hotels and the convention center is also important. In Atlantic City, for instance, the addition of a new walkway between the Boardwalk hotels and the convention center, says Vasser, "will encourage attendees to walk through the four-block area of retail shops and restaurants, helping to decrease traffic on the roads."

The Brush-Off

While driving a car to the event provides an attendee with a certain amount of freedom and convenience, there will always be those who have somewhere else to be. According to 71 percent of planners surveyed, there is a greater chance people will cut their attendance short if they are driving. Leaving early and arriving late is a big issue when people have their own transportation, says Dianne Davis, an event consultant at Broken Arrow, OK-based Tulnet. "You really have to keep the program very strong on that last day to keep people around, or by the third day they are seriously thinking about going home." Davis works hard to include motivating events on the last day such as the president's address, which attendees rarely want to miss.

Leaving the meeting early is not just a problem with attendees, says Davis: "We have run into problems in the past with exhibitors slipping out of the trade show early because they were driving. They would start to take down parts of the booth and leave one person to run a half-assembled booth. This gave attendees the impression that it was okay to leave the show too." In order to combat this possibility, Davis now imposes strict requirements on exhibitors to stay open until the end of the event. They are required to sign exhibitor agreements, which state they must comply or they'll jeopardize their spot for the next year's show.

Directionally Challenged

One great thing about flying is that passengers do not have to worry about which direction the plane needs to go in order to get to their destination. In a car, however, the trip requires a bit more planning. Just ask Jeannine Strampel, an independent meeting planner who runs Sunrise, FL-based JAS Events. Strampel's incentive group was meeting in Naples, FL, two hours away from Sunrise, and the trip required attendees to cross Alligator Alley (Interstate 75). One attendee who was unfamiliar with the long stretch of road did not fill up his gas tank, causing him to get stranded on the highway and arrive very late for the event. It's a good thing Strampel's attendee had a good sense of humor: His workers presented him with a shiny new gas container filled with Champagne at the company's awards banquet.

"Every year there is always someone who can't find their way to the meeting," says Walton. "You have to be very detailed in your directions." Of the planners surveyed, 17 percent felt that providing accurate directions to the event is one of the main challenges of a drive-in meeting. Although someone is always bound to get lost, planners can prepare for this by communicating with attendees before the trip to warn them of construction areas, detours, accidents, and traffic spots that may present problems. Strampel makes sure to prepare attendees for the drive by sending out driving directions in advance attached to something useful like a license plate holder, or key chain.

Around the block

Planners may never be able to ensure that attendees won't go outside the contracted room block. However, it is especially problematic when attendees have their own transportation because it is very easy to find a cheap hotel several miles away and drive into the meeting each day. Forty-three percent of planners agree that protecting the room block is a challenge with attendees who drive. "This is definitely something that occurs because attendees have easy access to the meeting venue with their cars," says Davis. Her solution is to survey attendees after each show to find out where they are staying. "If we find that many people are staying at a certain property, we will have a room block there for next year's event," says Davis. "We want to make sure we have blocks at hotels where our attendees want to stay."