Road to Ruin

How the crumbling of America’s transportation infrastructure is impacting the meetings industry.

A Walkable City
Long Beach's compact, walkable downtown convention core makes shuttles unnecessary

One way to keep the logistical headaches of local transportation to a minimum is to select a destination that has all the hotels and venues needed in a compact, walkable area. One city that fits that bill in Long Beach, CA, says Billie Ray Robinson, director, meetings and conventions, for the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN), which is holding its 2015 annual conference there.

"I came to Long Beach to see if it was as advertised, in terms of being a walkable city that is easy to get around," Robinson says. "What I found is all of that is really true. The hotels I selected for my convention are all right there around the center, on different sides. On top of that, the close proximity of restaurants and the nightlife and shopping and things to do when you're not in the center was really appealing as well. I was very surprised by the number of restaurants that were within walking distance of the hotels."

He's also taking advantage of one of Long Beach's more attractive public transportation option, the AquaBus water taxi, which charges $1 a ride. "We're putting some of our higher end vendors at the Hotel Maya, a DoubleTree by Hilton, as an added benefit," Robinson says, noting that is farther away than the other hotels he is using.

Walking saves on the cost of hiring coaches, of course, which can be a significant savings. But there is another aspect to it for Robinson's group, he says.

"The health aspect of walkability is a big factor," he adds. "We are huge on promoting a healthy lifestyle, because we are in healthcare and a big part of what we do is the health of women and infants."

According to the Convention Industry Council, meetings and events -- and the planners in charge of them -- were responsible for moving some 225 million attendees in and out of U.S. destinations in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available. This wide-ranging effort is at once a testament to the vitality of the meetings industry and a challenge to its continuing viability, due to the appalling condition of our roads, bridges, and other means of transportation. 

 
In its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, released this past March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation an overall grade of D, with the categories of aviation, roads, and transit each getting Ds; ports and rails scored only nominally better, each earning a C.  
 
During his State of the Union speech in February, President Barack Obama unveiled the Fix-It-First program, which calls for $40 billion in spending on a backlog of urgent repairs and upgrades for infrastructure. That would follow $31 billion that was earmarked for the same as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But those sums are dwarfed by the $3.6 trillion in investments that the ASCE says is urgently needed by 2020.
 
Part of the reason for this, says Erik Hansen, senior director, domestic policy, for the U.S. Travel Association, is that much of the advocacy for transit investment in the U.S. is parochial, focusing on projects that would benefit one particular city or region, rather than a broader discussion about improving mobility in the United States.
 
Depending on the city, the venues used, the time of year, and even the time of day, the logistics involved in moving a group can be fearsome, regardless of its size. The costs of getting local transportation wrong can be steep. Sessions can be missed, speakers' fees and venue rental costs can go to waste, attendees and exhibitors can be annoyed or even infuriated. And just try to explain to the CEO why half the attendees missed his big speech.
 
"Local transportation is not always exciting, but it's an important aspect of an event," says Robert Glowczwski, director of operations of Access DMC's Orange County, CA office. "When it goes well, it is unnoticed, and if it doesn't go well, then it's a big issue."
 
Taking Control
 
One executive on the front lines of the transportation issue is Geoff Cassidy, vice president of meetings & conventions operations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders. He has been moving his International Builders Show (IBS) between Orlando and Las Vegas -- two cities with a major focus on the meetings and convention business -- for about a decade, during which time it grew from about 75,000 attendees to more than 100,000, and then shrunk back to about 50,000 as that segment of the economy was hit particularly hard by the recession.
 
The transportation options for a show of this size, he says, are limited "by the physical plant that we're dealing with -- the roadways and the convention center campus, and then what's going on in whatever city we're in. In Orlando, one of the bigger challenges is how to deal with International Drive and the traffic associated with it, even when there is no show in town," Cassidy says. "It is certainly stressed when you have a show of 50,000 in the Orange County Convention Center [OCCC]. And that's further stressed as those numbers climb, and the numbers of taxis, personal occupancy vehicles, and shuttles coming into that area increase."
 
At its height, the IBS was running 250 shuttle buses daily from 75 Orlando area hotels. Adding that to a road that is already a bottleneck requires a different way of thinking. "We brought an approach to traffic management that they hadn't seen before," Cassidy says. "[We were] really looking to manage the roadways directly around the convention center. In effect, that meant that we were requesting control. Even to the extent that we were asking them to close certain entrances or turn roads into one-way access, or not allow personal occupancy vehicles into the lane directly in front of the convention center, limiting that to shuttle buses. By having a really comprehensive game plan as it related to all aspects of transportation, and taking a more proactive role in working with the convention center and their staff, it made it possible to put together a plan that addressed everybody's needs."
 
That required a lot of Orlando agencies to work together, beginning with the CVB, Visit Orlando, and the staff of the OCCC, he said. But it also included the sheriff's office, county traffic engineers, and the local government, as well as IBS convention manager Freeman, and the local bus and taxi companies. The CVB's public relations firm even reached out to area homeowners associations to warn locals about times they should avoid International Drive and other affected roads if possible.
 
This approach is now a formal program in Orlando called SCOOT, which starts with the county's roadway signage system, which can warn motorists about current road conditions, and traffic lights, says Fred Shea, Visit Orlando's senior vice president of convention sales & services.
 
What impressed Cassidy the most, he says, is "how the community was open to adjusting, taking feedback from us as show managers, getting to know our show and our attendees' needs, and helping us to meet those needs on a variety of different levels." (Read about the sometimes surprising services CVBs and DMOs will offer groups here.)
 
Orlando is not the only city that will get authorities involved in managing traffic flow for big shows, says Trent Wagner, a program manager at St. Louis-based third-party planning firm Maritz Travel. "We often will try to have the assistance of our local ground suppliers or even the police departments in the different cities," he notes. "Police departments have been wonderful in expediting the flow of vehicles through busy intersections and controlling the stop lights. And that really, really helps when you're trying to bring a huge group to and from certain events."
 
Local Expertise
 
Less elaborate examples than the SCOOT program are possible by having a supplier on the ground that knows the destination and its traffic patterns. Even in a heavily congested metropolitan area like New York City, getting people to and from the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the outskirts of midtown is reasonably doable, says Patrick Sullivan, president of destination management company (DMC) PRA-New York. 
 
Technology helps, in the form of mobile apps with real-time traffic updates, he says, but so does old-fashioned tracking. "We clock them," Sullivan says. "We have a staff person or dispatcher at the Javits Center and at the hotels. The drivers know it." And Sullivan sets up penalties with the coach company if a run takes more than five minutes longer than it should.
 
For off-site events, it's about timing and location, Sullivan adds. "For dinner transfers in the city, we always try to get clients to do a pickup at 6:30 p.m. or later, so they will have missed most of the rush hour traffic."
 
And he strongly advises clients not to stray out of their neighborhood for off-site events -- New York City's congested streets simply make trekking all over Manhattan impractical.
 
The easiest way to deal with getting attendees to and from their meeting venue is to have it in the hotel, so they never have to leave except for off-site functions. For larger corporate groups and conventions, however, that's often not possible. Then you run into the issue of getting attendees from one or more hotels to a convention center or other meeting facility. And that's where the logistics get complex.
 
Of course, the easiest way to keep the local transportation efficient is to keep it short.
 
"We always look for ways to minimize the amount of transfers that would be required in a program," says Wagner. "So when we are picking out a destination, we certainly have that in consideration. Secondly, we always try to keep transfers to a maximum of 15 minutes, if at all possible. That seems to be the make-or-break point, when participants start to squirm and start asking, 'where are we going, why is it taking so long?' I'd be lying if I said that's a make-or-break decision on whether a city is picked. But a lot of times it will affect activities or venues that we use within that city." 
 
Nailing the Airport Run
 
According to the ASCE 2013 Report Card, the country's aviation infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life.
 
Since 2003, the Federal Aviation Admin-istration (FAA) has been developing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which would replace the nation's 1960's radar technology with a satellite-based air traffic control system. The NextGen system is intended to improve the efficiency and safety of air traffic flow into and out of airports.
 
The FAA estimates that the national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012. If current federal funding levels are maintained, the FAA anticipates that the cost of congestion and delays to the economy will rise to $34 billion by 2020 and $63 billion by 2040.
 
The state of the country's aviation system makes the airport transfer the most challenging transportation leg of a meeting. It is often the longest transfer of the trip, there is the added logistical challenge of luggage, and it is when attendees are at their most frazzled, either because of the headaches of flying in or because of the need to make their flight out.
 
That's particularly true for international travelers, says Hansen, who is also general manager of the USTA's Connecting America Through Travel (CATT) conference, which debuted in November. "International travelers expect to have seamless rail connections from the airports," Hansen says. "That's one of the things they look for when choosing a destination in the U.S."
 
After all, the airport transfer, "is the first thing that participants see and the last thing they see," says Wagner. "I think that's why it so important." So the planning begins with managing arrivals. For smaller meetings, particularly those with top executives or incentive groups, "it's more experiential," he adds. "We still need to transfer the groups quickly and efficiently, but without them feeling herded."
 
First off, that means handling all the air arrangements for attendees, so you know when they are coming and can monitor flights for any delays, Wagner says.
 
"We always want to make everything a positive experience, a memorable experience," says Glowczwski. "We've created some -- when they arrive at the airport, they're not only greeted by a friendly, smiling face who's assisting them with their luggage, but perhaps giving the ladies a rose or offering them a refreshment while they're waiting for their vehicle to pull around."
 
For larger groups, however, "the objective is really transferring the masses in the most cost-effective manner possible," explains Glowczwski. The cheapest way is to tell attendees they are on their own, using taxis or public transport to get from the airport to their hotel or convention center.
 
While the number of groups doing that has increased in the past few years, it's still no more than 10 to 15 percent, says Sullivan. "We've had an increase of clients wanting our staff to do meet and greet and then put them in a taxi -- especially international arrivals. That way somebody's there to assist to them," he adds.
 
Between 80 and 85 percent choose to run a shuttle bus service from the airport, possibly limiting it to a window of a few hours rather than all day, Sullivan adds. For larger meeting and convention groups, "we don't capture all their flight information, we just let them know, we're going to be out here from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and that shuttles will run every 20 or 30 minutes," Wagner says. "Just look for the staff at luggage claim." 
 
The return trip to the airport is much the same, including having staff at the hotel or meeting venue to help identify and correctly load luggage, as well as at the airport, he adds. 
 
That's important, Glowczwski says, because people are often uncomfortable being separated from their luggage. "For the larger groups, we have several different departure scenarios where we have guests come out and we tag their bags, and then relocate them to a storage area for a mass departure after a general session. But it's best to keep it simple. Designating a bag a storage area for the large group so their bags are stored securely but accessible and nearby so that when they depart they can get on the vehicle quickly. What's important is to have the manpower not only to direct attendees to the right vehicles but to be able to load their bags into the motor coaches in an organized fashion so we can maximize seats on vehicles."
 
And once they get to the airport, there should be staff greeting the participants one last time, Wagner says. "There's somebody there to assist them if they need assistance, to get their luggage off the vehicle, and point them in the right direction where their flights will be," he says. "Our staff is usually at the airport in advance and if we do find out that there are cancellations or delays, we try to notify the participants and see if there's anything we can do can with airline arrangements."
 
It's important to remember that these strategies are generally not designed to make a meeting or event more pleasant, but less unpleasant. "Anything within the travel process that makes it more of a hassle, less efficient, and more time-consuming invites frustration -- and that creates a competitive disadvantage for the meetings and events industry," says Hansen. "That means any initiative designed to make the transportation process more seamless is an investment worth making." 
  
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