It's hardly a surprise to see destinations such as Orlando or Chicago rank high on lists of top meetings destinations every year, but Kissimmee, FL, and Indianapolis? This year those two cities ranked right up there with the largest cities on Cvent's list of the Top 50 Meeting Destinations in the United States.
"Although the top 10 remain fairly consistent on the list, there are some up-and-comers that always surprise," says Kevin Fliess, vice president of marketing for Cvent's Hospitality Cloud, in Tysons Corner, VA.
"Second- and third-tier cities really want your business. They welcome groups with open arms," says Sean Connolly, meeting and event manager for GE Global Research, based in Niskayuna, NY. One of 10 GE research centers, this New York facility employs over 2,000.
Connolly, who has organized meetings in first-tier cities like New York and Boston, also frequently brings groups to destinations including Saratoga Springs, NY. "From hotels to food and A/V, it is much more cost-effective. In New York and Boston, the cost of a hotel room alone can be double."
Smaller cities are coming on strong as meeting destinations thanks to their affordability, good air connectivity, modern meeting facilities, and an extra level of service. And Connolly's company isn't the only one that is taking notice. Here are four reasons a lot of organizations are giving second-tier cities a second look.
A new and controversial president of the United States, a shaky economy, terrorism…these are factors affecting today's meetings and conventions. "There is a great deal of uncertainty in the world today. It's not going to be a smooth ride as the economy is going to hit some bumps -- some we can predict, others will come from left field," says Rohit Talwar, an internationally renowned futurist and CEO of U.K.-based Fast Future Research.
The 2017 American Express Global Meetings and Events Forecast predicts that the number of meetings and number of attendees per meeting may see a decline. This is resulting in increased competition among destinations, second- and third-tier cities included.
"We are seeing more of a dog fight as the total number of meetings is unlikely to grow dramatically and as associations merge in response to transformations in the business world," adds Talwar. "Second- and third-tier cities may benefit as all of this uncertainty about the future is causing corporations to look at where they can cut costs and keep attendees safe."
Security is a focus at all of the meetings Connolly plans. Danger lurks everywhere, but Connolly finds it's easier to keep his meeting groups secure in second- and third-tier cities. "We bring security wherever we go. When meeting in a destination like Saratoga Springs, our security team normally finds it more manageable. In a big city there are so many variables and opportunities for your people to go to the wrong place. It's much tougher to manage a group in the middle of Manhattan."
Todd Garofano, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, agrees that security is top of mind today. "We find that Saratoga is alluring to many board meetings of high-profile companies and other organizations because of how well our hotels, meeting venues, attractions, and amenities are situated," he says.
Downtown Saratoga brims with restaurants, cafes, and shops, and Connolly's groups walk from the City Center, the site of his meetings, to their hotels and other functions. "Saratoga is very attractive. There is a vibrant downtown with lots of activities to choose from," explains Connolly.
The affordability of second- and third-tier cities also makes them appealing to companies looking to play it safe with their meetings budgets. Not only are meeting facilities and accommodations more reasonable in most cases but tax rates are usually lower as well. For a recent meeting Connolly planned for 280, attendees could take in a polo match; go to the historic Saratoga Race Course, or visit the Saratoga Performing Arts Center -- all within walking distance of the host hotel. "Not having to hire ground transportation saved money from our budget and time from our agenda," says Connolly.
First-tier cities are exciting, but after attending numerous meetings in them the hustle and bustle can begin to lose some of its allure for delegates. "Big-city fatigue is a reality for attendees, and a group may want to start to look at different destinations," explains Talwar.
There was a time when Hartford, CT, fell off most radar screens as a meetings destination, but that is not the case today. A decade ago, the construction of the Connecticut Convention Center, the adjacent Connecticut Science Center, and nearby new hotels initiated the Insurance Capital's reinvention.
"In recent years, Hartford has been on a mission to forge its own identity. It's never going to be like Boston or New York City, and it seems like it's coming to terms with that," says Kristyn Neal, a real estate executive who helps plan events for Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE).
"Hartford offers the kind of personalized service, experience, and price point that first-tier cities just can't compete with. Add to that the expanding Front Street entertainment complex across the street from the convention center, with its restaurants and entertainment options, not to mention scores of historic and cultural attractions that double as unique social-event venues for groups," says H. Scott Phelps, the president of the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau (CTCSB), the state's official meetings, conventions, and sports event sales and marketing organization.
Another city that operates in the shadow of a larger metropolitan neighbor is Bellevue, WA. Its hotel rates are significantly lower on the weekends than those found in Seattle. Plus, its central location in the region and the many major corporations headquartered in Bellevue -- including Microsoft, Expedia, Symetra, T-Mobile, and Eddie Bauer -- help create a strong draw for convention attendees.
One of the best ways lesser-known cities can attract meetings is by focusing on assets that will stir an emotional connection. When Al Hutchinson was president and CEO of Visit Mobile (he is now the president and CEO of Visit Baltimore), he spearheaded a rebranding campaign for the coastal town, called "Born to Celebrate," that was immensely successful.
Greenville, SC, had a unique problem as it is hard to market "Greenville" when there are 36 cities with that name in the country. The convention and visitors bureau rebranded as VisitGreenvilleSC and created a new catchphrase, "Yeah, THAT Greenville."
What VisitGreenvilleSC didn't expect was the community engagement that would ensue. As of October 2016, #yeahTHATgreenville has been used a total of 411,085 times on Instagram. For the first three quarters of 2016, it was used 42,600 times on Twitter.
Plus, this social media translated into sales. Back in 2011, prior to this campaign, Greenville County hotel occupancy averaged 61 percent. Last year, hotel occupancy hit its highest ever at 72.1 percent annual average. Downtown Greenville saw hotel occupancy exceed 90 percent for more than one third of the year, and many downtown hotels are planning to increase their number of rooms.
When planners do connect with second- and third-tier cities, they are finding them to be affordable, compact, and capable of offering unique meeting experiences that are appealing to most attendees and competitive with first-tier city experiences.
Which is why many cities once considered flyover or pass-through places are now burgeoning meeting destinations.
Questions or comments? Email [email protected]
This article appears in the December 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.
The Experience Institute (TEI), based in Tucson, AZ, has compiled research from the Decision to Attend study that demonstrates that the destination is the second-highest attendance driver, behind education.
"This also shows that attendees are behaving more and more like leisure travelers when deciding to attend," says Mickey Schaefer, TEI's CEO and founder.
Also, the study shows that roughly 50 percent are likely or highly likely to extend their stay, increasing spending and the overall value of that convention to the destination's economy. And, if the destination experience is positive, roughly 80 percent are likely to return for leisure or another convention in that destination.
"All of these dynamics, combined with new product enhancements of what the destination offers, have helped second- and third- tier destinations break out of the pack and get noticed by planners," adds Schaefer, who holds the FASAE, CAE, and CTA industry designations.
For those who think they have to go to first-tier cities for culture, think again. Connolly has planned events in Saratoga's National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the National Museum of Dance, and the historic Canfield Casino.
Second-tier destinations often compete against their larger counterparts by offering unique experiences their attendees can't find anywhere else. "Most of today's attendees are discerning travelers who have 'seen the sights' and 'done the museums,' which is why they crave 'authentic experiences.' Some call it 'Authentiseeking' -- finding the truly unique things that a destination offers which may encourage them to attend the conference and talk about it afterward," says Schaefer.
As a result, second-tier cities are embracing what makes them distinct and are using that as a selling tool. "Maintaining historical integrity and a city's unique cultural components, including architecture, provides attendees an experience they cannot get anywhere else as they do not want a cookie-cutter experience from city to city," says Laura Mandala, CEO of Alexandria, VA-based Mandala Research, a market research firm that specializes in travel and tourism. "The meeting becomes both an educational and cultural experience, broadening their horizons on what the world, or their country, has to offer."
Pittsburgh, for example, has undergone one of the most dramatic environmental transformations in the world and continues to rank high in the United States for its number of green-certified buildings -- including the greenest office tower in the world, The Tower at PNC Plaza. The "Steel City" has transformed into a hub for robotics (Uber is launching its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh), "eds and meds," banking, and tourism.
An exciting mix of culture, shopping, world-class hotels, and dining are all nestled within 30 square blocks at the heart of Pittsburgh's urban core.
Convenience is key, and Pittsburgh's got it, with more than 18 hotel properties within walking distance of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, restaurants, attractions, theaters, and more.
"Pittsburgh has the complete package," says Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH. "Our convention center is beautifully functional. Its first-rate exhibition space is filled with natural light and there's beautiful outdoor spaces, too. The city itself is compact, easily walkable, and safe -- yet, we are home to cultural amenities and beautiful architecture that rival any major city. And the culinary scene here is so diverse that Zagat named Pittsburgh the No. 1 food city in the nation."
Meetings are big business. They contribute $106 billion to GDP in the U.S. alone. "Forward-thinking city governments realize the role meetings and conventions can play in driving the longer-term growth of their destination," says Talwar.
Nashville, TN is one example of a destination that upped its game through investment in its tourism product. The city made the Cvent list for the first time in 2014 and in 2016 jumped into the top 10. "It really came out of nowhere and is now up there with the perennial favorites," explains Fliess.
This can be attributed to the investment Music City has made in its infrastructure, from its three-year-old Convention Center to the new 27-story, 453-room Westin that opened mid-October in downtown.
"Nashville is a hot destination for nightlife, entertainment, food, and music," adds Fliess. "Combine its infrastructure with a great attendee experience that awaits, and you have a winning formula."
Many meeting planners have searched for new, interesting, and even obscure destinations that are in less expensive markets than the big cities. Suburban areas are spurring interest, says Fliess. Take Schaumburg or Rosemont, IL, which are alternatives to the big-city hustle found in Chicago. "As suburbs make investments in their infrastructure and convention space, they are attracting more meeting planners," reveals Fliess.
The Midwest in particular has come on strong for meetings, reports Cvent. "We have seen a lot of growth in Midwest cities like Columbus, OH and Indianapolis. We attribute this to the accessibility of those cities from both coasts and the fact that these cities take their investment in meetings and events seriously," says Fliess.
The economic influence a meeting or event can have on a destination is significant. Impact numbers like hotel occupancy, taxes collected, and tourism-related jobs are important, as they convince government leaders to fund meetings-related infrastructure.
Savvy CVB heads understand this and if necessary, explain it to every stakeholder in their city. "They are seeing that if they fill their convention center it can be a lifeline to the future," adds Talwar. "Meetings and conventions bring the world to a destination's doorstep and can help accelerate the growth of local industries."
As a result, the staffs of convention centers as well as convention and visitors bureaus are aggressively out to win business, Talwar explains. "They are not doing this by touting the size of their loading docks. They are focused on the professionalization of their infrastructures, the services offered by the CVBs, and by what makes them different."
In turn, the CVB becomes a business intelligence center that can not only offer information about hotel rooms and venues but content as well.
Take Indianapolis. There was a time areas of the city left much to be desired, with predictable restaurant chains and a nearly non-existent nightlife.
However, thanks to a few pioneer restaurants including Spoke & Steele, Milktooth, and Bluebeard, as well as luxury hotel properties, the community has an outlet to expand. "Places and people are encouraging change, growth, and embracing diversity," says Tyson Peterson, the executive chef at Spoke & Steele. "The city's palate is evolving, and a city that was once pigeonholed for only producing pork and corn or meat-and-potatoes-centric dishes has room for creativity now."
The Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile urban greenway, connects the convention center and hotels to hot neighborhoods like Fletcher Place, Mass Ave, Fountain Square, and Market East. Milktooth and Bluebeard are located in historic Fletcher Place, the city's newest restaurant row, with apartments and historic homes above and next door. Mass Ave and Fountain Square also have a vibrant nightlife scene now, with live music, theater, and cocktail lounges.