Planning a Citywide Convention: Expert Industry Insights

When it comes to planning a citywide convention, you need to know the secrets for accommodating such large-scale meetings.

Las Vegas isn’t home to Karen Chupka, but for several days every January, it sure feels like it. When you’re executive vice president for the Consumer Electronics Show, running point on one of the largest annual citywide meetings in the nation, you’re landlocked in the Entertainment Capital of the World. There’s lots to do to ensure that the massive planning machine you’ve put in place runs smoothly. And CES, produced by Arlington, Va.’s Consumer Technology Association, requires a mountain of prep.

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CES’ Karen Chupka says Las Vegas is ideal for the huge event.

“The city has 150,000 hotel rooms; and our citywide convention brings in 180,000 people,” says Chupka, naming one of a great many annual challenges. “We need to secure room blocks years out.”

Any convention demands a vast checklist to keep things organized; a citywide, however, requires something of Olympian standard. The concept is essentially literal: A citywide takes over your city.

Witness CES, which this January attracted 4,500 exhibitors and spanned over 2.9 million net square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center and 10 other venues along the Strip. The world’s gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer electronics, CES required more than 45 Las Vegas hotels to secure discounted rates for over 20,000 guest rooms for attendees. Even the airlines altered their schedules to accommodate the show. This year, 10,000 domestic seats and 9,500 international seats were added to CES-related routes.

Las Vegas has been hosting CES since 1978, and Chupka has the city secured through 2039. “It’s a luxury to go back year after year,” she says. “We don’t have to go in and learn a new city and what resources are available, including things as simple as hotels, transportation and meeting space.”

How CES Successfully Plans a Citywide Convention

Practical advice for keeping your citywide on track
Putting together a citywide convention that costs millions of dollars and draws thousands of attendees and exhibitors takes lots of experience and expertise. Angela Persinger, president of San Francisco-based Contract Hotels and the specialist behind O’Reilly Media’s citywide conference agreements for more than 20 years, has seen just about everything that can go right and wrong. “I’m proud to say that I’ve negotiated every venue contract for O’Reilly since the first, beginning back in the 1990s, at countless worldwide destinations,” she says. Here are some of her pointers for making sure the plan starts right and stays in place. 

It's never too early to plan.

For citywides, Persinger says planning usually begins on average at least two years out. Convention centers today are selling up to 10 years out, and most of these large events have certain months or weeks each year that their audience expects their event to happen, so securing those spots is critical.

Take many more notes than usual.

Pre-meeting research for citywides involves keeping copious post-convention data from past events and getting feedback from attendees as well as affiliate partners before, during and following the event.

Think of everything.

Once you choose your city, customize a request for proposal. “It typically has countless unique contract-clause stipulations specific to the organization hosting, along with years of post-con data to substantiate every single area of financial gain the city and hosting venue would expect to receive by way of your event,” says Persinger. 

CES loves Las Vegas, and the feeling is understandably mutual. “Not only does CES bring hundreds of thousands of people to our city, creating thousands of jobs and more than $260 million in overall economic impact,” says Steve Hill, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, “the show provides countless opportunities to make a lasting impression and exhibit that we are a place where business gets done.”

The Citywide Starts Once Attendees Arrive

That business starts the moment attendees and exhibitors step off the plane at McCarran International Airport, where they can immediately pick up their CES badge at one of three registration desks. From CES flags outside the convention center to signage and brand colors in all hotels and venues, you can’t go anywhere without feeling the tech fete’s presence.

Despite such a legacy, Chupka, who oversees the sales, production and management of CTA’s events and conferences, including CES and CES Asia, takes nothing for granted. Having been with the organization for more than 28 years — she began as a registration coordinator, typing badges — her well-worn virtual worksheet anticipates all that can go wrong, from security to transportation.

Crisis-Prevention is in Place

Often, crises can cross several criteria at once. Chupka and her team must arrange security for attendees, media and exhibitors, but also for the highly anticipated tech innovations that are unveiled each year. With that in mind, hundreds of security guards are hired by CES, as well as police officers to help with traffic.

In fact, traffic is so central a consideration that Chupka enlists the LVCVA and Clark County authorities to keep Las Vegas Boulevard as clear as possible. With public transportation, from buses and shuttles to limos and taxis, taking attendees to hundreds of restaurants, clubs and events, it’s one of thousands of details that can’t be overlooked. “We have to make sure when our show is in town there is no road construction going on,” notes Chupka. “One lane closure can become a nightmare.”

An Exercise in Overcoming Challenges

Even if you have an ever-evolving years-long plan in place, emergencies will pop up, and the best citywides are an exercise in overcoming such challenges. In 2018, a flooding rain on day one caused a malfunction in an LVCC transformer, causing a two-hour blackout in an exhibit hall.

In preparation for 2019, Chupka says the plan was for the LVCC to check transformers prior to the show for condensation, double up on personnel to deal with any potential issues immediately, review communication plans with all internal staff and — perhaps most importantly for the crowd — integrate LiveSafe into the CES app so notifications could be sent to all attendees. Such extra prep helped make the 2019 show that much more of a citywide success.

How a Citywide Took Over Chicago: United Soccer Coaches Convention

For citywide events, accommodation and impact are always among top goals. An improved forecast for both is what brought the 2019 United Soccer Coaches Convention — the world’s largest annual gathering of soccer coaches and administrators — to Chicago in January.

There were 14,070 attendees, more than 900 booths, three demonstration soccer fields and 10,111 hotel nights, resulting in a $21.3 million economic impact to Chicago.

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The footprint for the 2019 United Soccer Coaches Convention went beyond Chicago’s McCormick Place.

This was the first time since 1982 the city hosted the convention, with organizers sold on McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. “There was a very convenient flow as we were not all jam-packed in,” says Geoff VanDeusen, director of operations and events for United Soccer Coaches. “The greatest benefit was the campus feel that offered interaction and networking amongst our attendees.” 

Creating Hotel Space

VanDeusen had his first site visit in Chicago a year and a half ago and has booked it as part of his several-city rotation through 2031. The Chicago Sports Commission courted VanDeusen’s group for close to four years, but it wasn’t considered seriously until several new hotels opened. “Until now, I didn’t think they had the hotel package to go along with the space,” notes VanDeusen.

The Marriott Marquis Chicago and Hilton’s first tri-branded property, which includes the Hilton Garden Inn Chicago McCormick Place, the Hampton Inn by Hilton Chicago and the Home2Suites by Hilton Chicago McCormick Place, enabled the group to have 2,800 rooms connected to the convention center. “That’s a pretty good footprint for us,” says VanDeusen. “We used this to our advantage in our marketing materials, and we declared, ‘Ditch your jackets, we have more rooms connected to the convention center than any other city we go to.’ ”

How the Strata Data Conference Takes a Bite of the Big Apple

Strata is the largest data-conference series in the world and an annual mainstay for the Javits Center.
Strata is the largest data-conference series in the world and an annual mainstay for the Javits Center.

If Las Vegas is attractive to CES in part because of the excitement its brand suggests, the same can be said for citywides held in another town that never sleeps.

“New York City is a destination that sells itself,” says Angela Persinger, the owner of San Francisco North Bay, Calif.-based Contract Hotels Inc. and the site-selection/contract negotiation force behind O’Reilly Media’s global citywide conferences.

Where to Start Planning a Citywide
When planning a citywide convention, the best place to begin is with the destination's convention and visitors bureau. "Instead of a planner going out and doing it piecemeal, a CVB has a farther reach and stronger voice," says Jeff Leung, vice president of global accounts for ConferenceDirect, an event management and hospitality services firm that helps hundreds of groups with their citywide gatherings. "Plus, the CVB is better equipped to explain the economic impact of the event, which will lead to a more competitive bid."
 
When creating a request for proposal for a citywide, be sure to include not only the necessary information such as dates, number of room nights and amount of meeting space required, but also hot-button issues like room-rate ranges and number of suites needed. It's part of what Leung calls "customizing the RFP" with what is important to your event. Of course, booking out as far as possible will result in the best deals.
 
Another of Leung's recommendations is to "buy in bulk." This not only applies to signing contracts for multiple years in a rotation, but for buying the whole package: the destination, hotels, convention center and other meeting venues.

For example, Leung helps with the logistics of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation's Anime Expo, the largest celebration of Japanese pop culture in North America. The expo has booked the Los Angeles Convention Center, the famed Microsoft Theater and 28 area hotels all the way through May 2030.
 
"When buying that many years of hotel rooms, convention center space and other venues, the CVB gets us better concessions and rates," notes Leung. "Some planners confirm the city and then plan to sign hotel contracts closer to their event date. I think this is a huge mistake, because you lose negotiating strength. The hotels know the event is coming, so they don't have to do anything to entice." – A.D.

Most recently, Persinger negotiated venue contracts behind the Strata Data Conference, where thousands of innovators, leaders and practitioners gather to share best practices and discover how technology is evolving to meet new challenges. This citywide takes place every September at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The group stays in the Hilton Midtown and Marriott Marquis with a peak night of 590, for a total of 2,200 room nights minimum. O’Reilly has been bringing Strata to New York since 2011.

Working Together with CVBs

With New York being a world-class city, it stands to reason it would also have a world-class CVB. “The team at NYC & Company have compiled real-time response grids that are highly intuitive and consider every component that I require,” says Persinger. “They work with me to customize those responses to meet the unique need of the event or challenge at hand, no matter how large or small. There is a level of accountability that parlays into a feeling of the city actually working as an extension of our team, which is priceless,” she adds.

Persinger has been planning citywide events for more than 20 years and has seen the way their events can transform cities. O’Reilly Media’s first such massive event was held in the late 1990s in Portland, Ore., with the Open Source Convention that is still going strong. 

Planning in Advance

“While the first few years we got away with booking it one-and-a-half years out, we are now booking five years out on average, which includes contracting convention center space and negotiating multiple hotel contracts,” Persinger says. “In truth, it was a huge catalyst to putting Portland on the map as a tech-convention destination."

Holding a Huge Convention in Washington, D.C.

The World Gas Conference welcomed more than 12,000 delegates from 100 countries to Washington, D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center — and the capital city at large — last June. The event’s $11.4 million economic impact came to the city after a seven-year process, with the American Gas Association submitting its initial bid in 2011. The conference encompassed 431,000 square feet of exhibit space with 350 exhibitors and the use of more than 25 special event venues.

And from June 25-29 last year, Wash­ington was on display. From creative spaces at Smithsonian museums to rooftops and only-in-D.C. venues, World Gas made its mark throughout the city. The group transformed Union Station from a train station into an opening-reception stage, highlighting the city’s neighborhoods and flavor while creating an historic backdrop with the Capitol Building and National Mall.

Washington worked in part because, given the political nature of gas usage, the conference was able to take advantage of D.C.’s access to thought leaders, with Rick Perry, secretary of energy for the U.S., giving a keynote at the opening ceremony.

Then again, D.C.’s walkability makes it ideal for citywides. “From the convention center and hotels where most people are staying, you can walk to every museum and every major monument in the city, and they’ve benefitted from that,” says Jay Copan, executive director of WGC 2018. Not to mention there are daily nonstop flights to the city’s airports from all over the world.