Finding an Alluring — and Affordable — City

Looking beyond top-tier meeting destinations boasts big benefits.

Key to a meeting's impact is selecting the right destination.

"A city sets the stage for the meeting's message," says Dan Berger, founder and CEO of group management technology firm Social Tables. "All memories start with a place, and the city serves as the perfect backdrop for the content."

Indianapolis in the Spotlight
All eyes were on Indianapolis during Meeting Professionals International's (MPI) World Education Conference (WEC) this June, and the checkered flag, the most famous, was waved as the city emerged a winner.  

Indiana's capital city pulled out all the stops for the approximately 2,200 attendees and activated areas of the city for the group that wouldn't be possible in first-tier cities. The opening reception was held at White River State Park, a 250-acre cultural district, and featured Straight No Chaser, an impressive a cappella group which originated in 1996 at Indiana University, as well as musical performances on two smaller stages.

Interactive activities during the evening included making bracelets and keychains from metal washers where letters were hammered to create words and sentences; choosing from hundreds of fragrant blooms to make flower crowns, and creating aromatherapy mixes to either soothe or energize. 

The following evening, a block party was held in the heart of downtown, around the iconic Soldiers & Sailors Monument, Indiana's official memorial to its citizens who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Frontier Wars, and the Spanish-American War. 

There are not many cities that would shut down such important tourist attractions for a private group, but Indianapolis is not just any city. Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy, the city's convention and visitors bureau, proudly points out that USA Today named Indianapolis the country's best convention city in 2014. 

But the "right destination" does not have to mean "the most expensive destination." When price is an issue, cities that don't qualify as first-tier as far as meeting capacity and offerings provide plenty of other appeal. Smaller markets often represent the authentic and the unexpected, and increasingly, they have the sleeping room inventory that larger meetings demand, thanks to new builds and alternatives to traditional hotels. 

Attendees want to get out of the venue and explore their host cities, and planners need to choose destinations with this in mind. Midsize cities can shine in these situations due to smaller, more walkable layouts full of unique experiences.

"One trend we are seeing is that hotels with less than 20,000 square feet of meeting space are experiencing decreasing demand for dinners because local restaurants can fit them and there's a growing attendee desire to get out of the four walls of the hotel," says Berger.

Meeting attendees want to do and go where the locals go. Place is more than just a physical destination. It's everything that makes that destination special. That includes culture, ideals, diversity, values, people, innovation and history.

"Creating a great meeting experience begins with a plan. Know your target, define your focus, set a budget, and then work with local communities to bring it all together," advises Kathryn Lang, special events coordinator for Peculiar Productions LLC. "People who normally work in the office will find the opportunity to attend meetings outside to be unique and refreshing. The added bonus is that moving people outside their ordinary and expected routines opens the flow of creative juices."

Planners are increasingly asking: Why be a small fish in a big pond when you can be a big fish in a small pond?

Following are unique ways meeting professionals can create memorable, locally focused experiences in affordable destinations that will stick with attendees for years while going easy on the budget.

The Big Fish

In some instances, planners are turning to the big players in the industry that have properties in second- and third-tier cities. Take MGM Resorts International. Though best known for its resorts in Las Vegas, it has smaller offerings around the country, such as its newest property, the $950 million MGM Springfield, said to be New England's first integrated luxury resort and entertainment destination, scheduled to open Aug. 24.

"We are an entertainment company at heart," says Michael Dominguez, chief sales officer, MGM Resorts International. "We bring an entertainment value to all we do. Some of the big-name entertainers MGM features in its Las Vegas properties will now come to this new resort in Massachusetts."

Similarly, Caesars Entertainment may be initially associated with its resorts in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but also has resorts in Maricopa, Ariz.; Lake Tahoe and Funner (in San Diego County), Calif; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Joliet, Ill.; Elizabeth and Hammond, Ind.; Bossier City and New Orleans, La.; Biloxi and Tunica, Miss.; Baltimore and more.

"A city sets the stage for the meeting's message. All memories start with a place, and the city serves as the perfect backdrop for the content.
Dan Berger, founder and CEO of Social Tables

"Caesars Entertainment operates 40 properties across the nation, with the majority in second-tier cities," says Caesars Entertainment Chief Sales Office Michael Massari. "We pride ourselves as being the market leader within those destinations."

Coast-to-Coast Affordability

Here are other opportunities for meeting professionals to create memorable, local experiences in non-first-tier cities from east to west.

The Greater Meadowlands, N.J.
Just a few miles from Manhattan, the Greater Meadowlands Region is known internationally as the location of MetLife Stadium, home of the Giants and the Jets, and offers traditional spaces for meetings at the Meadowlands Expo Center or at one of more than 30 hotels, or at unique spaces and entertainment options like the Meadowlands Racetrack, Liberty Science Center, Medieval Times, RPM Raceway and the soon-to-open American Dream at the Meadowlands, which is an entertainment destination with meeting spaces, restaurants and theme parks.

Stowe, Vt.
Brewery tours and tastings are the way to go here as Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state. Not to be missed is a stop at the nationally renowned Alchemist Brewery, where lines to buy their limited-supply beer routinely stretch out the door. Alchemist brews the famed Heady Topper, "America's most coveted beer," according to Men's Journal, and it can only be purchased within a 20-mile radius of the brewery.

santa fe dancer
The cultural attractions of Santa Fe make this a uniquely appealing destination.

Pittsburgh, Pa.
Big-city amenities combine with Old World charm here. A thriving downtown Cultural District, outstanding dining and nightlife, world-class museums, and major league sports wait in Pittsburgh, which has become a must-see destination. The city is for the birds, literally. The National Aviary, America's only freestanding bird zoo, features a diverse collection of more than 500 birds from around the world.

Chester County's Brandywine Valley, Pa.
Chester County, Pa., is the No. 1 producer of mushrooms in the nation; thus cooking with them and learning of their health benefits offers a unique regional angle for groups. Historic Kennett Square is home of the annual Mushroom Festival with music, rides and entertainment, as well as the opportunity to taste the best mushroom soups and learn about cooking and storing mushrooms from the pros. This small town's main street is also lined with unique shops, galleries and gourmet restaurants that feature the mighty mushroom in a myriad of preparations.

Spartanburg, S.C.

Home to BMW's only North American museum and manufacturing plant, this city is coming on strong as a meetings destination. Situated between Atlanta and Charlotte, Spartanburg has more than 400,000 square feet of meeting space and is home to nearly 50 National Register sites and districts. Its BMW Performance Center allows groups to push an ultimate driving machine to its limits.

Daytona, Fla.
Another driving experience that groups will find unforgettable is on the Daytona International Speedway. Unique to the Daytona area, and part of its history, is the option to drive on certain sections of the beach, making it ideal for any meeting involving autos/bikes. There are also fishing, surfing and other water sports.

Memphis, Tenn.
B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Redding: These are just a few of the names on the brass plaques that line historic Beale Street. These musicians were either born in, lived in or recorded in Memphis, a city that changed America's musical history.

Grand Rapids, Mich.
When having a meeting or incentive in Michigan, a diverse agricultural state, get your groups out in nature. One way to do that is with a farm-tour dinner. The JW Marriott Grand Rapids features chef-guided tours of local farms. With Executive Chef Chris Madsen at the helm of the locavore activity, guests can tour the nearby Lucky Star Farms from July through October to learn about sustainability and enjoy a multi-course dinner prepared on-site by Chef Madsen and the farm staff.  

Wichita, Kans.
A cultural hub, Wichita offers an eclectic mix of one-of-a-kind meeting spaces including the Sedgwick County Zoo, Old Cowtown Museum's Visitor Center, the Wichita Art Museum and the Tanganyika Wildlife Park.

Santa Fe, N.M.
Santa Fe is an affordable destination for small to midsize groups of 500 to 800 people and was the 2017 winner of the "Sense of Place" category in the National Geographic World Legacy Awards. Groups can have a memorable experience that connects them to the rich history and culture of "The City Different" including taking a hands-on class on tamale making at the Santa Fe School of Cooking.

Boise, Idaho
Many do not realize that Boise is home to one of the largest Basque communities in the United States. Downtown is the Basque Block, with restaurants featuring the cuisine of that Spanish region, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center and the Basque Market — a haven for Basque food, shopping, cooking classes and wine tastings.

"In today's market, it isn't enough to direct planners to the local CVB or other resources to mine for this information, forcing them to figure out on their own what makes the destination unique and interesting," says J.B. Carney, general manager at Inn at the 5th. "The savvy property is figuring out how to provide these local activities and experiences to groups, taking care of the logistics and details for them."