The rejuvenating benefits of meeting outdoors were well known long before the pandemic. But now, as the meetings industry adjusts to the “new normal” for doing business, the demand for open-air events at convention centers has grown, according to many observers.
“Now more than ever, outdoor space is critical to a successful convention or meeting,” says Andrea Hennings, CEO and founder of Down to the Details in Pleasant Hill, California. “As a result, groups are looking for unique ways to utilize and incorporate outdoor space into their agendas. COVID restrictions and requirements are at the top of the importance list, but also the benefits of being outside and having natural light have made us realize the value in having outdoor space that can be used for more than just a meal.”
This appeal of open-air events was verified in a 2021 PULSE Survey by Northstar Meetings Group, which indicated that 91 percent of planner respondents intend to include outdoor event activities in their next program, with 88 percent staging outdoor meal functions.
It’s no surprise, then, that many convention centers are rethinking their outdoor spaces and discovering new uses. “Long before the pandemic, we made the decision to capitalize on our waterfront location and beautiful weather by including enhanced outdoor spaces in the redesign of the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center,” says Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale. “We’re transforming the area between the center and the Intracoastal Waterway into a five-acre urban park with an amphitheater, three restaurants and an open, parklike setting immediately accessible for breakouts, teambuilding sessions, dining and entertainment.”
Here are five ways to take advantage of open-air venues to create your outdoor convention space.
Research Indoor-Outdoor Event Space and Flexibility
The ability to stage open-air events regardless of weather is crucial, notes Hennings. “Space that offers some form of protection from the elements, but does not come at additional cost, is a huge bonus,” she says. “Nothing is worse than planning an outdoor function only to find out that tenting the space will cost thousands that might not necessarily have been budgeted. It’s very important to ask up front about fees associated with utilizing outdoor space.”
Christy Froehlich, cofounder of Precision Planners in Park City, Utah, also looks for specific amenities. “Venues that have outdoor space that includes some basic set-up components have an advantage over the competition,” she explains. “Outdoor furniture groupings, café lighting and an audio system in place for background music are all very enticing to meeting planners.”
Natalie Perry, events manager at the American Mosquito Control Association in Sacramento, California, aims to find spaces that work for a variety of activities. “Anytime when [attendees] can mix and mingle, we try to schedule that outside,” she says, noting that outdoor convention center space is especially good for receptions and cocktail hours. “AMCA also likes to do a small Field Day, where local agencies can show off their equipment like trucks and helicopters, so having a large expansive space provides for multiple uses.”
Partner with Destination Experts
As with any type of event planning, productive partnerships are helpful, according to Hennings. “I typically lean on the CVBs in the area I’m targeting and use them as a resource,” she says. “They’re the experts of their city, so they know about other potential venues that could also be good fits for outdoor requests.”
Valerie Bihet of VIBE Agency in Miami also relies heavily on local experts. “When we have a big group of 1,000-plus people that we’re taking to any city, we look directly at the city convention center or call the local CVB to see the venue pictures,” she says. “In any city you have at least one, or sometimes two and three convention centers to pick from.”
Calculate Additional Costs, Including AV and Electric
Hennings asks for detailed information as she reviews outdoor venues. “Get clear diagrams of all the space — indoor and outdoor— that you want to use in your program,” she advises. “If you’re unable to do a physical site visit, make sure they can offer you a virtual tour so that you can see all the features. Ask about other events that have used their outdoor space ‘untraditionally’ and get pictures of what they have done.”
“Most importantly, know and ask about all additional costs associated with the outdoor space,” Hennings adds. “Another important thing to ask is about audiovisual and electrical requirements. Be sure to have a candid conversation with the convention center on how they handle these two areas of the setup. Don’t be afraid to lean on your AV partners as well for ideas, and they often have great insight into what works best for an outdoor meeting.”
Communicate the Benefits of Being Outside
Showcasing the advantages of outdoor events is key to stakeholder satisfaction and building attendee excitement. “Any time we can get our attendees outside, it’s beneficial,” says Perry. “While conference and breakout rooms provide for less distraction during lectures, breathing fresh air and exposure to natural light helps re-engage the senses of our attendees.”
The benefits of using open-air venues at convention centers can make it an easy sell, according to Hennings. “Clients and attendees love it,” she says. “They often don’t realize how much you can really do with outdoor space and appreciate the inspiration of thinking outside the box. Attendees feel more invigorated and alert when they are outdoors; this allows for better engagement and a more successful meeting or conference. The most important part is to not hold yourself to a traditional setup and be open to new ideas and strategies. Be flexible, know the limitations of your program and work to find unique solutions.”
Think Positive and Long Term
While current trends may be heavily affected by pandemic-era concerns, the appeal of convention centers with outdoor spaces is likely to last, according to Froelich. “Generally, we find the use of outdoor space to be very well received by our clients and their attendees,” she says. “The chance to get outdoors, get some fresh air and take in some views (if applicable) are all refreshing perks to taking an event outside.
Once we have this pandemic behind us, I believe outdoor spaces will continue to be popular, as incorporating creative spaces into any meeting’s agenda is a great way to offer variety to attendees and leverage the local ambience.”
Welcoming Every Group Under the Sun
Phase One of the newly reimagined Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center is now complete, featuring 800,000 square feet of total space, a 350,000-square-foot exhibit hall, Water Taxi access and more. The next phases of renovation are well underway and will include a five-acre outdoor waterfront plaza, a 65,000-square-foot waterfront ballroom, an 800-room headquarters hotel and more. The entire transformation will be complete in late 2025 with 1.2 million square feet of total space.
The reimagined venue joins a long list of destination benefits, including:
• Easy access through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
• 37,000+ hotel rooms throughout Greater Fort Lauderdale, including waterfront, luxury, boutique, all-suite and budget-friendly
• 3,500 hotel rooms within 1.5 miles of the convention center
• Inspiring outdoor venues and team-building adventures
• Gorgeous beaches and a walkable waterfront downtown filled with cosmopolitan dining and nightlife
• Meeting services team dedicated to making your next meeting a complete success
Learn about our $10 million giveaway in meeting space for qualifying events at the convention center by visiting VisitLauderdale.com/Meetings.