The Big Appeal of Smaller Cities

How mid-market destinations are helping planners create memorable experiences.


Mid-market (aka second-tier) cities might not have the room inventory and infrastructure of first-tier meetings destinations, but they have plenty of other things going for them. Whether rolling out the red carpet for groups, offering better rates and dates, and/or providing a higher level of access and service than might be expected in a first-tier city, mid-markets offer unique experiences and resources that groups can leverage to enhance their events. 

"In the current environment of rising room rates and record occupancies in first-tier cities like Las Vegas and Orlando, planners are finding the expected costs savings in second-tiers, but it is the better availability of these destinations that really eliminates sourcing headaches," says Mike May, president of Brightspot Incentives & Events. "Plus, planners will enjoy the extra love for their meetings, especially if they are the big fish in town for the week." 

May adds that attendee interest in second-tier cities is rising, too: "For hard-charging business people who have visited most first-tiers, an unvisited destination arouses curiosity and becomes an attendance draw with new expectations."

One caveat: Planners with large groups should make sure their hotel is adequately staffed and prepared, counsels May, because some mid-market properties are not accustomed to such volume and can get overwhelmed.

Some Big Benefits to Small Towns 

Brightspot Incentives & Events plans a franchisee's convention of Sonic Drive-In restaurant managers, including their families, and has found that smaller cities are often an ideal choice for this client. "Last summer, Branson [Mo.], in the rib cage of mid-America, was selected because it is within driving distance for 90 percent of attendees who enjoy motoring and bringing along family members for a work-cation getaway," says May. 

Branson, Mo., proved an ideal destination for a convention of Sonic Drive-In managers

Another Brightspot client, the Irving, Texas–based nonprofit Avaya Partner Community Council selected Santa Cruz, Calif., to gather technology resellers in the backyard of the Silicon tech market. The site offered the benefit of good airlift via either San Jose or San Francisco, and the chosen property was off the beaten path, ensuring seclusion and an intimate feel for the group to immerse in networking and education. 

"Choosing a mid-sized city over a destination like Las Vegas or New York can have numerous benefits for both clients and attendees," says Scott Kellner, vice president of marketing at George P. Johnson, an experiential-marketing agency. "Whether making budgets stretch further, being able to offer rich local experiences or attracting specific audiences, a unique location can add to the draw and overall experience of your conference or event. Smaller cities might well have better availability and be able to offer attractive incentives." 

What follows are the efforts of some second-tier cities to help groups enjoy impactful and educational experiences.

Indianapolis: Revved and Ready

The official theme of Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress 2018 was "Stop planning meetings and start creating experiences," and the city of Indianapolis proved to be an ideal backdrop for such a mission.   

"Our staff and local host committee enjoyed collaborating with MPI's event designers to help reimagine both the inside and outside experiences, including an airport arrival unlike anything WEC had done before, record levels of CSR/community engagement, and hosting an additional evening event to get attendees out exploring the destination," says Leonard Hoops, president and CEO, Visit Indy

A mobile pub was one of the outings attendees of this year's MPI WEC enjoyed in Indianapolis
A mobile pub was one of the outings attendees of this year's MPI WEC enjoyed in Indianapolis

Indeed, on arrival day, an airport lounge was created just for MPI WEC attendees, where badges were waiting as well as complimentary snacks, beer, wine and other beverages before taking the shuttle to their hotel. "One attendee reportedly stayed at the airport lounge for hours before catching the shuttle. When has that ever happened by choice?" asks Hoops.

The opening-night festivities were held at White River State Park where stations were set up for the 2,200 attendees to make flower crowns, essential oil blends and stamped metal bracelets. Interactive food stations included huge pans of paella and glowing cotton candy.

Indy's Monumental Block Party was held another night in Monument Circle, which had been closed to the public for the event. Pedal pub rides, caricaturists and roaming balloon artists made for a lively evening.

One afternoon featured a Food Truck Lunch Experience held outside the convention center, complete with a local drum corps as entertainment. Another day's "punt, pass, and kick" experience took place on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium (attached to the convention center), where attendees kicked field goals, scored soccer goals and schmoozed with Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders and mascots. "Both experiences energized attendees, enhanced networking opportunities, and showcased how planners can incorporate these ideas into their own events," says Hoops. 

"Almost every outside program during WEC was in very close walking distance of the Indiana Convention Center," Hoops adds, "with the notable exception of the closing celebration at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As the most famous racing venue in the world and arguably Indy's most famous structure, it was worth the quick, police-escorted motor coach ride for the four-mile trip."

Portland: Getting Artsy in Oregon

A reputation as being somewhat off the beaten path has helped Portand, Ore., as a meeting destination. Known for its artistic culture, the city's related offerings are making their way into local meeting spaces. For example, planners can schedule craft classes for attendees at venues all over town.

Groups can tap into the offerings from local makers and artisans for their events in Portland, Ore.

In addition, Travel Portland co-produces attendee-friendly events like My People's Market, a showcase for over 80 of the city's multicultural entrepreneurs, artists and chefs. This event is another way for Portland to bring together diverse groups of people and highlight its artistic culture.

"Working in collaboration with Travel Portland, we are beginning to create pathways into the meetings industry," says Tory Campbell, manager of Prosper Portland, a government economic-development agency. "We do this by more fully including small businesses into the story and recommending destination experiences that demonstrate what makes Portland a vibrant, diverse and unique city."

Jacksonville and Rochester: Experts to Let

Although Jacksonville, Fla., doesn't have the inventory of a tier-one city, it does have an extensive medical community that it often taps into for conferences. Many groups who have held medical meetings and conventions here have had an easy time securing keynote and panel speakers thanks to the number of experts based here.

rochester new york
Rochester, N.Y., offers a wealth of medical expertise for visiting groups to access

For its part, Rochester, N.Y., often turns to its thriving community of educators. Eighteen colleges and universities call the Greater Rochester area home, so meeting groups are rarely at a loss to find high-quality speakers and experts in many fields, including science, engineering, optics/photonics, medicine and agriculture. 

The city also offers an abundance of unique arts and cultural offerings for groups. One example is the Strong Museum, filled with more than 73,000 toys, dolls and games, the only museum in the world dedicated to the discovery and exploration of play, and which offers behind-the-scenes tours and special-event space in an area that houses the National Toy Hall of Fame.

With draws like these, it is easy to see why mid-market cities are coming on strong as meeting destinations. Las Vegas and New York — watch out!