Hot Destinations for Meetings

Every destination has a story to tell. For a multitude of circumstances that may include superior service, budget deals, inviting climate, airline accessibility, and geographic desirability, many cities have wisely learned to focus on and promote to planners the uniquely essential essence of their meeting venues.

The big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have name recognition. While these "tier 1" destinations still must educate meeting planners about their convention spaces and hotel blocks, they don't have to work as hard to attract attention as some small or mid-sized cities.

Rest assured, there are some fantastic stories to be told about destinations -- across the United States and all over the globe -- that don't necessarily house mega convention centers or tens of thousands of hotel rooms.

For example: Internationally, a "Going Dutch" initiative by Rotterdam and The Hague is showcasing the architectural wonders and cultural institutions that exist outside Amsterdam. And Visit Britain is helping groups think outside of London, while Colombia is making a push to show the world it's become a stable and attractive option for meetings.

Just the tip of the iceberg in the U.S.: Louisville is going big in the Midwest with the launch of the Omni Louisville and major renovations on the Kentucky International Convention Center; and destinations like St. Louis, Colorado Springs, and Palm Beach, FL, all have stories to tell about their up-and-coming facilities.

Just because a tree isn't the tallest one in the forest doesn't mean it doesn't have beautiful boughs. Here, then, is a look at more details from a handful of cities getting the word out about their special charms and unique meeting facilities.

A recent $60 million modernization of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center is turning heads in Southern California. It features 400,000 square feet of modern, flexible, and special event space -- and is being labeled "boutiquey" and "Instagrammable."

Instagrammable? "The closer you look at us the more interesting we are," says Jeff Forney, vice president of marketing, membership, and special projects for the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Millennials actually find us very appealing."

The city is in the shadows of Los Angeles, and to some degree competes with Anaheim as well -- but really is in competition with "the big-box hotels, like Gaylord," Forney says.

Long Beach is nestled up against the Pacific Ocean and is selling the "California Coastal" look and feel to groups up and down the state, as well as those in the Mid-Atlantic area (Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Virginia) and the Midwest.

For budget deals, the city's convention center, outdoor patio area, terrace plaza, and theater all offer "turnkey" services that offer savings to meeting planners. These venues come packaged with preinstalled theatrical/event lighting and sound systems.

Long Beach designed its facilities with a theme of "Connect, Collaborate, and Community." This is highlighted by lots and lots of unique seating spaces -- think leather couches, chandeliers, mirrors -- spread all over the entire space. The furniture is intended to provide areas for attendees to keep conversations going after breakout sessions.

Like the lights and sound systems in the city's convention center and 45,000-square-foot Pacific Ballroom, the furniture is also a permanent fixture that does not need to be rented.

Stephanie Stephens appreciates the cost savings and is wowed by the reaction of her attendees to value-added details like the furniture.

"I love how they've added it to the hallway and the foyer," says Stephens, executive director of the California Park & Recreation Society. "I walk by and see people in those conversation pits using them for networking. It's energizing."

The society's 70th Annual Conference & Exposition went to Long Beach this past March with 1,500 attendees (up 9 percent over last year) and 200 exhibitors. Since 2014, the California Park & Rec Society has alternated its meeting between Long Beach and its home base of Sacramento. Prior to that, they met at destinations all over the state, in a North/South rotation.

"Long Beach is a lovely city and their convention center is the perfect size for us," Stephens says. "When we bid to larger cities, we can't afford the $250 room nights. Long Beach comes in at a more affordable $210."

She raves about Long Beach's hip, outdoor party spot called The Cove, and its simulated under-the-pier motif. It's adorned with large-scale street murals, underwater-style decorations, and a giant crystal chandelier.

"We had the most amazing welcome reception at The Cove," Stephens says. "They went all out. We found that we can give Long Beach our craziest ideas and they can create whatever we want. I'll say this, when you find a good conference staff like this, you hold onto them."

Some destinations mix the feel of being a big city with small-town ambience.

Look at Baltimore: It has major attractions like the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor; respected institutions of higher learning like Johns Hopkins University; and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Major League Baseball edifice that pioneered the oft-copied modern-retro design.

Along with a 425,000-square-foot downtown convention center that has accommodated groups of up to 20,000 attendees, Charm City offers affordability and genuine small-town hospitality.

"Our customers already have a fair share of knowledge of our city beforehand," says Amy Calvert, senior vice president of convention sales for Visit Baltimore. "We have ease of access from all along the East Coast, and we have some of the leading medical and educational institutions in the country."

If you'd asked Calvert seven years ago who Baltimore competes with -- especially for medical groups -- she'd have said Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. (Indeed, Baltimore is sometimes seen as existing in the shadow of the nation's capital.) Today, she says the city also competes with Nashville, Austin, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Columbus, OH.

Regarding D.C.: "Yes, we're close to them, but Baltimore is so rich in history and we have such cool neighborhoods," Calvert says. "We're always repurposing neighborhoods and elevating our culinary scene. Add to that, we're close to the airport and you don't need a car to get around while you're here."

Calvert believes the key to selling Baltimore is her team. "We have an incredibly positive team across the whole organization, including sales and service," she says. "Everybody is into what they do -- they love working with clients and exceeding expectations and customizing solutions."

Kathleen Wert points to Visit Baltimore's team as the tipping point for getting her business. "I love the people there -- they are enthusiastic, and they love their city," says Wert, director of the Arlington, VA--based American Statistical Association. "You can trust them, and it's hard to find people you can believe in beyond them just trying to sell you space."

The ASA met in Baltimore in 2017, bringing 6,579 attendees from all over the world, including statisticians from partner societies in Canada, England, and China. It's a program-heavy meeting, running as many as 45 concurrent sessions.

The association usually books its meeting in an East Coast/West Coast rotation. Last year was already supposed to be an East Coast year, but Wert notes that a few years ago she started putting out RFPs to all qualified cities on both coasts every year.

"Baltimore won the business by being truthful and honest and telling us how they could meet our needs," Wert says. "They let us have the whole convention center at a decent price. I understand that they want to keep the center as full as possible as much of the time as they can. But they were flexible."

Wert says cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco get a boost in attendance because those cities excite attendees. "I talked about those challenges, and Baltimore showed me how other groups conquered those challenges," she says.

"We have to be great storytellers," Calvert says. "And we specifically created a director of marketing position to help understand a group's strategy and to help drive attendance."

Even a Tier 1 meeting city needs to work to get its message out to the convention industry. Yes, Orlando is the No. 1 destination in the country. But there's always something new opening, expanding, or being reimagined. It's never wise to rest on one's laurels, and Orlando continues to raise the bar with new resources, venues, and dining and attractions options for meeting attendees.

The big picture: Orlando boasts more than 119,000 hotel rooms at a wide range of price points, and 150 meeting hotels offer a combined 4.5 million square feet of meeting space.

In 2017, Universal Orlando Resort opened the 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, a Caribbean-themed property built around a lagoon and waterfall that has 247,000 square feet of contiguous meeting space.

The Orange County Convention Center stays busy filling its 2.1 million square feet of exhibition space and 480,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. It's also made some noteworthy additions, including:

 The addition of Vision Garden, the largest aeroponic garden in a public venue in the country. It produces 780 plants a week (40,000 per year), including bok choi, celery, chard, and other greens that are included in the center's catering offerings.

 A new pedestrian bridge that will connect the West Building of the OCCC to the adjacent Hyatt Regency Hotel.

 Two new ballrooms -- a 62,182-square-foot Valencia Ballroom; and the 48,961-square-foot Tangerine Ballroom and Sunburst Room, which has an attached outdoor Sunburst Hospitality Terrace.

As the caretaker for the most-visited destination in the United States, Visit Orlando is connected to more than 1,200 member organizations -- including 450 hotels, restaurants, shopping venues, nightlife spots, and the area's seven theme parks, and has an abundance of promotional material available to share with planners and potential meeting attendees.

Groups that don't need a convention center but are lured by oceanfront properties and ocean views are discovering the Huntington Beach Collection. This So Cal beach town's four major hotel properties have teamed up to offer groups 1,400 rooms and 185,000 square feet of meeting space.

It's ideal for pharmaceutical groups, product launches, and sales kickoffs, says Huntington Beach Executive Vice President of Sales and Administration John Ehlenfeldt. "Planners deal with my team and my team deals with the hotels," he says.

It's just a three-quarter-mile walk between all four hotels -- Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, Hilton's The Waterfront Beach ResortPaseo Hotel & Spa, and Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel -- which are proximal to a new retail complex, restaurants, and the iconic Surf City USA pier.

The edge in Seattle: natural beauty, says Rob Hampton, senior vice president, convention sales and services for Visit Seattle.

Yes, at roughly 200,000 square feet, Seattle's Washington State Convention Center is one of the smallest on the West Coast. The facility currently attracts a fair share of medical conventions, especially groups with 3,500 to 4,000 attendees, but has also hosted international groups of up to 10,000.

A new, 255,000-square-foot convention center -- two blocks away from the current one -- is scheduled to break ground this year. A 1,236-room Sheraton anchors the current center; a new, 1,260-room Hyatt Regency will anchor the new one.

"Everybody is competing for association business these days and rotations are not as tight as they have been in the past," Hampton says. "We compete up and down the West Coast and with Denver and Las Vegas. But we have great lift -- plenty of airlines -- and every conventioneer is also a tourist. We're also a world-class destination with restaurants and culture."


It's true that the destination is in the middle of a desert, but the city itself is a stunning oasis -- available to do business or incentivize people under warm blue skies, says Jill Philbrook, director of destination and partnership services for the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It's beautiful all year round, with 300 days of sunshine a year," Philbrook says. "Friends from the Midwest can come out in winter when its 75 degrees here. We also have unique outdoor meetings spaces that utilize natural sunlight."

There are nine cities in Greater Palm Springs, which competes flexibly with Phoenix, Scottsdale, San Diego, and Las Vegas for business. There are five Indian casinos in the area, all which have entertainment venues where groups can see shows or use the venue for presentations and meetings.

Incentive trips are often booked that include 100 peak nights, but some include up to 1,500. Philbrook says that groups of 800 or more can literally "have the keys to the city."

Some cities offer the duality of big-city facilities and a small-town charm, and that mix is served up in Greenville, SC, with a large dose of southern hospitality. Centrally located on the East Coast between Atlanta and Charlotte, Greenville is a popular destination for corporate meetings, trade shows, banquets, and special events.

The city offers a variety of unique meeting venues, including Fluor Field, home baseball park to the Greenville Drive, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox; the picturesque downtown oasis Falls Park on the Reedy; and the Peace Center, a downtown grouping of flexible special event spaces that includes the Peace Concert Hall, the TD Stage, Huguenot Mill, the Wyche Pavilion, the Gunter Theatre, and Genevieve's Theatre Lounge (all of which can be customized with menu, lighting, furnishings, and audiovisual elements).

On the larger scale, Greenville's TD Convention Center features 280,000 square feet of exhibit space, 60,000 square feet of meeting and conference space, and a 30,000-square-foot ballroom. The center recently completed $22 million in enhancements -- complete with permanent fiber-optic capabilities for free, wireless internet connectivity throughout -- and can host any type of event.

Then there's the 15,000-seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena and its dedicated group of professionals that offer turnkey management solutions for trade shows, corporate events, and parties. The Arena boasts 30 luxury suites and 800 club seats. The in-house catering staff aims to impress at events by offering classic or modern, local favorites or menus with global flair.

VisitGreenvilleSC has access to a full directory of community resources to help plan and execute events. In addition, the bureau can help promote meetings to attendees with Greenville photos, brochures, maps, visitor guides, and promotional videos. Local sign-age options are also available, along with exclusive dining discounts for meeting groups.

Stunning panoramic views and an array of outdoor scenery are major contributing factors that make Colorado Springs, CO, an attractive meetings destination. Yes, the city has intrastate competition with Denver; but Colorado Springs' altitude and proximity to mountains make its year-round climate milder than that of Denver, Salt Lake City, or Minneapolis.  

Classified as an alpine desert, Colorado Springs offers an annual average of 300 days of blue, sunny skies, an abundance of sunshine, and low humidity. The average daily temperature in July is 84 degrees. Evenings are cool -- and bug-free.

The city has its own airport, served by six major airlines and 11 nonstop flights. Colorado Springs is also just a 70-minute drive by car or shuttle from the Denver International Airport.

There are nearly 15,000 guest rooms in the Colorado Springs region, including 5,000 first-class hotel rooms at 20 full-service properties, that also offer 400,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.

A major component of the local meetings package is The Broadmoor, a Forbes Five Star (55 years running) and AAA Five Diamond resort complex. The property's 185,000 square feet of innovative, technology-rich event space includes numerous venues.

There are, of course, a range of activities to book for guests outside of Colorado Springs' meeting facilities. The city boasts more than 55 attractions, including trains, museums, parks, and a zoo. Outdoor adventures range from mild to wild.

The Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau is adept at helping promote the city as a meetings destination to attendees with images, promotional copy, and local public relations support.

In addition, the CVB can coordinate with local charities to brainstorm and create team-building events and other fun, educational, and fulfilling activities that give back to the surrounding community.


This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Successful Meetings.