Think you’re ready to jump, but nervous about taking the leap? Planners considering a transition from a single hotel meeting to a convention center and, perhaps, multiple hotels worry about many “unknowns” including:
- Possible loss of networking opportunities
- Increased walking distances
- More costs, more contacts and more contracts!
You don’t have to go it alone. Seasoned convention and visitors bureau (CVB) sales professionals in every destination can guide the way, just as they have for the planners we interviewed.
Tricia Fleisher Willhide, CMP, CEM, hasn’t made the leap yet, but she’s pretty sure it’s inevitable. When she does decide to jump, she’ll be educated about the process, have trusted partners to assist, and end up looking like a star! Tricia knows she can count on the CVB experts to serve as her instructors, destination liaison, and safety net throughout her association’s transition from meeting in a hotel to using a convention center.
With nearly 2000 attendees, Tricia’s meeting — the Community Health Institute & EXPO, which is the annual convention of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) — is limited in the number of hotels capable of providing sleeping rooms and function space under one roof. “Utilizing convention centers would allow us to consider additional destinations and would allow for growth,” she observes. Her biggest concern about using a convention center? “Losing people. . . Being self-contained in one hotel after hours you will run into your friends, acquaintances and colleagues in restaurants, at the coffee shop, in the bar. . . when you are using a center and a few different hotels the networking element becomes at risk.”
When Tricia does branch out to include a convention center, the CVB can help ensure that networking opportunities stay alive and well. CVB experts can suggest venues for attendee events that will foster interaction and can pass on tried and true tips: for instance, longer coffee breaks in the convention center and less unstructured time for attendees to go their separate ways can set the stage for mingling and knowledge exchange. “The information that the CVB has about the city that can help with the elements of networking and keeping people connected will be so valuable in winning our business and getting us to make the leap to a center for the first time,” says Tricia.
We reached out to Scott White, president & CEO of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, for advice from the destination viewpoint. “A smaller center, like the Palm Springs Convention Center (92,000 gsf exhibit space), has a lot of experience with groups that transition out of hotels,” Scott says. “Ask the center for references on other similar conventions and ask them for examples of how previous groups maximized the space and created networking opportunities.”
The Distance Hurdle
A convention center convert, Jane Dahlroth, CEM, CMP, Director of Meetings & Exhibits at the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, says exhibit sales have increased by 71% and attendance by over 45% since making the move to convention centers beginning in 2007. “Although we never could have imagined the phenomenal growth we have experienced when we moved to a convention center, we did anticipate continued growth in both exhibits and attendance and knew a facility would be needed to accommodate and foster the increase.” ACMGG overcomes the potential obstacle of limited attendee interaction by choosing a large headquarter hotel and connected convention center where possible, or otherwise keeping the entire lodging and center package within easy walking distance. Their kick-off multi-facility meeting was in Nashville in 2007, with headquarters at the Renaissance Hotel. “Some events and sessions were held in the hotel and some sessions and exhibits in the (connected) convention center, so it seemed to attendees they were ‘still under the same roof’. One of the ongoing requirements as we select future sites is walkability of headquarter hotel, overflow properties, and the convention center. As the meeting has grown so much in the last several years, many attendees now have not experienced the meeting in any other format.”
Using a combination of hotel and convention center meeting space is not unusual for conventions with a disproportionately large number of simultaneous breakouts, and may be the main reason for incorporating the convention facility into the package. The College Board’s AP Annual Conference is a case in point. Christine Schmidt, Director, Conference Management, says they decided to use a convention center not because of exhibit growth, but “primarily because of meeting space requirements. There are very few “big box” hotels in the nation that have sufficient meeting space for us.” The need for attendees to be able to get easily and quickly from one venue to another dictates that all be within walking distance; busing between hotels and the center is out of the question and not in the budget.
In the same vein, Lisa Simpson, Director of Meetings and Events at the American Staffing Association, suggests that planners not only be mindful of the distance between the headquarter hotel and the convention center, but also to make sure that the halls and meeting space within the center are as close to the hotel as possible. For attendees used to having everything under one roof, “going outside changes their perception,” even if the actual distance from Point A in the hotel to Point B in the convention center is the same as walking from their sleeping room to their meeting room at The Venetian in Las Vegas. Not having to traverse the entire length of the convention center to distant meeting rooms and exhibits helps. Lisa suggests that during a site visit the planner makes the walk from hotel room to meeting space, times it, and includes that information in conference marketing materials to inform attendees ahead of time.
Expect rental fees for meeting rooms and exhibit space to be considerably higher than the relatively low rental rates and complimentary meeting space when self-contained in a hotel. Scott White explains, “Convention centers do not have the benefit of hotel room revenue and must charge a fee for exhibit space and meeting space. “
Like any of us in a new situation, a transitioning planner may not know what they don’t know; there may be work rules, vendor restrictions, and labor minimums in a center that aren’t typically encountered in hotels. “As you research centers, you should ask for pricing on electrical, audio visual, security (how much is needed), drayage (decorator), internet connections (usually done via their A/V company) any costs to hang banners and anything unique to your group,” advises Scott. “Ask the center how many times they will turn your meeting room. Some centers will only change the set-up once and charge a fee for additional configurations. As long as you have all of the pricing up front, you can build these fees into your exhibitor rates.” The more information you have, the better the center staff can work with you on outlining your total costs. Depending on the destination and the economic impact of your meeting, the CVB may be able to offer incentives or hotel rebates to subsidize convention center expenses. Hopefully, as in the case of ACMGG, growth in attendance and exhibitors may result in significantly more revenue to help offset the increased costs of the meeting.
Scott further notes, “As you grow into centers, you also start to get benefits with the local city. If eligible, you may get welcome banners at the airport, in key areas of downtown, and special discounts for your attendees at the local restaurants and attractions. These programs help you communicate your brand and overall theme of the event.”
CVB professionals can be invaluable in guiding a client through this unknown territory and, of course, will be instrumental in procuring the best proposals from the hotels and convention centers.
More contacts. . . and contracts
In a hotel/center combination, “the meeting planner will have more departments and people to work with,” notes Jane Dahlroth. “In addition to convention services and catering at the convention center, if there are events at the hotel there will be additional contacts, planning meetings, and follow up required.” Even more players may become involved if you branch out to off-site venues. Be prepared for these additional pieces to be added to the puzzle and call on the CVB to reach out to coordinate with the hospitality community on your behalf.
“Depending on the location, you may have to coordinate and communicate with multiple entities,” Scott concurs. “ Generally at smaller centers, the convention service manager will be your primary point of contact and assist you with coordinating between the different entities. At larger centers you may work directly with the electrical company, security company, audio visual company, catering, and decorator. If this is your first center booking, ask for a list of items that are important for them to have from you and the CVB team. They know the building and understand what it takes to be successful. “
Your CVB partner
All the above planners agree that the best first contact is the convention and visitors bureau. The CVB is uniquely qualified to share their comprehensive view of the destination, to help you find the right fit, and to navigate with you through the entire process. And, because the CVB’s efforts are funded by their local government and stakeholders, there is no charge to the meeting planner. Ready to take the leap? To compare destinations and get connected to more than 135 of the country’s top meeting and convention destinations, visit empowerMINT.com. The destination maps in empowerMINT.com give planners a unique view by showing the location of the convention facility and indicating the number of hotel rooms and meeting rooms at the hotels —important information when you are looking for that perfect combination.
As Tricia Willhide concludes, “In a world where I need to do more with less, I need the bureau’s resources and expertise to help coordinate and execute a successful meeting. I can’t do without them, really. . . I just don’t have the time for the extra layers of communication that would be required just by having more players in the game.” We couldn’t have said it better.