|Cities greet meeting planners with open arms|
Choosing a destination more modest than its previous convention sites — Miami, Los Angeles and New York — turned out to be fortunate in light of the sharp downturn in the economy and drop in attendees, says executive director Tim Sharp.
The downtown Marriott Renaissance, the host hotel, charged about $150 a night per room, and threw in Wi-Fi Internet and audio-visual equipment free. The Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau helped with renting the city’s main concert hall. In all, the convention was “30% to 40%” less expensive than its last one, in Miami, where attendance was 10% higher.
“Oklahoma City saved me from being in the red,” Sharp says. “This part of the country is cheaper.”
It’s a buyer’s market for meeting planners such as Sharp, as hotels and cities of all sizes compete for an ever-shrinking pie of conventions and business meetings.
Having them at five-star resorts during recessionary times has garnered headlines, but times are rough even for workaday conventions, as sluggish attendance is triggering cancellations.
Meeting and convention revenue based on room nights is down about 30% this year compared with 2008, estimates Greg Malark, COO of HelmsBriscoe, one of the country’s largest meeting buying companies.
As planners look to trade down, some midprice hotel chains and second-tier convention cities are marketing themselves as affordable alternatives, even as their more upscale competitors court customers with deep discounts unseen in years.
“We’ve seen clients going to secondary cities both for value and perception,” Malark says.
Boost for Oklahoma City
Some smaller markets have proved to be resilient as more firms and associations avoid cities and hotels that may trigger bad public relations, says Kevin Iwamoto of StarCite, which links planners and suppliers online.
According to StarCite’s data based on its own bookings, Oklahoma City has seen the highest increase — about 80% — in the number of planners’ requests for convention and meeting proposals in February of this year vs. a year ago. Detroit, Des Moines, Omaha and Greensboro, S.C., round out the top five.
In addition to affordability, “planners are also looking at places you can drive to,” says Mike Fegley, a global sales executive of InterContinental Hotels Group.
That means more regional meetings and employees bypassing larger, national conventions.
Laurie Linhart, a Drake University professor and member of the Midwest Sociological Society, says more than 1,000 attended the group’s regional meeting, which she helped organize, in Des Moines earlier this year. That’s more than double the organizers’ estimate.
“A lot of people are forgoing the national meeting because of the affordability factor,” she says.
The Marriott in downtown Des Moines charged the group $109 a night for a room and upgraded rooms free for some members.
The Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau sweetened the pot for the group by offering 42 hours of volunteer help.
“They rolled out the red carpet,” Linhart says.
Having meetings smaller in scope is also working in the favor of midscale hotels.
The average number of conference attendees fell in 2008 to about 3,700, down about 15% from 2007, according to the Professional Convention Management Association’s latest annual survey.
Best Western says it’s seen an uptick in government contract business that had previously gone to more expensive hotels.
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