Big Meetings in Not-So-Big Cities

By: Linda C. Chandler

Association meeting planners can be hesitant to pursue a meeting in so-called second-tier cities. But plenty of organizations have learned that smaller locations in the Southeast can have the capacity, venues, nightlife, and charm of a major metropolis. (Titled "Bright Meeting, Smaller City" in the print edition.)

Every organization must weigh the effect a meeting destination has on its attendance. Sure, there's something to be said for the glitz of Vegas and the entertainment of Orlando, but second-tier cities can offer a variety of undiscovered dining, recreational, and cultural opportunities that provide memorable experiences to convention and tradeshow guests.

"Second tier" doesn't mean "second best," of course. Indeed, for meeting planners, being the big fish in the small pond has its advantages. Smaller convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) tend to appreciate your business more, and the welcome that smaller cities provide extends from the mayor to the maitre d'. Following are 10 good reasons to consider bringing your attendees to a Southeast city away from bustle and crowded beachfronts:

1. A Cooperative, Can-Do CVB and City

It isn't often that an association with an annual event rotating around the country chooses to return to a site only four years later. But the National Forensic League was so impressed by Birmingham, Alabama, in 2009 that its national event will be there again in 2013. J. Scott Wunn, executive director of the high-school students association, says its weeklong event requires not only convention center space but also more than 400 school classrooms for competitions. The logistics are daunting, involving about 5,000 attendees, including 3,200 teen competitors. "We have built a great relationship with the CVB, the city, schools, attractions, and special venues that hosted off-hours events for our teens and coaches and their families," says Wunn.

Lynn Brewer, senior vice president of meetings, education, and member services for the American Bus Association, has similar praise for Charlotte, North Carolina. Her annual all-appointment marketplace event matches about 3,300 tour organizers with destinations, attractions, and hotels seeking their business. "Cities vie for our event because their exposure to our attendees can bring a 25 percent increase of tour business to them over the successive four years," she says. "Hosting us is a three-year planning process, and the city of Charlotte and the CVB have been nothing short of phenomenal. The fact that we're returning after only four years is a testament to what they can do."

"The staffs at the Classic Center and the CVB in Athens, Georgia, are the best of any location I've known," says Terri Hancock, former executive director of the Georgia Technology Students Association. "Sales, event coordinators, even the hotel general managers understand our needs and make things happen."

2. Hospitality

It isn't just what second-tier cities are willing to do to draw the business. Especially in the South, it's about how they do it.

"Our delegates could feel that Southern charm," says Brewer. You can stop anyone on the street and ask directions. It seemed like everyone in Charlotte knew we were coming."

"Everyone in Richmond is so friendly," says Laura Gerhart, conference coordinator for the National Tactical Officers Association, "and we're not necessarily used to that." Local law enforcement departments and the CVB have worked to provide special activities for the 2,500 to 3,000 tactical officers expected to attend a six-day training session this September.

Jim Twitty, conference and event manager for the University of South Carolina, says, "Like many midsized cities, Columbia can really roll out the red carpet for groups. People are amazed at what Columbia is—a pretty place with lots of things to do—and the hospitality that leaves you with fond memories of the city." Twitty helped extend that hospitality to 1,000 attendees of the World Congress of Ultrasound in April.

3. Modern Facilities

WiFi, high-tech audiovisual, and other amenities available in larger spaces are common in second-tier cities, so the only major question is whether the size of your group matches the capacity of the facility. "Honestly, second-tier cities have the same quality facilities on a smaller scale," says Gerhart, "and more personal attention makes sure you don't get lost in the shuffle."

"Chattanooga's convention center is one of the nicest I've seen, and the staff is highly professional" says Windy K. Christner, CMP, senior director of meetings and expositions for the American Pharmacists Association. Last fall she planned a Joint Forces Pharmacy Seminar that drew about 1,200 military pharmacists to Chattanooga.

"Athens' Classic Center is beautiful—and all on two levels," says Hancock. She's held an annual competition and leadership event there five years running. "We definitely see a higher level of behavior from our students in this environment."

4. Convenient Access

While Athens is serviced by a small airport, Hancock says keynote speakers are happy to drive the 80 miles from Atlanta's larger airport to come to Athens.

"A lot of our people will drive to our event," says Gerhart. "They have to bring their own equipment, and it saves hassling through the airport. Budgets are important, too, and many of our guys carpool in vans."

Many of Wunn's group—including the organization's staff—drove to Birmingham, and the fact that the city is served by Southwest Airlines' less- expensive flights was important in his site selection.

If southern second-tier cities aren't homes to big airports (though Charlotte's is the seventh-busiest in the United States), they are short distances by air or ground to major hubs. Twitty and Christner plan for international as well as domestic attendees and say they've had no trouble with air access to Columbia or Chattanooga.

5. Entertainment

One thing Hancock appreciates about Athens is that it offers plenty of restaurants downtown. "From pizza to nicer eateries, there are good choices, and no McDonalds," she says. "It's safe, too. Our kids have an 11:30 curfew, so they can be on their own and get in on time."

Christner's site visit to Chattanooga sealed the deal. "It's a very walkable city, and there are so many things to do and see," she says.

Twitty notes that Columbia has "pockets of entertainment" for after-hours activities, ranging from the Vista neighborhood, with its art galleries and restaurants, to Five Points, a shopping district with a village atmosphere in downtown.

6. Affordable Accommodations

Especially if attendees are responsible for their own lodging, it's good to choose a site that offers a range of accommodations that you can track in room blocks. Most second-tier cities have several affordable convention hotels with meeting space but offer budget-friendly options as well.

Gerhart says she must negotiate for "close to government rates," so she works with CVBs to identify appropriate hotel space. Christner says 70 percent of the Joint Forces Pharmacy Seminar room block had to be at government rate, and Chattanooga offered a variety of hotels willing to work with her.

Affordability is sometimes balanced against timing in second-tier cities. Twitty says during legislative sessions and the fall football season, rooms are in high demand in Columbia. In Athens, home of the University of Georgia, planning around football season is a must. Hancock's event takes every available room within a mile and a half of the Classic Center, but it's timed during spring break for the college campus.

7. A Smarter F&B Budget

Meeting planners say caterers in the South tend to offer planners more for their money. "The food is less expensive and menus more flexible in Richmond," says Gerhart. "They have been extremely accommodating and reasonable and have come up with some awesome options for our audience, which is mostly the meat-and-potatoes type."

"I'd consider the caterer we worked with in Chattanooga one of the best in the country," says Christner. "It's affordable there, and you get quality and value for what you pay. Wunn adds that one advantage to Birmingham is that it offers affordable, student-friendly restaurants near the schools and convention facilities he's used.

8. High-End Venues

Second-tier cities in the Southeast offer golf, spas, and other amenities for smaller meetings, such as association boards or leadership groups, and executive-level gatherings. Resorts in or outside city limits cater to prestige groups. In Athens, Hancock says, good settings for high-end gatherings include the Hotel Indigo, a unique eco-boutique and LEED-certified property, and the Foundry Park Inn & Spa, housed in a collection of historic buildings.

Birmingham's Hotel Highland at Five Points South offers 63 rooms and suites in a historic setting, and the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa accommodates larger groups.

In addition to the five-diamond Ritz in uptown Charlotte, there's the Ballantyne Hotel, Lodge, Spa and Golf Course. Similarly, in Richmond you can find the five-star Jefferson Hotel downtown and the four-star Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel & Conference Center in Glen Allen, with its scenic golf venue.

The Chattanoogan hotel bills itself as "The Urban Resort," and the four-diamond Mayor's Mansion Inn in Chattanooga has 11 rooms and suites to accommodate elite meetings.

A historic house comprises the lobby of the Inn at USC in Columbia; it has 117 luxurious rooms. Another historic reclamation venue in Columbia that will add a special flavor to smaller events is the Inn at Claussen's, a 28-room boutique hotel in Five Points.

9. Unique Attractions

When it comes to unique venues, there are plenty of art museums, historic homes and sites, gardens, theaters, and other event settings and activities in the Southeast's second-tier cities.

Columbia's Riverbank Zoo and Garden is ranked among the best in the United States. The city's museum of art hosts up to 1,200 for receptions, and the city is also known for Governor's Green (a nine-acre complex surrounding the South Carolina governor's mansion), ghost walks, and horse-drawn carriage rides.

Richmond appeals to history buffs—from colonial, Revolutionary War, and Civil War sites to Maymont, a 100-acre Victorian estate. But there are also surprises like the Cultural Center of India and the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.

Charlotte is a well-known racing town, home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but it's also home to the U.S. National Whitewater Center and the Billy Graham Library.

After they've seen the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, conventiongoers there can enjoy biking downtown, the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, a riverboat ride, or the Bluff View arts district.

Birmingham boasts the Civil Rights Museum and Heritage Trail and antebellum homes and gardens, plus the unexpected Mercedes-Benz U.S. Visitor Center.

Besides golf, Athens recreation includes kayaking excursions on the Oconee River. The mountains of northeast Georgia are not far away, and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is a beautiful and educational surprise.

10. New Experiences

Introducing attendees to a new destination is part of the reason planners choose a second-tier city. Cities in the Southeast have added attractive facilities, museums, and entertainment districts to lure more group business.

"Most of our group had never been there when we went in 2009," Brewer says of Charlotte. "And the area has so much new product—attractions and museums—it will be a whole new Charlotte when we return in 2013."

Christner says her group was similarly impressed with Chattanooga. "There's a wide variety of hotels, great community support, culture, and entertainment," she says. For association meeting planners, much the same could be said for the overlooked gems throughout the Southeast.

Sidebar: Selling the Second-Tier Site

Budgets have an influence on the selection of second-tier cities, say planners, but local connections often help sway the decision. The National Tactical Officers Association's event has been held in Los Angeles and the National Forensic League is going to Dallas next year, but Richmond, Virginia and Birmingham, Alabama, got the respective nods of those organizations because of local member support and strong association leadership in the smaller destinations.

Convention and visitors bureaus in smaller locations home in on this important factor. "First and foremost, we depend on our local association members for support," says Mike Gunn, vice president of sales for Greater Birmingham CVB. "We don't go after a group unless we've identified a local member. We look for members who may be on site committees and boards and have a little more influence on where the meeting goes. Once we've identified the main purpose of the event, we build our case around that. Lastly, we talk about cost savings from airline to hotel to fine dining."

The Columbia, South Carolina, CVB believes misconceptions are easily overcome in familiarization trips for decision makers. "In the past 12 months, we've hosted three [familiarization] tours involving 36 organizations. We've now received 21 RFPs from these groups, and so far six have turned definite," says Jason Outman, director of sales. However, the approach goes beyond touring the convention center and hotels to allowing participants to sample the recreation, entertainment, historic, and cultural offerings of the city. "We try to dispel the myth that there is nothing to do in second-tier cities by focusing on what there is to do and not just showing the meeting facilities."

Been-there, seen-that testimony from meeting planners is often balanced with recommendations from other groups. When boards hear what other groups have done, it makes the decision easier. "Client testimonies help convey positive experiences about Chattanooga," says Steve Genovesi, vice president of sales and marketing at the Chattanooga [Tennessee] Area CVB. "Especially if it's a similar group in size or industry, they're even more impressed."

Linda C. Chandler is a freelance writer and editor based in Tyler, Texas. Email: [email protected]

Linda C. Chandler