Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Not every city has the built-in appeal of major meeting destinations like Chicago or San Francisco. But competition for conference business is heating up as cities nationwide have invested heavily in the infrastructure necessary for top-notch meeting experiences. Why would you book your meeting in a place like Pittsburgh or Detroit or Reno? You might be surprised.
"We're from Pittsburgh, but it's not as bad as you think." That's what Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh, was accustomed to saying when he started at the CVB 15 years ago. "We don't have to say that anymore," Davis says.
"We've come from a place that was pretty dark. This was a steel-making city that wasn't synonymous as a destination. It took us 100 years to get a bad reputation; it's going to take us a long time to get out."
The amount business travel spending is predicted to increase in 2015, adding up to $295.7 billion.
Source: GBTA BTI Outlook—United States 2015 Q1 report
But a few decades after smoky steel left Pittsburgh, the city has a new image. On its website, VisitPittsburgh promotes 10 reasons to meet there, including a 16-block walkable downtown, offsite venues like PNC Park and Heinz Field, and the world's first convention center built Gold LEED Certified and upgraded to Platinum.
Now Davis' frequent line is more along these lines: "If you want a green meeting, just show up."
For Pittsburgh and other cities that have experienced devastating downturns and soiled reputations, rebuilding an image to attract meetings is a Herculean task. But for those putting in the effort, the rewards can be significant. According to the Convention Industry Council (CIC), the meetings industry contributes $280 billion in direct spending and 1.8 million jobs to the national economy.
"When you add in the multipliers, the indirect spending those delegates leave behind by patronizing restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, the numbers are even more staggering," says CIC CEO Karen Kotowski. "Every destination wants a piece of that pie. To remain competitive, destinations need to invest in their product to attract more visitors and meetings."
More than ever, once-downtrodden destinations are investing in conference centers, headquarters hotels, and transportation hubs to attract a broad range of gatherings. With sleek marketing, high-tech and green facilities, robust sales efforts, and high-end restaurants and entertainment venues, these cities are making strong comebacks.
Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center became the shiny penny that first turned heads when it opened in 2003, but it also spurred investment in nearby infrastructure, including new hotels and the expansion of a free downtown trolley service. The entire package has done wonders for replacing the image of a city covered in soot with one that's environmentally friendly and progressive. The city just opened its first boutique hotel this year and boasts about its downtown arts and culture district—even if meeting attendees don't want to go to the symphony, Davis says, they want to be in a city that has a symphony.
"Why invest? It's big money," Davis says. "The best kind of money is money that comes from outside the region. That's what tourism is all about. It fills hotels, keeps people working, and it's what we focus on every day."
Percentage of the 1.8 million meetings held in the United States in 2012 that were hosted by associations and professional societies.
Source: The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy
In 2005, Pittsburgh hosted the Bassmaster Classic, which Davis says would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. "The message was that the pollution is gone, and bass is alive and well in our rivers," he says. But the first true convention coup was the 2009 G-20 Summit.
"It showed we're able to handle a complex meeting and host the leaders of the free world," Davis says. "That helped define us, and it convinced public officials and residents that the investment is worth it."
The city now garners national accolades, Davis says, and each feather in its cap gives it a boost. Pittsburgh has been chosen by both National Geographic Traveler and Jetsetter.com as one of the best places in the world to visit, and Conde Nast Traveler named the city one of the top 15 places to go in 2015.
David Sullivan, vice president of the American Copy Editors Society, said one of the reasons the group chose Pittsburgh for its 19th annual meeting in March is that it was more affordable than Boston, New York, or Washington.
"For our members, we have to find a hotel with reasonable rates, under $180 if we can," Sullivan says. "Our room block was $179 a night." He says some of the organization's board members were tentative about Pittsburgh, but Sullivan, who had been there recently, spoke up for it.
"It was not that Pittsburgh had a bad reputation; it's that for many people it has no image whatsoever," he says. "Our membership really liked having restaurants they could walk to for lunch. People were surprised."
When Bill Bohde, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, hosts meeting planners, he shows them around Cobo Center, the newly renovated and expanded waterfront convention center. He tells his guests about plans for a 45-block entertainment and retail district and talks enthusiastically about new restaurants and hotels. But for those who still doubt the safety of a city that was bankrupt until late last year—and whose former mayor is serving a 28-year jail sentence for corruption—he shows them a place tourists and meeting attendees will never see.
"We understand the level of concern that some groups bring, so when it's necessary, we showcase two major security centers, where we show people how we monitor downtown with hundreds of cameras," Bohde says. "People know these cameras are powerful, and it's one of the reasons there's no crime downtown. When they see this, their concerns are eliminated."
Bohde began his job in Detroit in 2012, and it's been the biggest challenge of his career. In addition to escorting visitors to security centers, he talks them through the bankruptcy, which lasted 18 months, and he acknowledges that the crime situation is real—just not in the downtown neighborhoods marketed to conventioneers and tourists.
Percentage of meetings conducted at venues with lodging, generating more than 275 million room nights.
Source: The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy
"We have to sell, and we have to sell with hard-core facts, all the time," Bohde says. "But it's getting easier. The streets are clean, the lights are being turned back on, and we're extremely optimistic about our future."
The big draw is Cobo Center, which includes glass-walled spaces that open up to views of the Detroit River and Canada. Also new: the three-mile Detroit RiverWalk and direct flights between Detroit and London. The M-1 Rail streetcar, which will serve downtown, is under construction. The CVB, which has a nine-person marketing team, invites travel writers to see positive changes firsthand and has created a weekly TV program that reaches surrounding states.
Bohde reports that convention bookings are projected to increase 140 percent from 2014 to 2021. This year, the National Medical Association and the Automotive Service Association (ASA) will hold their annual meetings in Detroit, as will ASAE. Bohde says that associations with any connection to Detroit take a lot of pride in bringing meetings to their hometown.
"I was expecting what we've seen on the news—a place that was in disrepair and not functioning," says Dan Risley, ASA's executive director and president, who knew that Detroit—despite its reputation—was a natural fit for automobile meetings. "I was getting calls saying, 'If you're going to Detroit, I'm not sending my staff.' "
During a site visit, Risley was blown away by the beautiful convention center, joggers along the river, and the kindness of strangers; he moved ASA's expo from Las Vegas to Detroit in 2014. "It's like the people of Detroit just went through a customer service class that the rest of the country could learn from," he says. "They really appreciated you being there."
These days, Detroit engenders curiosity, and people are visiting to see a city reborn—with young residents, coffee shops, yoga studios, and waterfront dining. "There's a long way to go," Bohde says, "but perceptions are changing."
When Phyllis Castens Wiederhoeft, executive director of the Association of Lutheran Development Executives (ALDE), was approached by a smaller association about meeting together in Reno, she says she was neutral.
"I'm not sure I had any kind of impression of Reno, good or bad," she says. "Just that it was a small town. There wasn't anything drawing us there—except the CVB."
But that was enough. ALDE held its International Educational Conference at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in February for 450 attendees, and Wiederhoeft says it may very well return after rotations to other destinations.
2 in 5
Executives who say they would lose customers without face-to-face meetings.
Source: Oxford Economics Business Travel Economic Impact report
"It has a small-city feel with all the amenities and conveniences the group needed," she says. Plus, her concerns about a religious organization meeting in a gambling city were trumped by terrific room rates.
Unlike other cities that are beefing up infrastructure, Reno already has eight resort hotels and impressive meeting facilities. The trick is convincing people that Reno has matured from the days when it was known as the divorce capital or gaming capital of North America.
"When I got here three years ago, I said to my team, 'We don't have a product problem; we have a messaging problem,' " says Christopher Baum, president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA). The old story: Reno was a tired gambling town. The new one: It's a four-season resort town with a can-do business attitude.
"We've always been an unusual destination," Baum says. Eight hours north of Las Vegas with a high desert climate, 18 ski resorts, and wild horses, Reno has long had the capacity for meetings. But it hasn't positioned itself that way until recently. Now, with a surge in business development—from a Tesla battery factory to a drone-testing site—restaurants, brewpubs, and retailers are opening to accommodate workers filling 50,000 new jobs in the next five years.
According to Baum, changing the story was far more important than adding hotel rooms. RSCVA has marketed aggressively through trade magazines and hired additional salespeople. "We're big believers in PR," Baum says. Part of the message is reminding executives and planners that Tesla chose Reno for its new $5 billion lithium-ion battery factory.
"When you beat out four other states and win the biggest construction factory job in North America, you get a lot of attention," he says.
The Reno-Tahoe International Airport once again has direct, international flights, and a nonstop flight to New York's JFK began in May. Reno offers resorts with free parking and free airport shuttles; a burgeoning local food movement; and an art scene influenced by Native Americans, Western culture, and the Burning Man festival.
"When you say 'Reno' to an association executive now, you don't get a blank look," Baum says, noting that 60 percent of the city's meetings are new business. And the rates, which Baum says are "crazy affordable," are appealing. "People who were not willing to talk to us before are doing so now."
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Expect the Unexpected."]