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Small Cities: Downsizing

Published: 03/29/2012

Small Cities: Downsizing

By Marc Boisclair

In an ideal world, every meetings destination would be blessed with Chicago's shopping, San Francisco's restaurants, the arts and culture of Washington, D.C. and the best theater Manhattan could offer-minus, of course, a few pesky nuisances (traffic and congestion, for example) that occasionally surface in such great cities. That said, smaller but deserving alternatives await, bringing to the table many benefits of bigger cities-accessibility, major hotels, dining, entertainment and recreation-in a format and setting often less expensive and unlikely to overwhelm either planners or attendees. "The infrastructure of smaller cities gives you a better opportunity to get to know the players," says Charles Sadler, executive director and CEO of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. "Our meeting also has a bigger impact on a city that size. It doesn't matter if the economy is good or bad when you book them; they still want your business when you get there." With that in mind, here's a sampling of some mid-tier destinations worth keeping in mind for future meetings.

Boise, Idaho
It seems only appropriate that the Gem State's capital city and major meeting spot began as a trading post for the Hudson Bay Company in the early 19th century. These days, Boise remains a favorite for exchanging products and ideas, drawing groups in search of a clean, safe destination that's also home to a prominent university (Boise State), a plush botanical garden, cool museums (on art, black history and Basque culture, among others), a lively downtown core known for its brew pubs, and a slew of major multi-national companies. Better yet, this mid-tier meeting package comes wrapped in a spectacular backdrop of lush forests, snowcapped mountains and the winding Boise River, all ideal sources for groups outings and adventures-points not lost on both planners and attendees alike.

"We can take people down to our Green Belt, have them do some volunteer work along the river and feel good about being green and getting back to nature," says Bobbie Patterson, executive director of the Boise CVB. Then there's the other "green" aspect of meeting in Boise. "If your goal is to make a connection with the governor's office, city leadership, health care professionals and other executives, it's really easy," says Patterson. "People here tend to know each other and know how to open those doors."

Tom Maves, who plans meetings for the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, brought his group of 100 to Boise last May. "I find people in smaller towns are friendlier and the hotel staffs are better," says Maves, who lauds Boise's accessibility and compact, walkable center. "It's very easy getting in and out of the city, and everything is conveniently located-there's plenty to do in a small area."

Cincinnati, Ohio
Tracy Becker, a national account manager with Conference Direct, organized the inaugural Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati in 2009 for a group of about 1,000 people. Much of the city impressed her, specifically its easy access (by auto and air) and attendee-friendly convention district. She says Cincinnati has a great mix of things to do and see. Indeed, this Ohio River town's reputation derives from its spirited blend of arts, culture, architecture, history and colorful personalities, covering U.S. presidents (Grant, Harrison and Taft), sports legends (baseball's Pete Rose) and even former Cincinnati mayor-turned tabloid TV host Jerry Springer.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is in Covington, Ky., just outside Cincinnati.

"We have all the nuances of a big city without the trappings and expenses," says Barrie Perks, vice president of sales for the Cincinnati USA CVB. Of note among the former category are the city's opera, symphony and ballet, and its world-famous Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, home to the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the country. Cincy's urban core continues to renew itself, led by several new hotels, the Banks riverfront entertainment district and the city's new $320 million Queen City Square complex. The Cincinnati Museum Center, opened 20 years ago in the city's renovated and restored Art Deco Union Terminal train station, houses a half-dozen major arts and culture venues and serves as a rail stop for Amtrak. And Perks reminds attendees to pack an appetite along with their cell phones and laptops. "We have over 4,000 restaurants in Cincinnati, with six that are rated four diamonds-people are always surprised to hear that," he says.

Irvine, California
Education and affluence are just two of the reasons why Bloomberg Businessweek named this Orange County anchor one of the five best American places to live in 2012. With a median income of more than $92,000 and almost two-thirds of its residents college-educated, it's no surprise to find Irvine a magnet for major corporations (notably technology) and higher education (six major colleges and universities locally, led by the University of California Irvine). Those factors, along with Irvine's location and high quality of life, also offer great starting points for holding productive meetings there.

"We're a newer city, built as a centrally located master-plan community for families, business and educational institutions," says Michelle Carlen, director of sales for Destination Irvine. Getting there's certainly easy, thanks to several nearby airports and a pair of major interstates that make it easy to boost attendance from the local SoCal drive market. Disneyland, great shopping and the OC's gorgeous parkland and beaches also provide a big attendee draw. Another feather in Irvine's cap: being named "America's safest big city" by the FBI for the past seven years, always a plus for any planner's playbook.

"For me, a lot of Irvine's appeal was its affordability," says Leslie McGill, CAE, executive director of the California Police Chiefs Association, who's expecting about 600 attendees at the Hyatt Regency Irvine this fall for the annual convention. "This group does not like to share rooms and they offered us the right dates, a really competitive room rate and meeting space," she says. McGill also appreciates the enthusiasm of Irvine and its host police force in helping with her meeting's on-site needs. "They were very eager to help out, which makes things much easier," she says.

Norfolk, Virginia
While one needn't be enamored of all things nautical prior to meeting in this versatile port, it's hard to resist Norfolk's aquatic charms once in town. Surrounded by the Elizabeth River, Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Norfolk revels in its seafaring lifestyle and encourages visitors to do the same. Sailing, kayaking, crabbing, deep-sea fishing, dinner cruises, floating naval museums-Norfolk's got all that and much more to help create a unique attendee experience. It also comes with a terrific city center, easily accessible and chock full of fun things to see and do.

"People feel safe and comfortable to venture about and explore the city here," says Martha Fraser, a Norfolk native who returned to her home four years ago and now works as director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside. "We're an unintimidating city-accessible, fun and with a great arts and dining scene," says Fraser, noting in particular the city's numerous chef owned-and-operated restaurants. Norfolk's also known for its festivals, where the city's culinary, seafaring and musical influences converge in celebrations of jazz, wine, art, literature and Cajun cooking. The city's military heritage is on full display as well, with its numerous historic sites, from Naval Station Norfolk to downtown's Douglas MacArthur Memorial, available for group tours, receptions and special events.

"My members are also meeting planners, and if you impress them you're likely to get more business," says the SGMP's Charles Sadler. "From the day we booked Norfolk to the day we left there, we were welcomed and treated as good business for them. That's the kind of relationship-building that they take time to do in smaller cities."

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
While the Sooner capital isn't shy about promoting what it deems good for group business-e.g., affordability, exceptional drive-in access, the city's resurgent Brickyard entertainment section-those selling points are ultimately complements to the city's biggest asset. "The real highlight of meeting in our city is the community itself," says Robin O'Connor, director of sales and servicing at the Oklahoma City CVB. "Groups feel completely at home here-there's a warmth and a genuine hospitality that you sometimes don't get in larger cities."

There's also an urban sophistication that can surprise first-time visitors whose preconception of OKC consists solely of cowboys and cattle. No doubt, Old West fun still abounds at the shops, steakhouses and country music venues in nearby Stockyards City, but attendees can also sip ultra-lounge martinis, dance to house music and cruise along the Bricktown Canal. The city's also home to a horticultural wonderland (downtown's Myriad Botanical Gardens) plus a number of impressive museums, where the subject matter runs from telephones and homesteading to gymnastics, Native American history and pigeons.

When event coordinator Gerri Swarm started with the National Association of Postmasters of the United States in 1981, her first conference was in OKC.

"One of the biggest concerns is walking distance," says Swarm, who's bringing her group back in September for its 2012 national conference. "Oklahoma City has four hotels within two blocks of the convention center and we've booked all four. Our people also like to entertain, and not having to hire transportation saves us tremendously on costs and time."

Tempe, Arizona
While this easy-going Southwest community brings immediate recognition for its balmy desert climate and a gregarious, college-town (Arizona State University) spirit, Tempe's also making a name for itself as a convenient, affordable meetings hub.

"Accessibility is our No. 1 selling point," says Tourism Tempe director of sales Linda Ruby. "We're right off the freeway, just five miles from the airport, with complimentary hotel shuttles." Another plus: METRO, the Valley of the Sun's 20-mile light rail system, with a major route that runs between Tempe and downtown Phoenix, allowing attendees to visit Arizona's state capital without ever hitting the road.

Why leave town, though, when Tempe offers so much to see and do? "Our Mill Avenue district is vibrant up until midnight," says Ruby, who ticks off a list of "great nooks and crannies"-cafes, restaurants, sports bars, pubs and wine bars-that work nicely for dine-arounds and post-meeting play. There's no shortage of unique conference and special event space either, be it the elegant Tempe Center for the Arts (set on Tempe Towne Lake) or any number of versatile venues on ASU's main campus.

"It's also a good city for attendees who want to bring along their family members," says Rick Connor, CEO of Meeting Your Needs. Baseball's spring training, which draws more than a dozen major league teams to the area in February, provides a great escape from winter elsewhere. "And spending a few days at the Grand Canyon, on most people's bucket list, is pretty easy to incorporate either before or after a meeting," adds Connor.

Wichita, Kansas
Imagine finding 35 museums, 52 ball fields, 117 parks, more than 1,000 restaurants and friendly, courteous cab drivers (really) in one, easy-to-reach destination? Welcome to Kansas' largest city. "We really work hard as a CVB and a city to provide personal service and a great quality of life that you can tap into," says Maureen Hofrenning, vice president of the Go Wichita CVB. Add affordability to that list as well. "The overall expenses paid as a meeting planner here are going to be lower than in other bigger cities, even in the Midwest, whether it's a hotel room, a cab ride or the price you pay for a meal at the convention center," she says.

This mid-American meeting spot also works hard to achieve big city amenities, with a convention center that doubles as a performing arts venue for Wichita's Grand Opera, Symphony Orchestra and Music Theatre. Old Town, the city's revitalized red-brick warehouse district, is awash in shops, galleries, pubs and music clubs. Attendees can also take advantage of Wichita's great (and relatively flat) outdoors via cycling, swimming, canoeing, a round of golf or eco-hikes at the nearby Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve.

Getting out and around Wichita proved a big factor in the success of the American Agri-Women's recent convention. "We planned daily spousal tours and one full day of activities for the entire group," says planner Abby Amick. "The transportation setup was easy and seamless, and we were never stuck in traffic." And that aforementioned great personal service? "Go Wichita gave us maps of Old Town and a list of shops and restaurants, while the hotel provided us with a shuttle as part of their package," says Amick.


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