Your choice of a meeting location shouldn’t be all about you. Just as important is how a destination will improve the attendee experience. From affordability to convenience to at-the-ready technology, your attendees’ expectations are rising. Here’s how to deliver on them.
Ask any association professional, and they’ll most likely tell you that their conferences and conventions comprise a significant portion of their organization’s education offerings and nondues revenue. So, it’s no insignificant task when meeting planners decide where to host a conference—looking at factors from venue cost to convenience of the location to the planning and technical support they’ll receive from the CVB.
But planners have to keep more than the association’s interests in mind. They must also consider whether a particular host city will meet their attendees’ needs. Every association—and every event—is different, but you’ll be wise to consider these five common themes from attendees’ wish lists when you choose your next conference location.
A major concern is keeping registration and hotel costs low by selecting spaces that fit attendees’ budget constraints and offering hotel options at a variety of price points.
The annual Clinical Laboratory Educators’ Conference, hosted by the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, largely draws attendees from academic institutions, who often have a small professional development budget to cover their conference expenses or who have to pay their own way.
As a result, “we know that we’ve got to be careful with this price point on the rooms, the room selection, or the hotels that we’re selecting,” says Karrie Hovis, ASCLS’s director of professional development and project management.
Destinations try to address this need by having both big brand and boutique hotels of varying costs near the main convention areas. Destination DC works with associations to keep prices low and markets the added value associated with hosting a meeting in the nation’s capital, such as the free museums and activities. That’s an important selling point for a top-tier city that must compete with lower-cost locations.
“The diversity of product makes [planners’] lives a lot easier, especially when we’re booking meetings over our peak tourism dates and when Congress is in session,” says Destination DC President and CEO Elliott Ferguson. “We’re always trying to find the perfect blend to share with those customers in terms of how to have a good meeting in Washington and what’s the value associated with it.”
As the bleisure trend continues to expand, meeting planners need to remember that attendees aren’t deciding to come only for the meeting itself. They’ll also consider the destination, the activities available, and nearby tourist sites.
“I firmly believe that a city that has a strong leisure market or that markets itself as a strong leisure destination can still lend itself to be a strong convention destination,” says Ferguson.
Just think of Orlando or Las Vegas. While both cities are top meeting locations, they are also popular vacation destinations, which helps them draw attendees.
Even if attendees don’t make a vacation of the trip, they’ll still want plenty of options for things to do in their free time. ASCLS provides attendees with a list of local experiences to enjoy during their open Friday night, instead of hosting a reception at an offsite venue.
“Our focus has now changed to what are the local attractions that attendees can do, that attendees can organize for themselves,” Hovis says. “We want to give the control back to them, and say, ‘Look, guys, the host society has come up with these ideas for your Friday night activity.'”
While local attractions can provide associations a chance to host official events and receptions at unique venues, they also allow attendees to continue networking on their own time and exhibitors to host their own events.
The Specialty Graphic Imaging Association focuses on nearby nightlife in potential host cities “because once [attendees] leave the show floor, they then continue that business dealing outside of the expo in area restaurants, bars, and things like that,” Director of Conferences Lexy Olisko says. “So [it’s] not just the exhibitors entertaining the attendees, but also the attendees networking with other attendees to find out best practices and how to further their business.”
Attendees want to be able to get around a city easily and travel effortlessly between the convention center, their hotel, and the surrounding neighborhoods. That’s why many cities are continuously improving their infrastructure and public transit, expanding the convention center and hotels, introducing local shopping and food districts, and increasing walkability.
“One of the key things you have to do is provide unique experiences and provide infrastructure that fits and is very user-friendly for not only the meeting professional but the attendees,” says Experience Columbus President and CEO Brian Ross. “So the walkability around your convention center and hotels is truly an asset that you need to have.”
In Columbus, the High Street Streetscape improvement project aims to provide that by expanding sidewalks, burying above-ground utilities, updating landscaping, and making the roads more pedestrian friendly.
Likewise, DC has been developing the neighborhood around its convention center to introduce more local experiences and improve walkability. “With the development of the neighborhood, with some of the plans that are in place to modernize the convention center—which is only 14 years old—as well as new restaurants and shops and bars that are happening and are opening in the area, including the new [Apple] store, that makes the neighborhood cool,” Ferguson says.
Meeting planners must recognize the important role development plays in making a city attractive to attendees. Olisko explains that SGIA would be, and has been, willing to take a chance on a less popular city if it had completed a development project that livened up the area around the convention center and downtown.
“The majority of our people fly in, they don’t drive in, so they want easy access. As soon as they leave the show, they want to be able to immediately go to a restaurant or a bar or someplace to continue that networking that they started on the show floor,” she says.
Development should include public transit to help attendees traverse the city. “Most of the things we want to be in walking distance, or to have some type of public transportation that our attendees can get to and from,” Hovis says. “We want our attendees not to have to worry about transportation while they’re onsite or having that additional cost.”
Both ASCLS and SGIA have found that the local airport’s accessibility—the number of flights that serve the city, the number of layovers required to get there, and the transportation options between the airport and the convention center or downtown—can sway an attendee’s decision to attend a conference.
“We’ve found that if [attendees] have to connect too many times that they may not consider coming to the show,” Olisko says. And while the airport doesn’t need to be particularly close to downtown, there should be a convenient transportation option to get there.
ASCLS had a key learning experience about flights and accessibility after holding a meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Hovis says. While the conference itself was successful, attendees reported they either had to change planes three times to fly into the city or had to land in New Orleans and take an hour-long taxi ride to Biloxi, which proved problematic.
Also keep in mind that transportation options go beyond airports, particularly for regional travelers. For example, Destination DC works with Amtrak to help meeting planners get attendees to conferences by train.
Convention centers offer a range of technology options to help associations improve their conferences, from lighting and sound equipment to digital signage. But what attendees care most about is internet connectivity, specifically wireless, as work back at the office doesn’t stop when they are at a conference.
While many convention centers have a WiFi option available, destinations have started to see the demand for free citywide WiFi increase. San Jose, California, has introduced free WiFi throughout its downtown, an offering it felt was necessary considering that a large percentage of the city’s customers are from Silicon Valley.
Staying connected is “very important in the Silicon Valley, and so that’s one of the things we pride ourselves on,” Visit San Jose CEO Karolyn Kirchgesler says. “We can have several people in our facilities who can all be downloading information at the same time, and it doesn’t create issues.”
Olisko notes that the internet options available are particularly important when an association has a mobile app for the meeting, because attendees will want to use complimentary WiFi instead of their own data to access it.
“Attendees by and large are almost coming in with the expectation that you’re automatically going to have that connectivity and that access for them for their devices, so that they can stay plugged in,” she says.