Best bang for the budget
By Don Sadler
With the economy still on its bumpy path to recovery, meeting planners within most faith-based organizations will continue watching their costs closely in 2010, making it critical to get the most value for every meeting and event dollar.
The good news is that cities nationwide are pulling out all the stops to offer as much value as they can to faith-based groups, especially those still considering where they’ll hold meetings and events this year. Following are some of the value cities we’ve identified that you may want to consider in 2010 and beyond:
Chattanooga, Tennessee: Steve Genovesi, the vice president of Sales and Marketing for the Chattanooga Area CVB, notes that Chattanooga was ranked No. 5 in the nation recently by Expo Magazine for affordable rooms and banquets. “Many of our hotels are willing to confirm room rates four or five years in advance,” he adds. “And our expanded 185,000-sq.-ft. convention center offers reduced (and in some cases free) rentals based on hotel rooms used. The center also offers extensive equipment use free of charge and has banquet pricing that can range from 10-30 percent less than large city venues.”
The Chattanooga CVB offers a variety of free services that usually aren’t found in larger cities. “For example, for a group that is 500 peak rooms or more, we will offer free staffing services, free Web housing, VIP gifts and online and promotional materials, just to name a few,” says Genovesi. In addition, Chattanooga is a mid-sized city with a very accessible and walkable downtown featuring numerous value-added attractions for faith-based groups, including the world-renowned Tennessee Aquarium and the Southern Belle Riverboat.
Houston, Texas: “Dollars have always gone further in Houston,” says Pamela E. Benson, national account executive with the Greater Houston CVB. “In 2009, Hotwire.com ranked Houston No. 6 in its Travel Value Index of affordable U.S. destinations based on airfare, hotel rates, car rental prices and entertainment offerings.”
Getting around downtown Houston is cheap and easy with “Six in the City,” which offers a flat $6 rate for all cab rides within downtown. And you can save nearly 50 percent off admission prices at Houston’s most popular attractions with a CityPass, which gives you access to Space Center Houston, the Houston Zoo, the Museum of Fine Arts and several other attractions for $39.
Houston is the home base for Continental Airlines, which makes it easy and affordable to get in and out of the city. Texas is also a “right to work” state, which means labor costs are lower at the George R. Brown Convention Center — in most instances, about 30 percent cheaper than competing cities, according to Benson.
Greensboro, North Carolina: “The Middle is the Best Part” is the slogan of this city located in the dead center of North Carolina and the middle of the East Coast; it’s a five-hour drive from both Atlanta and Washington, D.C. This makes it affordable to get there, and once you arrive, you’ll enjoy free shuttles from the airport to many hotels and free parking at 88 of the city’s 89 hotels.
“The Greensboro Area CVB customizes services to fit our clients because one size doesn’t fit all,” says Tonya W. Miller, religious sales manager for the Greensboro Area CVB. “We offer a wealth of convention services, including facility and attraction information, site inspections, assistance securing bid proposals, promotional brochures and DVDs, registration assistance, media assistance and more.”
While in Greensboro, you may want to visit the new International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which opened in February. “Greensboro has more than 400 churches within the city limits,” Miller adds. “We are fortunate to be able to utilize volunteers from local churches when meetings are held here — their support has been key to the success of many religious conventions.”
Pensacola and Santa Rosa County, Florida: The Northwest Florida Gulf Coast is best known as the home of the world’s whitest beaches, but there are plenty of other reasons to plan your meeting or event in the historic city of Pensacola or its neighbors. For starters, hotel rates are very reasonable for a city of this size, with rooms at independent hotels in the heart of the downtown arts and entertainment district available for as little as $79 a night. When your meetings are over, you can choose from a wide variety of fun activities that cost little or nothing. These include visiting the Naval Aviation Museum, one of the world’s largest air and space museums; watching the world-famous Blue Angels practice; touring historic Fort Barrancas at the Pensacola Naval Air Station; catching a free outdoor concert at the Gulfside Pavilion on Pensacola Beach; or just strolling and browsing the shops, galleries and restaurants located throughout the Pensacola Historic District.
Just east of Pensacola, Santa Rosa County encompasses Navarre, Milton and Baghdad. Known for its “from river to beaches” environment, it’s a cost-effective escape from the hustle and bustle of many other popular beaches in the area, offering a combination of relaxation and family-oriented activities. Milton’s downtown district features affordable dining and shopping with quaint restaurants and an abundance of antique, gift and accessory stores. Groups enjoy tubing, canoeing and camping at Blackwater River State Park or Coldwater Creek.
Tampa, Florida: The collection of low-cost carriers that serve the Tampa International Airport has helped make the region one of the country’s least expensive in terms of the cost of flying there. It’s located just 15 minutes from downtown Tampa and at least 40 different hotels offer complimentary round-trip airport shuttles.
Once you’re downtown, getting around is easy and inexpensive via Tampa’s air-conditioned electric streetcars, which you can ride all day long for just $5. The streetcar line connects most hotels to the convention center, Florida Aquarium, St. Pete Times Forum and the historic Landmark District, Ybor City. After the workday is done, head down to the beach and Bayshore Boulevard, the world’s longest uninterrupted sidewalk (4.5 miles) and “one of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the nation,” according to AAA.
Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast, North Carolina: This area offers accommodations and meeting facilities to suit the budget of any small- or medium-sized faith-based group, says Connie Nelson, the communications and PR director for the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast CVB. “And when the new Wilmington Convention Center opens this fall, we will be able to accommodate even larger meetings.”
Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast is a year-round destination with dozens of free and low-cost annual events and festivals. Nelson says that two of the largest are the North Carolina Azalea Festival in early April and the Riverfest in early October. “For conventioneers who want to extend their stay on their own, there are many leisure travel packages listed on our CVB’s Web site (cape-fear.nc.us/specials).” Also visit sunnysavers.com for last-minute hotel discounts.
Lexington, Kentucky: “We are always bragging on our affordability,” says Dennis Johnston, CDME, with the Lexington CVB. “Not only do we offer complimentary airport shuttles, but all of our hotels offer free parking. Relative to other cities, this could be a savings of up to $30 a day in parking alone.” In addition, the Lexington Convention Center offers rebates to groups that qualify.
A trip to the heart of bluegrass country would be incomplete without a visit to Keeneland Race track, where the general admission fee is just $5. At the Kentucky Horse Park, home of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010, admission is $9. “But the biggest bargain could be the Equestrian Games themselves,” says Johnston. “General admission to the largest equestrian event in the world is only $25.” The games occur just every four years and will be held from September 25 through October 10 this year.
Wilmington, Delaware: Easy access, a tax-free environment and a wide variety of attractions and amenities make this city an especially attractive option. “There’s no sales tax on meeting rooms, food and beverages, or entertainment and shopping, and our lodging tax is lower than surrounding areas,” notes Esther Lovlie, the director of sales and marketing, meetings, events and group tours at the Greater Wilmington CVB. “This translates into an immediate return on investment for faith-based meeting planners who hold their events here.”
Greater Wilmington has more than 6,000 hotel rooms and 300 meeting spaces, ranging from the Chase Center on the Riverfront with 87,000 square feet to facilities like the Delaware Museum of Natural History and the Delaware Art Museum. This year, the Greater Wilmington CVB is once again offering a transportation incentive to help faith-based meeting planners reduce their costs. To be eligible, a minimum of 100 room nights must be generated and a contract signed with a Greater Wilmington CVB member hotel by July 30, 2010, with the event taking place by May 15, 2011.
Amarillo, Texas: This mid-sized north Texas city offers free shuttles between host hotels and the Amarillo Civic Center and free meeting space at the civic center for qualifying groups. It features many low- and no-cost things to do, including the Amarillo Botanical Gardens, where admission is free through the end of June and $5 after that; the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian, Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Wildcat Bluff Nature Center, all $5 per person or less; Galleries at Sunset Center and Historic Route 66, both free; and the Amarillo Livestock Auction and Museum of Art are also both free all year long.
Lansing, Michigan: The state capitol and home of the Michigan State Spartans, this centrally located city offers a small town feel and pricing but with big city amenities, says Tracy Padot, vice president, marketing communications with the Greater Lansing CVB. “Most hotels and facilities offer free parking and most are willing to work with planners on special requests. The community prides itself on upfront pricing and planners won’t incur hidden fees at the end of their event.”
Hotels and facilities in Lansing are in close proximity to each other, and most are located within 3-15 miles of the city’s primary convention facility, the Lansing Center. The Lansing Center is connected to the Radisson Hotel Lansing via a covered pedway and is within walking distance to more than 50 different dining and nightlife options. And there’s free admission and parking at over a dozen museums, cultural attractions, galleries and gardens. “Qualified groups are eligible to receive special services,” Padot adds, “such as free shuttles and convention center rebates.”
Charleston, West Virginia: This mid-sized city near the border of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio is easily accessible via car or air. All of Charleston’s downtown hotels are located only seven minutes from the airport and accessible via free shuttles. Simply inform your hotel of your arrival time and wait for a free pickup.
“Our city’s hotel rates in most instances are lower than any comparable city in America, and parking is free at all our limited service properties,” says Todd Morris, the Charleston CVB’s faith-based and military event sales manager. “We also have an incentive plan to assist with meeting space cost that is based on the estimated economic impact that a group generates.” Among the affordable activities and attractions to choose from in Charleston are free tours of the state capitol building and governor’s mansion, the West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center, walking tours of the historic homes in Charleston, and visits to Coonskin Park and the Blenko Glass Factory.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Gatlinburg is another destination where visitors enjoy the ability to walk to most amenities. “The Gatlinburg Convention Center is centrally located downtown, with numerous lodging, dining, shopping and entertainment options within easy walking distance,” says David Perella, director of tourism for the City of Gatlinburg. “This reduces transportation costs for groups.” In addition, Gatlinburg’s Trolley System, located just outside the doors of the convention center, offers inexpensive and reliable transportation.
The Gatlinburg Convention Center’s policies are designed to be flexible to accommodate the specific needs of each group, he adds. “We offer our own multi-media AV equipment and support on-site, and our food pricing is varied and very reasonable. Meeting attendees will find Gatlinburg offerings affordable when compared to major convention destinations.”
“Faith-based groups and meetings are the life blood of Gatlinburg,” Perella stresses. “Many Gatlinburg lodging properties offer discounts, group rates and value-added options to help meeting attendees and their families enjoy attractions and dining. Gatlinburg attractions are plentiful, family-friendly, affordably priced and very willing to cater to groups. Among the most popular area attractions are the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, and the thriving eight-mile loop of the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community.
Springfield, Missouri: The annual Corporate Travel Index published by Business Travel News consistently ranks Springfield as one of the least expensive cities in the nation for visitors. “Meeting and convention planners are always pleasantly surprised at how affordable Springfield is,” says Susan Wade, public relations manager for the Springfield CVB.
The third-largest city in Missouri, Springfield offers about 6,000 hotel rooms at various price points and several options for meeting facilities, including the Expo Center downtown with more than 120,000 square feet of exhibition space. A new program launched this year called We’ll Meet It or Beat It sweetens the deal: Meeting planners can bring proposals from other cities and if Springfield can’t meet them or beat them, the planner will get $500.
Virginia Beach, Virginia: Centrally located on the East Coast, Virginia Beach is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of America’s population. If arriving by air, Norfolk International Airport is just 20 minutes from the oceanfront and offers nearly 200 flights daily, including low cost carriers.
This affordable year-round resort city boasts 12,000 hotel rooms. The Convention Services Team can customize an incentive package for large groups that use the Virginia Beach Convention Center between September and May, including facility usage and transportation. Opened in 2008, the convention center features a 150,000-sq.-ft., column-free exhibit hall, a 31,000-sq.-ft. ballroom, 29,000 square feet of meeting space, and 2,230 free parking spaces.
Spring and fall in Virginia Beach bring economical hotel rates and added value with mild temperatures and a multitude of free “attractions,” such as walking the award-winning boardwalk or enjoying entertainment at the oceanfront. Attendees can also tour the Virginia Aquarium, which recently opened a $25 million renovation, and the Marine Science Center.