High Country Draw
If all America’s Mountain West had to offer was snow-capped peaks, mountain resorts, safe cities and seemingly endless options for outdoor fun, Colorado, Utah and Idaho could draw meetings aplenty. But these three states bring much more to the table for planners and attendees, whether it’s elegant dining in Billings or the chance to cheer on baseball’s Rockies at Denver’s Coors Field. The high country is no stranger to high tech either, offering IACC-certified conference centers and multifaceted convention venues such as the Salt Palace and Boise Centre. And when it comes to teambuilding, it’s hard to argue the natural attractions the Rocky Mountain area holds—rafting the Snake River or cross-country skiing in Aspen’s peaceful backcountry—don’t give it an advantage over other regions.
While the Big Sky Country concept might seem odd for those who’ve yet to meet in Montana’s largest city (population 101,000), the idea makes sense on arrival. On a clear day (of which there are many, thanks to clean air and low humidity), the 360-degree views are impressive, from Billings’ famed Rimrocks, which are beautiful sandstone cliffs and rock formations, to the half-dozen rugged mountain ranges surrounding town.
“We get every type of group coming here because there are so many things to see and do,” says Tom Krause, sales manager for the Billings CVB. “We tout ourselves as the ‘come early, stay late city.’ In winter we’ve got skiing, snowmobiling and ice climbing; in summer, there’s rafting and fishing. The Yellowstone River runs right through the city, and we’re very close [2.5 hours] to Yellowstone National Park itself.”
While Krause’s job is made easier by Billings’ natural assets, the city also features plenty of the selling points that work in favor of a planner. Billings has some 4,300 guest rooms distributed among more than two dozen hotels in a range of price points, many with ample meeting and exhibit space. Downtown in particular is a hit with groups because attendees can easily walk among the shops, restaurants, museums and nightspots making up the city’s core.
When the National Association of Counties met here in May 2010, Amanda Clark, CMP, manager of conference and meetings, was confident her group would bond with Billings. “It’s an easy destination to reach, whether driving or flying, and reasonably priced,” Clark says. “Our folks like to be able to walk to places, and I was pleased with how much there was to do in and around downtown.” To wit, Clark cites a pair of special events that enhanced the experience: a large get-together at Billings’ MetraPark fairgrounds and a more intimate board function at the Yellowstone Art Museum, originally built as the county jail.
If Idaho’s largest city leaves new visitors with anything, it’s usually a terrific first impression. “We constantly surprise people,” says Terry Kopp, Boise CVB’s director of sales. She says visitors like the state capital for its consistent, high-plains climate (dry, and warmer than the Midwest and Northeast) and quality of life. “We have a lot of corporate headquarters here, and that brings lots of nice amenities: major airlines and good flights, good restaurants, a great arts community, and the Greenbelt, a 25-mile path that runs right through the city along the Boise River,” she says. “People come here and say, ‘Gee I think I could live here,’ and that kind of sums up why people want to meet here as well.”
Kopp points to one attendee she met in town for the recent Go West Summit of international tour operators. “This woman said, ‘Boise is such a surprise to me, not at all what I expected, really pleasant,’” Kopp says. “Our biggest challenge, then, is getting planners to come for a site visit. Once they do, the city sells itself.”
A good starting point: the Boise Centre, downtown’s meeting centerpiece abutting Grove Plaza, within a short stroll of 1,000 hotel rooms and highlighted by a 25,000-sq.-ft. ballroom and 375-seat auditorium. “It’s a fabulous facility,” says Pat Thomas, events coordinator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, who’s planning the international Diocesan Information Systems Conference at the center this May. “It’s downtown, has the appropriate space, good breakout rooms and works well for our vendors,” Thomas says.
Boise is also home to a wide spectrum of museums, where the focuses range from sports, Basque culture and black history to human rights and birds of prey, and where groups can often do both tours and special events.
The city’s efforts at sustainability also go hand-in-hand with its emphasis on the outdoors and recreation. Golf begins in March, with the whitewater rafting season (on the Payette River) following shortly thereafter. Leisurely pursuits like jogging, cycling along the Greenbelt or floating along the Boise River, can be done in the center of town.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
For anyone wondering why Colorado’s second-largest city might work for faith-based groups, Kathy Reak provides some nuts and bolts. “We have all the amenities of a first-tier destination but with second-tier pricing, and that makes us very affordable,” says Reak, director of convention sales for the Colorado Springs CVB. Another plus: “A very relaxed and beautiful setting—the scenery here is phenomenal,” she says. Indeed, there’s a lot to like about meeting in the heart of the state’s Pikes Peak region, awash in both natural beauty (e.g., Manitou Mineral Springs, the Cave of the Winds, and 14,110-ft. Pikes Peak) and colorful history. Colorado’s gold rush began here in 1858 and nearby Cripple Creek, once home to the region’s biggest mine, is now a National Historic Landmark.
Given the critical role local church groups often play in their denominations’ national meetings, Reak points to another reason why religious conference planners flock to her town. “There are over 100 ministries headquartered in the Colorado Springs area, plus Focus on the Family, which draws a lot of attention to faith-based groups,” says Reak. “Those national associations will often look for a local connection to help out with some of their events.
“We have over 50 attractions, and the neat thing is that many of these activities are free,” she adds. The list is long and led by the Air Force Academy, U.S. Olympic Training Center and Colorado Springs’ famed Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, also a terrific special event venue.
Planners can count on easy access via Colorado Springs Airport and a wide choice of meeting sites, which include familiar mid-level hotels (the newest, Wyndham Grand’s 135-room Mining Exchange Hotel, is set to open this summer). There’s also properties such as the 740-room Broadmoor Hotel and new 300-room Renaissance Colorado Springs Hotel, Spa and Conference Center, with 185,000 and 50,000 square feet of meeting space, respectively.
For the Minnesota-based Evangelical Press Association, local members who can serve on host committees is a major plus when choosing a meeting site. Colorado Springs fits the bill nicely, says Executive Director Doug Trouten, who’s booked his group of about 300 there for its 2012 annual convention. “[They] have a large pool of volunteers to draw on, and meeting in a city where we have a lot of members creates opportunities for local members to attend the convention without having to spend money on travel and lodging,” he says. A favorite off-site event: The Flying W Ranch for an evening meal and performance by the Flying W Wranglers. “That’s always a big hit,” he says.
In keeping with its history as a crossroad of the American West, Colorado’s capital city continues to bring a vibrant mix of people, places and activities to the meetings table.
“Meeting planner surveys tell us that accessibility, facilities and affordability rank as their top concerns, and we really excel in those areas,” says Richard Scharf, president and CEO at the Denver Metro CVB. That mix is enhanced further, he says, by Denver’s customer service and destination appeal, as well as the steps his city has taken in terms of development and sustainability. “We have the fourth-busiest airport in the U.S. and are adding a new component to it—our light rail system from downtown—by the end of 2015,” he says.
Scharf also points to the city’s hospitality boom and downtown’s more than 8,400 hotel rooms. Large properties downtown include the Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center with 1,100 rooms and more than 60,000 square feet of meeting space; Four Seasons Hotel Denver, an upscale urban hotel with 239 rooms and a 5,200-sq.-ft. grand ballroom; and Hilton Garden Inn Denver Downtown, with 6,800 square feet of event and meeting space, and a high-tech audiovisual system.
Denver’s fast-growing urban core also has affected how visiting groups view their time in town. Witness downtown’s free-spirited 16th Street Mall, an attendee favorite for its cafes, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, all of which are walkable from the convention center. “We’ve got a lot of offerings right here in the city that are easy to get to—great restaurants, museums and sports facilities—and have gotten the word out about them,” Scharf says. From Denver it’s also just a quick trip to the nearby college town of Boulder and all the outdoor group adventures (e.g., skiing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding and rafting) that await in Colorado’s high country.
That sense of convenience and security was a critical decision factor for Andy Stephenson, who will be bringing the Church of God Ministries’ International Youth Conference to Denver in July 2012. “We’ll have a group of 5,000 to 6,000 teenagers in the city, so safety and accessibility from the hotels is really important for us,” says Stephenson, the leader of the Youth Ministries team. “The convention center is great, and the mall area is close to the hotel and super safe for kids to go out to at night,” says Stephenson. He isn’t alone in his love for the city. Denver experienced its second-best convention and meetings year in history in 2010, when it hosted 75 conventions, 423 meetings and more than 370,000 delegates who made an economic impact of $653 million.
Salt Lake City, Utah
It’s always satisfying to find a destination where attendees can meet productively while their families take in the sights—without breaking the bank. Welcome to Utah’s capital, founded by the Mormons some 150 years ago, where the price of admission can fit many attendee budgets.
“We have so many free historical and cultural attractions that provide a full day’s worth of activities,” says Mark H. White, vice president of sales for the Salt Lake City CVB. There are museums chronicling Utah’s first settlers (the Beehive House and the Daughters of the Pioneers and Social Hall museums), military history (Fort Douglas), folk crafts (the Chase Home) and art (the Phillips Gallery, Museum of Church History and Art, Salt Lake Art Center). And many of the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rehearsals are also free.
Cost control is critical for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations—a big reason why the Boston-based group likes Salt Lake City. “Their CVB staff is helpful and professional, and the package they offer us is very affordable,” says Jan Sneegas, director of general assembly and conference services. “We’re also very interested in sustainability, and their hotels are within walking distance of the convention center so we don’t need to use shuttles.”
A vibrant, walkable city core also helps planners when it comes to post-meeting options. “We’ve doubled the number of restaurants and nightspots in downtown in the last few years,” says White, adding that the city is now “big enough to have good restaurants and museums but still small enough to be safe and clean.” That balance of being a big city with a small-town feel goes to the heart of what the CVB and Salt Lake’s hospitality community share as goals. “We try to focus on those groups that we know that we can accommodate,” White says.
That said, space is certainly plentiful in Salt Lake. The Salt Palace Convention Center anchors the city’s reinvigorated downtown with the EnergySolutions Arena, which seats 20,500, and several meetings properties close by. The South Towne Exposition Center, with nine meeting rooms and 243,000 square feet of exhibit space, offers an alternative meeting option set 16 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport. Utah Olympic Park is an easy day trip and ideal for teambuilding and picnics. A trip to Utah’s spectacular National Parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches among them—is also an option for daytime off-site trips.
Explore the Past: Few destinations are as rooted in and dedicated to their past as Salt Lake City, which has several major attractions revolving around the history of the Mormon Church and its research into genealogy. The church’s FamilySearch Center and Family History Library are free to the public, and attendees would be wise to build in extra pre- and post-meeting time to spend at the venues. familysearch.org
Take Time to Adjust: Destinations like Denver and Colorado Springs sit up a mile or higher. Remind attendees that sea-level constitutions need time to adjust. Keep strenuous exercise and alcohol at a minimum (at least for the first day); and drink plenty of water and wear ample sunscreen.