If the only elements faith-based attendees needed for productive gatherings were convention space and a place to sleep, planners would still rate the Southwest and Rocky Mountains regions at the top of their to-book lists. On those two counts alone—accommodations and meeting space—it’s no surprise to find clean, safe and affordable hotels and convention centers in the regions that also win kudos as being efficient and user-friendly. The regions boast terrains and climates worthy of a variety of year-round adventure as well. Moreover, chances are that the folks whom planners interact with in the hospitality industry, from Salt Lake and Denver to Albuquerque and Amarillo—often bring valuable ties to the local religious community as well, making attendees feel right at home.
“We have everything a big city offers but with a small town feel,” says Emilea White, convention sales manager at the Amarillo CVC. Granted, while that’s a claim heard from more than a few mid-tier destinations, in this Panhandle city it rings decidedly true. For example, while Texas’ overall population boomed by more than 20 percent in the last decade, Amarillo’s, at 190,000, grew less than 10 percent. As a result, says White, “It only takes about 15 minutes to get anywhere.”
That said, where Amarillo is growing is into a more accessible, user-friendly meeting spot. In the past year, Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport debuted a spiffy passenger concourse following a $52.2 million renovation, and the city also welcomed a 151-room Holiday Inn West with 8,500 square feet of meeting space and a 107-room Courtyard by Marriott in downtown’s historic Fisk Building. And 2012 promises to be equally productive, with the opening of Mack Dick Group Pavilion, a 5,200-sq.-ft. meeting facility at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and construction of a new 300-room hotel with 20,000 square feet of meeting space across from the Amarillo Civic Center and a new 5,000-seat, multi-use event venue just south of Amarillo City Hall.
Amarillo’s small-town appeal extends to the idea of keeping costs down for all. “We’re great for anyone’s budget and will find some way to make things work,” says White, who emphasizes downtown’s compact convenience. “With religious groups, they can do their main meetings at the Civic Center, then walk right across the street to the performing arts center for their entertainment.” That combo of convenience and cost-savings worked well for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which brought 1,500 attendees to Amarillo last fall for its annual meeting.
“The CVC contacted us and offered us the Civic Center at no charge with free shuttles from the hotels,” says meetings manager Patti Kriss. “We also had our meal functions at the Civic Center and they allowed us to choose our own caterer, which proved to be very frugal.”
No doubt the Lone Star State’s capital comes chock full of the amenities that many major meeting spots claim: great hotels, a smartly designed convention center and a downtown that attendees find safe and easy to navigate. But few can compete with Austin’s two main draws: 1 million bats and a plethora of live music clubs.
Of the latter, it only takes one visit and an enthusiastic group of attendees to forge a memorable evening. “We are the live music capital of the country,” Steve Genovesi, senior VP of sales at the Austin CVB. “One of the things we deliver is seven blocks of back-to back live music venues just steps from the convention center and our hotels.”
While great for post-meeting bonding and dine-arounds, the downtown music and dining scene isn’t the only thing Austin offers. “Our convention center certainly delivers in terms of its technology, thanks in great part to the South by Southwest convention,” says Genovesi, noting the well-known music, film and interactive conference and festival held in the city annually. He adds that some 7,000 attendees can use Wi-Fi simultaneously there.
The convention center’s tech-advantage, Genovesi says, also helps drive its convention attendance, especially among the sought-after 35-and-under crowd and its twittering sea of iPads, iPods and iPhones. Credit for filling that younger niche also goes to the city’s eclectic local flavor, fueled by the bookending neighborhoods of South Congress (a.k.a., SoCo, or Austin’s Greenwich Village) and the University of Texas, the state’s major college campus that’s set right on the edge of downtown. The university also provides a great source for networking and special event venues.
Austin also provides a great jumping off point for day excursions to Texas’ famed Hill Country, as well as golf, cycling, boat trips on Lady Bird Johnson Lake, and the requisite group/family outing to Schlitterbahn Waterpark in nearby New Braunfels. Spring and summer is also peak time for bat watching, and yes, there are a million of them that depart from underneath the Congress Street Bridge each night at sunset, creating a group event that’s free, phenomenal and the ultimate photo op.
In the simplest terms, this scenic, accessible, visitor-friendly city of just over 200,000 provides a big stage for faith-based groups to hold their conventions. “It’s a very clean, safe community and it’s clear that group business really matters to us,” says Bobbie Patterson, executive director of the Boise CVB.
To that end, Patterson points to how both planners and attendees, once in town, often form a bond with the Idaho state capital. “They get press coverage here that they might not receive in a bigger city,” she says. “You don’t have the noise and clutter of many urban areas, either, but we do have a certain level of affluence and culture.” Boise’s dry climate also means that in warmer weather a group’s “big stage” can be arranged outdoors, a plus in such a naturally green destination. Patterson also points to how the local faith-based community is available when visitors need a tie-in for their events. “It’s a very personal connection and that always works well for religious groups,” she says.
Another cause for planner cheer: the possibility of a bigger, even better convention facility. “We have a very good facility already with the Boise Centre, but what we can’t do right now is have space for 150 exhibit booths and feed 600 people under the same roof,” says Patterson. “The Greater Boise Auditorium District is giving serious consideration and review to reactivate the effort to expand the local convention center on a two-block site nearby. Ideally, in three to four years we would have a project we could begin to market.”
Meanwhile, word is out about JUMP (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place), Boise’s newest group venue, which will house five studios, meeting space, an urban park and an amphitheater. The new, privately owned facility will open near the Boise Centre and Grove Plaza, and will be within close proximity to more than 1,000 hotel rooms, as well as downtown’s shops, restaurants and museums. Attendees needn’t travel far to enjoy Boise’s great outdoors, either, with such group favorites as golf, rafting, jogging, skiing, and cycling easily available in and just outside of town.
Las Cruces, New Mexico
For a quick read on this southern New Mexico city’s weather and its outlook on life, look no further than the CVB’s new motto: Stay sunny. “That kind of wraps up the best things about our city into one statement—great weather, but it’s also about the attitude and culture here in town,” says Rochelle Miller-Hernandez, convention sales manager at the Las Cruces CVB. “And for meeting planners, they can get all these great things at a great price.”
Beyond its sunny skies and disposition, Las Cruces also features a year-old, LEED Gold-certified convention center that’s earned kudos for its practical amenities and a comfortable ambience. “When you go into some convention centers you get a warehouse feel, which can leave smaller groups feeling lost or overwhelmed,” says Miller-Hernandez. “Our center is warm, intimate and has those Southwest colors.” And in light of Las Cruces’ often amenable weather, it’s also worth mentioning the center’s 5,000 square feet of outdoor space, ideal for year-round events.
Las Cruces’ revitalized downtown is especially appealing to Daniel Martin, who’s bringing the Christian Congregation of Jehovah Witnesses (and about 6,000 attendees) into town for meetings this summer. “It’s a really nice city and a great location for people to get to,” says Martin. “They’ve built a lot of nice hotels in the past 10 years and that’s no longer a problem for the size of our group.”
Faith-based attendees are also encouraged to bring along their families and take advantage of the area’s exceptional recreational options, from the local farmers market to the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, with a 14,000-sq.-ft. courtyard and new meeting room. White Sands State Park, 45 minutes away, proves particularly popular (and affordable). Kids love sliding on the dunes and the entire family can enjoy the park’s special events.
Adjacent to Las Cruces, Historic Mesilla is a preserved and restored 1800s border town sporting a famed courthouse (Billy the Kid once stood trial here), shops and restaurants. Spaceport America, the country’s first commercially built space facility, is about 90 minutes away and open for limited tours.
Mention Phoenix and, understandably, people think “sunshine and warmth” not to mention all of the attendant group benefits (e.g., golf, team building, outdoor sunset receptions) that come with meeting in such a pleasant climate. But for faith-based groups, there’s more to the Valley of the Sun than just its 300-plus annual days of sun.
“Most religious groups are budget-conscious and draw heavily on their drive market,” says Sally Forrest, director of national accounts for the Greater Phoenix CVB. “We have great affordability and accessibility, meaning a terrific airport and easy highways for getting to and around the area.” Better still, says Forrest, is the wealth of options for group activities and recreation. Indeed, there’s plenty for family members to do here, from visiting Phoenix’s famed botanical gardens and museums (covering everything from art and firefighting to Native American heritage) to taking day tours of the surrounding desert and spectacular Grand Canyon. The area’s multi-cultural flavor also works nicely for faith-based events. “We have very strong Spanish-American and Native-American communities here and that’s celebrated,” Forrest says. “Many religious groups like to tap into these cultures because of what they do and the nature of their missions.”
It helps as well that whatever the reason behind a faith-based meeting, Phoenix can provide the infrastructure to make it successful. The city’s convention center brings both bountiful, efficient space and a stylish Southwestern design to a planner’s table, all set conveniently in the heart of downtown. The city’s center also has seen a major urban renewal in the past decade, spurred on by a new light rail system, new hotels (a new 280-room urban-styled Courtyard by Marriott and a 242-room Westin with 11,000 square feet of meeting space), an influx of higher education and research facilities, and the return of retail, residences and restaurants to the city core.
All of those factors proved successful for the Southern Baptist Convention, which had more than 11,000 attendees in Phoenix this past June for its annual meeting. “We need a western rotation about every few years and Phoenix always seems to have open dates when we need them in June,” says assistant convention manager Don Magee. “The hotel rates, which are the biggest cost to our people, are excellent then and that means higher attendance. We were also able to have our meal functions at the convention center, which means people stay in the building and our sessions are attended.”
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