Big Cities, Small Meetings

By Marc Boisclair, December 8, 2014

Major destinations prefer to book large groups and citywide events that fill guest rooms and meeting space, but small groups can find their own rewards by gathering in prime urban locations. Downtown corridors in major cities have walkable clusters of hotels, restaurants, and arts and culture venues, as well as inexpensive, user-friendly mass transit options.

The challenge for planners booking small events in big cities is sometimes as simple as getting a foot in the door and proving the value of the event itself. Building relationships early on with convention and visitors bureau partners, hotel sales directors and convention service managers is key. “If they know you or know of you, you can deal with them in a way that’s smart,” says veteran meetings and hospitality consultant Joan Eisenstodt. “They’ll take your call and listen.”

It’s also worth looking beyond major brands to boutique hotels and limited-service properties, as they may be more amenable to juggling dates and space. “They get excited about these smaller groups because they have more flexibility and can fill rooms and keep the restaurant doors open,” says Mike Smith, CMP, vice president of convention sales for Travel Portland (Oregon). Here are a few case studies that prove small groups can find a big-city home for their meetings.


Atlanta, Georgia

Lasallian Association of Secondary School Chief Administrators
130 attendees | Sheraton Atlanta Hotel

Georgia’s capital city, with more than 10,000 guest rooms downtown, won over Beth Pernerewski, CMP, event planner for LASSCA’s annual winter meeting of North American Catholic school administrators and their spouses. “We looked at five cities, and Atlanta had the most options in our price point,” says Pernerewski, who was also swayed to Atlanta for its special event venues, from pro and college sports stadiums and arenas to restaurants, museums like World of Coca-Cola, shopping malls and urban green space, notably the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park.

After arranging a site visit through the Atlanta CVB, Pernerewski chose Sheraton Atlanta and developed a close working relationship with the property’s sales team and convention service staff. She planned a dinner at Hard Rock Cafe and a mass at the historic 1897 Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, both within walking distance of the hotel. What Pernerewski didn’t plan on, though, was a last-minute accident—she broke her arm after slipping on ice near her home in Virginia—that kept her from attending the event. Fortunately, her rapport with Sheraton’s staff and thorough preplanning ensured everything went off without a hitch. ‘“I really appreciated the work the hotel staff did ahead of time,” she says. “When the other members of our team went down, they were able to execute everything we’d put together.”


Indianapolis, Indiana

Campus Outreach Central Illinois Spring 2014 Retreat
210 attendees | Hilton Indianapolis Hotel & Suites

For the past two years, Jana Shoun has booked Campus Outreach Central Illinois’ annual Spring Retreat for 200 college students in downtown Indianapolis. Development during the past decade—new hotels, a renovated and expanded convention center, and an infusion of attendee-friendly retail and entertainment venues, among them—have impressed Shoun, who says retreating in Indianapolis boosts attendance among her rural-based college participants.

“They love cities and miss being in one, so it is a recruitment draw for us to go to a city and be downtown,” says Shoun, who chose Hilton Indianapolis Hotel & Suites (shown) as the location for the 2014 retreat. “I let the sales manager know what was important to us—attrition, reduced parking rates, cut-off dates—and he did what he could to work with us,” Shoun says. He also made helpful suggestions for future meeting dates that would have better rates. “That’s actually one of the reasons we decided to switch from having our spring semester retreat in Indianapolis to hosting our fall semester retreat there,” says Shoun, who has committed 300 students to Hilton for their event this October.


Portland, Oregon

Northwest Cru Conference
500 attendees | DoubleTree by Hilton Portland

For Cru’s Northwest Region event-—one of 10 regional student meetings held each winter—-the organization needed to find a destination with accommodations near downtown entertainment that would be affordable for college-age attendees. Portland, linked to the airport by light rail (shown), immediately made the group’s short list. The city’s weather didn’t hurt, either.

“We liked being in a place where it wouldn’t be snowing in December,” says Tristan Boyce, Cru’s conference and events director for the Greater Northwest region, who had attendees traveling from seven states. Once in town, Boyce researched and hired a local production company, Rose City Sound. “They enable us to have a high-quality program on a limited budget,” he says.

Boyce chose DoubleTree based on its flexible space, reasonable rates and willingness to accommodate students. “It has an exhibit hall where we can put the students so they won’t disturb the other hotel guests,” he says. The Rose City also came with other assets: no sales tax or food and beverage tax; an easily navigable mass transit system; fun, affordable dining and nightlife; and a prominent green sensibility. It worked out so well that Portland is now the conference’s permanent home. “We used to rotate this meeting every other year, but it caused a lot of confusion,” says Boyce. “Now we’re committed to one place. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”


San Diego, California

2013 Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools Conference
150 attendees | Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego

Sunny and warm, with an in-town airport and 70 miles of breezy Pacific shoreline, the Golden State’s second-largest city proved a good option for this annual conference, which brings together faith-based executives from higher education institutions internationally. Faced with the challenge of drawing global attendees to a small meeting, Dr. T. Paul Boatner, president of Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, chose San Diego, promoting its numerous work and play possibilities as a draw for attendees and their families.

“I wanted a location that as soon as somebody heard the words, it would make them want to go there,” says Boatner. No doubt it helped that he knew San Diego, having lived there for almost 30 years, and could attest to the city’s value for meetings. The Grand Hyatt’s scenic location (shown) overlooking San Diego’s waterfront and proximity to the historic Gaslamp Quarter served as further draws. Signing on in 2011, two years in advance of the event, gave TRACS more room to negotiate with the hotel, adds Boatner, as did having a three-week window for the meeting dates.

Boatner also developed ties early on with a Manchester Grand Hyatt executive, proving an inroad that helped him negotiate extended rate cuts on his guest rooms. The discounted rate made it possible for attendees to stay and enjoy the city after the event, and is at least partially responsible for TRACS exceeding its room block minimum by 25 percent. “It was an added bonus to the conference,” he says.

3 Planning Tips for Small Meetings in Large Cities:
1. It pays to develop a good working relationship early on with key vendor contacts. Familiarize yourself immediately with the property’s meeting hierarchy and key personnel—the sales director, CSM, catering manager—and keep detailed records on all conversations, decisions and itineraries. They’ll save you if any unexpected, last-minute crises come up.

2. Returning to a big city you know, where you’ve once lived or have booked group business previously, is a good idea. Providing a face with a name for hotel sales managers helps with exposure, as well.

3. Make sure your youth conference proves productive and rewarding by leaving nothing to chance. Investing extra time researching travel plans, hotels and post-meeting pursuits can pay off with attendees who arrive feeling focused and leave re-energized spiritually and physically.

Photo credits: Ganeshk; Visit Indy; Hyatt Hotels; San Diego CVB

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