Cities Seek Strategies to Break Through in the Convention Market
The convention business sector is slowly improving across the nation, returning to pre-9/11 levels of activity, according to those in the industry. This more-robust climate is creating opportunities for cities like Springfield and Hartford that have invested heavily in convention facilities, but competition is immense in this sector, with communities essentially fishing from the same pond. As in other industries, success in this one lies with effectively building a brand, which for Springfield is still a work in progress.
To publicize Greater Springfield as a destination for conventions, Mary Kay Wydra says that focusing on its small-market character can sometimes help distinguish the region and its convention facility, the MassMutual Center, from other, competing markets.
If you bring your convention here, odds are youll own the building, she said. But we take it step further, and tell people that, for a few days, they can also own the region.
To better illustrate that notion, Wydra, director of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), cited a recent delegation the Daughters of the Nile, a charitable organization that raises funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children nationwide. More than 2,500 members descended on the City of Homes last June. Dressed in colorful costumes that are one trademark of the group, members were visible, and their presence was noticed with the group returning an estimated $1.6 million to the region in direct spending.
They also had four front-page stories written about them in the time they were here, said Wydra. We want to showcase the conventions that choose Springfield in larger cities, theyre not going to get that kind of press. We offer a small-town environment in a large city, and the front-line people know how to treat visitors well.
Despite this ability, Springfield is finding the convention business a challenging one to enter, and the city somewhat of a tough sell nearly three years after the MassMutual Center opened its doors.
The booking pace for the long term isnt where we hoped it would be, said Wydra, noting, however, that the GSCVB is working closely with the Mass. Convention Center Authority (MCCA) and other partners to boost those numbers. And officials here can take some inspiration from other Northeast cities, including Hartford and Providence, that had similar teething troubles while getting serious about the convention business.
Those cities learned that it takes time to establish a solid reputation in the industry and effectively build their brands, she said, noting that Springfield is making considerable progress with that assignment.
Todd Greenwood, the GSCVBs recently appointed vice president of Convention Center Sales and Marketing, says the city has a lot to offer convention planners, including attractions, plenty of hotel rooms, and especially prices that are affordable, especially when compared to major metropolitan areas.
Hotel rates, parking fees, restaurant bills, these are all going to be lower than in Boston or New York City, he explained, and thats especially important on expense report day, when planners start breaking down how expensive it is to hold a convention in a given area.
In this issue, BusinessWest looks at the highly competitive convention business, and what cities have done, and are doing, to put themselves on the map.
The States of the Industry
H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB), said he remembers similarly lean times for that city not so long ago.
He told BusinessWest that Hartford, like Springfield, continues to build momentum after opening a new facility the Connecticut Convention Center in 2005. It has done so by paying attention to activity in the hospitality sector to ensure that an adequate number of well-appointed, updated hotel rooms and other convention-related facilities are available to delegates of all kinds.
We cant just book any time, he said. We have to make sure we have the rooms, and hotels have been an issue.
Phelps explained that before the Connecticut Convention Center, which carried a $270 million price tag, opened, the city was under-facilitied, and thus had difficulties drawing meetings and conventions. But now, the opposite problem exists keeping up with the demand for convention space in four diverse venues.
Were overcoming that, said Phelps. We added 409 rooms with a new Marriott; the Goodwin Hotel is completing a multi-million renovation; the Hilton was closed prior to opening the convention center to become a brand-new, upscale, trendy hotel; and the Crowne Plaza is also completing renovations now. In short, the hotels have proved their products.
In Rhode Island, Neil Schriever, vice president of Sales and Marketing for the Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau (PWCVB), which oversees bookings at the Rhode Island Convention Center and the adjacent Dunkin Donuts Center, said the recent addition of new hotel rooms in the capital city has also raised Providences convention business profile.
We are finding that in Providence, changes to our rooms packages in the last eight months enables us to be considered for groups that would have overlooked us before, said Schriever, noting that the bulk of major convention business is done in Providence, with smaller meetings often welcomed elsewhere in the state. We added 500 new hotel rooms in the community, 200 of which are at our anchor hotel, the Westin, connected to the convention center.
Weve increased the citys walkability for convention attendees, and were seeing great signs of success for future business.
While the Rhode Island Convention Center, which focuses on meetings, and the Dunkin Donuts Center, which includes expansive arena space, are not new buildings, both have undergone renovations in the last decade, and just last month, the two buildings were connected by a covered walkway.
The Dunkin Donuts Center is also in the midst of a three-phase renovation due to be completed next fall, said Schriever, noting that the project amounts to a complete overhaul of the centers interior and façade.
To continue to build on that momentum, Schriever added that the PWCVB is working to identify meetings and events that can utilize both buildings in the coming years.
Weve really put a bigger focus on our convention services division, working to promote the destination and boost attendance, he offered. For instance, we may go to a conference the year before its scheduled to come to Rhode Island, put up a booth, and work to get attendees excited about the coming year.
We have a good brand, he continued, but there is still increased competition regionally and nationally, and we must maintain our presence on a national level. Not having enough availability of convention space or rooms is another challenge.
The GHCVB has also instituted programs with similar goals, including a hospitality task force that meets every month to discuss new programming options and improvements to the existing model, and a free shuttle service that runs from the Convention Center to downtown Hartford six days a week, every 12 minutes. Phelps said its a Connecticut Transit Authority program that directly connects convention delegates with the dining and entertainment options in the area.
The restaurants are doing a plethora of new things on their own that we can now better introduce to new audiences, he said. The convention center has been a catalyst for other things happening. Its what we hoped for, and what the centers supporters anticipated.
Wydra said she expects that Springfield will follow that same script, but knows that the road ahead is paved with challenges and expectations that will be difficult to meet.
The $71 million renovation/new construction project that created the MassMutual Center set the stage for some specific booking goals; in 2005, MCCA executive director Jim Rooney told BusinessWest he hoped to reach a rate of 65% of the year 237 out of 365 days. The city is well behind that pace, but making progress, said Wydra.
She noted that, like Hartford and other cities, Springfield must endure a considerable ramp-up period in the convention sector. Many organizations plan their conventions as many as five years ahead of time, and often rotate between a handful of different venues; as such, the MassMutual Center could easily need another two to four years to reach what Wydra calls a steady diet of convention business.
She explained further that, due to the lengthy construction period for the building, it was essentially removed from most meeting planners radar screens for a considerable time, and now, the GSCVB must work to re-enter the picture.
The civic center was offline for five years, she said. I think the hotels in the area have gotten used to not having a convention center from which to draw business, and now part of our job is to change that mindset and attract more business.
Greenwood said the Greater Springfield area has the convention-sector pieces in place to do just that. Hotel capacity in the region, which includes access to more than 50 facilities in Western Mass. and Connecticut, is generally solid, he said, creating a healthy base from which to grow.
This area has all of the critical components, he said. We have the facility itself and the hotel capacity. This city is affordable, but not cheap.
Greenwood, who comes to his new position most recently from the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, returned to that region-wide marketing effort currently being used by the GSCVB to sell Western Mass. along with the MassMutual Center, adding that, while Springfield may not offer the largest market, it does offer a number of positives that are attractive to meeting planners, including those affordable prices.
Greenwood said the GSCVB is also enlisting the help of the regions citizens to promote the MassMutual Center and its home base as a viable convention venue through a program called Pioneer Valley Pride, which charges local residents who belong to regional, state, or national associations to provide the bureau with the names of those who run those organizations.
And if the emerging success stories in Hartford and Providence are any indication, skies could be clearing here over the next few years.
Schriever said hes beginning to see some positive trends affecting the Providence market, such as the emergence of a new, short-term demand for mid-sized meetings, which can help to bridge the gap between periods of wooing and waiting and those of bargaining and booking.
Were still getting calls for 1,000-person meetings within a 12-month window, he said. Right now, with the state of economy as it is, we might see a slowdown in this area, but were not anticipating one.
Further, Schriever said, while convention bureaus across New England are often ladling from the same pot of stew, collaboration in this region of the country is more robust than in most, and this helps move everyone forward in the long run.
As much as we all compete, we work together to target trade shows on a national level, he said, noting that this work is often done through the New England Society of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, a membership organization. We collaborate to sell the whole destination, and its important work, because it gets people to New England. If one of us brings in a conference, its possible that they will want to return to another venue in New England in the future.
Indeed, the Hartford, Providence, and Springfield convention markets are very different in many respects; both Hartfords operating budget and convention facility footprint, for instance, are much larger, and its venues more diverse, than in the City of Homes.
However, convention bureaus across the nation share similar strengths and weaknesses, and the industry itself is experiencing an upswing.
The industry has seen growth over the past five years; weve caught up to pre-9/11 numbers, and there are no signs of a slowdown, said Greenwood.
Hartford is also a year or two ahead of the GSCVB in terms of construction of a new facility and the subsequent development programs that follow.
Phelps said business was good for all of the citys convention spaces last year the Connecticut Expo Center, the Hartford Civic Center, the Connecticut Convention Center, and Rentschler Field.
We had an outstanding 2007, he said, noting that, on average, a delegate at a Connecticut convention will stay in the area for an average of 3.6 days and spend about $300. Part of the reason we had a successful year was because we hosted large conventions, some with up to 10,000 delegates, and also hosted some for up to five days. The economic impact was that much greater, and we utilized a terrific number of hotels. We spread groups out among our hotels, and that created a spread across the city.
To capitalize on the growth now being seen in the convention industry, Phelps said the GHCVB is focusing on a few key elements of the convention-planning process in 2008. The first is selling Hartfords convenient locale, close to major thoroughfares including interstates 91 and 84, as well as its affordability as a smaller city. As in Springfield, Connecticuts small size as a state can be a draw rather than a hindrance, added Phelps.
Connecticut could fit into many metropolitan areas, such as Houston or Atlanta, he said. The diversity of experiences that creates within an hours drive is attractive to a lot of people, including those who come from those big cities.
Here, they can see the bigger region, including the casinos, Mystic Seaport, the college town of New Haven, and the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. These are especially attractive for offsite meetings and spouse programs.
One Fish, Two Fish
Greenwood agreed that when it comes to convention planning, no market, no matter how big or small, can rely on any one strength to pull new audiences in.
You cant hang your hat on one thing, but if we were going to boil it down to one major effort, its concentrating on how to get attendees excited. The city is very capable of doing this.
And, he said, the GSCVB and Greater Springfield as a whole will continue to reach out to all types of delegates, not only because the region needs the traffic, but because it wants to be a gracious host.
Its no secret that many convention bureaus are fishing from the same pond, he said, but the hard part is getting people here. Once we do, we think theyre impressed; the big fish mentality appeals to them.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]