Value-add meeting planning has never been more important. Even as face-to-face meetings robustly return after the pandemic pause, planners feel the budget pinch getting tighter and tighter—and the need to get maximum return on investment (ROI) from every dollar spent. “As inflation smacks us in the jaw, my stakeholders are carefully planning their meetings to maximize ROI on a paired-down budget,” says Kimberly Bean, event specialist, KBT Creative Support Services and a member of Prevue’s editorial advisory board.
Other advisory board members echo Bean’s concerns, reporting that all types of meetings are being squeezed by rising prices and a seller’s market.
“Prices are increasing for everything, which is impacting our budgets significantly, says Leslie Zeck, CMP, CMM, HMCC, director of meetings for the International Association for Dental Research and the American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research. “With many event-related costs still rising and supply chain challenges continuing, it’s hard to predict and budget months or years out,” adds Sherri K. Lindenberg, senior VP, marketing communications at Crump Life Insurance Services.
To combat rising prices, planners are getting creative. “We must continue to find creative options to maintain the integrity and quality of our experiences for attendees while addressing real-life situations impacting venues and vendors,” says Lindenberg. “For example, at business meetings we’ve worked to minimize AV [audiovisual] costs by having smaller breakout sessions without projectors and screens, and ensuring that the time spent in the sessions is interactive versus listening to a single presenter talk, which we can do virtually.” For incentives, “we’re re-evaluating the activities we offer teammates to more tightly manage the cost structure and scaling back on the number of options. This also aligns with feedback about people wanting more free time.”
Among Bean’s budget-saving recommendations is to have as much onsite dining as possible. She advises doing buyouts of onsite restaurants and to also make liberal use of outdoor spaces for meals, breaks and entertainment—including beach-themed events for oceanfront properties and using pre-function spaces with outdoor access. “The greater the onsite F&B spend, the better negotiation value for discussing conference details, as well as saving on offsite transportation and logistics,” she notes. For additional savings, she also suggests condensing a typical two-and-a-half day meeting into two days; including fewer speakers and more networking opportunities, such as using a well-reviewed local DJ instead of a speaker for an opening night reception; and offering alcohol-free events serving mocktails and sparkling juices—not only to save money but also to encourage wellness and healthy habits.
Most important, says Bean, planners and hotels can work together to achieve savings. “That is where creativity on the part of meeting planners and suppliers’ lands,” she says. “Successful relationships include open and honest discussions regarding pricing and expectations before signing a contract. This type of dialogue goes a long way in establishing trust on both sides.”
Convention and Visitors bureaus (CVBs), sometimes called destination marketing organizations (DMOs), can also be a big help in achieving budget savings. For no or minimal costs, they will not only help coordinate RFPs, set up site visits, recommend local venues and transportation companies, including those compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but also help provide attendee gifts, fill planners in on local sustainability practices and corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, provide welcoming signage and red-carpet welcomes, and more.
Read on for the skinny on how the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center in Austin, Texas; Boise, Idaho; Panama; Memphis; and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts forge creative planner partnerships and help achieve value-add budgets for meetings and incentives.
The southernmost country in Central America, Panama is fast becoming a popular meeting and incentive destination that offers significant value-add to MICE budgets. “Panama has a unique combination of nature, culture, world-class hotels, entertainment, dining and shopping,” says Fernando Fondevila, CEO, PROMTUR Panama, the country’s international destination marketing organization. “It’s second to none in its diversity of attractions.” Panama is also rated as one of the safest countries in Latin America, with more than 2,500 weekly flights landing at Tocumen International Airport from 89 cities around the world, including over 15 flights from the U.S. on Copa, United, American, Delta and Spirit Airlines. “These attributes, along with the warmth of the people, provide meeting planners with a destination that delivers unique, authentic and personalized experiences,” says Fondevila. “Our fully dedicated team takes great pride in offering significant support, including everything from a wide variety of products and services to ease of transportation and opportunities to explore the wealth of our culture and biodiversity. PROMTUR Panama aims to position Panama as a top-level destination for meetings and events in an agile, continuous and consistent manner.”
PROMTUR offers programs for both association and corporate groups that provide comprehensive support services such as site inspection visits, discounts on group airfare, airport transfers, welcome receptions, promotional materials and more, depending on the size of the group. Among a wide range of hotels and venues in Panama City is the recently opened Panama Convention Center, located on the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal (to be inaugurated this June). With a large exhibition hall and 16 meeting rooms, the center can accommodate up to 23,000 people.
Sustainability is part of the country’s DNA. Panama City is the only national capital containing a rainforest with its city limits, notes Fondevila, and from here attendees can easily visit natural sites such as the Camino Real at the Chagres National Park or Barro Colorado, an island located on Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. “It is important to highlight that our strategy is aligned with the Sustainable Tourism Master Plan developed by the Panama Tourism Authority,” he says. The goal is for meetings and events to leave a positive footprint in the destination. PROMTUR Panama has seen an uptick in requests for sustainable meeting practices, notes Fondevila, such as using recyclable materials and reducing the use of paper with online registration systems, digital event marketing, etc.
The Panama Tourism Authority is also working with local and indigenous communities to revive tourism in several areas of the country, opening up opportunities for unique group activities. At Gatun Lake, for instance, it’s possible to visit the Embera Community, one of seven indigenous peoples that inhabit Panama. In coastal Bocas del Toro, the National Government collaborates with Afro-Antillean communities to highlight the region’s unique Caribbean-influenced cuisine. In the Chiriqui Highlands, where the Ngabe and Bugle indigenous communities harvest the world’s most prized Geisha coffee, groups can now experience a variety of tourism experiences at local coffee farms. PROMTUR Panama can help planners to arrange group access to these and other unique cultural experiences, as well as group visits to city highlights such as the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, focused on the natural history of Panama, and tours of modern and historic Panama City.
Located on the University of Texas at Austin campus, the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center has more than 85,000 sf of event space, 297 immaculate guest rooms and state-of-the-art technology. Think of it not as a convention center with a hotel, but rather as a hotel with a convention center, says director of sales and marketing Josh Delgado. What might surprise planners in terms of value-add, he says, is the hotel’s abundant, flexible meeting space and turnkey meeting package. “Our hotel boasts 53 meeting rooms, allowing us to work with groups in customizing the perfect combination of event flow, proximity, and value. We offer a variety of classrooms with the largest being a 300-seat auditorium, all offering built-in AV capabilities.” Couple this with a comprehensive meeting package that makes the planning process easy and you have one of the best values in the market, says Delgado. The complete meeting package includes morning and afternoon breaks, AV, lunch, a dedicated conference manager and other add-on options. For large groups, the hotel has a partnership with nearby Austin hotels, called the University Hotel Collection, that offers more than 500 hotel rooms.
There are four culinary concepts at the hotel, including a spacious, dedicated communal dining space filled with natural light to support the meeting package, says Delgado. “This presents a great opportunity for savings when a group does not need to contract an additional space for dining,” he says. “Attendees enjoy our wide variety of seasonal and fresh options in an open and inviting space.”
As well, the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center’s location on the University of Texas at Austin campus is a value-add for program content. A partnership with Texas Executive Education offers planners access to the best faculty and expertise from across the university. “Being tied to the University of Texas at Austin presents groups with unique opportunities to find speakers in our backyard, saving on travel and lodging cost, among other variables,” says Delgado. “Guest speakers can include professors who are subject matter experts to provide knowledge and insight along with genuine care for a meaningful and action-oriented experience.”
Ultimately, “as an executive-focused meeting venue, our meeting packages represent who we are,” concludes Delgado. “Our meeting planning partners have the ability to create and work through a budget they trust from the moment they reach out to the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, and this transparency is what we hang our hat on.”
When planners book a meeting in Boise, says Andrew Heidt, CMP, director of sales, Visit Boise, “they’re booking a walkable, urban experience for their attendees. Hotels, restaurants and meeting venues are all within walking distance of each other and places like breweries, tasting rooms, shops and cultural attractions, meaning group transportation is optional.” It’s easy to get to this hip, up-and-coming small city located in southwest Idaho about 40 miles east of the Oregon border and 110 miles north of Nevada, with nonstop airlift from 26 destinations and eight airlines. As well, “Boise is home to 10 James Beard-nominated restaurants, going toe to toe with larger metro areas but minus the travel costs associated with big cities,” Heidt notes. There’s even an urban winery trail with a variety of modern and affordable tasting rooms.
Another big value-add to meeting in Boise is its proximity to the great outdoors. Known as the “city of trees,” Boise is bordered by lush foothills and a river running through the city. “Our famed Greenbelt, a 25-mile pedestrian and bicycle route, runs through downtown and provides meeting attendees with immediate access to the outdoors,” says Heidt. “Incorporating wellness activities like group walks or morning runs, is easy and safe here.” For more immersion into the beautiful scenery that surrounds the city, he recommends hitting the trails a short ride from downtown. “Meetings in the morning and mountains in the afternoon is a reality here,” he says. Additional outdoor adventures include float trips down the Boise River and adrenalin-pumping white-water rafting within an hour’s drive of downtown.
Meeting space in Boise includes the recently expanded Boise Centre, with more than 80,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space with high-speed WiFi, including a 24,426-sf grand ballroom, 31 meeting rooms and a new executive ballroom with state-of-the-art video conferencing. Adjacent to the convention center is The Grove Plaza, a popular option for outdoor receptions, breakouts and other events. Steps away, Jack’s Urban Meeting Place (JUMP) is a creative activity center with high-tech capabilities. Currently under construction, the 20,000-sf Treefort Music Hall will include a rooftop patio and is expected to accommodate groups of up to 700.
There are also nine hotels within walking distance of Boise Centre that are well-suited for corporate meetings and events. Planners can get help staying within budget, says Heidt, with a Master Hotel Contract offered by Visit Boise that provides a Visit Boise representative to serve as a liaison with hotels that have already agreed to a contract’s general terms and conditions.
Memphis—home of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll—is “more than a destination,” says Malvin Gipson, Memphis Tourism executive VP of convention sales, sports and services. “It’s an authentic experience with one-of-a-kind venues, live music entertainment, and attractions and amenities that planners are looking for.” Memphis is also affordable, offering a lower cost-per-attendee than other cities on the rise due to reasonable rates for airport travel, hotel rooms and food and beverage costs, he says.
Beyond its affordability and Southern hospitality, what planners might find most surprising about Memphis, says Gipson, is the ease of getting around the city’s walkable and compact downtown. “No matter where groups are staying downtown, they’re a short walk or trolley ride to world-famous Beale Street, museums, restaurants in every price point, nightlife, entertainment and more,” he says. Even attractions outside of the city, such as Graceland, are only a 15-minute drive, as is the newly renovated Memphis International Airport.
Between 2020 and 2022, more than 2,000 new hotels rooms opened in Memphis, with more in the pipeline. A $200 million renovation of the Renasant Convention Center (RCC) includes a grand new entrance, high-end finishes, and inviting new meeting spaces that bring in natural light and river views to the state-of-the-art facility, creating a “meeting and event facility as unique as the city that surrounds it,” says Gipson. The RCC has 3000,000 sf of meeting and event space, a 28,000-sf ballroom, 2,100-seat theater, 46 flexible meeting rooms and is connected to a 600-room Sheraton hotel. An event space new to the city is the Memphis Sports and Event Center, a 227,000-sf venue in Liberty Park.
Most important for value-add budgets, Gipson encourages planners to “consider Memphis Tourism an extension of your team. The goal of our complimentary services to meeting and event planners is to help create an authentic Memphis experience that is also affordable,” he says. “Prior to booking, our team can assist with site visits, tours and connections. Once an event is confirmed, Memphis Tourism hosts free VIP site visits and assists with personal walk-throughs of event space, tours of Beale Street, favorable group discounts to tours, attractions and transportation services, meet-and-greets with potential vendors, attendee promotion and more. No matter the meeting or event, Memphis Tourism always looks at planning through an economical lens while constantly looking at incentives we can provide to make events memorable and affordable.”
meetattexas.com; visitboise.com/meetings; tourismpanama.com/meetings-and-events; memphistravel.com/meeting-planners