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Planners Invest in Future Success at Small Market Meetings Conference

Tami Maynard-Griffin of Lithonia, Georgia, near Atlanta had booked several meetings for associations from previous Small Market Meetings Conferences.

After more than 20 years working with associations, Maynard-Griffin started her own company, Griffin Event Management Service (GEMS), this year and was back at the 2022 Small Market Meetings Conference, October 2-4 in Wichita, Kansas, looking for more business.

“It is an opportunity to look at destinations you may not have information about,” she said. “You meet new people and get to think outside the box.”

Maynard-Griffin was one of 70 meeting planners who attended the three-day conference, where they had various opportunities to meet with more than 150 representatives of destinations, convention centers, attractions and hotels that are looking to build their meeting business back after the COVID interruption. 

Rebounding Business

“It is starting to come back,” said Teresa Chamley, regional sales manager for Younes Hospitality, which operates the Younes Center in Kearney, Nebraska. “People are very happy about meeting in person. It is getting back to normal.”

“I’m looking for new business,” said Alison Walker of the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia. “I am trying to bring corporations back. I am making good connections.”

In addition to scheduling up to 60 six-minute appointments during two marketplaces in the Century II Performing Arts Center and Convention Center, the meeting planners were able to network and make connections at meal functions in the adjoining Hyatt Regency Hotel, go on sightseeing tours and attend two evening functions sponsored by Visit Wichita.

Walker said she had gotten three good leads in her first four appointments at the marketplace.

The conference also was an educational experience for both the meeting planners and the industry representatives, which will hopefully lead to future business together.

“It is an opportunity to introduce Bowling Green and the museum and to find out what their needs are,” said Debbie Eaton of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “I find there are a lot of unusual associations I never knew existed. It is an education for me.”

Building Relationships

Allison Popadyn of the Dayton, Ohio, Convention and Visitors Bureau was attending her first Small Market Meetings Conference. 

“I am building relationships and getting to know meeting planners,” she said. “I am breaking the ice and telling them about meetings in Dayton.”

Another first-timer, Stephanie Murray of the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Gillette, Wyoming, said everyone had been great to her.

“If I have a question, they are very knowledgeable,” she said.

“It’s about getting to know different destinations and players,” said Lisa-Beth Lauck, manager of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe in St. Petersburg, Florida. “It’s getting knowledge and meeting new suppliers.”

“I’m looking for new opportunities,” said Julie Hewett of JulNet Solutions in Huntington, West Virginia. “I like the consistency of who shows up. I see people I know and want to continue to do business with.”

“I enjoy the intimacy,” said Martisha LaCroix, owner of LaCroix Events in State Park, South Carolina. “It is not overwhelming. I get to see smaller destinations that are not highlighted as much.”

Expanding Knowledge

Bud Geissler of Group Collect of St. Augustine, Florida, opened the conference with a keynote address about using technology to help with marketing.

Geissler noted that while many people have a love/hate relationship with technology, they can utilize it to provide flexibility, enhance education and find new ways to generate revenue. It also can level the playing field, with “all having access to the same technology as larger operators.”

“What we do changes people’s lives, and technology makes us do it better,” he said.

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple welcomed the delegates after Geissler’s address.

The second day of the conference featured a breakfast sponsored by Visit Williamsburg, Virginia, the morning marketplace, a luncheon sponsored by Great Zion Convention and Tourism Office, and Wittwer Hospitality and options for five sightseeing tours in the afternoon.

The conference concluded with a breakfast sponsored by the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, another marketplace and a luncheon sponsored by Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which will host the 2023 Small Market Meetings Conference September 27-29.

“We are over the moon about hosting the conference,” said Julie Stow, associated executive director of the Cedar Rapids Tourism Office. “We are excited to show off our community. The opening night will be spectacular.”

Imaginative Sponsors

Sponsorships are a great way for the travel industry to reach delegates at a conference and they are only limited by their imagination.

“Lots of things give value,” said Small Market Meetings co-founder Charlie Presley.

For example, all delegates to the 2022 Small Market Meetings Conference received special key cards to their rooms at the host Hyatt Regency Wichita. Both sides were color photos of Lake Charles, Louisiana, whose convention and visitors bureau sponsored the cards. Every time a delegate entered their room, they were reminded of Lake Charles.

Destination Irvine, California, put a creative twist on its registration sponsorship with a margarita booth that provided a cool welcome to delegates as they registered. 

The Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, the site of the 2024 Small Market Meetings Conference, co-sponsored the Monday luncheon with Wittwer Hospitality. However, when Jacqueline Grena of Greater Zion took the stage, she didn’t show the usual video extolling her destinations attractions.

Instead, she had the audience participate in a 25-question quiz about Greater Zion. Delegates scanned a large QR code on the video screen and then played the quiz on their phones. Each question gave a detail about Greater Zion, located in southwest Utah near Zion National Park.

The three delegates who answered the most questions took part in a contest for a free trip for two to the Greater Zion area. The winner, Sarah Focke, tourism and convention sales manager for the Kearney, Nebraska Visitors Bureau, was the first to don full length waders and large boots that are used to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park, which can involve wading in water up to your waist.

“I like to push the envelope a little and it definitely paid off,” said Grena. “People were incredibly engaged during the entire game, and it was still a great way to provide valuable information about our destination but in a new way.”

There are numerous opportunities for sponsors at the Small Market Meetings Conference, from the traditional delegate badges and portfolios (Explore Branson) to phone charging stations (Springfield, Illinois CVB) and floor stepping-stone graphics leading from the hotel to the convention center (Visit Ogden, Visit Henderson, Discover Davis) or on the marketplace floor (Visit Lubbock, Visit Las Cruces).

A popular event on the closing day is the annual auction for prizes using “$100 bills” passed out by various sponsors at their booths. This year’s auction, sponsored by Destination Lake Winnebago Region in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, had a new twist — the bidding was for surprise gifts. The successful bidders didn’t know what they had won until the auction was over. 

The Iowa Travel Industry Partners gave away Starbucks gift cards at their booth.

The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development went high tech and had an advertisement on the convention’s mobile app.

Destinations also had the opportunity to promote themselves in a Destinations Showcase prior to the start of each day’s marketplace. This year’s showcase sponsors were Visit Cheyenne, Meet Kansas, Explore Utah Valley, Visit Henderson, the Kearney Visitors Bureau and ASM Global, which manages hundreds of conventions centers around the world, including the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center where the conference was held.

Wichita Shines on sightseeing Tours

Martisha LaCroix of LaCroix Events in State Park, South Carolina, had never been to Kansas before attending the 2022 Small Market Meetings Conference in Wichita. She liked what she saw.

“It allowed me to experience the host city as a visitor,” said LaCroix. “I now know how to use that to sell the city.”

The host, Visit Wichita, went all out to provide that experience.

“It was a great couple of days to get meeting planners to experience Wichita firsthand,” said Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

“When people come to Wichita, they are so surprised. That is what we are hearing. We gave a sneak peek of Wichita to get the planners excited about bringing meetings here. It was an opportunity to highlight our city.”

That began with a bang with an opening night at the Tanganyika Wildlife Park, where delegates fed lemurs, giraffes and kangaroos and even petted a porcupine (they actually feel soft with their needles laying back). The evening included food and a dance band.

“The event was a good networking experience,” said Debbie Eaton of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “I met new people and saw people from last year.”

The event inspired Sue Mandell of Better Me Solutions in Goodyear, Arizona, who organizes two-day training sessions in leadership and communications for law enforcement, corporations and schools.

“I like to have activities in the middle, such as last night,” Mandell said.

The second night’s function offered appetizers at the eclectic Museum of World Treasures, followed by more food and dueling pianos across the street at the River City Brewing Co. in Wichita’s Old Town. Afterward, delegates were taken to the iconic 44-foot-tall Keeper of the Plains statue at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, where they witnessed the lighting of firepots at the foot of the statue.

Delegates were fresh off options for sightseeing tours that afternoon that gave them a further taste of what Kansas’ largest city has to offer. Among their options were a dessert tour of local sweet shops, the city’s booming brewery scene, a tour of the world-class Sedgwick County Zoo or a behind-the-scenes look at the sparkling new Double-A baseball stadium.

“We were so thrilled to host the meeting planners,” said Santo.