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Small Market Meeting Summit Debuts Boutique Format in Panama City Beach

A select group of meeting planners gathered an enormous amount of travel destination information during the first-ever Small Market Meetings Summit.

The gathering took place May 12-13 at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort in the Florida Panhandle. Meeting planners and destination providers helped lead the renewal of the meetings industry now that the pandemic appears to be waning.

“We’ve always had an overflow at the Small Market Meetings Conference in the fall, so we initiated the summit with a smaller group of 25 planners,” said Charlie Presley, chairman of The Group Travel Family and a partner in the summit. “These select planners met in pods of destinations. Rather than a planner meeting one-on-one with just one vendor from a city, the planner talked with three individuals from that location. So, including our host city, Panama City Beach, planners learned a lot about 25 destinations all in one day.”

The meetings were 12 minutes long, twice the length of the usual marketplace appointments, which made it easier for meeting planners to get more answers to their many questions. Before the two marketplace sessions began, Presley gave meeting planners a pep talk of sorts to emphasize the importance of the format and the commitment of the travel industry representatives. 

“Don’t miss any appointments with them,” Presley said. “They didn’t just spend money to be here, they spent a lot of time and effort too. They are the backbone of our industry because they understand meeting planners and know exactly what they need. They are going to support you.”

Planners Seeking Options

Signing up for the summit was not a matter of first come, first served. The 25 meeting planners were carefully selected for this conference and had to qualify based on various aspects of their businesses. They looked forward to concentrated sessions where they would meet with a trio of representatives from a potential meeting city. 

Phillip Stevens of International Slow Pitch Softball in Miami came to the summit to spread the word about his organization and seek new markets. 

“I want to bring international slow-pitch softball to other regions of the United States,” he said. “We have teams in Honduras, Africa and even the Netherlands now, but we want the sport to grow and branch out across the United States.”

Eugene Jerry of Social Security Alumni of Windsor, Pennsylvania, represents people who worked for the federal agency and remain connected. 

“We are all former Social Security employees,” he said. “We have annual meetings, get-togethers and training functions. I like to find various small-market training venues and take people there for effective leadership or administrative meetings to help them learn about the latest trends in the industry.”

Cory Brooks of Specialty Planners International in Gallatin, Tennessee, books meetings for her many kinds of clients. “I am an independent planner who helps clients like associations and corporations with their board meetings and conferences,” she said. “My objective is to reestablish strong relationships in my industry because so much has happened and changed in the last pandemic year.”

Judy O’Babatunde of the Education Writers Association in Washington, D.C., offers education writers training, information, support and recognition in their field.

“I plan and execute EWA events,” she said. “I’m seeing lots of opportunities in smaller markets and believe that they would be good for our regional seminars and conferences, which are smaller than our big annual conferences held in larger cities.”

Jennifer Goldman of the Food Service Packaging Institute in Falls Church, Virginia, likes the idea of booking meetings into smaller markets. 

“I plan two meetings a year, and we hold them all over the place, and I am always looking for new destinations,” she said. “We have done a lot of first-tier cities over the years, so it’s nice to hear about second-tier cities that I am not familiar with.”

Travel Industry Sells

The destination providers had to coordinate with each other to present a complete picture of their city to meeting planners. Some representatives came from the city’s convention and visitors bureau, others from a full-service hotel, convention center or some other unusual meeting venue. All strived to make the best impression.

Anna Kent of the Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center in Auburn, Alabama, thought second- and third-tier meeting destinations like hers would be appealing to planners. 

“We wanted to come and meet people and connect them with a place like Auburn, which is a small college town with a lot of history,” she said. “Since the pandemic, people have reclused themselves from larger cities, and they now want the comfort of meeting in a small town like ours.”

Reanna Darone of Destination Niagara USA came from Niagara Falls, New York, and thought she brought a lot of good selling points. 

“Our goal is to bring more business to Niagara Falls like smaller meetings that can fit into single properties,” she said. “We have so many different types. So, we have something for anyone. We are open to every kind of meeting.”

Mary Ann Statkewicz of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism promoted Alabama’s gorgeous Gulf Coast. 

“I wanted to meet new planners and get information on whether their groups are meeting again,” she said. “I introduced them to our squeaky white-sand beaches and what we have to offer for planners and even their families, if they come along.”

Luke Gilliam of Visit Casper in east-central Wyoming was happy to present his vision of rugged and beautiful Wyoming. 

“As a CVB, our goal is to make connections and build relationships and to find out how we can serve these groups, hopefully in Casper,” he said. “There are a lot of interesting groups and amazing people to speak with here at the conference.”

Aquan Robinson of the Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau in Montgomery, Alabama, was happy to boost his state’s capital city. 

“My goal is to reconnect with planners, somewhat post-pandemic, to get a feel for how their sourcing for future meeting dates is going,” he said. “I was surprised at how much they are planning again for events that they really feel will take place this year and in 2022.”

Speakers Connect

Keynote presenter Johnny Campbell is known in the speaking trade as the Transition Man. He enjoys talking about a subject that often makes his audience members nervous: change. Campbell conceded change can be difficult unless you accept it as inevitable and learn how to manage it. Meeting planners have certainly seen their share of change in this past year of COVID-19. 

“Everybody talks about change,” Campbell said. “I believe that you can change your life just like that. Snap. I believe that everyone has inside of them an extraordinary character and ability. If you care a little more, if you focus a little more, if you want it just a little bit more, you can have an extraordinary life and results from change. The opportunities are around if you just look for them.”

Julia Smyth-Young, sales director for Visit Williamsburg, Virginia, came to the conference to promote her area’s early-American history landmarks that can be enjoyed any way the visitor prefers. Plus, she plugged the many other modern attractions and activities that bring in professional groups and tourists alike. 

“You can experience historic Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown at your own pace,” she said. “We are conveniently located, with a temperate climate. We have 15,000 sleeping rooms in the area and just over 200,000 square feet of meeting space for your attendees to use.”

Sponsors Shine

The conference delegates enjoyed an opening night reception and entertainment presented by the host, Visit Panama City Beach. It included seafood delights, plus an open bar. The scene was further enhanced with live music as delegates gathered outside at sunset in the Sheraton’s spacious pavilion. Renee Wuerdeman, vice president of sales for Visit Panama City Beach, was pleased to meet the planners, which is a group the city is targeting for future business. 

“We are so grateful that organizers brought the inaugural Small Market meetings Summit here,” she said. “Everyone now wants to get out and travel and hold meetings. We want to host those meetings of between 200 and 450 participants. That would do a lot of good for us and for the entire Florida Panhandle.”

The Small Market Meetings Summit, with its unique format, will be back next year. Look for it to convene May 2-3, 2022, in exciting Fort Worth, Texas. The conference will take place at the beautiful Dallas/Fort Worth Marriott Hotel and Golf Club at Champions Circle. 

“We are super excited and are ready to show off our Southern and Texas hospitality and the unique personality that Fort Worth has to offer,” said Stefanie Schafner, who is national sales manager for Visit Fort Worth. “We just want to get meetings back up and running and showcase to the planners why Fort Worth would make a great destination for them.”

Visit Fort Worth also livened things up by holding a drawing, with special prizes awarded to three fortunate meeting planners.

Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.