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Small Market Meetings Conference Gets Down to Business in Cheyenne

More than 80 meeting planners from across the country, all searching for new sites for their meetings and conferences, discovered a gold mine of second- and third-tier destinations at the annual Small Market Meetings Conference, held recently in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

This historic state capital also welcomed 150 destination providers that met with planners to pitch their cities as event destinations.

Cheyenne lost out on hosting some conferences when the pandemic broke out in 2020. Visit Cheyenne, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, was pleased to book the Small Market Meetings conference and to provide a safe, productive environment for everyone. 

“I’ve sat with you over the years at other conferences and talked about how we’d host it in 2021,” Jim Walter, vice president of sales and marketing, told the delegates. “Wow, you’re here. It’s been a long time coming. We’re so glad you came to see our community and to get some work done.”

That work came in the form of two busy marketplace sessions where meeting planners sat down with destination providers to hear pitches about cities, hotels, facilities and attractions in their areas. 

“The travel industry that is here is hosting you,” conference co-founder Charlie Presley told planners. “That’s what this is all about. The payback is they want to meet you. You’ll meet new people and strengthen existing relationships.”

Conference Attendees Enjoy Networking and Solid Sales

Planners had thousands of options at the conference. They came with agendas and worked hard sorting out the details. 

Amy Preher of the Kentucky Justice Association in Frankfort loved the convenience. 

“I want to make connections,” she said. “It’s great that we’re all in one place to hear about destinations and venues to see if they’re a good fit. It would literally take me years to go see all these sites in person. Now I don’t have to.”

Susan Shaffette of Team Dynamics in Mandeville, Louisiana, is an expert problem-solver. 

“I’m a third-party planner hired by groups to take on their conference planning,” she said. “They don’t have the staff or time to do it, but they still want to conference. Here I get options and meet with various destinations to find out about locations and capabilities.”

Tom Henton of CRI Global in San Diego, California, craves normalcy. 

“We’re a full-service association management company and hold corporate leadership retreats,” he said. “We’re looking forward again to face-to-face meetings. There’s a dynamic that takes places when two people or two groups get together. You can’t substitute that chemistry.”

Delton Ellis of Keepers Travel International in Nassau, Bahamas, was thinking small. 

“We’ve been working in major markets, but this year we’re going into third-tier cities,” he said. “I’ll be able to network with hotels so we’re ready to choose when it’s time for our conferences. With the pandemic, we’re looking for smaller venues.”

Tracy Coleman plans for the Kettering/General Motors Institute Alumni Association. 

“I’m looking for destinations for the alumni association to travel to for building camaraderie and networking,” she said. “We need rooms for meetings and meals and some fun outside activities.”

There was a tremendous amount of healthy competition among destination providers at the conference. They did their best to offer enticing ideas to planners. 

Caitlyn Floyd of Visit Champaign County in Illinois liked the conference’s resources. 

“They compiled a great list of planners for us to meet this year,” she said. “This has always been a good conference for us. We often come back and book business from it. My goal is to bring even more business to our area. 

Holly McElyea of Memphis Tourism made her strongest pitches to planners looking to buy. 

“It’s my first time here,” she said. “A lot of meeting planners said I should come. Some people say they’ve driven past Memphis but never visited. We have more than 60 attractions and are the home of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll.” 

Ryan Hauck of Park County Travel Council in Wyoming also pitched hard.

“Cody/Yellowstone has always been known for its leisure activities,” he said. “It’s next to the first national park in the country. We have much to offer meeting and convention planners and sports event planners. This is one of our first trade shows, and we want to get the word out.”

Liz Boylan of Discover Long Island wanted to get reacquainted.

“I want to reconnect with all the meeting planners I haven’t seen for two years,” she said. “I want new business, too. We’re a strong tier-two destination. But I will reestablish old relationships to make sure the people I knew from the past are still at it.”

Speakers and Sponsors Add Value

Meeting planners got a tour of the country, so to speak, by way of a dozen on-stage pitches from destination providers that want planners to bring meetings to their towns. Some destinations also sponsored meals; Visit Cheyenne, for example, fed delegates a scrumptious chuck-wagon-style meal and then treated everyone to a mini rodeo, a sample of the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days, which bills itself as the World’s Largest Outdoor Rodeo and Western Celebration. Delegates enjoyed watching roping, bronco busting and steer riding events, all part of the local heritage. 

“People around the world automatically get this image of Cheyenne and the Old West and cowboys and the railroads and the great expansion of America,” said Visit Cheyenne’s Jim Walter.

Visit Williamsburg and Julia Smyth-Young sponsored a breakfast. 

“We’re home to Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living-history museum in the country; Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement; and Yorktown, where American Revolutionary battles were fought and won,” said Smyth-Young. 

Travel Juneau, based in beautiful Alaska, sponsored another breakfast. The Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office sponsored a lunch. 

“We’re located in the southwest part of Utah about four hours south of Salt Lake and an hour and a half north of Las Vegas,” said speaker Jacqueline Grena. “We have several communities in our area and 5,500 hotel rooms available. We have a convention center with 100,000 square feet of space.”

The host city for the next Small Market Meetings Conference provided the closing luncheon. 

“We look forward to hosting you in 2022,” said Mindy Lallier of Visit Wichita. “You can travel from our airport to our downtown hotels in just 12 minutes. We have 1,200 restaurants, over 50 museums and attractions, and we’re home to the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center, with 110,000 square feet of mixed-use space.”

The conference had a clever magician who did card tricks with participation from audience members. Then he made a proposal to planners on behalf of all conference performers like himself. 

“Our goal is to help the event planner look great,” he said. “If you look good, I and others get hired again. My background is in marketing. Word of mouth is real, and I know if I do well, you’ll be talked about as a successful planner.”

A Conference Success Story

Jeff Esposito, executive director of CAM-PLEX Multi-Event Facilities in Gillette, Wyoming, came to the Small Market Meetings Conference in Cheyenne because he wanted to see the meeting that created a game-changing event for his city.

“Vern Byrd, the planner who handles the International Pathfinder Camporee for the Seventh Day Adventist Church, visited the Visit Gillette booth at this conference a couple of years ago and ended up placing this huge international youth event in our city,” said Esposito. “When I saw that this conference was going to be in Cheyenne, I signed up.”

Esposito and another local leader, Jessica Seders, executive director of Visit Gillette/Campbell County, say the camporee is scheduled for August 5-11, 2024, and will return to Gillette every five years. It has been the catalyst for building an outdoor amphitheater in Gillette that will not only accommodate its production of “Believe the Promise,” based on the story of Moses, but also enable Gillette to host major concerts and productions.

“This group of 5,000 kids will come into our community and give back their time and energy to nonprofits in our area,” said Seders. “This is exactly the type of large group our city and county have been trying to attract. We’re thrilled.”

“I’ve been sending sales teams to meetings like this for years,” said Esposito. “You always wonder if there is a return on investment at these things. This, for me, was a huge example of that. It speaks to the quality of the Small Market Meetings Conference. The former host city for the camporee estimates its economic impact at $25 million per event.”

Sightseeing Tours Showcase Cheyenne

Delegates slipped into jeans and walking shoes for an afternoon and evening of sightseeing and dining around Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Conference attendees had their choice of three sightseeing tours. One was a Wild West Trolley Tour of downtown Cheyenne sites hosted by a lively guide who kept up a steady stream of historical facts and one-liners. 

Other delegates went to the famous Terry Bison Ranch for a close-up experience on a small train that rolled into a large herd of bison; riders got to touch and feed the beasts. Then, touring delegates managed to survive an attempted “train robbery” by some desperadoes. 

A third tour option was for the thirsty. The Daddy of the Malt Brewery trail featured a visit to Cheyenne’s craft beverage scene and tastes of some local brews. 

“The brewery name is a spin-off of the slogan for the Cheyenne Frontier Days, which is ‘Daddy of ‘Em All,’” said Visit Cheyenne’s Andi Jasperson.

One night of the conference was designated a dine-around. Delegates set out in downtown Cheyenne and visited various restaurants and taverns for an evening of good food, drinks and fun.

Meeting planners were also eligible to win prizes at the conference while visiting the many destination provider booths around the marketplace. For the privilege of talking with planners one-on-one, providers gave them “cash” to bid on the prizes in an exciting auction on the conference’s final day. 

All in all, planners walked away from the gathering with a treasure trove of information they can use to decide where to book their next meetings and events. Meanwhile, many old friendships were renewed and new ones begun, thus adding to the value of the Small Market Meetings Conference.

To register for the 2022 Small Market Meetings Conference, October 2-4, in Wichita, Kansas, call  800-628-0993.

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.