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Small Market Meetings Conference Kick-Starts Industry Comeback

To help jump-start the meetings industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an eager crew of 150 meeting planners and travel industry professionals gathered October 4-6 at the French Lick Resort in southern Indiana for the annual Small Market Meetings Conference.

Numerous speakers thanked delegates for diving in and participating in the conference during these uncertain times.

“We decided somebody had to get the tourism and meetings ball rolling again,” said conference partner Charlie Presley of The Group Travel Family. “The nation seems evenly divided between those who want to get back to it and those who want to hunker down, which is fine. But we chose to serve those who wanted to return to business, and we’re doing it in a healthy and safe manner.”

Mac Lacy, a conference partner, was straightforward.

“This is the first face-to-face meeting for many of you since the virus began,” he said. “In this day and age, you don’t end up somewhere unless you really want to be there. The buck stops with us. It doesn’t stop with Washington, D.C., or with stimulus funds. It stops with those in this room to save and revitalize the meetings and travel industries, to put people in hotels and in motorcoaches. By virtue of being here, you prove that you can wear a mask and meet safely and gather at a great resort to restart these industries.”

French Lick Resort vice president Joe Vezzoso, the conference host and a travel industry leader, choked up when describing what it felt like closing the resort March 15 and sending hundreds of workers home.

“That was a sad day,” he said. “We shut the property. We closed the old girl. But you know what? We reopened, and all of you here now will re-energize travel.”

Meeting Planners and Destinations Lead the Charge

The meeting planners and destination delegates in attendance at Small Market Meetings Conference represented the tip of the spear: meeting professionals poised to plan for the future, despite the challenges of the current climate.

Planners said someone had to be the first to leave home and get the meetings industry rocking again, so “why not us?” several asked. Allison Thompson of EXL in Louisville, Kentucky, provides professional services to various industries.

“We host three large meetings a year and 15 to 20 smaller events,” said Thompson. “I’m focusing on smaller markets for 2021 because of COVID. It’s my first time here and I’m seeing what’s available and creating relationships.”

Terry Bemis of ConferenceDirect in Asheville, North Carolina, assists customers with logistics for meetings and events.

“We wanted to see what best practices French Lick Resort would have for our clients,” Bemis said. “I’m a visual learner. I wanted to see it firsthand to learn how a trade show might fit. I’m impressed. My clients are waiting for the right moment to buy. This is about connecting and having open and authentic conversations because the times warrant that.”

Rick Banks of National Baptist Deacons Convention in Tampa, Florida, wanted to meet destination providers friendly to relatively small delegations of conference goers.

“We meet twice annually, on a budget,” said Banks. “We like to be under one roof in a hotel and need 250 to 300 sleeping rooms, a ballroom and breakout rooms.”

Michelle Presswood of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, had special requirements. “I do two to three meetings a year for the CDC, but because we’re a government entity, we’re pickier because of federal guidelines,” she said. “So, it’s a little harder to get venues. This conference tells us what’s out there, and I make great contacts.”

Bill Neal of ASR-ARS Association in Taylorsville, Kentucky, stages annual reunions for personnel who were stationed on Navy rescue salvage ships.

“I don’t care what cities we go to as long as there’s enough in that city for our group to see and do,” he said. “We’re tourists. We come to a hotel on a Sunday and stay a week. We rent motorcoaches and tour two or three days, as well as do other reunion activities.”

Cities nationwide urgently want planners to bring groups to their sites. Laura Kelner of Hamilton County Tourism in Indiana is one.

“It’s our first show since the shutdown, so it’s important to get back out there,” she said. “We’re refreshingly surprised at the number of meeting planners here. We have 47 meetings with planners who seem eager to be planning again. We’re getting good response.”

Michael Vescio of Discover DeKalb in Georgia is forecasting.

“We’re looking more at 2021,” he said. “The corporate market probably won’t open up until the second or third quarter. Some meeting planners are waiting for a virus vaccine before they book business. I want them to know who I am and that I want them.”

William McBroom of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau in Florida is hopeful.

“I came to help us move forward with planning and holding live meetings again,” said McBroom. “There’s no better way to develop relationships, drill down to what people are looking for and win the next set of meetings.”

Bonnie Dye of Camden on the Lake Resort in Lake Ozark, Missouri, was productive.

“I think this year I’ve had more very qualified appointments, exceeding all past years here,” she said. “I wanted to help open the market and encourage people that we’re doing everything we can to make their attendees safe. We want new opportunities.”

Taylor Rheinheimer of Potawatomi Inn in Angola, Indiana, agreed: “This year has brought unexpected changes for everyone. Our goal is to look further ahead. I’ve gotten more appointments than ever before, more bang for my buck. Our inn is rural and offers more safety to visitors than in larger cities.”

Speakers Share Inspiration and Information

The keynote address at Small Market Meetings Conference was a joy to watch and hear. Jeff Koziatek is a motivational speaker, author, life coach and entertainer. While delivering fast-paced tips for managing life and work challenges, Koziatek either juggled bowling pins, balanced objects on his chin or struggled to get out of a straitjacket while remaining atop a large rubber ball. He never missed a beat with his delivery.

“I want to share with you the way forward and how to take action even when tomorrow is uncertain. Do it with clarity of action. That clarity comes from three things: your compass [values and principles], your mindset [keeping positive] and your team.”

Julia Smyth-Young of Visit Williamsburg in Virginia came to promote her area.

“Our unique, historic locations provide fantastic opportunities,” said Smyth-Young. “But we’re more than history. We’re a vibrant community waiting for you to explore. It could be award-winning dining, craft beer, spirits and wineries. It’s family-friendly, with the largest outlet mall in Virginia. You can explore our national and state parks with hiking, fishing or strolling, or let a championship golf course challenge you.”

Luke Gilliam of Visit Casper in Wyoming loves his adopted town.

“Casper has a baseline honesty about it,” he said. “We have the facilities, spaces and country-western feel that takes you in. You’ll have a CVB team that will take care of you, be excited about you and go the extra mile to ensure your visit to our destination is unlike any you’ve ever experienced.”

Tourism Town Hall

During Small Market Meetings Conference, French Lick Resort and conference leaders teamed up with Indiana tourism officials to stage the Hybrid Tourism Town Hall, a virtual meeting of state and national tourism experts to emphasize the industry’s importance to local and national economies. Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch oversees her state’s Office of Tourism Development and used Indiana as an example of how vital tourism is for everyone:

“Across Indiana, tourism supported 152,000 full-time jobs, and tourism spending supported over 200,000 Hoosier families,” said Crouch. “Indiana tourism generated $1.4 billion in state and local taxes. For every dollar spent by a tourist, 80 cents of it stayed in a local community. To put it in perspective, hospitality and leisure-related industries contribute $37 billion to our state’s economy.”

Crouch added that back in March “the light switch was turned off but now it’s time to get the tourism industry going again.” Joining the discussion that was seen live online were Elaine Bedel of the Indiana Destination Development Corporation and Michelle Woodley of Preferred Hotels and Resorts.

During free time, planners went on historic tours of the French Lick Resort, which consists of French Lick Springs Hotel and neighboring West Baden Springs Hotel, both nearly 120 years old. One group toured the West Baden Springs Hotel’s lobby and atrium, a stunning sight.

“I think it’s gorgeous,” said Lisa McGowan of AWA Meetings in Winnetka, Illinois. “I can’t believe all this opulence is in the middle of — well, I’m not going to say nowhere because it’s somewhere wonderful. It’s really impressive. I’ve heard about it for years, and now I’ve seen it for myself. I can speak to it. This feel-good tour has been great and much needed.”

Cheyenne Will Host in 2021

The next Small Market Meetings Conference is heading west. Meeting planners and destination providers will gather in rugged and beautiful Cheyenne, Wyoming, September 26-28, 2021.

“We’re looking forward to sharing our community with you next year,” Jim Walter of Visit Cheyenne told delegates. “We’re the state capital, so you can check off one more capital city on your list. In case you don’t know, we’re just 90 minutes north of downtown Denver. You can fly into that city’s airport or into our own Cheyenne Regional Airport. Don’t forget to bring your boots. We’re taking you to a real Western rodeo.” 

Register for the 2021 conference at

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.