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Small Market Meetings Conference Rocks in California

New business relationships were built; old business friendships were cemented. That’s what 100 meeting planners and 170 travel industry representatives achieved during the 2018 Small Market Meetings Conference, which made its West Coast debut in Ontario, California.

The conference, held inside the Ontario Convention Center, featured meeting planners from across the country searching for new places for their colleagues to meet. They spent hours chatting with reps from myriad cities, states, institutions and attractions that would love to host them.

Planners on a Mission

Meeting planners like Steve Mickley of the American Institute of Building Design in Jupiter, Florida, worked hard during two marketplace sessions.

“We have eight professional and two student conferences per year,” he said. “They’re small and intimate, and they’re growing. We do many field trips. We’re looking for unique venues and are moving away from hotel/conference room settings.”

Two Atlanta planners were investigating sites. Lesia Waker of the Morehouse School of Medicine was open-minded.

“We’re meeting with suppliers and venues to appeal for new destinations for our unique programs and meetings,” she said. “We do about three per year, and I’m looking for destinations outside of university settings that appeal to researchers. Anyplace inside or outside the U.S. is game.”

Teresa Hairston of the Gospel Heritage Foundation sought fresh ideas.

“I am connecting with CVBs, cities and venues that I can learn about and take advantage of,” she said. “We do retreats, big conferences, and these markets have something to offer that makes me think we should go there.”

“We have one big meeting per year and alternate between exotic world locations and more easily accessible and reasonably priced locations,” said Lou Priluker of the International Boxing Federation in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. “Destinations ranged from Italy and China to Atlantic City and St. Petersburg. For 2020 and 2021, we’re looking for U.S. destinations in secondary markets.”

Shelaine Stone of the National Dental Association in Greenbelt, Maryland, came to the conference with marching orders.

“My site-selection committee said to examine hotels, spaces and what a city has to offer,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll find something interesting and appealing.”

Destinations Make Pitches

The western U.S. travel industry was highly represented at the conference. Caren Werner of Visit Ogden in Utah found the conference to be in her wheelhouse.

“We’re not a tier-one city,” she said. “That’s why this conference is a great option because people here want to come to tier-two cities. We have great history and are 10 minutes from the mountains and trailheads.”

Chris Dunham traveled from Visit Bellevue, Washington, to attend the event.

“This is a first-time conference for us. It caters to smaller markets, which we are,” she said. “It’s a good format and we can spend time with people. My appointments have been quality ones. We’re seeing people aligned with what we have to offer.”

Mike Lessley of Visit Anchorage, Alaska, networked diligently.

“This is meet-and-greet time,” he said. “Last night, when I returned to my hotel room, I sent emails to everyone I met at the evening event. The work really begins when you return to your office to do follow-ups.”

Greg Brannan of Visit Detroit pitched his large market.

“We are back,” he said. “Our slogan is ‘It’s Go Time.’ There are no more apologies. We’ve had to fight bad perceptions for years. People have heard the good that’s happening in Detroit lately. It’s just a matter of seeing it to believe it. We also market downtown Detroit, which is booming now.” 

Candice Franklin of the Albany, Georgia, Convention and Visitors Bureau pitched her small market.

“I’m trying to bring more meeting planners into Albany,” she said. “We’re a little off the beaten path — 26 miles — from Interstate 75 but very affordable. People can come, be productive and have a good time. Thursday through Sunday, we’re wide open for that.”

Showcasing the West

In his opening remarks, conference partner Mac Lacy shared recent industry survey data with delegates.

“CVBs, planners, facilities and delegates are dealing more with physical and data security,” he said. “Also, smart technology is a huge, growing part of the industry. Another trend is the need to create local experiences in the destinations where meetings are held. Delegates expect to leave a conference knowing more about a city than when they arrived. There is also more racial, cultural and gender diversity within meeting delegations.”

Other speakers gave attendees great ideas about the western U.S. Wyoming got quite a shout-out.

“We have representatives here from Cheyenne, Casper and Gillette, which shows that Wyoming is really interested in bringing your business to our great state,” said Jim Walter of Visit Cheyenne, host for the 2021 Small Market Meetings Conference.

Terry Sjolin represented Visit Gillette-Wright, Wyoming.

“When there’s free time, your groups can do guided tours to Devil’s Tower; do Buffalo Ranch, one of the largest and oldest buffalo ranches,” she said. “We do coal mine tours, one of my favorites.”

Montana also shined. Stefan Cattarin works with Visit Billings.

“We’re an incredible drive market situated between Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park,” he said. “You can’t drive to Billings without passing through iconic areas of the country. We have some of the strongest airlift in the region: 10 direct flights out of major destinations.”

Jake Bash promoted the Great Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have 27 hotels with 2,300 rooms across our city, so we have plenty of space and are excited to have you. Our area is inspirational,” he said.

Vicki Logan of Travel Juneau, Alaska, painted word pictures.

“When you drive in from the airport, the bald eagles will perch on lampposts to greet you,” she said. “Come see the Alaskan bear families, but do it from afar. Things are really jumping in Juneau, like the whales. We also have 34,000 two-legged creatures walking around to serve you and your groups.”

Ed Kirby represented the department of tourism in Henderson, Nevada.

“If you’re looking for big-city amenities or small-town charm, Henderson has the perfect venue for you,” he said. “We can customize your experience.”

If groups prefer to sail away, Wayne Peyreau of MSC Cruises could accommodate them thanks to a massive cruise-ship expansion.

“I call them ‘my babies’ because they’re being delivered to us and they are getting larger and larger,” he said. “So I have more beds to fill, and that’s where all of you come in because I cannot do it without you.”

Inspiration and Caution

Motivational speaker Harvey Alston pleased the crowd with his effervescent delivery. One point covered job satisfaction. He told delegates that if they don’t love their jobs, they should quit. “You ask yourself why you bit off so much at work,” he said. “You say ‘I don’t ever want to do this.’ Then you realize when you get off this ‘ride’ of life that there’s a long line of people who waited for you to fail, waiting to get on the same ride you just got off of. Their viewpoint will be different and more delightful for them. It’s all about your attitude.”

Joan Stanford of Jazzy Pen Communications spoke about email marketing.

“What is going to get people to open your email?” she said. “Keep subjects under 10 words. Use your business name, but don’t get cute. Use preheader text to give people a taste of what’s coming. Add three or fewer images, and make them clickable. Also make the text 20 lines or less.”

Meetings industry lawyer Lisa Sommer Devlin gave insight on terms and conditions that should appear in meetings contracts.

“Many things can affect your meeting,” she said. “We’ve had hurricanes and wildfires impact meeting venues and accommodations. Politics has shown that issues trickle down into our industry, like the #MeToo movement. There’s been gun violence. Planners are considering all this in their events and
contracts. Are you ready?”

Greg Nahmens of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration urged delegates to “Look Before You Book,” meaning make sure the transportation they provide is safe and legal. He urged checking the federal website for safety advice.

Enjoying Ontario

Delegates enjoyed delicious meals and entertainment like dueling rock-‘n’-roll pianos on the first night and an evening of fun and games at Big Al’s the second.

“I thought Big Al’s was awesome; really fun,” said Lelonie Luft of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in Illinois. “The food was amazing. I liked the size of it — not too big, not too small.”

Some attendees shopped at Ontario Mills, the largest shopping mall in the West. Others took a crazy thrill ride in a high-performance car operated by a movie stunt driver who did squealing turns on a professional NASCAR track. Jerry Rosenthal of ConferenceDirect in Aurora, Illinois, loved it.

“I’m a speed freak at heart, a car aficionado,” he said. “Sitting in the back seat you could really feel the drag and the slide of the car swerving at considerable speed. I got a thrill.”

Next year’s Small Market Meetings Conference will take place September 24-26 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“We’re a small market for meetings and conventions, and many don’t know us,” said Brad Toll, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This conference is great to introduce us to the market. Meeting attendance tends to grow because many haven’t been there before. Lambeau Field is on many people’s bucket lists.”

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.