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Small Market Meetings Conference Sets the Stage for Success

Allethia Atkins and Loretta Grissom both attended their first Small Market Meetings Conference September 27–29 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And both had similar feelings about their experience.

“Everything makes us feel informed and comfortable,” said Grissom, who represents the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists in Atlanta.

“It was more than I expected,” said Atkins, who is also based in Atlanta and works with Theme Ladi Kreaton Events. “It was homey and comfortable.”

The 14th Small Market Meetings Conference drew more than 250 meeting planners and industry suppliers to the gleaming Double Tree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, Iowa’s newest convention center. It was the largest attendance for the conference since the COVID pandemic.

Making Connections

Attendees were also impressed with the conference’s format. The centerpiece was a marketplace with individual appointments for meeting planners to talk with representatives of destinations, convention centers, hotels and attractions in second and third-tier towns who came looking to attract meetings.

“It is more than what I expected,” said first-time attendee Darrell Watson of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp. in Washington, D.C. “I like this concept. The supplier comes to you.

“It’s the destination that draws people. When I go to second- and third-tier towns, I get more participation, and the rates are better. I have made good contacts that I will follow up with.”

“I like the size,” said Brett Stevenson of Hotel Lobbyists, which is also based in Washington. “You can connect with everybody.”

Stevenson, who books more than 500 meetings a year into client hotels, said he also liked meeting with smaller destinations that give him alternatives to larger areas.

“My clients have expectations that cannot always be met,” he said. “I like to have alternatives that I can book at the last minute. I am making good contacts for that.”

“I love how you can interact with everyone,” said Jane Kantor of Visit Bellevue, in Washington state. “All are in the same place, and all are small destinations.”

“I like that we get to be seated,” said Denia Tackett of Ardagh Glass in Indianapolis. “I’ve made great contacts. It’s been great.”

“I like the format and the intimacy,” said Toby Word, sales manager for the Chesapeake, Virginia, Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is quality over quantity.”

The conference also featured educational sessions, sponsored meal functions, arranged sightseeing tours of Cedar Rapids and held after-hour events.

Cedar Rapids Shines

The expansive exhibit hall for the marketplace was an easy walk past floor-to-ceiling windows with views of downtown Cedar Rapids to the connected host hotel, the 16-story, 267-room Double Tree by Hilton Cedar Rapids. The entire complex — hotel, 9,600-seat arena and convention center — is managed by one company, which helped with coordinating the event.

Delegates were impressed with the venue, the food and the staffs of the convention center, Cedar Rapids Tourism and The Group Travel Family.

“Both the vendors and planners talk about how it’s family,” said Tracy Coleman of the Kettering/GMI Alumni Association in Greenville, Indiana. “The staff has done a wonderful job.”

“The food was good, and the local facility and transportation were well done,” said Rob Cohen of Alliance Benefits in Amelia Island, Florida.

The venue even earned praise from competitors.

“The staff has gone above and beyond,” said Don Hoeppner, director of sales and marketing for the recently expanded Waterloo Convention Center in Waterloo, Iowa.

“It has been awesome, one of the best I have been to,” said Jaya Dillard, of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau in Florida. “The food and variety have been wonderful. I have heard so many people say the same thing.”

“The tourism office has been amazing,” said Chesapeake CVB’s Word.

Julie Stow, associate executive director of Cedar Rapids Tourism, who had worked on planning for the conference for several years, was thrilled with the response and outcome.

“It exceeded our expectations,” Stow said. “Everyone has been so gracious and kind and enthusiastic.”

‘Five Laws of Hospitality’

The conference kicked off September 27 with an enthusiastic and informative presentation by hospitality consultant Bob Pocanovsky, who presented his five laws of hospitality.

Pocanovsky, who has catered more than two dozen induction banquets for the National Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, said the laws of connection, engagement, trust and appreciation are designed to lead to the fifth law — the law of wow.

“In the customer experience, the missing link is how to retain,” he said. “There is an art to making a personal, emotional connection.

“You want your customers to be brand ambassadors who can’t wait to tell stories to others and how they felt.”

Business Meets Fun

Although the central focus of the Small Market Meetings Conference is the two-day marketplace, which includes 60 six-minute appointment slots between meeting planners and vendors, several other opportunities are available for delegates to develop important contacts that could lead to business.

Lounging areas with large sofas and padded chairs, as well as workstations around the marketplace floor, let delegates meet when they have a break between appointments.

Meal functions are another great avenue to network. The evening functions not only provide the host city a chance to showcase off-site venues but also a way for the delegates to let down their hair after a hard day and to meet other delegates in a relaxed atmosphere.

“I made some very good connections,” said Rob Cohen of Alliance Benefits in Amelia Island, Florida. “You can develop relationships, which is the old school way that works.”

“I am most satisfied with the meeting planners,” said Sean McAllister, sales manager for the Akron/Summit, Ohio Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think I will get RFPs [requests for proposal] when I get home. I have met people two or three times. The networking is fantastic.”

“I have met a lot of people in a short amount of time,” said Sylvia Woodall of the Abilene Convention Center in Abilene, Texas. “I have a lot of people to follow up with.”

Welcome to the Farm

The opening night event was a ghoulish hit at Bloomsbury Farm, a large family-run agritourism attraction with a large variety of farm-themed activities augmented for Halloween with a cast of scary characters, from spooky clowns to a blood-soaked butcher.

After a downhome buffet meal, delegates watched pumpkin chuckin’, shot apples from cannons, rooted for their favorite in a piglet race, toured a haunted slaughterhouse, sipped wine slushies, danced to a live band, and oohed and aahed at a large and impressive fireworks display.

The next evening, a buffet at the Newbo City Market in downtown Cedar Rapids featured samples of the variety of foods from different cultures available in the market’s many food stands. There are also several retail stands throughout the building.

“I loved the networking opportunities, especially Newbo City Market,” said Toby Word, sales manager for the Chesapeake Convention and Visitors Bureau in Virginia.

Memorable Meal Sessions

The conference breakfasts and luncheons provided more networking opportunities, and the meeting planners could learn about additional destinations through presentations by the sponsors.

The breakfast sponsors were Visit Williamsburg and Visit Greenville, South Carolina.

Thursday’s lunch was sponsored by ASM Global, which manages more than 350 meeting venues around the word. Representatives of several new or expanded ASM properties made presentations.

It was followed by the popular auction of prizes sponsored by Destination Lake Winnebago Region in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Director of sales Darcie Holte gave an animated and personable demonstration of the prizes as the meeting planners bid against each other with “hundred-dollar bills” passed out by various sponsors at their booths.

Friday’s closing luncheon was sponsored by Greater Zion Convention and Tourism and Wittwer Hospitality in St. George, Utah, which will host next year’s Small Marketing Meetings Conference in scenic southwestern Utah near Zion National Park.

Joy Schroeder, meeting, convention and event sales manager for Greater Zion and Randi Thompson, regional sales manager for Wittwer, emceed a fun and raucous trivia game about the Greater Zion area that was a modified form of the childhood game hot potato.

While it was a fun closing to the conference, it also drove home facts and information about the destination for the delegates.

Tasting Cedar Rapids

Delegates literally got a taste of Cedar Rapids on the five sightseeing tours offered on the Thursday afternoon of the Small Market Meetings Conference.

While one group headed 10 miles south of town to tour the Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery and taste its award-winning bourbon, another group was sampling the popular beers brewed by Lion Bridge Brewery in the historic Czech Village near downtown.

Across the street from Lion Bridge Brewery, delegates sampled authentic Czech kolaches and Slovakian and Czech beer and wine before perusing the fascinating exhibits at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library.

Delegates who chose to tour the historic Brucemore Mansion and play croquet on its expansive lawn also got to taste local wines and hors d’oeuvres.

The final sightseeing option was outside town at the Indian Creek Nature center, where delegates not only cuddled baby llamas but also purchased honey produced on the grounds in the center’s beehive.

It was a fun, informative and tasty afternoon, followed by drinks and food at a reception in the Double Tree Hotel’s 16th-floor 350 lounge, with its sweeping views of downtown Cedar Rapids lit up at night.

Honoring Excellence

The Double Tree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex — which includes the hotel, an arena and convention center — is managed by Hilton, which stresses customer service with its staff.

“We want everyone to go above and beyond,” said Travis Faust, director of catering and events.

One innovative incentive is the gratitude stone, which is given to one behind-the-scenes staff member at the end of a conference. Management is not eligible.

The recipient is chosen by the conference staff. The stone is then exchanged for a $25 gift card and recognition on a poster throughout the complex. A third-time winner receives $100.

The Small Market Meetings Conference staff was unanimous in selecting Vernon (management only gives first names for the award), a member of the catering and banquet department who was an agreeable and smiling face from the initial pre-conference setup to the final luncheon.

“Vernon not only did his job but also went above and beyond his job in helping us without being asked,” said Jennifer Ferguson, conference general manager, in presenting the stone to a surprised Vernon at the closing luncheon.