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SMM Conference rolls into the Rock

By Dan Limke, courtesy Little Rock CVB

For those who march to the beat of a different drummer, the second-annual Small Market Meetings Conference was a dream come true.

During three days in host city Little Rock, Ark., the more than 200 attendees found themselves being invigorated by beat of drums and the blast of brass.

First it was John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March in the lobby of the host hotel, the Peabody Little Rock, where attendees gathered to watch the march of the hotel’s famous ducks as they waddled along a red carpet after leaving the lobby fountain, where they spend each day paddling and preening.

Later that evening, after the opening Super Session in the Statehouse Convention Center with contract expert and lawyer Kristalyn Loson (see story, p. 6), the crowd boarded motorcoaches and headed a few blocks to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, where the Central High School marching band lined the long sidewalk, playing enthusiastically as meeting planners and industry representatives strolled into the $160 million library and museum on the Arkansas River.

“I’ve heard that the Clinton library is one of the most impressive presidential libraries, and although I’ve not been to all of them yet, I would say it was impressive,” said Juanita Metzler, convention sales manager with Travel Lane County. “The staff at the center, the wait staff and the entertainment really worked hard to make the evening personal and entertaining. The view was fantastic, the setting wonderful and it was great to see the local hospitality school being so involved.”

Later in the week, on a city tour of Little Rock, attendees would see Central High, now a National Historic Site, and tour its visitors center. In 1957, the world watched Central High and Little Rock, as nine black students integrated the school under the protection of federal troops ordered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Hall High leads Tuesday’s parade

On Tuesday, members would again be greeted by a marching band, this time members of the Hall High School band, who led the group four blocks down President Clinton Avenue to the River Market District, where the band gave a short, rousing concert beneath an outdoor pavilion before the crowd adjourned to Market Hall for hors d’oeuvres, drinks and another live band.

Appointments again prove popular

As it did last year, the conference format drew praise from meeting planners and suppliers. At the SMM Conference, instead of a traditional tradeshow floor, meeting planners are stationed in booths and have six-minute appointments with industry suppliers during two, two-hour Marketplaces.

Fred Wise, director of sales for the Ocean City, Md., CVB, attends a number of traditional tradeshows each year.

“I sit in a 10-by-10 booth that costs me a lot of money, and it is up to them [meeting planners] to come to me.”

If planners fail to do so, Wise said, his time and money have been wasted.

That wasn’t the case at the SMM Conference, where Wise had appointments with 39 planners. Although he did not emerge with a booking, the business relationships he built made the conference a good investment.

“Give me the opportunity to talk to 39 meeting planners and I’ll go,” he said.

Meeting planners too came away with valuable new contacts.

“I came looking for new ideas, and I found a few,” said Tom Valleau, executive director with the North Atlantic Ports Association. “My best lead is Mobile, Ala., because of its connection to seaports and ocean commerce. This will depend on airfares and air service from the Northeast. I’ll do some research and pitch it to my directors at the next board meeting.”

Valleau was impressed with the representatives he met from second-tier and smaller cities. “Small cities truly want to earn business from meeting planners, as I learned from the well-prepared people I met with,” he said.

Although attendance grew significantly from the inaugural 2010 conference in Shreveport, La., the SMM conference is, compared to other meeting industry conferences, small.

That, coupled with the fact that all attendees are welcomed to attend all events, makes it better than most in terms of networking opportunities.

Said Allison Potter, sales and marketing manager for the Dublin, Ohio, CVB: “The intimate size of the conference enabled me to see the same individuals over again outside of that six-minute appointment.  And better yet, to be able to network with those I did not have a scheduled appointment with and also build relationships with other suppliers.”

Metzler agreed. “I connected with planners and suppliers alike at this event.  I so appreciate being able to participate in all of the activities along with the planners – it gave more time to meet new friends and to strengthen current relationships. Several of us were scheduled for another event within a few days so it was nice to already have that connection.”

One indication of the conference’s success was the number of attendees who stopped by the registration desk to pick up registration forms for next year’s conference, Oct. 28-30 in Jacksonville, Fla., as well as sponsors who said they planned to renew their sponsorship for the 2012 SMM Conference.