Successful destination selection is as much an art as it is a science. Variables float through the meeting planning process like jewelry in a bazaar—each need, each request, each wishful idea shimmering like a Technicolor bauble requiring new fields of attention. For meeting planners who are trying to match meetings with all manner of destination possibilities—often comparing several locations at the same time—the task is nothing short of daunting. Add on the challenges of checking out new and unfamiliar places for these purposes, along with shortened lead times or constrained budgets, and people might just want to give up and throw darts at a map.
Fortunately, there are methods to the madness. The following is a methodology checklist that can help planners get a handle on the process and keep track of their goals.
1. Country and City Accessibility
Choosing the right destination is one part daydream and three parts nuts and bolts. Ideal destinations might involve mountain castles or private island beach resorts but dollars, sense and ease of accessibility will keep the possibilities grounded in reality. Not all cities have easy, direct and plentiful air accessibility and many may be very inconvenient and expensive to access from common attendee gateways. A function in the Dominican Republic might take just a few hours for attendees on the east coast, but that trip can turn into more than 20 hours for delegates from Los Angeles. Questions abound, not only in getting to a destination but also to the designated property. What is the transportation availability like? Are there sufficient connections? Is the destination on popular air routes that will offer better fares? How large or small is the main airport? Is it prone to flight cancellations and missed connections that could upend even the perfect conference? Are there renovations in progress in and around the airport that may result in chaotic airport experiences? Is the meeting or event taking place at a particularly busy time for this destination, such as a local holiday?
The U.S. has remained the top country over the past 20 years for hosting large association conventions, according to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). While Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, China, Canada and the Netherlands make up the other top spots, most meeting planners have their minds on domestic locations in tier 1, 2, and 3 cities domestically and, perhaps in the Caribbean, when it comes to selecting the right cities and sites. And these considerations rely on geography, lift, accessibility and functionality as much as beauty, amenities and lures.
Still, if the group is small and the destination effect must be large, the added costs can be worth it for the client sponsors.
2. Venue Capacity
So, you have chosen your perfect destination and now it is time to choose your perfect venue. First consideration? How large is your meeting or event? Will it fit into the target hotel? Certainly, convention cities such as Las Vegas, Orlando, Anaheim and Chicago can meet the requirements of most meetings and events, although it sometimes means deferring to cookie-cutter templates to keep costs in line. Still, planners are usually blessed with plenty of meeting capacity in various configurations, few disruptions, a plethora of airlift, strong ground transport service, and locations that offer a bounty of attractions and amenities.
3. Venue Infrastructure
When reviewing a property, check the location of the meetings area. Is it close enough to the rooms and accommodations? Do attendees have to walk a mile through casinos to get there? If so, are there enough other benefits to make it worth it? How is the Wi-Fi, food & beverage reliability, flexible dates availability, security, and the cleanliness and service at the hotel to make it manageable for attendees? Where is the property located in the destination itself – is it far from city center or in a remote area with few interesting amenities? Or is the hotel in the midst of other attractions and conveniences that will please attendees? Beach resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean might present more concerns and inconsistencies in service but the location draw may be higher and the convenience of having everything and everybody in one place can be a strong benefit.
4. Transport Infrastructure
You may have your eye on the perfect city: plentiful air lift, easy airport access from the city, plenty of hotel choices and things to do in the area …. You think you are home free and then you find it, the bullet that shatters your perfect picture. The city is in the midst of a major metro dig and streets crisscrossing the destination are wrapped in orange tape creating an ongoing traffic nightmare.
“As planners we always have to ask about these issues—whether there is new construction going or remodels at the hotels that could interrupt things”
These factors do not automatically present themselves. Look throughout the city and consider the routes you’ll need in order to help your attendees get to and from where they need to be. Be sure you know what possible added funds will go against your budget if you need to hire extra buses. Many overseas destinations have an excellent public transport infrastructure that is much better suited than busing people around. Is that appropriate for your guests?
“As planners we always have to ask about these issues—whether there is new construction going or remodels at the hotels that could interrupt things,” says Jennifer Johnson, a veteran corporate and association meeting planner, and owner of The Johnson Meetings Group, a small meetings and events company in Raleigh, NC. “I had a situation recently where I had a group in South Florida and there was a giant techno music festival going on at the same time. Had I known that at the time I was planning our meeting I would have booked a hotel that is farther away from the concert venue. Another time I was looking at Boston but had remembered the ‘Big Dig’ and was not sure if that was still going on. Again, you ask the questions. You may have a date and find there is a citywide at that time, so you would have to pay a lot more for your small hotel meeting. The CVB will have a master calendar, though, and they can tell you those things and give you good insight on the city before you start planning.”
According to Jerry Cito, Senior Vice President, Convention Development at NYC & Company, the CVB should be the first call by a planner looking at a certain city, if only to make sure the city in the game can actually play ball. “Sometimes customers don’t think we have this info., but, in fact, we have the most updated information. A lot of things on a planners list can change so we make sure their information is the latest available so they can make the most accurate decisions.”
5. Carbon Footprint
Nearly three-quarters of global corporations have made sustainability a strategic priority, according to Successful Meetings. It’s something clients are calling for and going paperless, consuming locally-sourced foods, employing sustainable meeting services and energy sources, and giving back to the local community are among the priorities. Meeting planners should be sensitive to these issues and listen hard to their clients. A number of LEED-certified meeting venues are available in key cities and even resort areas to allow planners to check off that requirement.
“Clients are looking into this more and more and they are asking for LEED-certified properties as well as different practices within the hotel and also within the destinations. Certain destinations are at the cutting edge of green activities and a lot of clients are asking about carbon offsets. We are now seeing older hotels trying to incorporate programs that allow them to compete on a greening program,” says Johnson.
6. Rules and Regulations for Your Community
Ask about the rules and regulations that might be relevant to your community. If you are planning a health care meeting or have a pharmaceuticals group, or any group regulated by PhRMA or Device Codes, this is hugely important. This could affect what properties you choose to hold your meeting, house the attendees, and even on-site signage. Work with informed destinations and properties to avoid problems and complications. There are appearances issues in costs and locations as well as payment details that have to be worked out well ahead of time with clients in order to stay within compliance.
7. Safety and Security
The concept of personal safety can be as broad as the neighborhood, city or region of the meeting and as drilled down as knowing the codes in place at a particular hotel. Will you be bringing on extra detail? Are there high value executive and celebrity teams that will need coordination? Anything can happen at any time these days, a particularly tough time in America and Europe to be managing the safety of a meeting or event. Making sure you know the security policies of the client and location will give you the upper hand in ensuring a gathering goes on without incident.
8. Community Maturity
Strength and versatility of the meetings and events community will affect the operation of your event. Are there local suppliers who will be able to support your event? Can the CVB partner provide contact information from other planners they have worked with who may be able to attest to successes and shortcomings experienced in the destination? Has the CVB received any rewards or certifications from the events industry?
The CVB can take a so-so meeting or event and turn it into a sensation. Suggested service providers are known for their capabilities and well-vetted over time by the CVB. Short cuts and caveats can be served up before mini-crises become quagmires. But planners must do their due diligence in finding the right partners.
“You really do have to lean on your CVB partners,” says Johnson. “You have to do the research with them and if you have the lead time your CVB partners can help you with analyzing lift and developing lists of the service providers you will need. They can determine the best locations in the city and what areas are walkable and which will require transport to go to dinner and things like that. I usually develop a profile for the meeting itself and then I develop a profile for the CVB with information that I need to work with because every CVB has their own files they can work with. Sometimes I just need to compare apples to apples very quickly.”
9. Meeting Incentives / Financial Support
In the United States, in certain cases meeting room rentals might be waived simply by buying out all the hotel rooms. In other countries, business models will be different. The relative small-sized meeting hotels will push the need to utilize a convention center for your event. In hotels, meeting space and F&B are very important components of the revenue stream and are usually figured separately. Be sure to factor this in as it will add costs you may not have budgeted for. If this is a big obstruction for your group, seek incentives and financial support offered by some CVBs who will sometimes offer grants that can offset the meeting room rental costs or have a positive effect on the meeting budget (for instance by supporting an event reception, subsidizing attendance grants or providing marketing support). Always be negotiating. Do not be afraid to ask for what you want.
10. Offsite Activities / Attractions
Planners may want to consider the group when choosing a destination for its attraction factor. Some groups need to be entertained; other groups need to chill. Certainly, if the group is large and the conference lasts a few days, the more attractions the better. This element is enhanced by the location of the hotel – is it within easy distance to things to do so attendees can arrange for their own getting around? Or is the meeting location far from the action and in a place that will require the inconvenience of added bus transport into the city center or to nearby attractions?
Also look at the abundance and proximity of restaurants around the hotel and consider what cultural attractions the city may have to offer. What unusual outdoor activities might be available? Are there activities and attractions that attendees might not be able to find anywhere else? “I look at the demographics of the group and what they are going to be interested in – Football? Golf? Historic home tours?
I look at how much time they will have between meetings all day and social functions in the evening. It’s a balancing act,” says Johnson. “So, then I have to turn to my CVB partner for help. In Chicago, for example, the group really wanted to see a Cubs game and of course we couldn’t get tickets anywhere. But then my CVB partner told me of a great venue right outside of Wrigley Field where you could actually look out and see the whole game. I could never have found that on my own, especially with the small amount of time I had to do the research.”
No one size fits all but some sizes are more common than others. Meeting planners who want to make an easy grid of comparison can get plenty of time-saving assistance from their CVB partners.
Adding it up
At Maritz Global Events, we measure destination choices on a 1 to 5 rating scale where 5 is the highest for what is needed in order to make the meeting work. A simple tallying of the numbers will show the destinations that really stand out above the rest. While you may want or need to include additional criteria, we’ve included a sample of our Destination Criteria Checklist here that planners can model and use during on-site inspections with their clients. We suggest then having clients critique each line item to ensure a complete set of collective data.
While the above tips can help keep the mystery and madness to a minimum, it’s important to keep in mind that the very first element of any location selection process is always understanding what the client wants. Questions should not simply veer toward the specs of the project—purpose, number of attendees, budgets, and desired results. They should also account for who the attendees are, from where are they coming, what they expect to get for their time, and what will be the key content in focus.