The Singapore skyline at night exemplifies the draw of a first-tier city

Meeting Destinations: Why First-Tier Cities Aren’t Necessarily the Right First Choice

Once upon a time, meetings and convention planners had a simple task when it came to selecting a city. It all came down to infrastructure. “First-tier cities” — aka large cities with heavily developed infrastructure for large, incoming groups —  reigned supreme.

Today, that decision is becoming more and more complex, with many events getting priced out of the New York and Chicago’s of the world.

This, in conjunction with exciting new supply and shifting attendee expectations, is prompting a rise to fame for many midsize cities, who are making their best efforts to woo meetings business away from the usual suspects.

And while many are still unable to compete fully at the level of infrastructure, they’re able to provide attractive prices for exceptional event experiences, capitalizing on elements that are finding newfound importance in modern meeting design.

For meeting planners, it means a window to enticing new destination options and a chance to move methodically and holistically choose an event destination that best matches meeting objectives.

What decides a city’s “tier?”

While the term gets thrown around quite a bit, just what exactly is a “first-tier city?” Generally, it boils down to size and infrastructure. But a survey by PCMA Convene breaks it down on a more granular level, defining tiers based on input from a plethora of planners.

A poll from a survey of planners defining expectations for first-tier cities

Essential Attributes of a 1st Tier Destination

First-tier cities are the traditional convention cities we all think of — Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando. They’re the cities that have built their infrastructure to support large groups with relative ease. Based on the survey, planners define the first-tier city by the following elements:

  • An airport with ample nonstop flights —both nationally and internationally (69%)
  • Expansive hotel inventory boasting major brands (60%)
  • A plethora of dining, entertainment, and attractions to experience (57%)
  • At least 10,000 committable sleeping rooms (47%)
  • A convention center with 500,000 square feet of exhibition space (44%)

“2 and 3 tier destinations, depending on the meeting size, can offer just about everything a 1 tier destination has. The key is keeping your own meeting objectives in mind first and then understanding how destinations, regardless of tier, will be the perfect compliment.” –Christine “Shimo” Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, Founder of 2Synergize Inc.

“Who you callin’ second tier?”

Unlike large cities, which generally have either diversified economies (New York City) or a single stable mono-economy (Las Vegas), midsize cities like Portland, Phoenix and Denver are lesser known in terms of message and expertise. In the past, these may even have been referred to as “second-tier” cities, which unfairly slights their desirability as meeting destinations.

In fact, it’s a serious misconception. When it comes to investing in infrastructure and marketing unique assets, these cities are doing a top-notch job of wooing meetings. As such, it’s high-time the industry adopt new terminology, calling them midsize cities instead. After all, there’s nothing second-tier about what some midsize cities have to offer — they can compete on the world stage.

Culture & Authenticity

93% of international event planners say that a destination’s cultural highlights are an important piece of the decision (London & Partners). Cities like San Antonio & Austin bring a completely unique culture to the table, drawing in visiting groups.

Knowledge Economies

Specialization in the local economies of mid-size cities bring knowledge assets to the table in the form of expert speakers, entrepreneurs, startup scenes, sustainability initiatives, and beyond. Take San Jose, who brings tech expertise to the table at a lower price point than bay-area neighbor, San Francisco. Or Cleveland, whose substantial medical research presence attracts a myriad of events from the medical industry.

Eagerness & Improvement

From its reimagined Gaslamp District to its Convention Complex, Petco Park, and using the USS Midway as a party venue, San Diego is upping what it can offer visiting groups and demonstrating the desire to do so.

Walkable Cities  

Pacific Northwest cities like Seattle and Portland boast walkable downtowns and a caffeine-based culture that offer a remarkable vibe. While the initial transportation from the airport to home base may not be as easy in midsize cities, this element of “walkability” allows attendees freedom to roam the city easily and with minimal expense.

“Bleisure”

If attendees like the destination, 79% will generally return for leisure or event extend their stay. These attendees who are boldly blending the worlds of business and leisure, have given rise to a new multi-generational segment driving destination decisions. They are the “Bleisure Class,” who Kelly Peacy, founder of Insight Event Strategy, says are making a “holistic decision as to how to spend time in conjunction with events.” A mixture of amazing culture and easily navigable city centers makes midsize destinations a big bleisure draw. 

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Cities in the Spotlight: Nashville

Tourism has always been an important piece of economic output for Music City USA, and groups and meetings are becoming a growing portion of an industry that brought in $6.5 billion in 2017 alone. This is thanks, in large part, to the actions of the Visit Music City visitors bureau — whose recent initiatives made Nashville the focus of recent Skift report. These moves included a $300,000 documentary titled “For the Love of Music,” telling the city’s stories through its songwriters.

But it’s not just the music that makes Nashville a great destination. Nashville’s authenticity is also a huge factor in closing the deal for groups: “Whether it is the authentic creative experience Nashville offers through its music, food and shopping, or the authentic and friendly people who make up the city – authenticity is an important part of what makes Nashville a great meeting destination,” says Heather Middleton, VP, Public Relations, Nashville CVC.

A bustling nighttime scene in Nashville. TN

Nashville’s marketing and infrastructure push is paying off in huge dividends, with a 38% increase in conventions between 2011 and 2016. In fact, today, conventions business represents 40% of all overnight visitors to the city. But they’re not stopping there. The city is host to an impressive hotel development pipeline and planning a $1.2 billion airport expansion, hoping to add non-stop flights from Tokyo, Europe, and South America in addition to a newly added flight from London.

First-tier cities are still a big deal.

In some cases, with large cities needing no introduction, the connection to your message is easy to make and the expertise of the city is already well and widely known. New York knows finance, San Francisco knows tech innovation, Washington DC knows advocacy, the list goes on. 

Pair this with expansive and easily-accessible infrastructure, and first-tier cities market themselves.

Thus, with large cities, the job of a CVB (Convention & Visitors Bureau) is to help provide opportunities for connecting the city with the meeting, making the experience memorable for both parties. Attendees, for example, love to have access to museums and other cultural venues, like the Faneuil Hall in Boston or the Liberty Center in Philadelphia. However, many institutions set restrictions on access, requiring a membership with astronomical fees. This is where the CVB can step in and advocate on behalf of the meeting, with the result that everyone wins.

In fact, the right destination and CVB can set a meeting up to leave a lasting legacy — even on the city itself.

Cities in the Spotlight: London

At the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, the organization worked with London & Partners to turn the 6,000 LED lights of the London Eye purple in honor of Alzheimer’s care and research.

As Colleen Phalen, EVP of Program Development at Destinations International summed it up: “London provided the perfect backdrop for the event and offered the opportunity to create an event legacy. It had a CVB that was willing to help the Association leave its mark. It had an iconic structure that could be used in an out-of-the-box way (the London Eye is one of the world’s five tallest Ferris wheels). It has the kind of media coverage that can extend reach exponentially.”

Resort Cities Are Ready for Meetings

In the U.S., Atlantic City was the first large resort destination to market to convention business, building Boardwalk Hall in 1929. Today, while resort destinations still favor leisure guests at certain times of the year, they are ready, equipped, and eager for meetings and event business.

It’s the first part of  a multi-faceted message that they want to convey to groups, including:

We’re beautiful – If you want to wake up inspired, there’s nothing like nature. From the Smokies to the Rockies, the coastal resorts of the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific; and the shores of the beautiful Great Lakes, meeting groups that want to be uplifted will find it easy in surroundings.

Our expertise is relaxation and focus – From yoga on the beach to an early morning hike, retreats and resorts help attendees prepare for a day of concentration. Meeting breaks will include spa breaks and superfoods.

You’ll be treated like leisure – Resort destinations depend almost exclusively on tourism. That’s their brand. During slow times, they have unique offerings like golf courses and spas that need to be filled, and a group’s appointments are more than welcome. Perhaps more than any other category, these destinations are hoping for “bleisure” business.

Cities in the Spotlight: Palm Springs

Palm Springs started as an adjunct to the LA film industry and has retained those ties through various film festivals organized by Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF). However, the Coachella Valley area, of which Palm Springs is a part, has become a festival incubator (Coachella, the Desert Trip, Stagecoach, and Splash House) that engages the next generation.

The Rainmaker Fountain in Palm Springs, California

While Palm Springs’ convention season used to be summer — when the temps rose into the 100s — the Palm Springs Convention Center now has business year-round. As a response, the addition of a new Kimpton is shaking the sleepiness out of downtown, and more properties next to the convention center are on the way.

In the end, it’s all about the meeting objective.

What makes a city the right city is very much dependent on the objective of the meeting and the holistic experience its planner is trying to create. Some meetings will prioritize budget, while other will prioritize experience, and others may prioritize something different altogether. Luckily, the evolution of event cities is creating a landscape that has plenty of opportunity for every planner, as long as they’re able to pinpoint the unique elements potential host cities offer — ultimately tracing those elements back to what they mean for the outcome of the meeting.

“Every city has its pluses and its’ strengths. It’s about what fits your group the best, and what is available for you to take advantage of.” – Kelly Peacy, Founder, Insight Event Strategy

Published September 28, 2018

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