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Big Winners

Published: 02/02/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » February 2015 » Destinations »

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When a corporate client looking for something a little different for its annual awards event hired Pennsylvania-based Unique Venues, the company scrambled to find a venue to give the client something to cheer about.

They found it. The awards event was booked into a hospitality suite in Penn State University’s 109,000-seat Beaver Stadium overlooking the jumbo-sized scoreboard. As the company awards were announced, the names of the winners were flashed on the scoreboard for all to see.

If meetings, incentives, conferences and events forecasters are reading from the right playbook, 2015 will produce more winners in the MICE industry than in any year since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008. As a result of growth – and to prime the pump for still more growth – planners and properties are raising their game. 

Some meeting planners and executives at convention and visitor bureaus, city hotels and lush resort properties are downright bullish about the year ahead. Many credit client-friendly industry trends such as the embrace of ever-more sophisticated consumer technology, do-your-own food and beverage programs and an intensifying use of social media to plan and promote events and get real-time feedback about meetings for the current rise in commerce. 

Scores & Stats

The biggest driver may be a surging US economy, though weakness in Europe and Japan, slowing growth rates in China and rising industry costs add cautionary notes.

American Express Meetings and Events, in its annual global forecast, notes that in 2015 in North America, the total number of meetings is expected to grow 0.3 percent year-over-year, with the number of attendees edging up 0.2 percent. 

Training meetings are the largest category by number and also exhibit the greatest expected growth – 0.9 percent – followed by senior leadership meetings and board meetings, at 0.7 percent. Internal team meetings and product launches are expected to be flat. Incentive/special events will fall 0.2 percent, the only category to decline.

Looking industry by industry, Issa Jouaneh, vice president and general manager, American Express Meetings & Events, told Business Traveler that “The pharmaceutical industry has been the most constructive in leveraging meetings as educational opportunities, even during the recession. Overall,” he says, “there is a sense of optimism.”

Not everything is coming up roses, to be sure. Meeting Professionals International, in its recent Meetings Outlook poll of planners, flagged rising costs for air/travel, food and beverage/catering and hotel room rates as concerns in 2015. Limited guest-room availability also worries some meeting planners, especially in conjunction with short lead times for booking.

Taken as a whole, however, things are looking up in American MICE business.

“We are forecasting a 15 percent growth in our business in 2015,” says Bruce Morgan, senior vice president marketing and business development at Chicago-based BCD M&I, a meeting management firm. “This is a blended percentage and varies by region. It is also indicative of our year-over-year growth average over the past four years.”

Morgan credits intensifying globalization for expanding the market at BCD M&I, which operates in 40 countries, including Mexico, Brazil and China. It operated some 9,500 meetings in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available. Morgan notes about one-third of those meetings were convened internationally.   

Running the Playbook

But global and local MICE markets are not just getting bigger, they’re getting more interesting, thanks to industry competition and clients’ rising – and eclectic – expectations.

Just about everyone cites the use of embedded consumer electronics technology as a trend they expect to see more of in 2015.

“High tech is huge,” says Gail Gerber, area director of sales and marketing at the Intercontinental Hotel San Francisco, which sits next to San Francisco’s convention hub, Moscone Center, in the trendy, tech-mad South of Market district. “South of Market is a digital media triangle.”

The Intercontinental, which boasts 550 rooms and the Michelin-starred restaurant Luce, an outdoor terrace for drinks and receptions, terrace suites for board meetings and two ballrooms that hold up to 500 attendees, hosts 150 meetings a year. Technology companies are the hotel’s leading customers, followed by trade associations and medical meetings. Big Moscone Center events such as Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce gathering and Oracle Corporation’s Oracle Open World infuse cash into hotel coffers.

“Technology is the number one concern of meeting planners,” Gerber says. “We keep up with that. We’re constantly buying more bandwidth. Most people come in with two or three digital devices. The hotel (which opened in 2008) was built with that in mind.”

Increasingly, she says, guests prefer to work and socialize in the hotel lobby, a trend hoteliers say is becoming standard among younger guests. In-room, guests expect bigger flat-screen televisions. “When we opened, the TVs were 40, 42 inches,” Gerber recalls. “Now, they’re 55.” 

On the other side of the country, at New York’s Pierre Hotel, many meeting and event attendees are local, drawn from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Many stay for just part of a day, says Bill Spinner, the Pierre’s events director. The 85-year-old hotel has 20,000 square feet of meeting space and can host 800 for banquets.

Owned since 2005 by India’s Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, the Pierre has been extensively modernized. “It’s a huge deal to have sufficient WiFi and bandwidth,” Spinner says. “Guests are checking in with iPads. Clients are so used to great audio and visuals from their homes and theaters. They want the Wow factor.”

Spinner says the industry is adapting to the turbo-charged business environment. “In New York City, most meeting planners are very aware of people’s time and attention span,” he allows. “We’re very aware that clients have a lot on their plate. We’re seeing less and less of the closing cocktail reception.” The Pierre’s adjustments appear to be paying off. “We’re looking at an 8 to 10 percent increase year-over-year,” Spinner notes. 

Everyone’s in the Game

Even laid-back luxury tropical resorts are seeing stepped-up activity. At the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, on the island of Hawaii (aka the Big Island), Brad Packer, director of public relations, says clients will able to rent out all 243 rooms, including 51 suites and villas, simultaneously this year for the first time. Incentive travel is huge at the property, as are destination weddings, and the entourages and revelers they bring along with them.

“Groups are looking for experiences, not just a pretty place to spend a week,” Packer says. “We’re seeing more groups giving their attendees flexibility to join resort events such as our two annual culinary events: La Dolce Vita, in June, and Chef Fest, in late October. These are both highly interactive food and wine lifestyle events.”

Back on the mainland, life is good. Both Las Vegas, voted the top meetings and events destination in the 2014 Best in Business Travel Awards, and Chicago, ranked no. 1 among US convention destinations in the American Express report, have made major travel and meetings infrastructure improvements or are in the process of making them.

In Las Vegas, the outlook is “fantastic – our data are the best we’ve seen since 2009,” says Chris Meyer, vice president of global business development at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “The corporate business is back in a big way – road shows for companies, incentive events that reward, trade shows.” The MICE business grew 3 percent in 2014 from 2013, he says.

Technology companies help drive business, with the annual Consumer Electronics Show held each January drawing 160,000 attendees. The desert city hosted 22,000 meetings in 2013, in 11.5 million square feet of meeting space, including event spaces in the mega-hotels on the Strip.

Vegas has long been known for airport congestion and glacial waits for taxis – for many visitors what happened in Vegas truly threatened to stay in Vegas, including, perhaps, themselves. In response, the city opened a new $1.1 billion passenger terminal at McCarran International Airport in late 2012. This year, officials expect as many as 42 million passengers to use less-congested McCarran, an all-time high. 

On the Strip, the Mandalay Bay Hotel is undertaking a $66 million expansion, expected to open its doors in August. “We opened 21,000 rooms since the Great Recession,” Meyer notes, although, he adds, room rates “are not all the way back up” to 2007 levels.

Chicago, last year’s winner of Business Traveler’s meetings destination award and long a MICE favorite, is another hive of activity, thanks to enduring features such as its splendid lake front, the convergence of air, rail and road routes, iconic architecture and tricked-out meeting spaces. The city’s central business district is already home to some 37,000 rooms in 107 hotels, according to Choose Chicago.

This spring, the Windy City plans to break ground for an expansion of McCormick Place. The project, set for completion in 2017, will include a $164 million event center and 40-story, $391 million Marriott Marquis Hotel, located next to the event center and across the street from McCormick Place West. The Marriott will have 1,200 rooms and 90,000 square feet of fresh meeting space. 

All this signifies a strong bet on the vitality of the MICE business and, more broadly, continuing robustness in the travel and tourism sector. Industry experts think the bet is justified.

Tony Wagner, Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s vice president meetings and events in the Americas, says CWT operates meetings for clients “with budgets as high as $14 million, $15 million. We even do meetings smaller than 10 people. All indicators are doing well. We haven’t seen any customers cutting back.”

For his company, Wagner says, “Pharmaceuticals are number one, high tech is number two, finance and insurance is number three.” In 2014, CWT managed 6,000 events, 85 percent in the US and Canada. “We expect to do better still in 2015.”

Regardless of the size or type of meeting, Wagner observes that “the use of technology is becoming more and more expected. Mobile apps – we definitely see that.”

For his part, BCD M&I’s Bruce Morgan sees customization of meetings as a trend that will grow stronger this year. “Attendees are now used to being able to gather the information they find most relevant and helpful. We are seeing this in several areas, from being able to ‘build your own agenda,’ ‘map your own trade show experience,’ even the F&B component of the meeting, where ‘build your own‘ stations are often available at all meals. The days of one-size-fits-all are gone.”

Morgan also sees increasing localization of meetings: use of local produce, highlighting the history of the host community, inviting local speakers.

Venues, too, should prove to be even more diverse in the year ahead. Chuck Salem, president of Unique Venues, says underutilized movie theaters, sports arenas and stadiums, cruise ships and college campuses in search of ancillary revenue are increasingly popular places to hold events. “Our culture,” Salem says, “is always looking for something new, something different.” 

By David Armstrong

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