|By Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 22, 2005 - When it comes to selling Seattle as a hot spot for conventions, event planners this week will go all out to win over hundreds of influential conference planners.
Lavish banquets, free liquor, discounted air fares, even comped rooms at top downtown hotels are part of the five-day extravaganza, which includes tonight's event at Chateau Ste. Michelle, where some 700 wine bottles will be uncorked.
Coming later this week: a dinner-dance at Experience Music Project and, for three lucky VIPs, a "halo" walk in a harness at the top of the Space Needle.
Conferon Global Services, of Twinsburg, Ohio, which is holding its annual meeting this week, is no household name. But that won't stop the city of Seattle's event planners from treating it like royalty.
The retail cost of all the conference events, if purchased at regular rates, would total an estimated $1.2 million, according to Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau, which gets most of its funds from the hotel-motel tax and membership dues, is covering some but certainly not all of the cost. Many of its members are contributing services and goods to help stage the event.
The name Conferon is held in reverence by visitor bureaus in cities across North America and by the hotels, restaurants, tour companies and other businesses that cater to conventions.
That's because Conferon, as the country's biggest conference-management company, disperses millions of dollars' worth of convention business. It has some 1,000 corporate clients, from AT&T to Coors Brewing, and some organizations you may not know about: The National Corn Growers Association, North American Spine Society, American Association of College Registrars and Admission Officers, American Society of Petroleum Geologists and Sweet Adelines.
They all look to Conferon when deciding where to stage their annual conventions.
When you command events attended by 3 million people annually, you carry clout when holding your own annual meeting. In this case, some 750 Conferon employees, clients and exhibitors are expected here this week.
That's why the Sheraton Seattle Hotel & Towers gave 75 free rooms to attendees, at the peak summer time when all its 838 rooms are booked. Five other downtown host hotels are offering Conferon delegates either free rooms or "deeply discounted" rates.
The cost to hotels?
"For us, it's around $52,000," said Terry Botten, the Sheraton's general manager. "That's the importance of this group. For us to relinquish these rooms, you know that it's absolutely critical that they come into the city and understand what this wonderful city is all about."
According to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, last year 8.7 million visitors -- tourists and business travelers -- spent almost $4 billion in King County. Tourism, like it or not, is big business.
The bureau has put up about $100,000 to help defray the costs of this week's conference, the first time Seattle has snared Conferon.
Of the lavish events, the highlight will be tonight's $75,000 "Escape to the Wine Country Reception" at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. Attendees will be whisked from downtown Seattle in 16 buses supplied by Gray Line of Seattle, which is providing free service for the entire week (retail cost: about $40,000).
The bus ride will be made more festive by a sampling of wines from more than a dozen local wineries.
Upon arrival, attendees will tour the Chateau Ste. Michelle gardens. They'll nosh on some 1,400 skewers prepared by Willows Lodge and sample other tasty snacks ranging from "Cougar Gold Gougere with Smoked Chicken and Apple Salad" to "Roasted Salmon with two Remoulades, Ancho Chili and Poblano Pepper." Eighty-five people will help cater the event.
It's all been planned to the last detail. The only wild card is tonight's weather, which is why Tina Maloney, senior manager for events, sales and promotions at the winery, keeps logging on to check the forecast.
"If it's a light rain, we'll be OK," she said. "If it's rainy, we'll call around and get tents, which can be a little intense."
Back at their hotel, about 330 VIPs will find two free Riedel crystal wine glasses and six pewter wine charms in the shapes of a salmon, umbrella, apples and other Northwest icons. Total estimated retail cost: about $15,000, paid for by the visitors bureau and six host hotels.
The Conferon annual meeting is so important that the visitors bureau spent the past five years luring the firm. Last year, the bureau even sent a video to Conferon that began with an Austin Powers impersonator at the Space Needle, saying, "I'm the King of Seattle, baby, yeah, very groovy, uh, smashing."
Then the video had Donald Welsh, head of the visitors bureau, touring Pike Place Market and other points downtown, all the while being peppered with a single burning question, "Did you book that Conferon conference yet?"
The video was created for free by eln Communications of Seattle, which estimates the retail cost of the clip at about $16,000.
At Conferon, they like it.
"That was very clever and very impactful. It showed an esprit de corps," said Dave Peckinpaugh, Conferon's executive vice president of sales and marketing. He said it had come down to Salt Lake City and Seattle for this year's conference.
The personal touch helped Seattle. Even at last year's conference in Houston, Janet Hunter, Seattle's visitor bureau director of sales, ran a "Cafe Seattle" booth with espresso drinks named after Conferon VIPs.
Are all the freebies really worth it to Seattle, or any city?
Yes, Welsh says. The bottom line: In the convention business, you have to spend money to make money.
"Right now, Conferon's customers represent 2 percent to 3 percent of Seattle's convention business," Welsh said. "If we increase that another 2 percent, that's about $50 million in new business in the next three to five years.
"What a golden opportunity."
SELLING SEATTLE: Some of the freebies for those attending the conference:
--Downtown hotel rooms: Some of the 750 attendees will receive free rooms -- a minimum daily value of $170.
--Crystal wine glasses: About 330 attendees will receive stemware and pewter wine charms. Cost: about $15,000.
--Argosy cruise: Royal Argosy will take about 50 attendees for a free brunch and cruise on Elliott Bay. Retail value: about $2,750.
--Reception and awards banquet: The week's finale is for 600 guests. Food and beverages: about $30,000.
Source: Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau
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