News for the Hospitality Executive
|By J.K. Wall, The Indianapolis Star
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 11, 2004 - Two 18-foot ice castles and 1,000 pounds of plastic snow will greet some special guests tonight in the ballroom of the Marriott Downtown.
They'll sip on martinis, chilled by pouring vodka down four curvy ice luge tracks.
They'll be treated to 6,000 prawns, 900 bottles of wine and 650 pounds of duck and veal.
The guests of honor are the 2,300 people attending the Professional Convention Management Association annual meeting. And among them are 700 of the nation's top meeting planners -- important people for the city to impress if it wants to become a top-tier convention host and lure as much as $4 billion in additional convention business during the next 10 years.
Even if the city attracts only half that in new conventions and meetings, it will boost the fortunes of dozens of hotels, restaurants and businesses Downtown and elsewhere.
"We're polishing the silver, doing the white glove treatment, using the best flatware, just really rolling out the red carpet," said Bob Schultz, spokesman for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association.
With an army of 300 volunteers, Indianapolis' hospitality community has worked to greet attendees as they arrive, give them small gifts, throw several parties for them, and even arrange dinner plans and limousine rides. Indianapolis officials hired event planner Ellen Rabinowitch 18 months ago to organize their gathering. She has led a team of 50 people since last January to iron out all the details.
The meeting planners of PCMA get fawning treatment wherever they go because they book conventions for professional associations, such as the Association of Millwork Distributors, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and Narcotics Anonymous World Services.
The association's annual meeting usually is held in such popular convention spots as Orlando, Fla.; Anaheim, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Francisco. Indianapolis ranks a rung below those cities in the convention world. It lacks beaches and palm trees, has no attractions like Disney or the Grand Ole Opry, and suffers from cold winters.
But Indianapolis has set out to wow PCMA with thoughtful touches and friendliness. If it succeeds, the show could be Indianapolis' coming-of-age in the convention universe.
"It raises our stature," said Dennis Johnston, director of marketing at the Marriott Downtown, who has attended 12 PCMA conventions. "(Indianapolis) is not a first-tier; there's no doubt about that. But the majority of (second-tier) cities have never hosted a PCMA show."
The show runs through Wednesday, with exhibits in the Indiana Convention Center. Highlights come Monday night, when there's a three-floor party at the Indiana State Museum with live music, and at Wednesday night's closing dance.
The Convention & Visitors Association, which now draws about $400 million a year in convention business, has not estimated the business it expects to reap from this group's visit. But officials from Anaheim, which hosted the show last year, said the city garnered $4 billion in business from PCMA contacts in the 10 years after its 1989 visit.
Johnston, doing his own rough calculations, thinks the numbers could be similar for Indianapolis.
"I'm not sure anybody can put a dollar figure on it," the Marriott manager said. "It's an awfully big number in the grand scheme of things for Indianapolis."
Tourism, which includes conventions and meetings, brings the Indianapolis area 5 percent of its jobs and 5 percent of its gross metropolitan product, defined as the value of all goods and services produced in the area, according to a study from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
For Downtown, however, the effect is much larger. Circle Centre has reported that city visitors make up half the mall's traffic. Some restaurants, such as Alcatraz Brewing Co., have reported similar figures for their sales.
One previous host, Kansas City, struggled to say definitively that PCMA helped its convention business -- at least in the short term.
Since the city hosted PCMA in 1998, officials there know of a "couple" of meeting planners who booked Kansas City because they went there for PCMA, said Maxine Nolan, director of communications at the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City. She said it's tough to track any benefits PCMA brought to Kansas City because the recent recession dampened convention business and because many conventions are scheduled five years in advance.
Still, Nolan said, PCMA brought Kansas City valuable exposure, particularly through articles the industry trade magazines wrote about their visits there for PCMA.
For just such reasons, show organizers formed a four-person "Sizzle in the City" committee, which worked to repeatedly surprise guests with special touches. The Sizzle committee arranged for airlines to welcome PCMA visitors over the intercom upon landing at Indianapolis International Airport. Volunteers are waving hello and goodbye to PCMA guests.
The committee also worked with restaurants to open at key times, to coordinate servers' attire and to use cocktail napkins with the PCMA logo. It made sure all gifts given in hotel rooms are the same, no matter where the attendees stay, and that guests' wake-up calls conclude with, "Have a nice day at PCMA."
"This is a very selective group of people. They will pick on the things that they think should be done differently. And our goal, collectively, is to give them very little to complain about," said Rabinowitch, who is president of Maribeth Smith & Associates.
But delightful details alone won't make deals, said Schultz, of the Convention & Visitors Association.
The group screened all the meeting planners coming to town this week, then picked the top 100 prospects, whose associations have the right size, budget and schedule to choose Indianapolis as a host, Schultz said.
The visitors association's sales staff will be on "reconnaissance missions" to talk to these top prospects. It also has invited them to a VIP party Monday night at St. Elmo Steak House.
"It's knowing automatically that we are not a slam dunk," Schultz said, "that we have to practice, that we have to be sincere."
WHERE THEY GO: Where they go Indianapolis isn't among the most popular convention and exhibition destinations, but it is among the most affordable places to hold business meetings. A breakdown:
Most popular convention cities
2. Las Vegas
5. New Orleans
8. New York
9. San Diego
10. Washington, D.C.
Source: Center for Exhibition Industry Research
Most affordable convention cities
1. Jacksonville, Fla.
2. Columbus, Ohio
3. Raleigh, N.C.
4. Knoxville, Tenn.
5. Nashville, Tenn.
7. Greensboro, N.C.
8. Norfolk, Va.
10. Harrisburg, Pa.
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(c) 2004, The Indianapolis Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MAR,