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Meeting Planners Taking a Harder Look at Second
 and Third-tier Convention Destinations
By Arlinda Smith Broady, Savannah Morning News, Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 17, 2008 - In many instances, smaller isn't usually better. In the tourism industry, however, it's becoming more appealing.

During the past decade, meeting planners have been taking a closer look at so-called second- and third-tier convention destinations, and Savannah is near the head of the pack.

An article this past week from the Professional Convention Management Association included an analysis of meeting sites by StarCite, a company that helps organizations to plan, budget, buy, attend and measure the results of meetings and events. The data showed that smaller cities such as Savannah, Chattanooga, Tenn., Allentown, Pa., Tulsa, Okla., and Sacramento, Calif., dominate the list of places with the fastest growth in inquiries.

New and expanded facilities, combined with an economy teetering on the edge of a recession, have created a buyer's market in many of these cities.

"It's hard to get availability in major markets," Michael Boult, CEO and president of StarCite, said in the article. "And if you do, today's rates are making people choke. This is causing people to look for alternatives."

That's no surprise to local tourism specialists.

"We've worked hard collaborating together so that the convention center, local hotels and the CVB could work as a unit," said Joseph Marinelli, president of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We do a lot behind the scenes. So when planners are putting together a convention, the components are seamless."

As a testament to this teamwork, an anticipated 1,700 of the nation's top enlisted officers and their families from the U.S. Army and the Air National Guard are scheduled to arrive in town today for the 37th annual Conference of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States.

The association represents more than 414,000 National Guard enlisted soldiers and airmen from 55 chapters representing states, territories, a unit at the Pentagon and another in the District of Columbia. At this meeting, they will address military policy issues such as defense policies, health care, pay and benefits and family support as well as identify specific legislative issues to present to Congress during the upcoming session.

But it's not all about business.

"Our meetings get started at 7 a.m. so we can take care of business and then enjoy the city," said retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Roger Hagan, association vice president. "Savannah is a neat walking town, and there's so much history. I'm sure a lot of our attendees will take advantage of it."

About four years ago, Georgia bid for the national conference, and Savannah was one of three cities vying for the chance to be the host. Besides the Southern charm, its proximity to military installations such as Hunter Army Airfield and the Marines' Parris Island recruit training depot made it an attractive option.

At a site visit in May, local staff confirmed that Savannah was a perfect choice by being flexible and accommodating, Hagan said, adding that the conference ended up needing 24 percent more rooms than originally planned.

As of Friday, the group had booked 5,149 total room nights, with a total economic impact of $1,493,210, according to the CVB.

It's this type of satisfied customer that helps propel the Hostess City forward, said Craig Cupit, director of sales and marketing for the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa, which is the host hotel for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard conference.

"It's important that the downtown hotels come together to offer a variety of rooms at various price points," he said.

Even though everyone isn't staying under one roof, the International Trade and Convention Center is in close proximity to plenty of accommodations.

The beautiful river view, nearby golf courses and loads of restaurants and shopping nearby make Savannah an attractive conference destination.

In his three and a half years here, Cupit said, he has seen the progress toward more and better events.

"We have our biggest wins when we work together and focus on the combined event," he said.

Although there are more hotels sprouting throughout the county as well as downtown, with restaurants springing up regularly and diverse shopping options expanding, Savannah still has room for improvement, Marinelli said.

"To truly be a tier-two city, we need at least one more convention-style hotel to really be competitive with other cities in our region," he said, adding that an expanded convention center also is a necessity.

"We're a good, regional convention city and a world-class leisure tourist destination. We're studying the possibilities of becoming a world-class convention destination."

So even though small is all right for now, Savannah eventually might turn into a giant among the diminutive.


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