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Crafting Meetings

Alabama meeting planners offer insights on essentials and new tools for designing conferences and events.

The Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach offers spectacular sunsets on a nightly basis.

The Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach offers spectacular sunsets on a nightly basis.

Find the right space

Patti Culp, Executive Director
Alabama Travel Council

“Number one is space,” says Patti Culp. Simply put, if a facility does not have enough room, an organization cannot hold its event there. A particular consideration for the Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism, which Culp coordinates, is that there are many things happening simultaneously, including meals, breakout sessions, a trade show and a silent auction that needs to be set up a day-and-a-half before the start of the event.  

“We can’t stop and let the hotel reset,” she says.

Culp also appreciates when a venue is willing to work with her organization to offer special services to attendees, such as menus with local flavor and in-room amenities for each guest. It is important that a venue can meet an organization’s needs, as some events may require every resource that a facility can muster.

Publicity for an event can depend on the venue, she says. Some local convention and visitor bureaus can assist with designing electronic materials for organizations to distribute via e-mail. This is already being done in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and is being implemented in Birmingham this year. To promote the Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Culp relies on access through e-mail to a network of contacts within the industry. With the conference scheduled for the third week of August, e-mails begin going out in January to members of the organization, past exhibitors and sponsors.  Within the last five years, e-mail has grown to account for 80 percent of all promotion for the conference. Culp also will spread the word about the event at quarterly meetings of major groups within the state and through her membership on boards of other organizations, as well as through newsletters published by industry partners.

Ultimately, a successful convention can be a collaborative effort. “The attitude of hotel management makes a big difference,” Culp advises. The local convention and visitors bureau in the city can assist an organization with outside functions, connections with potential exhibitors and other critical factors. A partnership between the hotel and the local convention and visitors’ bureau can be very valuable.

Be flexible

Renee Browning, Assistant Director of Sales
Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex

“Flexibility can help achieve your goals,” says Renee Browning.

By considering alternative dates and arrival and departure patterns, an organization can secure a desirable property at the best value. Midweek, Tuesday through Thursday, is most popular for professional conferences. Scheduling a convention between Sunday and Wednesday may offer more attractive pricing. Rates also can vary depending on the time of year.

For Browning, it is also important for an organization to provide detailed information to assist a facility with meeting the organization’s needs and ensure that everyone is on the same page and there are clear expectations. The setup of refreshments, activities and other elements is critical to a productive meeting.  

Browning echoes Patti Culp regarding the value of local convention and visitors’ bureaus, as their services are complimentary and they are experts on the city.

Apps are a new and helpful touch, Browning says, giving conference attendees assistance with floor navigation, schedule details, directions to local restaurants and attractions, opportunities to connect with other attendees and a host of other information.

Logistics are important, too, she says. When a facility is connected to one or more hotels and is situated in an area where registrants can easily walk to local shopping, dining and entertainment, the sponsoring organization can avoid the need for shuttles. 

Planners also should consider unique services offered by a facility. BJCC, for example, is adding Top Golf this year, which will allow patrons to rent a booth and hit balls, similar to lanes at a bowling alley, with restaurant, bar and private rooms for groups. The BJCC also has a Guest Experience Team with uniformed personnel who serve as “meeters and greeters” and can also assist with directions, taking pictures, distributing handouts and providing information on local attractions.  

Be prepared

Cori Worcester, Director of Sales
Perdido Beach Resort

Give your venue as much information as possible to get the best proposal and the best results, advises Cori Worcester. During peak season between May and August, resorts along the Gulf Coast are extremely popular, because registrants can tie a conference to their summer vacation — especially when there are activities planned for families — and this can boost attendance for an organization. 

But be advised  — planners may need to book these venues four or five years in advance.

Consider a change from all-day information sessions to attract younger attendees, she suggests, and recommends new technology to make the event more valuable for everyone.

Beacon technology, which tracks the locations of users through their mobile devices, can enhance the experience of attendees and assist organizations. Beacons can facilitate registration, navigation, networking and content delivery. According to Worcester, beacons provide useful feedback for meeting planners because they can monitor where attendees went on a trade show floor and for how long — providing insight on which exhibits were useful and appealing.

Another useful technology Worcester has seen being used at meetings is a live feed on a small screen in the meeting room, engaging participants in real time to ask questions and provide answers related to topics being discussed by a speaker.

Focus on content

Rachel Jennings, Outreach Coordinator
Alabama Center for Real Estate

For Rachel Jennings, who coordinates the Alabama Commercial Real Estate Conference and other events for the Alabama Center for Real Estate, the audience and topics are her first consideration. 

She asks herself, “Who will attend the event?” and “Why are they interested in attending?” Choosing a theme, if appropriate, can help determine topics and speakers and assist with marketing the event.

For Jennings, larger events are planned at least a year in advance to lock down a date and location. The bulk of the planning can be done five to six months in advance, with registration opening three months in advance and the agenda set two months in advance. In contrast, smaller events, like a luncheon or board meeting, can be executed in just a few weeks. 

“The earlier the date is communicated with your audience, the better!” she says.  “There’s no such thing as ‘too much’ communication.” When promoting an event, her organization uses e-mails, targeted telephone calls to past attendees and other industry professionals, social media and advertising in the Birmingham Business Journal and Business Alabama.

Jennings considers the type of event and the amount of space needed when selecting a venue, and favors The Club, the Harbert Center and the Summit Club, as well as local restaurants and space provided by other companies that support her organization. Ample parking and professional staff are also important. If continuing education credits are being awarded, there are requirements for sufficient seating and writing surfaces.

“We like to have dynamic speakers that have a timely topic on an interesting subject matter,” she says, so her team attends other industry events, uses University of Alabama resources and listens to suggestions from professionals in the network.

Ultimately, if organizations can collaborate with venues, planners can rest assured that events will proceed without a hitch. “You will be working with a professional, experienced person who can only lead you to a successful conference,” says Jennings.

Learn from last year’s event

Kevin Hellmich, Director of Sales and Marketing
Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa

“For every event we have at the Grand Hotel, we always ask the meeting planner, ‘What’s important for your group in order to host a successful event?’ Whether we hosted the previous year’s event or not, we always like to find out what went well and what didn’t, so we can enhance the experience,” says Kevin Hellmich, director of sales and marketing at The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa in Point Clear.

And while his team has worked with planners on as little as one week’s notice, he says some planners — especially those representing state and regional associations — book their space as much as five years in advance.

The Grand hosts an average of 700 events each year, which attract roughly 250,000 overnight guests, says Hellmich, and for a successful gathering he recommends advance planning and complete transparency, because it makes it easier to guarantee enough guest rooms and best meeting space for the group.

“It’s important to be as transparent as possible with your sales manager and event manager. If it’s only the second event you’ve planned, tell them that. If they know, then they can walk you through the process, allow plenty of time to pre-plan the event, and be more creative in everything from food and beverage options to room décor,” Hellmich says.

Partner with a pro

Jonathan C. McKinney, Director of Sales & Marketing
Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa

“Organization is vital to success. We like to know our clients’ vision for the event, the agenda, the approximate number of guests, and a rough sketch of your budget. With this information, our event experts are able to personalize the event for our clients and their guests,” says Jonathan McKinney, director of sales and marketing for Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, in Hoover.

“For instance, if a group wants a separate meal space from their main meeting in the ballroom, we can put a tent on our terrace to allow additional space. We like to be creative and maximize the use of our facility in whatever way we can,” he says.

Ross Bridge hosts more than 750 events annually, with an average attendance of 150 people.

And size does matter, McKinney says, because every group booked lends itself to a unique layout, agenda and flow of guests “to best accomplish the vision the event planner has for the event.”

Above all, McKinney encourages event planners — especially those new to the field — to partner with venues that have experienced event teams already in place “that can walk alongside you through your events.”

“A lot of groups are asking for team-building activities. We have developed on-site activities, such as a cooking contests and cocktail mixology competitions, that both require all generations to work together to win. We’ve also partnered with Red Mountain Park to facilitate team learning on their high ropes course. We’ve found any time we get people out of their normal environment/routine and to the castle of Ross Bridge, they’re able to forge connections with others that are inter-generational,” McKinney says.

“We thrive on tailoring each experience to interests of our guests. We have on-site local Navigators that are well versed in the sights and adventures Birmingham has to offer. For runners, we print running trail maps and show them how to get there. Exploring Birmingham with your family, we’ll recommend the amazing view and history of Vulcan Park or offer up Red Mountain Park for a beautiful hike or zip line adventure. If a brewery experience is what you’re craving, we’ll share about Avondale, Good People, Cahaba and all the great local craft breweries in the ’Ham,” McKinney says.

And technology, he says, is streamlining the process on several fronts. 

“We love Social Tables. It has our meeting space to scale and it is a fantastic tool to assist the planners in visualizing the event. Also, Marriott has an Event Services App that you can use on-site and get real-time responses from our team on anything from updating the room temperature to ordering cookies for your afternoon break,” he says.

Megan Boyle and Kelli Dugan are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Boyle is based in New Orleans and Dugan in Mobile.

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