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Meat & Potatoes Meetings

Alabama’s three largest meetings markets have to work overtime to nurture a wide array of meetings and venues—from corporate conferences to regional Masons, from hotel breakout rooms to trade show convention centers.

Yvonne Boyington of the Huntsville Convention and Visitors Bureau visits an event at the Von Braun Center.

Yvonne Boyington of the Huntsville Convention and Visitors Bureau visits an event at the Von Braun Center.

Photo by Dennis Keim

They are not anywhere near the top of the U.S. conventions market, but Alabama’s three largest convention cities each year say they yield more than $500 million in economic impact from meetings and conventions.

The 1,777 groups recorded by Alabama’s big three cities include a polyglot of meeting types, from corporate training and professional associations to religious and fraternal groups—as well as regional and occasional national conventions and trade shows. The total of 885,886 attendees at these meetings gathered in hotel meeting rooms, conference centers, as well as municipal convention centers—recruited, cultivated and tabulated by city visitor bureaus.

Some of the groups that met in Birmingham last year were the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association, Watchtower (Jehovah’s Witness), Premiere Shows and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. This year, Mobile will host meetings of the Alabama State Department of Education, National Marine Corps League and Southern Historical Society; and in 2013, the Gulf State Horticultural Expo, Mary Kay Cosmetics Career Conference, National Beta Club and Modern Free & Accepted Masons of the World will convene in the Bay City. Huntsville has recently played host to groups such as the National Children’s Advocacy Center, Defense Acquisition University, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Huntsville-headquarted Adtran Corp. and Intergraph Corp.

In most cases, groups interested in meeting in a certain location will contact the city’s convention and visitors bureau (CVB) for help. CVB staff members are available to host tours of the destination, provide information about all the hotels and meeting venues in the city, plan after-hours events and sightseeing excursions and even help negotiate meeting dates and rates. For CVBs and the local hotel community, the value of a group’s business is measured by the number of hotel room nights the group books. CVBs are responsible for marketing not only their city’s convention or conference center, but also all the local hotels—and are often experts at combining various properties to meet a group’s needs.

“Most large groups, in the 400-room range and up, meet at our convention center but utilize many of our downtown and airport properties,” says Mike Gunn, vice president of sales at the Greater Birmingham CVB. “On the other hand, the smaller groups with less than 400 rooms per night, tend to meet at the individual hotel properties that have enough meeting space to accommodate the group. As a community, I think we work well in pulling both the hotels and the convention center together to give the customer the best possible experience for their meeting needs.”

Often, the willingness of a city’s hospitality community to work together can make or break a group’s decision to meet there. “Our convention center, the Von Braun Center, and the local lodging providers work very well together,” says Yvonne Boyington, vice president of conventions at the Huntsville CVB. “We are fortunate to have a dedicated group of professionals in the local hospitality industry who understand the need to work together to bring conferences, meetings and trade shows to our community. Whichever local venue is selected by meeting planners to host their event, our CVB is here to assist with a variety of complimentary services to add value and increase attendee satisfaction.”

While large groups can come in and keep a city’s entire hospitality community busy for several days, much of the state’s meeting business is made up of smaller groups, which add up to be just as valuable to the host cities. In Birmingham, the CVB doesn’t place a size limit to classify a piece of business as a group, Gunn says.

Any size group can use the services of the CVB, and the bureau books numerous smaller corporate meetings and medical meetings throughout the year. While large conventions are usually booked at least a few years in advance, “most small meetings tend to be short-term bookings—in the year for the year,” Gunn says.

In Mobile, the CVB classifies a group as one that books 25 rooms or more on its “peak night,” or the busiest night of the meeting, says Stacy Hamilton, vice president of marketing and communications at the Mobile Bay CVB. These may include business meetings, as well as reunions, weddings and other events.

In Huntsville, “all individuals and groups who stay in our community are important to us,” Boyington says. “To be classified as a group, we look for attendance of 20 or more. Our smaller groups tend to be training meetings for companies or corporations and weddings. Groups of all sizes are entitled to our CVB’s complimentary services. Larger groups can even receive registration assistance at no cost to them.”

Like most industries throughout the state, the meetings and conventions business has been affected by Alabama’s new immigration law during the past year, although industry leaders say the damage has been minimal. “Fortunately for us thus far, we have only had a couple of meetings that were lost due to the immigration law that we can account for,” says Birmingham’s Gunn. In Huntsville, one group chose to meet in a different location as a result of the passage of the immigration bill, and in Mobile, one group cancelled its meeting at the Battle House Hotel for the same reason.  

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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