Oklahoma City. Grand Rapids. Mobile. Syracuse. These are not names that conjure images of glitz, glamour and excess -- and that's precisely why these cities suddenly are hot.
In today's perception-obsessed business environment, meeting planners are taking notice of these and other under-the-radar destinations. According to data released by the online meetings management firm StarCite, each of the four cities cited above has experienced big jumps in the number of requests for proposal they've seen for group business. Oklahoma City, number one on StarCite's list, saw an 81 percent spike in RFPs in February 2009 vs. February 2008, while Grand Rapids experienced a 61.5 percent jump.
Kevin Iwamoto, vice president of enterprise strategy for Philadelphia-based StarCite, says anecdotal evidence furthers the case. "I hear from a lot of our customers that there has been increased scrutiny on locations, as well as increased emphasis on avoidance of negative perception," he notes.
Heath Clendenning, a conference producer for Denver-based EUCI, which plans professional development meetings for the energy industry, has seen firsthand this concern about appearances. In the past, he's preferred to hold events in tier-one cities such as Las Vegas or Miami. But recently, some of his delegates have not been able to get approval to travel to such locales. "There is an absolute direct correlation with perception issues," Clendenning says.
Following are profiles of our four "stealth" cities. All have excellent meetings infrastructure but won't raise red flags with the media or shareholders.
Grand Rapids, Mich.Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau
(800) 678-9859; visitgrandrapids.org
"Be a big fish in a small pond," goes a current sales pitch for planners to consider Grand Rapids. Small, however, does not mean dull. Indeed, the city has a surprisingly vibrant visual arts scene, anchored by the presence of the prestigious Kendall College of Art and Design.
Art-loving attendees can check out the Gold LEED-certified GRAM, or Grand Rapids Art Museum (artmuseumgr.org), and the 132-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (meijergardens.org), which has a 1,700-seat outdoor amphitheater and features the Midwest's largest outdoor sculpture collection.
The city's compact downtown offers 1,411 hotel rooms spread across four properties: the 682-room Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, 340-room JW Marriott Grand Rapids, 214-room Courtyard by Marriott Downtown and 175-room Days Hotel Downtown. All four are connected to DeVos Place (616-742-6500; devosplace.org), the city's convention center, via an enclosed, climate-controlled skyway -- a real plus for a winter meeting here, though the average high in summer is a balmy 80 F.
DeVos Place offers a column-free, 162,000-square-foot exhibit hall; a 40,000-square-foot ballroom; 26 meeting rooms; and a 2,404-seat performing arts theater where the city's symphony, opera, ballet and theater companies perform. For a larger seated space, the Van Andel Arena (also connected to DeVos Place and the hotels by skywalk) has 12,000 seats that can be used for seminars or conferences.
Among Grand Rapids' many attractions are the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum (www.ford.utexas.edu), where the tumultuous 1970s are recalled in multimedia exhibits; the 18-hole Thousand Oaks Golf Club (thousandoaksgolf.com), with its top-rated Rees Jones design and comprehensive teaching facilities; and what AAA considers the best restaurant in the state -- the ornate, five-star 1913 Room (amwaygrand.com/1913_room.html) inside the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (try the honey- and cumin-glazed venison loin and Riesling-poached pear).
Gerald R. Ford International Airport (grr.org) has nonstop daily flights from cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Mobile, Ala.Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau
(800) 566-2453; mobilebay.org
In 2008, Forbes magazine named Mobile the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, yet the city retains a genteel aura enhanced by its perch on Mobile Bay, just off the Gulf of Mexico.
Nature is a prime draw here, thanks to local landmarks like Bellingrath Gardens (bellingrath.org), a former estate whose 65 verdant acres along the Ford River are bursting with azaleas, dogwoods, hydrangeas and more. And historic Dauphin Island (dauphinisland.org), site of a 17th-century Spanish settlement and key action in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War, offers a 60-acre bird sanctuary, an aquarium, lots of fishing options and beachcombing.
The city also has a raucous side, as when revelers jubilantly fling MoonPies, those uniquely Southern marshmallow-and-cake delicacies, during its popular Mardi Gras parades.
But Mobile also gets down to business. There are 1,100 guest rooms within walking distance of the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center (251-208-2100; mobileconventions.com). The closest and largest include the 375-room Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel, 209-room Holiday Inn Downtown Historic District and 170-room Radisson Admiral Semmes Hotel. The convention center has a total of 317,000 square feet of space for meetings and events, including a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 15,500-square-foot ballroom and 45,000 square feet of outdoor river-terrace space.
A refined Old South accommodation option is the 238-room Battle House, a Renaissance Hotel (866-316-5957; marriott.com), which originally opened in 1852 and later closed for four decades before reopening after a major renovation in summer 2007. Among highlights are the 10,000-square-foot Spa at the Battle House, with eight treatment rooms, plus 28,000 square feet of meeting and event space that includes a 600-person ballroom.
A sure bet for great food is the sleek, chic True (251-344-3334; truedine.com), which opened in November 2007 and has since won local prizes for best new fine-dining restaurant and best chef, as well as an award of excellence from Wine Spectator. Serving American-style staples (rack of lamb, duck breast) enlivened by special-occasion ingredients (tomato olive sauce, vanilla-pickled chile peppers), True has a private dining room (complete with A/V hookups) that can accommodate up to 33 people.
Mobile Regional Airport (mobairport.com) provides direct flights from Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas/Fort Worth; Houston; and Memphis, Tenn.