September 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Perception Problems - September 1998 Current Issue
September 1998
Perception Problems

Can your meeting afford to look like a million bucks - even if the cost was pennies on the dollar?

By Maria Lenhart

Tom Blackburn Rodriguez wanted to schedule an annual training conference in Hawaii, but he feared it wouldn't be an easy sell. Rodriguez, director of special projects and events for the National Association of Community Action Agencies in Washington, D.C., expected the NACAA board to take issue with the destination's reputation.

"I'm a big fan of Hawaii, but there is the perception out there that it's an exotic venue out of reach of many budgets," Rodriguez says. "The reality is that it's actually cheaper than some mainland cities, especially now with the downturn in Asian business."

Determined to get the site he wanted, Rodriguez did his homework. He compiled figures, comparing the costs of room rates, airfares, meeting space, meals and ground transportation for Waikiki with those of San Francisco, Boston, New York City and Chicago. In a presentation before the board, he used the figures he had gathered to successfully make his case for the Aloha State.

With the help of the association's local affiliates, Rodriguez also got the word out to the membership. As a result, the NACAA drew 250 attendees to the organization's December 1997 conference at the Sheraton Waikiki, a record number for any fall training conference ever held by the association. Now the NACAA for the first time is considering Hawaii for an upcoming annual convention.

All play and no work
Although this scenario had a positive resolution for both Hawaii and the NACAA, the perceptions that surround Hawaii and other resort destinations -- most frequently that they are too expensive or too leisure-oriented to work well for meetings -- can complicate site selection for associations and corporations alike.

"If a place is a popular incentive destination, then it may be perceived as a poor meetings destination," says independent planner Sherri Cook, president of Sherri Cook & Associates in Plano, Texas. "Not only is there a cost perception, but there is also the perception of being a frivolous destination where people will want to play instead of attend sessions."

Sandra Moreno, vice president of meetings, incentives and conventions for the Hawaii Convention & Visitors Bureau, acknowledges that both perceptions are obstacles that need to be cleared if the state is to fulfill its goal of becoming a major convention destination. With this in mind, the HCVB gave a presentation to 150 meeting planners during the grand opening of the Hawaii Convention Center last June, during which panelists, including Moreno, several association meeting planners and an airline representative, addressed issues of affordability and attendance.

"A big part of our message is that we are affordable and are, indeed, a serious business destination," says Moreno. "Our hotel rates have remained flat, while those on the mainland have soared. Our exhibit hall rates and labor costs are among the lowest in the nation. As for attendance -- we break records all the time."

If anyone has doubts, Moreno says the HCVB can supply the figures to back her up. But while the HCVB and other bureaus may have useful data, Cook says planners should make the effort to do research that goes beyond what convention and visitor bureaus can provide. "CVBs can be very helpful, but you've really got to make sure there are no hidden costs involved," she says. "This is especially important when you're trying to convince people who have doubts about a destination. You don't want to convince them and then be proved wrong."

One star too many
Along with posh destinations, five-star hotels also face image problems -- even when they offer room rates below those at four-star properties. According to Lynne K. Tiras, CMP, president of International Meeting Managers in Houston, corporations that have been downsizing may be especially reluctant to choose an upscale hotel, no matter how good the rate. ÒIf a company is downsizing or cutting corners, they want to be careful of their image among the stockholders and employees," she says. ÒGoing to a five-star resort, even if the rate is reasonable, looks bad. In these cases, it's better just to choose a four-star property."

Keeping up appearances
Even when corporations aren't downsizing, they may reject a meeting site or destination because its image is at odds with that of the corporation or of the purpose of the meeting. A corporate planner who does not wish to be identified says it is a frequent -- and frustrating -- problem. "Recently we negotiated a fantastic deal with a resort hotel in Colorado Springs where the complete package was better than what we could get anywhere else," he says. "Management rejected the site because they believe a resort connotes fun and is, therefore, inappropriate for a serious meeting."

While the meeting has not yet been rescheduled, it is likely to be held at an urban hotel with higher room rates and fewer amenities, says the planner. The topic of the gathering: cost management.

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