January 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Right Where You Belong January 1998 Current Issue
January 1998
Right Where You Belong

Hotel or convention center? How to find a good fit for your trade show


You're looking for a venue in which to hold a trade show that will need between 10,000 and 40,000 net square feet of exhibition space. Should you:

(a) Book a hotel, because hotels are used to handling a wide variety of business? (b) Book a convention center, because convention centers are built to handle trade shows? (c) Delegate the authority for site selection to your summer interns, a pair of sophomore marketing majors from Whatsamatta U., so you won't have to take the blame for booking the wrong type of facility?

OK, choice "c" is the coward's way out. But what about the first two options: convention center or hotel? And where are those summer interns now that it's mid-winter and you really need them?

If you've been holding your show in convention centers for years and you're now in search of a new venue, you should probably keep the quest center-based. Not because you're necessarily inflexible and unable to adjust, but because your attendees and exhibitors have come to expect the event to be held in a convention center. Moving it to a hotel could make them think the show is losing exhibitors.

"The perception would be that you are downsizing," says Peter Nathan, president of PWN Exhibicon, a Westport, Conn.-based exhibition industry consulting firm. "That may not be the fact, but that's the perception. Most shows live by growing. Look at all these mega-shows and strategic alliances. A growing show is the ideal situation."

However, you won't risk a perception problem, Nathan observes, if you move the show to a megaproperty. No one will think your event is going down the tubes simply because you've moved it to Nashville's Opryland Hotel Convention Center or the like.

On the other hand, if your show is likely to grow substantially, you might want to book a convention center. That's what IDEA: The Health and Fitness Source, a San Diego-based association of health and fitness professionals, is planning to do. The group has booked the Philadelphia Marriott for an upcoming show. But it also reserved space in the Pennsylvania Convention Center next door, in case the number of exhibitors increases enough to push the show out of the Marriott.

Christopher Hosmer, the Philadelphia Marriott's director of marketing, says that the choice between hotel and convention center often comes down to a group's vision of itself: Does it want to keep things small and cozy, or does it want to grow and increase revenue? * D.G.

Most planners, hoteliers and even convention center managers agree that if your show fits into a hotel, and the hotel has the dates you want, that's where you probably should go. "You stay in a hotel until you outgrow it, and then you move into a convention center," is how Madalyn Barton, marketing manager of the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center, sums up the conventional wisdom.

Your attendees are likely to be pleased by that decision. "It gives a show a lot more energy when you're not separated," says Dawn Norman, senior director for event operations with IDEA: The Health and Fitness Source, a San Diego-based association of health and fitness professionals. "There's a lot of synergy that comes with having them all under one roof."

Networking is more apt to continue after-hours when the entire group is at a hotel, adds Mary Beth Rebedeau, president of the Rebedeau Group, a Chicago Ridge, Ill.-based trade show and association management firm. "At night, the restaurants and bars at the hotel are filled with people from the show. It gives the event a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling."

There are also shows for which the facilities -- or perhaps simply the cachet -- of a hotel tend to be more suitable. "Most of our events include conferences and exhibitions that are tied seamlessly together, nothing that's just a trade show," explains David Korse, president and CEO of Imark Communications, a Miami-based conference and exhibition organizer. "Our events require a certain kind of ambiance, and some convention centers do not offer as good a quality or quantity of seminar rooms with audiovisual capabilities and the other things we need."

Your exhibitors are also likely to prefer the everything-under-one-roof approach. When attendees have to make their way from a hotel to a convention center, inevitably some find themselves stopping along the way to shop or sightsee instead of attending to business. "The more you make people move around the more you're likely to lose them," notes Korse.

Also, many groups are so used to holding meetings in hotels that the mere thought of changing the venue to a convention center can throw them into a panic. Christopher Hosmer, director of marketing for the Philadelphia Marriott, notes that some groups would prefer to limit the growth of their trade shows than move to a center.

To some extent, the fear of convention centers is understandable: No group wants its event to be dwarfed by the room it's in. The centers, however, maintain that the phobia is unwarranted. Orlando's Barton, for example, admits that her convention center's smallest exhibit hall has 50,000 square feet. However, if a group wants to put its 30,000-square-foot trade show inside that room, there are ways to make them feel comfy. Barton suggests putting the registration and food service inside the hall, instead of in the lobby or another oversize room.

"Too big can always be made to feel smaller," explains Don Engler, marketing director at New Orleans' Morial Convention Center.

The need for space is probably the principal reason for trade shows to opt for a convention center. Certainly, if your event requires more than 40,000 square feet, it's not likely to fit into even the largest downtown hotels. If you're preference is to house your attendees under a single roof, you're restricted to a handful of megaproperties, such as Nashville's Opryland Hotel Convention Center or the Las Vegas Hilton.

Still, it's possible your event can be squeezed out of a hotel even if you don't need an acre of exhibit space. A hotel may offer sufficient floor space for your show, but not a high enough ceiling in the exhibit hall (a.k.a. the ballroom) to accommodate large displays, or the ballroom may be graced with an exquisite but inconvenient chandelier that transforms move-in, move-out days from a heavy-lifting task to a balancing act, or with columns that make laying out the show a brain-teaser on par with Rubik's Cube.

Virtually everyone in the trade show industry -- including hoteliers -- agrees that when it comes to moving stuff, particularly big, heavy stuff, into and out of the building, convention centers have hotels beat hands-down. Convention centers typically have places where trucks can wait around before and after they are unloaded, and they have more loading docks. At a hotel, the trucks will have to unload and leave, loading docks will be few and far between, and the exhibit hall often is not at street level, meaning exhibits will have to be carted up (or down) by elevator, a slow and (when you're paying labor by the hour) costly process.

A good rule of thumb is that if your show consists of tabletop or other easily transported exhibits, go for the hotel if you fit in. However, if your event requires displays of heavy machinery or any other cumbersome equipment, regardless of the number of square feet of exhibit space you need, you'll probably be better off in a convention center.

But centers offer groups more than merely a lot of exhibit space. Many, particularly the newer facilities, tend to feature lots of meeting rooms as well. Brian Casey, director of trade shows at Smith Bucklin, a Chicago-based association management firm, finds that when a group has many concurrent breakout sessions, it will often be better served by a convention center.

While hotels and convention centers have their real advantages and disadvantages, the issue of cost is a matter of debate. Traditionally, hotels have been considered less-expensive trade show venues than convention centers. But, increasingly, show organizers are discovering that this is a perception whose time has gone.

Not that there are no potential savings for groups that meet at hotels. If sleeping rooms, meal functions, seminars and exhibits can all be housed under a single roof, then you are spared the financial expense and logistical hassle of providing attendees with shuttle service between the hotel (or hotels) and the convention center.

Take into account other incidentals that can add up in favor of hotels. For example, since most hotels already have carpets on the floor of their exhibit room (generally the ballroom) and most centers feature bare concrete on the floors, going to a hotel can save you some money on carpeting.

But exhibit space is the big-ticket item. In years past, hotels either gave away the space or rented it at a minimum cost to groups that were also buying sleeping rooms and meals. Such deals are not altogether extinct. The Las Vegas Hilton will "give free exhibit space to groups if their gaming profile is strong enough and they're holding enough food and beverage functions," says national sales director Lloyd Boothby.

Free (or even substantially discounted) exhibit space, however, is becoming harder to find, especially at the big downtown hotels in popular cities, where trade shows and conventions are most likely to draw the most attendees.

"It used to be that costs at hotels were less than at convention centers," says Peter Nathan, president of PWN Exhibicon, a Westport, Conn.-based exhibition industry consulting firm. "But now hotels are on a par with, and in many cases even more expensive, than centers. The availability of hotel exhibit space is limited. And hotel occupancy rates are running at a level that makes it possible for them to raise rates and get away with it."

Many other show organizers describe a similar situation. "Hotels may be a hair less expensive than convention centers," observes Norman of San Diego-based IDEA. "Still, I find that whatever I budget for expositions I end up spending, no matter where they're held."

Ellen Glew, president of EJI Exhibitions, a North Reading, Mass.-based show management firm, says that she doesn't find even that hair's breadth of difference. "I don't see any lower costs in hotels," she reports. "They're giving nothing." *

After a tough day on the trade show floor, an attendee's thoughts understandably turn to food. Where is one likely to get a better meal, at a convention center or at a hotel?

Many show organizers insist it's difficult to generalize. "I've been to some convention centers where the food is just God-awful, and some places where it's so fabulous you can hardly believe you're at a convention center eating lunch with 1,500 other people," says Beth Baynes, senior meeting manager for the Washington, D.C.-based American Bankers Association. "And I've been to some hotels where I've left the meal saying, 'We will never come back here again.' But at others, I leave thinking, 'This is hotel food? It's great!'"

Yet, among those willing to generalize, hotels win hands down. "Sometimes you can get a little fancier on the food front at a hotel," says Ellen Glew, president of North Reading, Mass.-based EJI Exhibitions. "The average hotel food is better than the average convention center food."

Logistics is one reason that convention center cuisine frequently doesn't measure up to the fare at hotels. "At convention centers, often the kitchens are not conveniently located," says David Korse, president and CEO of Imark Communications, a Miami-based exhibit and conference organizing firm. "Sometimes, the caterers aren't even preparing the food on site."

Another is flexibility. IDEA: The Health and Fitness Source, a San Diego-based association of health and fitness professionals, is not your typical meat-and-potatoes group. "Our attendees eat a lot of fruit and vegetables," says senior director of event operations Dawn Norman. "We've found that the executive chefs at hotels are usually more willing to work with us" than their convention center counterparts. The hotel chefs, she adds, are generally "more creative and have more sense of nutrition and variety. They are also more willing to cut down portion size to get the price we need."

However, hotels shouldn't rest on their culinary laurels. "I have found that the general quality of food has improved tremendously at most of the major convention facilities," observes Peter Nathan, president of PWN Exhibicon, a Westport, Conn.-based exhibition industry consulting firm. "They've realized that if they serve a decent meal for a fairly decent price, they're going to earn more money. Also, they won't loose attendees to outside eateries."

Some organizers go so far as to say that convention center food can be outstanding. "During the Society of Independent Show Organizers conference, there was a lunch at Navy Pier," recalls Korse of a meal he had at the Chicago facility run by the same outfit that manages McCormick Place. "It was one of the best lunches I've ever had in my life."* D.G.

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