Meetings & Conventions: Right Where You Belong January
Right Where You Belong
Hotel or convention center? How to find a good fit for your
BY DAVID GHITELMAN
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
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?SHOULD YOU
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
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
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.
ROOM AT THE INN
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
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
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.
NO MORE FREE LUNCH
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
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
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
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." *MORE FOOD FOR
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
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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