by Michael J. Shapiro | June 01, 2011

Group lodging demand has been slow to return to the hotel business, according to recent data from Smith Travel Research. But some U.S. destinations are showing very positive signs of recovery. Interestingly, it's the nation's smaller cities that have improved the most rapidly, according to data from Philadelphia-based StarCite.

While the 25 largest metropolitan areas experienced a 49 percent year-over-year increase in requests for proposals for 2010 through StarCite's platform, the next 25 regions exceeded that, with a year-over-year jump of nearly 58 percent. Most impressive was the next tier of metropolitan areas -- those ranked 51st to 75st in size. They enjoyed a hefty 80 percent increase in meeting RFPs.

"Second- and third-tier cities have been investing and expanding their infrastructure to accommodate more meeting, convention and exposition business," notes Kevin Iwamoto, StarCite's vice president of enterprise strategy. "And it's paying off."

M&C took a closer look at four metropolitan areas that saw dramatic increases in RFPs through StarCite. Here's a look at what these second- and third-tier cities have to offer planners.

Near East at Portland, MainePortland, Maine Picturesque Portland, Maine, the far more diminutive of the Portlands on our list, saw a marked increase in meetings business in 2010. "We've seen positive activity, and it continues to be on the rise," notes Sheila Nee, director of convention sales for the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Portland International Jetport, three miles from the downtown area, will debut a $75 million terminal expansion in September. That project will add 137,000 square feet to the existing structure, as well as three new passenger gates, double the current number of security-screening lanes, a new baggage-screening system and a footbridge to the parking area. The local economic impact of the increased passenger traffic could be quite significant, according to airport officials. It will also likely improve the airlift already enjoyed by the small city, which currently averages more than 100 arrivals and departures from hub cities on a daily basis.

But what Nee really likes to draw planners' attention to is the natural beauty of the region, and the edge-of-the-country quality of the landscape despite its geographical accessibility. "What really makes us unique -- aside from the historic inns and the coastal resorts that can serve as meeting venues -- are the excursions," she notes.
"We love to suggest lobster bakes, team-building kayak trips, trolley tours and the like. We want to remind attendees that they are in Maine."

Developments include the Forefront at Thompson's Point, a multipurpose complex slated to include an 80,000-square-foot events center, a 125-room hotel, and an F&B outlet with meeting and event space. The events center will offer a great deal of flexibility, with 48,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space for trade shows, as well as being a 3,500- to 4,000-seat sports arena or a 4,000-seat concert venue. Ten luxury suites will be offered in that building, and a second-floor mezzanine overlooking the action below will double as a lounge. The developers hope to begin construction by the beginning of next year, with the facility opening by fall 2013 at the earliest.

The new owners of the 200-room Eastland Park Hotel will soon embark on a major multimillion-dollar renovation, to begin in November, of the 84-year-old historic property, which will specifically target the group market. The hotel, which sits on a hill downtown in the arts and shopping district, currently has 13 meeting and event rooms, the largest of which is a 5,600-square-foot ballroom that can seat 500 theater-style. In total, the property has more than 18,600 square feet of function space. Its Top of the East lounge provides a panoramic view of the city.