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by Lisa Grimaldi | May 01, 2010
First-Rate Third Tiers

Second-tier cities aren't the only ones that fared well on the meetings front; in fact, experts cite several third-tier spots for their increased appeal to meeting groups. Among them are California's capital city of Sacramento and Lexington, Ky.

Lexington stands out for its relatively high occupancy rates. While most U.S. cities, large and small, saw double-digit declines in occupancy for 2009, according to Smith Travel Research, the Kentucky city was down by less than 3 percent last year.

Dennis Johnston, vice president, destination sales, for the Lexington Convention Bureau, attributes the impressive numbers to a bump in regional meetings and a diversified meetings base. "We are a player in military, fraternal and religious markets, though our biggest market is sports," he notes, citing as an example the 32 international equestrian associations based in the city.
 
One new area of growth has been in small corporate meetings from clients who want to meet closer to home. "Though we don't have a corporate base here, we're within driving distance of Cincinnati, Louisville (Ky.) and Indianapolis," Johnston says, adding that October 2009 was the strongest month in the bureau's history, due in part to the corporate sector.

In Sacramento, bookings are up nearly 20 percent this year, according to Steve Hammond, president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. While the city draws regional and state groups, Hammond says the increase is coming from national associations, in large part due to the city's affordability (the average daily room rate is approximately $94). He adds that interest is now coming from corporate groups and research institutions who focus on issues such as land management, alternative energy, urban development, education and health care.  -- L.G.

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While many major U.S. destinations are still trying to recoup meetings business lost over the past two years, a group of second-tier cities has weathered the downturn better than most and is seeing an increase in bookings in 2010 and beyond. Here's a closer look at some of these growing meetings markets.

Indianapolis
Helping to drive this city's spike in meetings are a host of new venues and hotels, including the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, and the new Conseco Fieldhouse sports/exhibition facility. To open next year is the 34-story, 1,005-room JW Marriott Indianapolis, which will connect via sky bridge to the Indiana Convention Center and offer 104,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 40,500-square-foot ballroom.

But the main draw for groups is the $275 million addition to the Indiana Convention Center, to debut in January 2011 and which includes 254,000 square feet of exhibit space that, when combined with Lucas Oil Stadium next door, brings total space to 749,100 square feet.

All of this "has given us the chance to go after mega-conventions that need 1,000-plus rooms per night," says Don Welsh, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitor Association. Indeed, the number of citywide conventions will jump from 40 this year to 50 in 2011, says Welsh, and the bulk of new business is large citywides that will take place in 2012 and 2013.

Indianapolis also benefits from its glamour-free image and an average daily room rate of $135, with 4,700 guest rooms and 200 restaurants within walking distance of the convention center.

Denver
According to 2009 Metropoll, a biennial survey of meeting planners by Gerard Murphy & Associates, the Mile High City ranked 11th (out of 80 U.S. cities) as the most popular destination for corporate meetings, up from 20th in 2007.

Denver also is reaping the benefits of the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center (to 792,000 square feet for exhibits) and addition of the adjacent 100-room Hyatt Regency Denver. As a result, says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, convention business has increased since 2005 by 62 percent.

"We're also seen as a good place to get work done; our amenities are not a distraction," says Scharf. Other factors include 8,300 downtown hotel rooms (43,000 overall) and an average daily room rate of $140.88, per the CVB.

Fort Lauderdale
This ocean-fronted Florida city had very little fall-off in its occupancy rates last year -- 3.4 percent, according to Smith Travel Research, and this in a year when many cities saw double-digit decreases.

The destination is seeing a rise in domestic incentive business due to its recent focus on attracting motivational events, says Nicki E. Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has made a concerted effort to shed the city's "spring break" party image in favor of meetings and higher-end tourists.

Fort Lauderdale also has enjoyed increased international incentive business and medical conferences due, says Grossman, to the value these events get for the U.S. dollar. With an average daily room rate of $150.88, she notes, "we're a luxury destination, but an affordable one."