(Pictured) In Aspen, Colo., fall is one of the most popular seasons for meetings.
In a volatile world of political turmoil, economic uncertainty, extreme weather and other unsettling factors, it's no wonder that when some associations find a place that's a good fit, they return again and again. The allure of the destination, the comfort of seeing familiar faces or the ease of working with the same partners are just a few of the reasons why associations keep coming back to their favorite sites and venues.
Location, location, location
For the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, Santa Fe, N.M., fits the bill. The group holds its annual meeting in the city every four to five years, and at least one smaller meeting there once a year -- and has been doing so for decades.
The reason is simple, says Mark Holland, who serves as the associate director of the Westminster, Colo.-based organization and organizes its meetings: "Our attendees love Santa Fe. The foundation first went there in 1990 for its annual July meeting, and it was a huge success. The food is wonderful, the art is amazing and the culture is distinctive."
Another attendee favorite is Hawaii, where the Foundation for Research and Education in Dermatology has held a yearly gathering since 2012 and is already booked through 2022. According to Mary Neister, vice president of Meet Hawaii, FRED rotates between the islands of Maui, Kauai and Hawaii, allowing the group "an exotic destination with cultural significance, but also an environment that differs dramatically from island to island."
FRED attendees are encouraged to bring their families to the association's annual events. The overall goal, says Dr. Darrell Rigel, a scientific director for the organization, is to learn and have fun, and "we try to do a little of both."
Silverthorne, Colo.-based Keystone Symposia, which holds 60 conferences a year on molecular and cellular biology, has a number of favored destinations that the group returns to often, including Keystone and Breckenridge, Colo.; Snowbird, Utah; Vancouver, Whistler and Banff, Canada; and Dublin, Ireland.
Keystone's conference coordinator, Lindsay Heilmann, says most of their meetings take place during the winter season at ski resorts, with education sessions held in the morning and evening so attendees can enjoy the slopes in the afternoon. But she notes that this schedule also holds for other cities and resorts with nary a slope on which to schuss. "It's important to get them out of the speaking sessions and in an interesting place so they can network and talk about their research," says Heilmann.
The organization is looking to add additional cities. "There are many reasons we come back to a site over and over again," says Heilmann. "We consider strong and longstanding relationships with the site, its cost effectiveness, how much our attendees enjoy the area, good food, the ease of getting to and from the site, safety, the cost, and the fun things to do and see during attendees' free time."
What to put in a multiyear deal
intend to return often to the same place should consider a multiyear contract, says Andrew Rosuck, director of sales and marketing for Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, in Key West, Fla. "Not all regions or times of year are as strong as others," he notes. "There are certain times of year that we look for more group business. That's where multiyear contracts are a win-win for hotels and groups."
The concept worked for Mark Holland of the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation. His group is now booked through 2027 at a Colorado hotel he has used since 2007, since he learned the hotel would undergo a renovation that likely would lead to higher room rates.
Sources advise that such deals include the following:
1. Room rate. Lock in the rate or establish a small rise for each year of the contract.
2. Concessions. See what might be offered, including little or no attrition costs, free coffee breaks, reduced F&B pricing, and free Internet or A/V rental.
3. Site inspections. Have the contract include one scheduled site inspection every year leading up to the meeting dates.
4. Extras. Request value-added support such as signage or other greetings at the airport and perks for your executives or board members, such as complimentary airport transfers and upgraded rooms.
5. Negotiate an out. Include a clause that states if there is any change in brand or star rating, the group can cancel without liability.
6. Flexibility. Be sure to build in flexibility on cancellation dates, attrition, and potential changes in venues or F&B.
Working with favored hotels
Aspen, Colo., is eager for repeat business, says Justin Todd, director of sales and marketing for the 179-room St. Regis Aspen. While a draw for skiers, the property sees its bulk of meetings activity in the summer and fall, when leisure business drops off, he notes. Groups often consider a number of mountain destinations, but once they find their perfect spot, they tend to come back. "They know what they're going to get when it comes to the physical product and service levels, and don't have to reinvent their program each time," Todd says.
That sense of assurance also comes from longtime relationships with the staff. "Our preconference meetings feel like a family coming back together," Todd says. "When planners can see 80 to 90 percent of the same faces year after year, it leads to an overall confidence."
At Aspen's Little Nell hotel, "when we welcome our groups back, we always say 'welcome home,'" says Jennifer Carlson, senior group sales manager for the 92-room property. "That sentiment resonates with them."
Seasoned staff are a major reason groups decide to extend a relationship, says Nancy Nachman, owner and chief connecting officer at the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Meetings Concierge, which handles site selection for hundreds of conferences globally. "If hotels retain their staff, it means they're treating the staff incredibly well, which means they're treating the guests well."
The staff at the 311-room Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, in Key West, Fla., is a key reason the Washington, D.C.-based Public Affairs Council has returned annually for more than 12 years. "Seeing familiar faces has developed a sense of consistency, understanding and mutual commitment to a great event," notes Rikki Amos, the group's director, U.S. public affairs practice.
Familiarity with a hotel helps when it's time to change things up, says Amos. "You already know what is possible with the location and how some of your new ideas might work. It's much easier to brainstorm with them, because they already have a sense of how we operate and what our attendees like."
The Tysons, Va.-based National Automobile Dealers Association has been holding citywide conventions in New Orleans since 1973 and uses the 1,622-room Hilton New Orleans Riverside as its headquarters hotel. Part of the attraction is being adjacent to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. However, according to J. Melissa Wolpert, director of convention services and operations for NADA, it's the relationships with the staff that make the partnership so special. "We've worked together for many years, and they are family," says Wolpert.
At the Hawaii Convention Center, such partnerships go beyond the on-site staff and to the community through the facility's Elele Program, which "enlists the support of community leaders, known as ambassadors, who have ties to professional organizations with national and international meetings," says Teri Orton, general manager of the center.
"There's a word we use here in Hawaii -- ho'okipa -- which means unconditional giving," says Mary Neister, vice president of Meet Hawaii. "It's our responsibility to give guests an experience that leaves them rejuvenated, refreshed and wanting to return."