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October 16, 2008
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January 9-11, 2009
New Orleans, Louisiana
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The New Cityscape

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dave Kovaleski

Article is from Association Meetings magazine’s February 2008 issue.

When considering destinations for her association's annual meeting, Deirdre Ross, director of conference services at the American Library Association, looks at a variety of criteria, including whether or not the convention center is in a downtown location. In other words, it has to be walkable for her attendees.

“It's not the deciding factor, but it's definitely a big issue when I consider cities because that's what attendees like,” says Ross, who plans two major meetings a year for the Chicago-based association — a 25,000-attendee annual meeting and a 10,000-attendee midwinter meeting. “They like to be downtown and they like to walk to things” — theaters, restaurants, museums — and enjoy all the convenience and activities that cities offer, she says. “We want our attendees to be happy and we need the attendance.”

It's so important for ALA attendees to be downtown that it's actually written into the association's guidelines that all hotel rooms must be within a 12-block radius of meeting rooms. It's not always possible, but that's what Ross shoots for.

And it's not just librarians who like to get out and stroll the meeting destination sights. As a regular attendee of her association's annual meeting, Sharon Harrison says that she too prefers to meet in pedestrian-friendly destinations.

“Having the hotels in close proximity to one another is important,” says Harrison, associate professor, economics department, Barnard College/Columbia University, New York, N.Y. She frequently attends the American Economic Association's annual meeting, including this year's convention, January 3 to 6, in New Orleans, which is often cited as one of the more walkable U.S. cities. Because attendees often have private meetings and reunions with friends and associates at a convention, it's nice to be able to get from one hotel to another quickly and easily, says Harrison. Plus, Harrison says she doesn't like waiting for shuttle buses. “I prefer to walk.”

More Than a Walk in the Park

While attendees appreciate a walkable city, just meeting downtown can be a challenge, especially with an organization as large as the ALA. Ross says her destination options are constrained by the fact that there are only so many cities that can accommodate a 25,000-person meeting. Over the past few years, ALA has met in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In coming years the association will meet in Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando; and Las Vegas, in addition to taking some return trips to destinations they've visited in the past.

Another problem with downtown meetings, states Ross, is that large cities can be expensive. “The biggest challenge is the rate,” says Ross. “I'm shell shocked: $270 per night? People can't afford that,” she adds. “It's becoming an issue. People will double up on rooms if it gets too high.”

The association usually blocks a couple hundred dorm rooms at local universities and offers them on a first-come, first-served basis at discount rates.

Still, skyrocketing room costs in many first-tier cities are causing ALA, and many other associations, to look further afield than they have in the past for downtown packages for their smaller meetings. “We are starting to look at smaller downtown cities for our midwinter meeting,” says Ross, places like Indianapolis and St. Louis. While smaller cities can't accommodate annual meetings the size of ALA's, they can be a good fit for smaller conventions.

Whatever size city you choose, there are cost benefits to staying downtown. For example, while most destinations require shuttle service whatever the distance between the hotels and the convention center, a tight rooms package can help defray transportation costs. ALA gets shuttle bus service sponsored each year, so transportation costs are not a factor, says Ross.

So far, high room rates have not dampened ALA attendees' enthusiasm for meeting downtown. But if they do, and attendance suffers because of it, ALA planners will consider other options. “Right now, downtown is what they want, so that's what we'll do.”

The Most Walkable Convention Destinations

Every year, publications come out with lists of the most walkable cities in America. But just because tourists find them walkable doesn't mean they are pedestrian-friendly for convention-goers.

Here is a list, culled from conversations with industry experts, of the most walkable convention cities, based on the number of hotel rooms within roughly a quarter of a mile of the convention center and accessible by foot to downtown.

• Anaheim
• Baltimore
• Charlotte
• Denver
• Houston
• Indianapolis
• Las Vegas
• New Orleans
• Philadelphia
• San Antonio
• San Diego
• San Francisco
• Seattle
• Washington, D.C.

“Las Vegas is the outlier in any discussion,” says Robert Canton, director of the convention and tourism practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers. There are between 17,000 and 23,000 hotel rooms within close proximity of the Sands Expo Center and Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Beyond that, there are about a dozen other “downtown destinations” with between 4,000 and 8,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center and an array of restaurants, shops, and downtown attractions.

City Spotlight

One city that's on the move is Indianapolis, which is in the process of expanding its convention center by 254,000 square feet and building a new 63,000-seat downtown stadium for exhibitions and events, slated to open this August, that will be connected to the center expansion and eight downtown hotels. The projects will cost $1 billion and nearly double the amount of exhibit space. Also, some 1,500 new hotel rooms are being built around the convention center — all within walking distance of the center and stadium.

Doug Bennett, vice president of sales at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Authority, says the stadium space will be used primarily for stand-alone state and regional events. By accommodating these space-heavy, hotel room-light regional events, it will take pressure off the convention center, says Bennett. However, it also gives the destination the ability to handle mega-events that require space in both venues. Lucas Oil Stadium will be used for events 185 to 200 days a year, he adds.
This June, just before the new stadium opens, the old stadium, the RCA Dome, will be demolished, making way for the expansion of the convention center. The expansion will be built where the RCA Dome currently sits.

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