Clients seek value, convenience, technology and green sensibilities.
by Lauren Caggiano
Like many aspects of life and business, the economic viability of downtowns across the area has a profound impact on the event and meeting planning industries. Meeting planners from Northern Indiana venues weigh in on trends in customer service, food and beverage service, technology and building relationships.
Jill Scicchitano, general manager of the Century Center, oversees the day-to-day operations of the 225,000-square-foot convention center in downtown South Bend. Scicchitano offers some insight on the shifting focus from the business segment to more entertainment niches.
“We continue to see a strong mix of business at the Century Center, however over the past year we have specifically seen a trend in increased special events,” she says. For example, the facility has hosted everything from large live musical acts to interactive and unique shows open to the public such as “Discover the Dinosaurs” in December.
Marcy McKinley, director of sales and marketing for the Grand Wayne Convention Center in Fort Wayne, says events tend to be more traditional. “The religious market continues to be one of our highest-producing markets. The corporate market is also seeing an increase in bookings,” she says.
For all types of events, a critical part of the experience is dining. In general, event organizers are always looking for unique and healthy options for their events. Specifically, Scicchitano says there is a growing trend in farm-to-table experiences.
Another observation: “We also see the real desire for value in the product that is served. Healthy options, quality presentation and affordability are all factors that are being sought.”
Similarly, McKinley says smaller portions, almost bite-size portions, are becoming popular. Caterers also are providing nutritional information in their menus, she notes.
That need for transparency carries over into other elements of event planning. Deann Patena, director of sales and marketing at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza in Merrillville, says the green factor and social responsibility are big players in event planning. For example, clients are asking for glasses as opposed to plastic cups. “A lot of the green elements are almost expected,” she says. The hotel also donates leftover food to the local food bank.
This expectation has become so commonplace there are several meeting planner associations dedicated to helping clients reduce their environmental footprint. For example, the Green Meeting Industry Council, a non-profit organization whose mission is to transform the global meetings industry through sustainability, has grown to have members in 20 countries. The organization champions the implementation of sustainability practices and provides advocacy, education, resources and recognition of industry leadership.
In addition to the green factor, the demand for technology is growing every day. That's why in fall 2012 Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels & Resorts launched its “Group Bill” technology, a real-time billing and tracking system developed with the needs of planners in mind. This free system is touted for its ability to allow meeting planners to track and reconcile costs daily from the comfort of their own computer or workspace. The interactive PDF offers planners a table of contents, general summaries with hyperlinks back to the original charge, distinguishing colors, extra white space to ease eyestrain, multiple levels of billing detail, and a reduction in desk cluttering paperwork.
Hyatt's Steve Enselein, vice president corporate catering and convention services, sums up the technology's utility: “It takes time-consuming tasks off the meeting planner, and allows for more time with the guests.”
Like the Hyatt, McKinley says the Grand Wayne is committed to reduce the amount of time and energy clients have to expend. For example, the technology department has seen an increased demand for high-definition video screens.
“Speakers are preparing their presentations to be more high-def friendly, and venues have followed suit with new equipment to accommodate this trend,” she explains.
Scicchitano says the Century Center is committed to providing an up-to-date venue, technology being one of the “most critical elements.” For example, Wi-Fi has been installed and has quite the capacity for volume and speed.
For Josh Ingle, that's good news. The co-owner of AudioBahn Productions in Mishawaka, Ingle's business specializes in providing state-of-the-art audio and visual technology to hotels, convention centers and entertainment halls across the Midwest. Besides his own business, Ingle is a sound engineer for the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame.
“What you have to do is look at your return on investment. You have to balance what you buy and use vs. what we can subcontract,” says Ingle. That means learning the capability of each venue and learning what it has and what he can bring to enhance it.
“You have to make sure your equipment doesn't get old,” says Ingle, adding that audio equipment has a longer shelf life than video equipment.
“You have to really know what your customers want. You have to talk to them and make sure what they want.”
From his warehouse on 10 acres of rural St. Joseph County land, Ingle has used that philosophy to wire venues from the LaPorte Civic Auditorium for a Clint Black concert to outdoor pep rallies at the University of Notre Dame to the Venetian Festival in St. Joseph, Mich., to dozens of conference rooms and meeting places for corporate events and meetings. Ingle adds that it all has to be done as quickly and economically as possible.
And speaking of speed, Scicchitano has noticed a change in the timeframe of bookings. While the short-term business still is prevalent today, she says planners are seeing future-year bookings trending earlier than they have been. The local and regional base of business continues to be strong and is anticipated to continue, she notes.
McKinley is just as optimistic. “The number of meetings is beginning to come back,” she says. “It is nice to have the challenge again of wondering how to fit all the groups in. 2013 is a big year for us with an expected 52 to 55 conventions projected for the year.”
Patena offers a conflicting anecdote, however. “There has been a short booking window for companies. They're not booking as fast. People don't want to make decisions as quickly.”
But similar to Scicchitano's experiences, she cites an upswing in regional events, to likely cut down on travel expenses common with national conferences.
Angela Gaghan, director of sales and catering, Blue Chip Casino Hotel & Spa in Michigan City, offers a different perspective from that of an entertainment venue. Still, there is that same desire for recession-friendly rates.
“Corporate is still looking for short term and wants package rates that include room rates and event space.” With regard to associations, more conventions are leaning towards adding more networking opportunities (i.e. receptions, hospitalities, etc.), as opposed to sit-down banquets. Regardless of type of group or event, Patena says what keeps clients coming back is that sense of familiarity.
“People want that comfort level,” she says. “You have more leverage when you work with a client on a regular basis. It's that one-on-one relationship.”
And Scicchitano doesn't see these values going away anytime soon. “Being able to provide a unique atmosphere with options, flexibility, ease of doing business and value is critical for continued success.”
Indeed attracting clients is key to keeping the meeting industry afloat. Put simply, the numbers speak for themselves. “The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy” study, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP assisted by a team of industry researchers, spanned more than a year in research and analysis and is the first-ever study of the size and scope of its kind.
Among its findings: the U.S. meetings industry directly supports 1.7 million jobs, $263 billion in spending, a $106 billion share of the GDP, $60 billion in labor revenue, $14.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $11.3 billion in state and local tax revenue each year.