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Convention Competition

By wmadministrator

The Kentucky Exposition Centerin Louisville
When Paula Cravens and others help plan annual spring conferences and fall conventions for the Louisville-based Kentucky Bankers Association, a variety of meeting facilities both in and out of the state are considered, from The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan about six years ago, to this year’s convention venue at The Galt House in Louisville, held in mid-August.

Cravens, director of education for the KBA, said convention sites alternate between in- and out-of-state – last year it was held at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Usually 450 attend the fall convention, and 150 for the spring conference, she said.

Cravens said luxury accommodations and exotic locations are nice additions to any event, but at the core are the friendly, customized services meeting facilities can provide to make group gatherings memorable and pleasant.

“Those are the places that we go back to,” she said.

That’s a known fact in the industry, and one Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau President/CEO Tom Caradonio uses to lure larger gatherings of 250 or more booked hotel rooms to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington. Nearing its 10th anniversary, the center has 204,000 total square feet, of which 110,000 is meeting space.

He’s so sure, in fact, of the quality of services there – like meeting room setup and cleanup, registration assistance and reservation and audio-visual systems help – he’ll gladly offer to refund a day’s facility rental, sometimes $14,000 or more, if meeting officials aren’t satisfied.

“We wouldn’t do that if we didn’t know that our people will deliver,” he said.

The center hosts events for about 30 groups per year, with an average 1,400 to 2,000 attending each, as well as 180 other scheduled events and activities year-round, Caradonio said.

Kentucky has convention and expo centers statewide in cities both large and small, each reaping the economic benefits that result if they can remain competitive not only throughout the state and the region, but in some cases, nationally.

Of the $325 million in tourism-related economic impact in that part of northern Kentucky last year, $162 million came from lodging, which is strongly connected to convention center bookings, Caradonio said.

Harold Workman is CEO of the Kentucky State Fair Board, which oversees the fair and other major events held at the Kentucky International Convention Center, the fifth largest facility of its kind in America at 1.2 million s.f., and at the 300,000 s.f. Kentucky Exposition Center, both in Louisville.

Last year the expo center had 427 events and the convention center 296, with about 5,000 total “event days” per year between them since multiple events are held per day in many cases, Workman said.

The last economic impact study conducted for the state fair board in 2005 showed $453 million in annual economic impact from the pair of facilities’ events, though Workman says it’s likely increased – he expects it to reach up to $600 million in a scheduled 2010 study update.

Workman said the expo center downtown primarily hosts high-end events and the convention center caters to large trade shows that require more exhibition space, like the annual National Future Farmers of America Convention and the North American International Livestock Exposition.

The recently expanded convention center has 850,000 in Class A space, Workman said, allowing it to successfully compete with any convention center in the United States. He also sweetens the deal with special hotel and restaurant packages.

“The competition is fierce,” he said.

Paducah has been host to the annual American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show & Contest for the past 24 years, said Rosemarie Steele, marketing director of the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. In fact, the Paducah Expo Center’s April 2002 ribbon cutting was aligned with the society’s 18th annual gathering, which brings in about 30,000 national and international quilters and quilt enthusiasts per year, she said.

The center is located within the Executive Inn, and combined with the Julian Carroll Convention Center, offers 110,000 s.f. of convention/exhibit and meeting space. The convention hotel and the convention center are both slated for renovations, and city leaders have pledged to add 50,000 s.f. of exhibition space to the Paducah Expo Center in time for the 2010 American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show & Contest, Steele said.

“Paducah also offers a variety of facilities that cater to smaller, more intimate groups in both historic and state-of-the-art environments housed in museums, attractions, performing arts venues and local hotel/motel facilities,” Steele said.

In north central Kentucky, the Paroquet Spring Conference Centre was built in 1999 and later purchased by the Shepherdsville-Bullitt County Tourist and Convention Commission. The facility sees about 60 to 80 events per month, most from the general area, including Bardstown, Louisville, Elizabethtown and southern Indiana, said Sales Associate Jessica Brockman.

It also offers a full-service kitchen, its own waitresses and executive chef.
“All of our staff here takes a lot of care, loves the facility, loves the community,” Brockman said.

Brockman credits increased radio advertising with boosting bookings as well as representatives traveling to bridal shows to advertise the facility for wedding receptions. The center is also the site of the Salt Box gallery and gift shop, which, through the Bullitt County Arts Council, offers local juried artwork for sale along with Kentucky-themed items.

Also in Shepherdsville is another group well versed in booking meeting space – the National Quartet Convention, an annual gathering of Southern Gospel quartets and musicians that draws in 40,000 people over the course of a week, Executive Vice President Clark Beasley said.

The convention, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007, has used facilities in Nashville, Memphis and Louisville, he said, often contracting for multiyear deals through selected facilities.

This year’s convention was held at Freedom Hall and the Kentucky Fair and Expo Center in September, and Beasley said the event will likely remain in Louisville through 2014, pending successful negotiations.

Along with affordability and convenient geographical location and parking, other considerations go into the decision of where to hold the convention, he said.

“For us, space large enough to give us flexibility of programming” is important, Beasley said.

For the Kentucky Bankers Association, meeting facilities are booked between 12 and 18 months in advance to guarantee a spot, Cravens said, and in deciding on a location, she relies heavily on word of mouth from bankers who were impressed with different sites and cities they’ve visited in the past.

She’s looking at chartering a plane to reduce the costs for members and their families to travel to Colorado for next year’s convention. For the most part, she said the sluggish nationwide economy hasn’t been a factor in where the KBA gatherings are held.

Caradonio said that one economy-related trend he’s noticed is that event planners are taking particular notice of cancellation clauses, sometimes even asking for a reduced cancellation fee in the event a company or organization decides to cancel an event for financial or other reasons. These fees can be more than $20,000 for the facility booking alone, with additional “attrition fees” from hotels where blocks of rooms had been reserved then canceled, he noted. He said some facilities will agree to lower the fees if it’s going to be a deal-breaker booking the event otherwise.

Caradonio said the facility is marketed in numerous trade publications, at trade shows and industry conventions, with a target market of event planners. The bureau also offers on its Web site a 360-degree aerial view of the area, so planners can see for themselves what the area has in terms of hotels, an airport and shopping.

Caradonio said anything convention staff can do to make an event planner’s job easier is key in bringing back repeat business.

Getting customers to return, “That’s the name of the game,” he said.