While there are indications that the corporate market is starting to rebound, conference center properties are still feeling the effects of the economic downturn.
"Some are doing worse than others," says Dave Arnold, CEO, East for PKF Consulting, based in the firm’s Philadelphia office, who produces an annual conference center trends survey in conjunction with the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC). "Resorts, which were demonized, are suffering the most. Those [conference centers] that rely on corporate meetings are impacted the most after resort conference centers. Those focused on training are probably doing the best."
Despite a difficult year, there is cautious optimism among conference center operators and site selection firms such as EMCVenues and Unique Venues.
"It is getting better. Government and non-corporate business is up. Corporate is down to flat in some areas, but transient business is up all over," says Eric Terry, vice president of sales and marketing for Benchmark Hospitality, which manages more than 30 conference centers, hotels and resorts, 11 of them IACC members.
"Some markets are actually looking up from this time last year," he says, singling out such IACC properties as Lansdowne Resort near Dulles, Va., and Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Dolce Hotels & Resorts, which has 24 hotels, resorts and conference centers in North America and Europe, has seen shortened stays, smaller meetings, more day meetings and a little less spent on F&B, according to Barry Goldstein, chief revenue officer.
"The greatest drop-off by far has been in corporate business," he says. "No market has held up, but government and SMERF business has held up best. We’ve seen some stabilization and a little more activity. For 2010 we’re seeing RevPAR still flat but more opportunity for occupancy."
Last fall, Dolce launched the "Make Us an Offer…. Anything Goes" campaign, challenging meeting planners to name the price they would pay for an entire package, for meetings held through May 31, 2010.
"We’ve had a lot of success with it—a 25 percent increase in leads," Goldstein says. "We’ve had a lot more interest from corporations. In some conversations with customers, we typically find their meetings are on hold. This has helped, and it gives us an opportunity."
Peter Regan, director of sales and marketing at Wyndham Virginia Crossings Hotel & Conference Center near Richmond, Va., says that the property’s booking pace is up in comparison to a year ago, with the greatest success coming from the state association market.
"We are especially excited about the increased interest level for clients discussing dates a year out," he says. "Corporate business has become increasingly short term. It’s not uncommon for inquires to be literally a week out from arrival.
"We’ve revisited the concept of prospecting with an emphasis on creating ‘Google Alerts,’ which allows us to seek out links to qualified business opportunities that would be suitable. We have identified over 150 programs since the summer that will consider us in the future."
Nancy Crook, director of national accounts for EMCVenues, also says business is picking up, with properties continuing to offer attractive rates and value-adds.
"We are seeing lower rates across the board, of course," she says. "We are also seeing creative concessions from various properties—percentage credits back to the master are especially popular right now. The brands seem to be taking the initiative at the corporate level to streamline the discounts and packages offered.
"While there are some perception issues with resorts, lower rates all around have made some higher-end properties within reach of companies that might not have considered them two years ago."
Michele Nichols, founder of Unique Venues, reports that her company is getting more corporate leads.
"We are trending up in a lot of areas," she says. "Planners are looking at more venues during their visit to uniquevenues.com. Our leads are up a monthly average of 11 percent, interestingly with about 42 percent coming from the corporate market."
Unique Venues has about 630 member properties ranging from conference centers to museums and arenas. More than half are university and college facilities.
"Universities have always been more affordable and low frill. It makes a lot of sense to meet on a campus," Nichols says.
—Tony Bartlett has been writing for travel industry publications for over 20 years.