Meetings, Group Business in Sights

Hoteliers unite, court meeting planners

SUN NEWS – (January 2012) – By Dawn Bryant dbryant@thesunnews.com

You might start seeing more visitors with conference nametags wandering around town or stepping out of motorcoaches if the new strategies promoters are using to lure these types of groups to the Grand Strand work.

The Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and lodging properties with lots of meeting space have tweaked their recruiting tactics in recent months aiming to bring more groups and conventions to the beach – just as that segment of travel starts to slowly rebound nationally after years of drastic cutbacks amid the wobbly economy.

Group business – which mainly includes annual conventions, meetings, sports events and motorcoach tours is a small sliver, about 10 percent, of the overall number of visitors to the Grand Strand each year – leisure vacationers dominate, of course. But most meetings happen in the spring and fall, making it an ideal type of business for the Grand Strand to supplement the busy summer season, experts say.

“It seems like the perfect match,” said Bill Geist of Zeitgeist Consulting, which studied the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau’s efforts and suggested ways to improve a few months ago. “They are meeting when you need rooms.”

Promoters have tweaked their efforts to get groups to the beach, shifting more advertising online, dropping trade shows that didn’t entice groups to come here and adding more shows that have scheduled appointments with prospective groups instead of staffing a booth hoping a meeting planner will stop by.

And some of the main meeting hotels have done something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago amid a fiercely competitive environment: They pooled money and went together to pitch the Grand Strand to meeting planners in major cities, including Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Memphis and Chicago. That four-city tour wrapped up just before the holidays, and local hotels already are following up leads from those visits, they said.

The goal of the collaboration was to share costs to meet with planners they might not be able to see otherwise, while luring more group business to the beach. It’s a shift from the competitive tradition in which meeting hotels were reluctant to promote the groups meeting there, afraid another property might try to take that business. Each property advertised and promoted separately.

“We got out of that mindset,” said Sabena Dayton, sales and marketing director at Embassy Suites at Kingston Plantation, where half of the business is from groups, down from 60 percent a few years ago. “It’s going to benefit everybody.

“It really got our name out there. It definitely paid off.”

The new tactics come as meeting business is starting to pick up nationally, experts say. During the recession, businesses pulled back on attending conferences, but it’s starting to return. Geist predicts a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in meetings this year.

“People realized that they have to meet,” Geist said. “There is no other way to network, solve problems.”

Grand Strand meeting properties also expect this year to be better than 2011.

Kingston Plantation, where group business was up 3 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, expects about 10 percent growth this year and already is seeing signs of the meeting business picking up with more government retreats and some associations coming back, Dayton said. This week, more than 700 people met there for the Southeast Regional Reading Recovery Association.

“It’s definitely on the incline,” Dayton said. “A lot of people have gotten out of being scared [because of the economy]. Groups are coming out of their shell saying, ‘We have to have these meetings to be successful.’”

But many of the meetings across the country aren’t as lavish or long as they used to be, and planners often are looking for affordable destinations, which benefits the Grand Strand, he said. Meetings and conventions provide the biggest opportunity for the beach to grow group business, Geist said.

“That is really the one we will focus more strongly on,” said Danna Lilly, sales director at the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. There’s opportunities out there…. It is turning around all over. People are starting to book groups, book business again.”

The CVB has shifted money to online ads, which officials say contributed to a 48 percent increase in traffic to the group website last year. In 2009, 45 percent of the CVB’s advertising was in print; it’s 10 percent this year. The CVB spends about $1 million a year on advertising, attending shows, bringing planners here to experience the area and other marketing, Lilly said. Last year, the CVB produced a new video showing off the area to meeting planners.

Hotels with significant meeting space applaud the shift in promotion and say inquiries are up and prospective groups can get information about the area easier now online. But there are still challenges for the beach to be a major player in the meetings market, including its reputation as just a place to go on vacation – not a likely place to have meetings – and the difficulty for some to fly here, experts say.

The beach needs more flights, especially during the spring and fall when most meetings happen, as well as Interstate 73 to make it more convenient for drive-in business, said Cindy Hull, sales director at the Myrtle Beach Marriott at Grande Dunes.

“The hurdle is getting people in here,” she said. “People want easy access.”

Geist said that shouldn’t deter the beach, because it can still cater to regional groups. The biggest challenge is convincing meeting planners that the beach can be more than a place to play and has the space and amenities to cater to groups, he said. He suggested the CVB hire more sales representatives to go after business, increase its public relations and schedule more one-on-one sessions with meeting planners.

“It still comes down to face-to-face often times,” Geist said.

Getting the word out about what Myrtle Beach can offer for meetings, not just to vacationers, is crucial, he said.

“Myrtle is probably not top of mind yet [for meetings], but it should be,” Geist said.

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 843-626-0296

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