Smaller-sized meetings bring in big bucks for city: Hospitality group sees value in events of all scales

August 1, 2005

Even event planners hire event planners.

When Cynthia Howell needed to plan an event in the city for a state health care organization, she called Betsy Ward, a member of the meetings team at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

With what Howell calls minimal effort on her part, the Indiana Primary Health Care Association Inc. will stay in 50 rooms for two nights at the Sheraton Indianapolis Hotel and Suites at Keystone at the Crossing this fall. The group will conduct its annual membership meeting and related activities in conference space at the hotel.

Howell, who formed InSource Network Inc., which provides third-party eventplanning services for companies whose regular planner takes an extended leave, said the ICVA team is like a one-stop shop.

"For the planner, it saves a whole day's work," Howell said. "I can send numerous faxes to hotels with my needs, or send one to the ICVA."

But what makes the team really worth its salt, she said, is that it exists to help planners organize events for groups that need 300 hotel rooms or fewer, something planners typically have to arrange on their own.

ICVA is known for helping attract large conventions in which convention-goers stay downtown, often spread across several hotels, and attend meetings and hold exhibits at the convention center. ICVA's national team helps arrange these meetings for groups that need more than 300 rooms a night.

In contrast, the meetings team works with smaller groups. The goal is to not only boost business for downtown hotels, but also for suburban hotels, a group often left out of the convention gravy train.

"It's not something large bureaus typically go after," said Susie Townsend, who heads the team as director of sales and services.

That's true, said Angela Coner, director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton where Howell's group will stay.

"They do an excellent job of extending our team to give some of us suburban hotels something we don't get otherwise," Coner said.

In fact, being included in the meetings team's suburban offering to event planners has led to a 15-percent increase in bookings over last year, she said.

The meetings team, which was formed about two years ago, includes 21 downtown and suburban hotels in its one-hotel booking list, although it does not restrict meetings to just those lodges. The 21 hotels are those that have at least 10,000 square feet of meeting space, but all 118 hotels that belong to the association are potential one-hotel meeting spots.

And Townsend's group is busy.

The team measures production by number of leads issued to hotels and the roomnights generated. A room-night is one hotel room occupied for one night regardless of the number of people occupying the room.

In fact, the six-member group is larger than the national team's five members because the number of transactions is higher for Townsend's group.

The national group's most recent quarterly goal was 93,000 room-nights; the one-hotel team's goal was 30,500. Both groups exceeded their goals, with the national team booking rooms for 25 meetings and Townsend's group booking rooms for 117.

The meetings team is able to handle the transaction load by using a customdesigned software program called Jupiter. The system maintains a database of hotels and their related particulars, including rates, meeting space, food and beverage availability, and transportation perks.

When planners like Howell call one of the meetings team's members, their group's needs are entered into Jupiter.

"Matches" are sent directly to the various hotels' sales groups via e-mail alerts that tell them to log into the Jupiter system via the Internet and pull the lead. Sometimes a group is matched with 20 hotels or more.

Either way, the hotel staff takes it from there.

Coner recently pulled a lead she received via Jupiter for the Mid-America Association of Educational Opportunity Program Personnel.

The group used about 200 rooms a night for seven nights, bringing nearly $200,000 in revenue to the hotel.

For the first six months of the year, the meetings team's nearly 67,000 room nights have generated an estimated $29.5 million in direct visitor spending, Townsend said.

During the same period, the national team confirmed just over 182,000 room nights for an estimated $126.9 million in direct visitor spending.

And while the goal is to book meetings that fit in one hotel, sometimes a group needs something a little different.

When the American Rabbit Breeders Association comes to town in October, they'll stay three nights at several suburban hotels. But instead of using hotel space for their convention, they'll use the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

"Hotels don't allow rabbits," Townsend said.

In addition to providing a one-stop shop for hotel accommodations, the meetings team provides out-of-town planners with ideas for social activities and insights into the city.

The Sigma Nu Fraternity chose Indi anapolis over Chicago and Austin for its biannual grand chapter meeting partly due to the meetings team being available to aid the group's planning.

"They showed me the nooks and crannies I wouldn't know about as an outsider," said Jeff Feighner, who is planning the chapter's 200-room-night meeting next summer.

And while the events the meetings team helps arrange are categorized as small, Townsend doesn't think the identifier is applicable.

"It's not small," she said. "Because for one hotel, it's huge."
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