Conference Centers Rework Their Pitches

By Heather Baldwin

With corporate travel and meeting budgets slashed as companies struggle to weather the tough economy, the conference center industry finds itself in the unusual position of having to ramp up its marketing efforts. “We’ve had so many good years we haven’t had to focus on marketing to customers,” says Joe Sebestyen, president of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC). “Now we almost need to throw away the old plan and look outside for some new ideas.” So what are conference centers doing to win your business these days? Sebestyen says meeting planners should expect to see some of the following initiatives:

Local Flavor. Conference centers will be looking in their own backyards for new opportunities, targeting companies within about a 100-mile radius of the center. Why? Not only are limited budgets forcing companies to look at meeting sites closer to home, but “people have concerns about traveling today,” says Sebestyen, and driving to a nearby conference center offers a safe alternative to travel by air. “I think there are huge opportunities right under our noses,” he says.

Phone Calls. Smart conference centers will be calling their best customers to check in with them, see how things are going and see if they can be of assistance in any way. Sebestyen, who is also general manager of the Marriott Conference Center in Norman, OK, says those types of calls got him two new meetings booked by meeting planners who were grateful to be thought of without having to hear a sales pitch.

More Sales Staff. It might be difficult for conference centers to swallow, but now’s the time they need to add a sales manager or beef up the sales staff, says Sebestyen, so expect to see a renewed focus on sales.

Increased Attention. Expect conference centers to be working doubly hard to win your business. Sebestyen recalls one group who stopped by to look at his Marriott as a possible conference location. When they expressed concern that one room didn’t look like it seated 500, Sebestyen didn’t just draw a diagram, he set up the entire room so they could see the layout for themselves. And he e-mailed answers to all their questions before they even made it back to the office. The result: “We got a quarter million dollars in business over that weekend visit,” says Sebestyen. “They said no one had spent as much time with them as we did.”