Drive-in destinations are a mainstay for groups looking for the advantages of affordable, accessible, and convenient event options.
Following a year of unprecedented travel complexities, the choice for roadway travel has seen a boost in interest from meeting planners.
Take, for example, the United Church of God’s annual Feast of Tabernacles, a regional meeting held in Panama City Beach, Fla. Of the more than 550 people who attended the event in 2020, 75 percent chose to drive a personal vehicle and nine percent rented a car.
“The vast majority of people obviously drove. I think many people, under normal circumstances would have flown there, but were hesitant to get on a plane,” said Charles Melear, conference planner. “Of those driving, 10 percent took 10 to 12 hours to arrive, and 12 percent took more than 12 hours to arrive. Most attendees would have driven the distance in less than one day.”
Destination marketing professionals quickly point out that in recent months, meeting attendance has correlated with participants feeling safe.
“Some attendees might not be comfortable flying at the moment, and offering an easy drivable destination is an added benefit to meeting planners and conferences,” said Jamie Koshofer, vice president of conventions at the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
According to Tammy Clampet, director of sales at Visit Hot Springs/Hot Springs Convention Center and Bank OZK Arena, attendees prefer to be in control of their own transportation. She notes many attendees consider factors such as who they are traveling with and ease of social distancing.
“A drive-to meeting destination allows the attendee more control of their surroundings, and ability to socially distance when traveling,” Clampet noted.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, safety has become a key factor for drivable destinations, but in truth, these locales are attractive for many other reasons. Here are a few:
Delayed flights, long layovers, and crowded airplanes—flying can present many challenges even without the safety concerns of a pandemic. This is especially true for conferences or meetings that only last a couple of days, as arriving and leaving on time can be critical.
Consequently, destinations like Shreveport-Bossier, La., Hot Springs, Ark. and Huntsville, Ala., which are easily accessed by roadway from a variety of major cities, are attractive for many planners.
“Approximately 65 percent of Shreveport-Bossier’s meetings business is drive-in,” said David Bradley, vice president of sales and services at the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau. “We are conveniently located in the northwest corner of Louisiana where I-20 and I-49 converge, approximately five hours away from both New Orleans and Austin, three and a half hours away from Dallas-Ft. Worth, and three hours away from Little Rock.”
Koshofer pointed out that Huntsville is also drivable from many major cities—just two hours from Nashville, three and a half hours from Atlanta and Memphis, and just over six hours from St. Louis. “Short-term conferences tend to be more regional and drivable,” he said. “However, the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau is working with conferences for future years that will bring attendees from around the country.”
According to Clampet, attendees from Dallas, Memphis, and Tulsa can easily reach Hot Springs in four and a half hours or less, and Shreveport is less than three hours away.
Panama City Beach has quickly become an ideal destination for meetings and conferences in the , according to Renee Lalanne-Wuerdeman, vice president of sales at Visit Panama City Beach, who also noted that each of the area’s north-south highways connect to Interstate 10.
“We’re within a day’s drive from most of the southeast U.S., and we’re easy to get to. Highway 79 is the most direct driving route into Panama City Beach, with Highways 231, 331, and 77 all connecting to U.S. Highway 98, or as the locals call it, Back Beach Road,” she said. “The city offers a unique visitor experience of a smaller Southern city, combined with the expertise and resources of a city that hosts nearly and value, with exceptional accommodations at a competitive cost.”
Cost is often a key factor for choosing a drive-in destination. Not only are costly airline tickets excluded from the equation, but attendees do not have to rent a vehicle or pay for additional modes of transportation upon arrival.
In addition, Clampet noted that many drive-in destinations fall into the mid-sized or small market category, offering more affordable accommodations, facilities, and food and beverage options. “Cost is generally lower in a drive-to market, whether it is meeting space, hotels, or catering,” she said. “Drive-to markets seem to have more flexibility to work with meeting planners to use space creatively.”
With the right package of options, drive-in markets can also boost attendance as the value proposition is higher on the cost front. Yet industry professionals caution event planners to look for hidden costs associated with parking fees, valet service, and tolls. Clampet said many drive-in destinations offer plentiful parking, with much of it at no charge.
Flexibility and Convenience
Drive-to destinations offer flexibility for attendees to bring family members, extend their time to fully experience a destination, or pivot to a different locale. It also offers them convenient access to attractions.
Koshofer believes destinations that are easy to navigate and have many attractions are easy wins for individual or family entertainment outside of a meeting. Notably, attendees can travel from one side of Huntsville to the other in less than 20 minutes.
“The number-one attraction in the state of Alabama, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, is always a must-see.” Koshofer said. “Once you complete that stop, other must-see attractions would the Huntsville Botanical Gardens, Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville Museum of Art, Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, and Huntsville Downtown.”
Bradley noted that Shreveport-Bossier is extremely easy to navigate by car and offers rideshare options. “Within one mile of the Shreveport Convention Center in downtown, there are five riverboat casinos, many dining and nightlife options, East Bank District, and attractions such as the Shreveport Aquarium, Bayou Axe Throwing Co., Sci-Port Discovery Center, Southern University Museum of Art, and Festival Plaza, where many festivals are held,” he said.
According to Clampet, easy navigation within the city of Hot Springs encourages travelers to get outdoors.
“Mountains and Hot Springs National Park are located right in the middle of our downtown,” she said. “Accessibility to outdoor activities, such as Northwoods Trails for mountain biking and hiking; Garvan Woodland Gardens for enjoying nature; and Lake Hamilton, Lake Catherine, and Lake Ouachita for fishing, boating, and all things water-related, make Hot Springs a popular choice for recreation.”
In Panama City Beach, drive-in attendees have direct access to the region’s famed beaches from major highways and county roads.
“Upon entering Panama City Beach, you will find wayfinding assistance throughout the city and all the information a visitor could need at our visitor center, situated at the convergence of two major access roads,” said Lalanne-Wuerdeman.