By Ashley Wright
From convention centers in large metropolitan areas that offer the hustle and bustle of urban life to expo halls in smaller towns with a slower pace and hometown charm, the South is filled with a variety of large event spaces that can meet the needs of almost any meeting planner.
Large Event Facilities Offer Flexibility
Although these spaces are more than capable of fitting larger groups into their sizable square footage, they also can offer unique spaces and options for groups of smaller sizes. All you have to do is ask and bring some creative ideas and an open mind.
Smaller meetings are also often the bread and butter of hotels and cities because they offer short lead times and can ft in between larger groups and meetings. Thus, smaller groups are important to destinations and planners love to work with teams on creating one-of-a-kind events that utilize their larger spaces in new ways.
At the Austin (Texas) Convention Center, Amy Harris, director of sales, said that although larger groups are often the focus of the center, their flexible meeting space allows for a number of different room sets, which enables tremendous flexibility in setting up small groups in any part of the facility.
Festive Food Functions
Several smaller groups have utilized the creativity of the Austin Convention Center’s food and beverage staff to maximize the advantages of gathering in a large space, according to Harris. “Our catering team is very nimble and can set up concession areas virtually anywhere in the building,” she said. “Balconies, terraces and foyers are located all around the building and can be used for food and beverage functions, breaks, etcetera, with alternative-style seating: couches, bouncy balls, high boys. Not only does it utilize the center’s space but also offers a fun and unique experience for attendees to remember and enjoy.”
Using these separate spaces for meals is another way for smaller groups to maximize their return on booking larger spaces. “Attendees like having a separate space for meals and breaks because it allows them to transition out of a focused work mode, really take a break, and go back in prepared to be alert and engaged again,” said Sarah Cobb, a senior events manager with the Columbia (S.C.) Metropolitan Convention Center.
She also suggested creating lounge space in unused areas of larger meeting facilities to provide extra networking space for smaller groups. “Using space for a lounge area changes the tone of the event and really allows for more comfortable conversation and relationship building,” she said.
Smaller groups also give staffs at convention centers and expo halls more ability to provide upscale food choices and more resources such as themed decorations, said
Walter Tipton, convention center manager for the Natchez (Miss.) Convention Center. “For example, yesterday we had a planning meeting involving the board of the Mississippi Library Association, about 16 people. We had our chef prepare two dozen scones – blueberry and strawberry – where normally we would just provide donuts and coffee. With smaller meetings it is easier to upscale the amenities.”
Another creative meal idea, used when the facility hosted a smaller group a few years ago, was a lunch served family-style in which the food was brought out to the tables and passed around. “It went over very well. You rarely see this at large functions,” Tipton said.
Generating The Wow Factor
There are also ways to create ambiance and additional “wow” factors in larger spaces. For example, using large audio-visual setups can generate a huge wow factor for an event and really fill a large room, said Cobb. She also suggested using greenery and lighting to fill the space and add ambiance to plain meeting rooms.
In general, booking at convention centers means that groups don’t have to go outside the venue to book special types of services, such as décor and food and beverage. They can also take advantage of perks not offered in other types of venues and enjoy the prime locations that expo halls occupy in their respective cities. “Perks to contracting the Austin Convention Center include no food and beverage minimum and a one-stop shop for small events – catering, utilities, Internet and security are all in house – and a downtown location,” she said.
If a smaller group prefers to seek out convention centers or expo halls but doesn’t want to utilize their larger spaces, many facilities can offer ideas on how to utilize various spaces other than the larger halls themselves.