By Selena Chavis
The challenges of 2020 may have had deep impacts on the meetings industry, but many markets across the south continue to forge ahead with infrastructure investments aimed at staying fresh and one step ahead of the competition.
Pivot has been the buzzword this year, and it seems to be something the hospitality industry does very well, according to Milos Davidovic, general manager of the Barbary Beach House Key West.
“That does not just mean a change of direction; it means adjusting offerings, introducing new protocols, and experimenting with new products and services to stay competitive in today’s extraordinarily complex marketplace,” he noted.
Ray Hoyt, president of Tulsa Regional Tourism, recognizes the relevancy in tourism, even during challenging times.
“The vibrancy of our spaces communicates a lot to event planners and attendees; it portrays an image of our destination that we not only take care of our facilities, but also our clients,” he said. “The appearance of our buildings is sometimes Tulsa’s first impression on someone, so we are very thankful our community values our event spaces and is supportive of fund allocations to keep them updated and maintained at optimal levels.”
Relevancy speaks to a destination’s overall value, according to Sarah Rowan, senior director of convention sales and marketing with Visit Knoxville.
“I think staying relevant takes form outside of just always being the lower cost option in room and venue prices. I think staying relevant means helping planners find those added values through unique yet authentic experiences throughout the destination,” she said. “It is important to maintain consistency in terms of how we are talking about core factors like walkability and safety that make a city a great destination, but also be proactive in offering new ideas and experiences through collaborations with local partners.”
Creating value—how destinations stay one step ahead
Destination marketing professionals agree collaboration is key to identifying infrastructure needs and keeping markets fresh. Hoyt noted Tulsa works closely with its facility management partners and event planners to discuss needed improvements that align with industry expectations.
“We want to position ourselves to be able to provide everything they may request,” he said. “The dynamics are always changing in the world of events, and we work to stay ahead of those changes.”
For example, Tulsa Regional Tourism maintains an ongoing dialog with the Tulsa Health Department to keep them informed of modifications in the world of tourism. This way, event managers and facility operators can create mutually beneficial events for the entire community.
For infrastructure needs, Hoyt said, “We also align closely to our city’s elected officials to promote and pass funding mechanisms like Vision 2025.”
This initiative funded the $55 million renovation of former convention space at Cox Business Convention Center, as well as $22 million to USA BMX headquarters, $3.5 million to the Mohawk Sports Complex, and another $160 million for the development of river dams to improve the waterfront as a potential destination.
Rowan noted collaboration is a key strategy in Knoxville’s ability to address the needs of groups and to proactively offer solutions to meet those evolving needs, especially regarding technology. “Years ago, we continuously started hearing feedback from planners that if we were able to offer free Wi-Fi in the convention center, it would put us at the head of the pack among our competitors in terms of being able to eliminate that extra cost for groups,” she recalled, adding that Visit Knoxville and the Knoxville Convention Center partnered in 2016 to offer free Wi-Fi in all concourse areas, ballrooms, and meeting rooms.
“The partnership is still in place and has proved to be a determining factor in some groups’ decision to locate their events here,” she explained.
Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First, explained the city’s destination marketing model is unique in the industry.
Beyond handling sales, marketing, and branding, the organization owns and manages more than 10 city buildings and properties, and also oversees a major parking management operation for more than 10,000 vehicles.
This has allowed the organization to develop a Houston First Task Force to develop new ways to add value for meeting planners and stakeholders in the current climate through ground-breaking initiatives designed to address current and future pandemics and the introduction of a new 5,250-square-foot, state-of-the-art permanent studio inside the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) designed to host virtual events and live-streaming conferences.
New and renovated: Current trends
Looking ahead, destinations are identifying and responding to new infrastructure trends—some which were rapidly evolving before the pandemic, and others that have surfaced since.
For example, digital expansion continues to be a priority for destinations, but now it has a different spin.
“We are trying to minimize touch points and hand-to-hand transactions, like gift bags, printed visitor guides, etc., and moving toward QR codes, virtual meetings and digital marketing assets,” Hoyt explained. “The beauty of this transition away from traditional exchanges is we have the ability to make updates on the fly, as well as generate cost savings; both of which are critical in this pandemic era.”
Dadidovic noted health and fitness remain a high priority for guests. Recently, the Barbary Beach House upgraded its fitness center to include Peloton bikes where guests can exercise at their pace and schedule.
While trends were already pointing to more outdoor options and open spaces, the ongoing pandemic has elevated the need for the options to maintain proper physical distancing. Hoyt said Tulsa’s investment into the dams on the Arkansas River, as well as its sports complex, have never been more critical than ever.
“Outdoor activities are soaring in popularity, and we imagine that trend is here to stay,” Hoyt said.
A Taste of New and Renovated Event Spaces Across the Southeast
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Campus Expansion—Encompassing 14 acres in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, this campus-redevelopment project will open in November 2020. The expansion includes an array of public plazas, reflecting pools, and gardens, as well as improved sidewalks, street lighting, and wayfinding.
- The 112-room Graduate Knoxville opened in August 2020, offering a unique University of Tennessee-themed atmosphere, a saloon inspired by NFL great Peyton Manning, and meeting space.
- Tulsa’s Cox Business Convention Center (CBCC) recently celebrated the grand re-opening of the venue’s east side following a two-year renovation.
- Caribe Royale Orlando, central Florida’s largest all-suite convention hotel, is in the midst of a $125 million phased renovation that will include all of its one-bedroom suites, the addition of a grand ballroom, and a new lobby featuring extensive lighting upgrades and a dramatic new arrival experience. Construction has commenced on the ballroom and completion is expected in spring 2021.
- A $1 billion expansion project on the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center is underway. The center will grow to 1.2 million square feet of space, including 350,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and a new 65,000-square-foot waterfront ballroom.
- Skylawn, an expansive five-acre rooftop park and sustainable organic farm is slated to open in POST Houston, the City of Houston’s mixed-use adaptive reuse development project, in early 2021. Skylawn features 360-degree, unobstructed views of the city’s downtown skyline and will include multiple dining options, a 6,000-square-foot event venue, and recreation and open spaces.
- The 184-room Barbary Beach House Key West opened in July 2020 one mile from the Key West International Airport. The property offers meeting space including The Shanty, a classic Palapa ‘tiki hut’ venue.
- The 176-suite Embassy Suites by Hilton Knoxville Downtown opened recently less than two miles from the Knoxville Convention Center, showcasing the tallest rooftop bar in East Tennessee.
- Following an extensive renovation, the Brookside event space in Knoxville opened this year offering approximately 20,000 square feet of event space.
- The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa is undergoing a $45 million renovation. Plans for the hotel include completely remodeling guestrooms and suites, creating ‘an enhanced arrival experience,’ adding a new deck overlooking Buffalo Bayou, a new indoor-outdoor restaurant overlooking the pool, and a rooftop event space. Trellis Spa will be completely refurbished, and plans include a luxury outdoor water experience.
- The former Harborside Event Center has reopened as the Caloosa Sound Convention Center. Located in downtown Fort Myers, adjacent to the 243-room Luminary Hotel & Co., the fully renovated Caloosa Sound Convention Center features 40,000 square feet of function space, including a riverfront terrace. An additional 10,000 square feet of adaptable indoor and outdoor function space will be available at Luminary Hotel, which opened September 2020.