The continued popularity of drive-in markets fuels desire to hit the road

A night-time skyline shot of Richmond, Va.
A night-time skyline shot of Richmond, Va.

Some good news: 2023 is poised to be a banner year for the meetings and events industry. In fact, meetings volume last November surpassed November 2019 levels—a first since the pandemic, according to industry research firm Knowland. Still, with rising airfares, continued flight disruptions, and lingering health concerns, many attendees are sticking closer to home, leaving drive-in markets on the road to continued success.  These easily accessible destinations are earning their spot on the map, especially as meetings trend toward smaller regional gatherings.

“We’ve heard through the years—and it has been even more relevant now—that groups have had a larger attendance when they host the event in a drivable city,” says Ava Pope, director of sales for the Greensboro Area CVB in North Carolina. “And for good reason: Drivable destinations take less time to get there and it’s less expensive.”

That was the case for Lott Carey when the organization chose Greensboro for its August 2023 Annual Session. The Landover, Md.-based religious organization has a large constituency in the region, making Greensboro an attractive choice. Pushing it over the top was the city’s central location.

“We’re very selective in terms of where we have our Annual Session each year,” says Tonga Peterson, Lott Carey’s operations manager. “Historically, our numbers tend to be higher in terms of attendance when attendees can drive in, and Greensboro is right in the heart of the [Piedmont Triad region], so it just made sense for us. We have actually hosted in Greensboro once before, and it was one of two cities in which we’ve had our highest attendance.”

Hosting a meeting in a drivable destination can be an attendance booster, especially in cases where attendees pay their own way. Youth sports events often require families to foot the bill for travel, making the decision to go a matter of finances. So, it’s not surprising Louisville, Ky.—at the intersection of multiple interstates and within a day’s drive of more than half the U.S. population—has become a hotspot for sporting events, particularly in the youth and senior markets.

“Louisville is drivable for so much of the U.S. population, which makes attending an event here more affordable,” says Greg Fante, vice president of sports development for the Louisville Sports Commission. “That can make a world of difference when you’re bringing in an entire team of athletes. A great example is the Junior Volleyball Association. They used to alternate hosting in Louisville and another destination. Eventually, they found that when they hosted here, their attendance was up substantially—more than double digits than when they weren’t here.”

Maximize the message

Main Street in the Fan District of Richmond, Va.
Main Street in the Fan District of Richmond, Va.

With drive-in markets having more than a moment, many destinations are making the most of the opportunity by boasting their benefits.

Louisville Tourism touts its accessibility and convenience to major metropolitan areas, including Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Nashville, Atlanta, and Columbus—some of the cities from which Louisville typically draws visitors. Recently, the city amplified its messaging to reach other markets, including Cleveland, Detroit, and Charleston, notes Rosanne Mastin, marketing communications manager for Louisville Tourism.

“A big selling point for us is that people don’t have to get on a plane to come here if they don’t want to,” Mastin says. “That’s especially true for cities like Chicago, where we’re specifically promoting our short drive while playing up the bourbon theme.”

Richmond, Va., historically has been a popular drive-in destination, says Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism. “We’ve long been heavily into hosting state and regional meetings,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate in attracting those specific groups to Richmond.”

The organization speeded up its efforts to drive more groups to Richmond by highlighting its drivability, especially when gas prices started to spike. Richmond Region Tourism began running a campaign around being only a tank of gas away.

“D.C. is our best feeder market for attracting visitors as it’s just 100 miles from Richmond and less than two hours,” Berry says. “On one tank of gas, people can come here, spend the weekend, and then go home. We ran the campaign on that, and it worked. Our hotels and attractions had never been busier.”

A new take

At the crossroads of two major interstates, Jackson, Miss., is another centrally located destination for hosting meetings, conferences, and events. In promoting all the city has to offer, Visit Jackson took a unique marketing approach: ease of accessibility to other major destinations once the meeting is over.

“There’s so much to see and do here, so after you do and are ready to travel on, we’re just a short distance from other destinations like Memphis, Birmingham, and New Orleans,” says Yolanda Clay-Moore, director of communications for Visit Jackson. “That’s another reason Jackson is an attractive drive market.”

“The City With Soul,” as Jackson is called, is about a three-hour drive from Memphis, Birmingham, and New Orleans. “You can come here, stay and have your meeting or event and enjoy Jackson, and then drive on to the next destination,” Clay-Moore says. “There’s a lot you can do in a short amount of time.”

Beyond accessibility

Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.
Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.

Being located in proximity to major roadways is a bonus, but serving as a host destination requires more. Venues and amenities sell a destination.

Louisville offers several large venues: Kentucky International Convention Center, KFC Yum! Center, Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, and the 1.2-million-square-foot Kentucky Exposition Center.

“We’re one of the few cities of our size that offer two convention centers,” Mastin notes. “It’s a big selling point that we have two options, one downtown and one near the airport.”

Oklahoma City, Okla., is situated at the crossroads of America—adjacent to interstates 35, 40, and 44. In 2021, the city opened the $288 million, 500,000-square-foot Oklahoma City Convention Center. The downtown facility sits next to a new 600-room hotel and is adjacent to a 70-acre park.

“If you haven’t seen Oklahoma City in the last two years, you really haven’t seen us from a convention perspective with what is going on downtown,” says Zac Craig, OKC CVB president. “The city has put some tremendous assets in place over the last two years.”

The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) attracted 1,200 attendees to its annual conference in Oklahoma City in September. For many, the ease of getting around the city was a plus, notes Nathan Ohle, president and CEO of IEDC.

“There is plenty of space in the community, and the city has done a great job with the infrastructure it has invested in,” Ohle says. “Beyond the venues, it’s great that you can get anywhere in the community without it being a hassle. The city itself is very drivable, so you can get to any part of it very easily, which is surprising considering the size.”

Authentic experiences

Oklahoma City Convention Center in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City Convention Center in Oklahoma City.

Travelers crave unique and authentic local experiences at destinations. Drive-in markets tuned into the trend and are marketing their diverse cultural attractions to drive more business.

“People are definitely looking for an experience, something authentic and unique they won’t find just anywhere,” Louisville Tourism’s Mastin says. “Groups want something more homegrown. We’re able to provide that on many different fronts.”

With its deep sports roots, Kentucky’s largest city easily offers unique experiences for groups, including Louisville’s famed horse-racing track Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum right next door. “People can come take in a race, or if they aren’t here for Derby, they can still get the feeling with the museum,” Mastin says.

The city also is synonymous with the Louisville Slugger. Visitors can tour the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and take home a personalized wooden baseball bat. The hometown of Muhammad Ali, Louisville also offers the Muhammad Ali Center, a multicultural center with an award-winning museum dedicated to the life and legacy of the boxing champ.

“These are traditions rooted in Americana, and you will only find it here,” Mastin says. “And that’s not even including the bourbon experiences you’ll find here. Groups can visit distilleries and learn about the history of bourbon, and it’s a unique and memorable experience.”

The Richmond region boasts more than 88 attractions, including 20-plus museums, an amusement park, historical parks and houses, and a botanical garden—not to mention nearly 40 breweries and 1,000 independent restaurants, Berry notes. These bonuses, he says, help attract groups to Richmond—groups like the Virginia Choral Directors Association and the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association. They brought the best high school musicians in Virginia to Richmond last year and plan to do so again this spring for their All-Virginia Band, Orchestra, and Chorus event.

“The geographic location is obviously very attractive, as is the city’s walkability and the hotels and convention center being so close together,” says event chairperson Mike Horanski. “But another element of Richmond we appreciate is that the attendees like the ability to stay over the weekend once the program is over and enjoy the city and the attractions Richmond has to offer before they go home.”

Oklahoma City markets itself as “The Modern Frontier” due to its blend of new amenities and Native American and Western history and culture. “The visitation ecosystem is very diverse here in Oklahoma City,” Craig says. “We have the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the First Americans Museum, which celebrates the 39 tribal nations of Oklahoma, and we can even help plan offsite events at unique spots like these for groups, as well. It adds a rich cultural element to any meeting or conference.”

Attention, please

Some aspects of selecting a host destination are immeasurable. Among those is the value of working with the local CVB or DMO. As many drive-in destinations note, they often are smaller second-tier cities able to provide individual attention.

“Our team prides themselves as a proactive, strategic, and solution-oriented tourism authority always looking to be the leader and setting the benchmarks,” Mastin says.

Similarly, the personal approach and offering individual attention are selling points Greensboro’s Pope likes to share with potential clients.

“When a meeting or event comes here, they are the big group in our city,” Pope says. “We can give more individualized attention than a larger city because we are focused on their group.

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