Small Destinations: Where You’d Least Expect Big Events

Author: Casey Gale       

If you’ve spent any time in the business-events industry, you know destinations like Las Vegas, Paris, Chicago, or Barcelona like the back of your hand. These top-tier cities are meetings hotspots, with enough convention space and hotel rooms to accommodate thousands of attendees at any given time, plus the cultural amenities and intangible cachet to keep them around. None of that is new to you.

But you might be surprised about other destinations tucked into the far corners of the country — and the world — with knowledge economies so unique that they, too, attract some of the most prestigious meetings in their respective sectors. Convene recently spoke with representatives from three such cities that recently have hosted renowned international meetings. All three said the same thing: They were thrilled at the opportunity to prove that their destination — although smaller, lesser known, or farther away — has just as many cultural and intellectual assets to attract world-class events as the big guys.

ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals 2017

small destinations

Rapid City, S.D., hosts the ICPC World Finals 2017.

Rapid City, South Dakota

In 2015, the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) World Finals were held in Marrakesh, Morocco. In 2016, the renowned international university programming tournament — attended by student competitors, coaches, and parents — took place in Phuket, Thailand. Later this year, it will be held in Beijing.

In 2017, it was in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Julie Schmitz Jensen, president and CEO of Visit Rapid City, is the first person to admit that, at least on the surface, one of these things is not like the other. “It was always sort of shocking to people, even on a national level, when they would hear [that Rapid City was hosting ICPC 2017],” Jensen said. “That’s amazingly exciting to be able to share that with anybody that’s doubting whether Rapid City is capable of hosting an event like this.”

Due to Rapid City’s off-the-beaten-path location and small size — it’s tucked among the Great Plains, about 25 miles from Mount Rushmore, with a population of approximately 74,000 — the destination doesn’t typically enter the conversation for ICPC, which draws about 1,400 attendees. But longtime ICPC student coach Antonette Logar, Ph.D., knew that if given the chance, the city could show that it offers just as much culture as a glamorous international destination. “The last couple of years, it was in Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Phuket, Marrakesh — those kinds of places,” said Logar, a senior lecturer in mathematics and computer science at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SD Mines), in Rapid City. “But what they all had in common, I think, was an interesting culture that they were showcasing. Having both the cowboy culture and the Native American culture and then Mount Rushmore, I just thought — you get used to where you live, but it occurred to me at some point that for people from other countries, this would be as exotic as Marrakesh was for me.”

Logar played a major role in bringing the event to town. After quietly lobbying for Rapid City to become a host city since 2006, she made it onto the agenda to give a formal presentation at ICPC 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. “It took several years before we were a serious contender,” Logar said. “And even at that, it was just to get on the agenda to make a presentation.”

With the help of Visit Rapid City, Logar’s presentation convinced the ICPC Executive Committee to do a site visit. In 2016, Rapid City was officially named ICPC 2017’s host city. In the time leading up to the event, a 10-member local host committee that included Logar, other faculty from SD Mines, and representatives from Visit Rapid City and Rushmore Plaza Civic Center — the event’s venue — worked alongside the ICPC International Committee to prepare to welcome student competitors from 70 colleges around the globe in May 2017.

“We had to work with the airlines, because we were going to have this influx of international travelers on two particularly busy days,” Jensen said. “Our civic center actually had to upgrade their broadband because we needed a really good Wi-Fi with the competition being done on computers. We were able to get all that accomplished.”

In May 2017, 150,000-square-foot Rushmore Plaza welcomed competitors — including 15 students from SD Mines, who went on to place in the ICPC World Finals for the seventh time — while nearby hotels Howard Johnson Rapid City, Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn, The Rushmore, and Alex Johnson Hotel provided 750 rooms for student accommodations. To give visitors a taste of Rapid City, the organizing team offered tours of Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, as well as the City Circle Tour of downtown. On the final night of the competition, Visit Rapid City treated competitors, coaches, and parents to a reception at Crazy Horse Memorial.

“When you watch TV, you see a version of American and it’s New York or Los Angeles. I think sometimes people think that’s what all of America is,” Logar said. “So what we wanted to showcase, in addition to the monuments and Native American culture, was just what most of America is like — nice people in a smaller city who are so excited to see you.”

UNESCO Creative Cities of Crafts and Folk Art Annual Meeting 2017

Paducah, Kentucky

Paducah, Kentucky, known as “Quilt City USA.”

A place that calls itself “Quilt City USA” might not sound like much of an international meetings destination, but quilts are precisely why Paducah, Kentucky, was chosen to host the 2017 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative Cities of Crafts & Folk Art Annual Meeting this past September. Located in western Kentucky, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, Paducah has been a member of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network under the sub-network of Crafts and Folk Art since 2013 thanks to its rich history in the quilting and fiber arts.

While the Creative Cities Network holds an annual meeting each year, it wasn’t until 2017 that UNESCO began holding sub-network meetings to allow members to connect on a more intimate level — and Paducah was given the honor of holding the first event of its kind. That let Paducah share its unique culture to 60 mayors, commissioners, and cultural leaders from eight designated UNESCO Creative Cities of Crafts & Folk Art representing four continents: Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia; Fabriano, Italy; Hangzshou, China; Icheon, South Korea; Nassau, Bahamas; San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and, of course, Paducah itself. U.S. Creative Cities Austin, Texas, and Iowa City, Iowa, were also there, representing UNESCO’s Media Arts and Literature sub-networks, respectively, as were three Creative Cities candidates — Carrara, Italy; Kansas City, Missouri; and Lexington, Kentucky.

“Your culture is who you are,” said Mary Hammond, executive director at the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I always say, ‘Culture’s not just going to the symphony. Culture is who you are as a people.’” Hammond wanted to show delegates that Paducah was chosen “not just because it’s pretty and we have quilting and we’re on the river.” With that in mind, the CVB — along with local stakeholders such as city officials, financial institutions, and area attractions — played a major role in the planning and execution of the meeting. “It certainly is a high-profile event,” said Laura Oswald, the CVB’s director of marketing, “and by having this great opportunity, we really wanted to maximize that and show off as much of Paducah — Paducah’s stories, Paducah’s culture, Paducah’s venues — as we could.”

Although the focus of the event was on the arts, the CVB was keen to show how Paducah’s approach to social, economic, and sustainability initiatives mirrors UNESCO’s most prominent causes. The agenda for both the meeting and after-hours events were built around the United Nation’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” a plan of action that the U.N. describes as being for “people, planet, and prosperity.”

During the three-day event, Paducah used more than 20 venues to show off the best aspects of the city. By day, delegates attended the UNESCO meeting at the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center, where they discussed ways in which culture and creativity shape a city’s identity. By night, they experienced a Kentucky-bourbon dinner at local farm-to-table restaurant Freight House, and enjoyed beer and folk music during a tour of an old Coca-Cola bottling plant that is featured on the National Register of Historic Places. And no visit to Quilt City USA would be complete without a trip to downtown’s National Quilt Museum, where delegates participated in a study tour that allowed them to create their own custom quilt blocks, learn to select fabrics, and quilt by sewing machine.

During the meeting, delegates also had the chance to share and display arts and crafts from their native cities at an event called “Pride of Place,” hosted by the Paducah School of Art and Design. “Seeing these attendees sharing what they’re so proud of from their home, being in our home and being able to share what we’re proud of and then that kind of reciprocal sharing was really wonderful,” Oswald said. “I think that is really the epitome of this whole event. A lot of these delegates were city leaders. We’re kind of like-minded cities in that we value culture, creativity, and innovation, and see the value of that for making our cities more sustainable. We wanted to highlight that and certainly did through the meeting content, through tours, and through the different experiences and activities.”

International Astronautical Congress 2017

Adelaide, Australia

IAC Opening Ceremony. Photo Credit Simon Casson Phootgrapher VI

Adelaide lost the bid to host the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) 2014. But when the South Australian city made a second bid for IAC 2017, it had a new incentive. “The timing of this second bid was strategic,” said Simon Burgess, general manager of the Adelaide Convention Centre, because the schedule for the 2017 event aligned perfectly with the completion of a $397-million (AUS) redevelopment of the venue, including a new auditorium with a 3,500-person capacity, foyers, and additional meeting rooms.

The project was crucial to Adelaide’s successful bid from a logistical standpoint, because it allowed room for IAC 2017’s 4,470 delegates and 67 exhibitors from 71 countries, plus 700 local students and 300 local volunteers. It also ensured that the conference’s tight schedule — as many 20 breakout sessions would run parallel during the five-day event, from Sept. 25–29 — could operate smoothly. And, as it turned out, IAC 2017 became the newly redeveloped convention center’s first event after its debut.

“Arguably, the Adelaide Convention Centre will not host an event as complex and demanding as IAC for a long time to come,” said Brett Biddington, former CEO of IAC 2017. “To have this event as the very first major activity following the opening of the new building really was a baptism of fire.” Burgess agrees. “The program was very complex — eight plenary sessions, three highlight lectures, two breaking-news and approximately 200 technical sessions, plus a custom exhibition,” he said. “It took up every square meter of our 20,000 square meter center. It was a great illustration of our venue’s highly flexible floor plan.”

Although logistics were a key reason that Adelaide secured IAC 2017, the city also focused on demonstrating how its local knowledge economy fit into IAC’s ideals. Because Adelaide is widely recognized as Australia’s defense center and serves as the headquarters for many of the country’s cybersecurity- and technology-research centers, Burgess noted, the defense-focused aspects of the program fit particularly well into the setting. “IAC was a fitting event for the center,” Burgess said, “as both the venue and the city focus on innovation and future possibilities.”

The convention center and the Adelaide Convention Bureau — “Team Adelaide,” as Burgess calls it — along with the city council and South Australia state representatives, all were involved in incorporating Adelaide’s local culture into the international event. The opening cocktail party at the center served up a range of local produce, including 615 dozen Smokey Bay oysters and 3,500 Spencer Gulf prawns, accompanied by 15 kegs of local beer. The city council erected street banners for the event, while the State Library of South Australia and the South Australian Museum hosted space-themed programs for public engagement that saw a 50-percent rise in traffic to the venues while IAC was in town.

But according to Burgess, IAC’s lasting legacies are what truly show why Adelaide was the perfect fit for the program. During the conference, the South Australian government announced the state will establish a space-industry center; Italy’s largest privately owned space company, SITAEL, signed a letter of intent with local startup Inovar to establish a multimillion-dollar company in South Australia; and the International Space University and the Government of South Australia signed a memorandum of intent for the implementation of a yearly Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program.

In total, IAC 2017 generated an estimated $24 million (AUS) in economic benefit for South Australia, including $1.2 million spent on regional and city tours alone. “A key selling point of Adelaide as a conference location is that it is large enough to host an event like IAC but small enough to have impact in the local community,” Biddington said. “This proved to be the case.”

small destinations

The Adelaide Convention Centre is ready for the IAC State Dinner. (Simon Casson photo)

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.