What Keeps a Conference Coming Back?

Author: Casey Gale       

What keeps an annual meeting returning to the same venue year after year? According to three of the busiest convention centers in North America and their loyal clients, it comes down to the comfort of familiarity mixed with the ability to grow together.

NAB SHOW/ Las Vegas Convention Center

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The LVCC’s 2 million square feet of exhibit space gives the huge NAB Show enough room to spread out.

Las Vegas is known for its glitz, glamour, and constant flow of high-profile conventions. One such event is the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show, which has been held at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) continuously for 26 years. (NAB and the center actually go further back. The organization first held a show there in 1975.) Back then, in 1991, the show was just beginning to grow its already sizable attendance of 50,000 people. By the end of the decade, it peaked at around 115,000 attendees.

Throughout the ’90s, NAB stretched to other venues in Las Vegas to accommodate its growing attendance. “It wasn’t that we weren’t successful, that we couldn’t make it work with the two different facilities,” said Chris Brown, NAB’s executive vice president of conventions and business operations. “It’s possible to do that. But it doesn’t come without a slew of inconveniences from both our perspective on a planning basis, and also from an attendee perspective — obviously because we’ve got to move them between two different halls and just do that much more to make sure we communicate about what’s happening in the different venues.”

The logistical hassle came to an end in 2002, with an expansion of the LVCC that included South Hall — accounting for an additional 1.3 million square feet of event space. The NAB Show knew if it could bring all of its programming back onto one campus, it would be a huge benefit, Brown said, “and it certainly was.” The show has been a single-facility event ever since.

Both Brown and John Schreiber, senior director of business sales for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Association, agree that the LVCC’s continued growth — a $1.4-billion project to add a new, 600,000-square-foot exhibition hall is now underway — has helped solidify loyalty among return clients such as NAB. It allows them to stay fresh without moving an inch. “For us as a destination,” Schreiber said, “it’s the constant reinvention of the destination.”

In recent years, the LVCC has switched catering providers to enhance its food offerings, and partnered with Cox Business/Hospitality Network to improve bandwidth and Wi-Fi offerings. “We went from a couple hundred access points in the building,” Schreiber said, “to 22,000 access points in the building.”

As the world’s largest media and technology convention, the NAB Show uses such upgrades to give attendees a brand-new experience every year. “In terms of freshness,” Brown said, “I think it’s been more and more important for us to begin to utilize that technology in the facility in a way that actually enhances experiences for people.”

Three years ago, NAB decided to hit refresh on attendees’ first impressions of the show by removing standard services from the central lobby in favor of creating a recording studio where live interviews are streamed. “That’s something that a few years ago we probably wouldn’t have considered, because of issues with the technology and the infrastructure of the building,” Schreiber said. “Now, we have no concerns around being able to do this, and do it well.”

PACIFIC DENTAL CONFERENCE / Vancouver Convention Centre

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The Pacific Dental Conference — held for more than a quarter-century at the Vancouver Convention Centre — continues to add new live demonstrations each year.

In the last decade, the Pacific Dental Conference has grown by 5,000 attendees, to just under 14,000. By 2009, the meeting — held at the Vancouver Convention Centre for more than 25 years now — had outgrown its home base. “We had exhausted all the exhibit space in the exhibit halls,” said Shannon Brown, the conference’s managing director, “and so we also took over the ballrooms, which were able to connect to the exhibit space, so we could create one massive exhibit hall.” Pacific Dental used nearby host hotels to accommodate education sessions, and served lunch in heated tents outside — in March — because there wasn’t enough room to accommodate such a large group inside. It was time for change.

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The Vancouver Convention Centre added its West Building to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but the 333,500-square-foot expansion also appeals to large meeting groups.

Luckily, one came just in time for the conference to maintain its longstanding relationship with the venue. The convention center’s LEED Platinum–certified West Building debuted later in 2009 in preparation for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, adding 333,500 square feet of function space connected to the East Building via a glass-enclosed walkway. The 2010 Paci c Dental Conference was the first event to activate the entire West Building. “That was a huge learning curve for me as the meeting planner, as well as all of the [convention-center] staff,” Brown said. “When we used all of the exhibit space and all of the ballrooms and all the meeting space, and food and beverage for what had become more than 10,000 attendees at that point — it was a big undertaking.”

Familiarity was vital to tackling the massive transition with poise, according to Brown. Because the convention center and the conference have a longtime working relationship, such changes — including the conference’s eventual use of both the West and East buildings in recent years — are faced as a collaborative effort in pre- and post-con meetings. “‘Collaboration’ really is the key word,” said Claire Smith, CMP, the center’s vice president of sales and marketing. “It comes down to a series of planning meetings, observing each year, and taking a look at where the pressure points were. Where was it congested? How can we move people through quicker?”

Every year, the convention center answers these questions internally, then provides solutions to the Pacific Dental team.“When you’re dealing with so many attendees, space is at a premium,” Smith said. “A lot of the decisions and the ideas are really around how we use that valuable real estate.”

The center works with Brown’s team to strike a balance between offering a refreshed attendee experience while still maintaining a sense of familiarity — which, as it turns out, is just as important to repeat attendees as it is to the show’s organizers. “I think people really look forward to coming back to the same location every year, because what they want to do is to learn and connect,” Smith said. “I would venture to say that if you asked the delegates, they appreciate the familiarity because it allows them to focus on the real purpose of the meeting.”

Small touches, such as bringing exhibits into the center’s foyer area — featuring floor-to-ceiling windows — have helped revitalize the conference without the need for drastic change. “We’ve really been trying to evolve that exhibitor experience with [Brown],” Smith said. “We’re trying to use the spaces a little bit differently, so that people can enjoy that sort of natural light and by bringing the outdoors in.”

THIRTY-ONE CONFERENCE / Greater Columbus Convention Center

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The GCCC finished a major revamp in July, which helped the annual conference for tote-bag company Thirty-One Gifts — held at the venue for the last six years — feel new again.

The ability to continuously customize a conference year after year is key to maintaining a fresh feel. Which is why the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC) goes all out when the Thirty-One Conference comes to town. The event — a sales meeting for Thirty-One Gifts, a direct-sales tote-bag company — has met in Columbus, where the company is headquartered, for six of the last eight years, and plans to continue holding its annual meeting there for the foreseeable future. It probably has something to do with the warm welcome its 10,000 attendees receive from its hometown.

“You’ve heard about painting the town red,” said Jennifer Davis, the GCCC’s senior marketing and communications manager. “For them, it’s pink.” Riffing on Thirty-One Gifts’ pink logo, the center finds new — but always pink — ways to greet attendees. “We always like to have a particular welcome for the Thirty-One Gifts folks,” Davis said, “whether it’s wearing pink ourselves, or the restaurateurs will dress things in pink, or they’ll have pink cocktails, pink cookies, or pink lemonade.”

conference venues

The city of Columbus paints the town — and convention center — pink to celebrate the annual Thirty-One Conference.

The extra effort doesn’t go unnoticed. “The convention-center staff goes well beyond expectations and makes us feel very special and very welcome,” said Michelle Harris, Thirty-One Gifts’ director of events. “They paint pillars pink, put up banners, project our logo on their walls, and respond to our every need. The city has even lighted the streets with pink lights.”

The GCCC’s focus on prioritizing clients’ comfort complements Thirty-One Gifts’ own philosophy — the company strives to make its conference feel like a “getaway with girlfriends,” Harris said, “with a lot of gifts, pampering, and attention.”

On the logistical side, Thirty-One Conference works closely with the GCCC to make the event feel new. From year to year, the conference changes the sizes and locations of displays, and requires unique staging each time. The center divides rooms into sections accordingly. “This year, we had a 50,000-square-foot product expo where guests could follow a path through the area with stages that displayed our new season’s products,” Harris said. “We had an RV with an outdoor camp setting, stages with mannequins, an area with our embroidery machines showing how we can personalize products, and a large area for philanthropy projects. The convention center always has been very easy to work with to meet our needs for new configurations and purposes.”

The convention center’s recent $140-million renovation, just finished in July, will further help Thirty-One Gifts reconfigure room sets. “We have all this social feeding o little collaborative areas,” Davis said, “where someone who is a sales director can sit down with his or her team and just have a cup of coffee before going to a formal meeting.” The renovation also included “node walls” — a glass casing with backlit LED lights that can change color — placed outside every exhibit hall. For the Thirty-One Conference, the color was — you guessed it — pink.

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