The Meetings Game

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2005

Visit the Hyatt Sarasota any October, and you'll see a sparkling pool, the usual assortment of flowers, palms and-oddly enough-a state-of-the-art collection of heavy equipment and farm tractors. Like the cow sculptures that dotted the streets of Chicago several years ago, green and yellow John Deere machinery is scattered about the Hyatt's neatly trimmed lawns. Just across the boat basin, at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, a John Deere tractor sits in the middle of one of the ballrooms. Yet, no one's complaining about the heavy metal at two of downtown Sarasota's poshest hotels. In Sarasota, hotels and tourism officials do what it takes to lure lucrative corporate business such as the annual John Deere dealers meetings.

Currently, John Deere is the pearl in the Sarasota meetings calendar. In fact, it's the only large event of any note. As tourism continues to rebound from 9/11, with the numbers jumping in 2004 to pre-terrorism levels, meetings still are just a small part of the equation here-estimated at about 10 percent versus leisure travel's overwhelming percentage. A dearth of hotel rooms, lack of meeting space, inconvenient air service and competition are the main culprits. It's going to be a tough slog to build up business travel without first solving those problems, say hotel and tourism experts.

"We have a lot of small groups," says Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Virginia Haley. "We tend to get a lot of medical meetings. And any kind of marine business is big for us-boat dealers and boat manufacturers. But the John Deere meetings are clearly our biggest number."

There is no denying the company's effect on the community, especially in the slow tourism months of October and early November. According to its corporate records, John Deere spends $874,000 in food and meetings related expenses, $1.5 million in lodging, $219,000 for outside catering, and $200,000 in other transportation costs to show off its new products to its worldwide network of dealers each fall.

In addition to the Ritz-Carlton and the Hyatt, attendees last year also stayed at the Holiday Inn Lakewood Ranch and Fairfield Inn. Walk around town with a keen eye, and you can't miss the green and yellow baseball caps and polo shirts. In fact, it's likely if you fly into Sarasota at that time of year you'll sit near one of the 2,700 dealers coming for the meetings. But John Deere organizers face the same challenges as other meeting planners when they look at Sarasota. All attendees cannot stay at the same hotel. They have to drive or be bused to remote meeting locations-such as the Lakewood Ranch polo grounds-and getting here can be an expensive, several hour ordeal.

The SCVB relies on smaller groups that can stay and meet in one hotel.

A short list of the meetings brought to Sarasota in 2004: the American Association of School Retirees, Florida League of Middle Schools, International Orchid Conservation Conference and the Network 2004 International Airport Conference. Haley says the SCVB cannot track hard numbers for meetings business, because hotels hold their information in confidence, due to competition. But she says it's clear that the coveted larger conferences don't have the amenities they need here, such as concentrated accommodations.

The last large group to convene here was the Association for Research in Vision on Ophthalmology (ARVO.) Thousands of eye doctors came here from around the world for years, and filled every available square inch of meeting space. They also struggled annually to find enough rooms. They left for Fort Lauderdale more than 10 years ago.

Haley says their longtime exposure to Sarasota left many ARVO attendees nostalgic for our community. "There still are ARVO people who come to Sarasota even though they meet in Lauderdale. They come here and then drive over to the east coast," she says.

Jim McManemon, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, sees lack of air service and marketing dollars as the two largest stumbling blocks to increasing meetings business. As one of two hotels in the city that can handle large meetings-up to 500 people-the Ritz has an advantage. In fact, his meeting business was up in 2004, and he sees continued improvement.

"The biggest challenge to me is the airlift, and AirTran is definitely going to help us," McManemon says. "The other part is getting the word out about Sarasota, because it's one of the best-kept secrets in the industry."

Lack of overnight accommodations is a continuing problem in Sarasota, and it has been getting worse for several years. A quick tour of Lido Key makes the problem obvious-all the old beach hotels have turned into luxury condominiums. The remaining hotels, such as the Helmsley Sandcastle, Holiday Inn Lido and Radisson Lido Beach Resort, are booked solid with short-term visitors.

Smaller motels, which wouldn't be the first choice of business travelers anyway, continue to disappear along North Tamiami Trail as mom-and-pop motels convert to condominiums and other commercial uses.

Shelley Lederman, a former Tourist Development Council board member, runs Keys to Sarasota, booking incoming groups in both hotels and condos. He says the loss of rooms in the last 10 years have limited the types of groups willing to stay in Sarasota. "When you go to find a nicer place, let's say something between the Wellesley Inn and the Hyatt, a property that's not in the $200 plus range but not $59 either, near downtown, there's nothing there," Lederman says. "And you can forget about the beaches, because you can't build anything there."

In the last three years, new properties have begun to pop up, such as the Country Inn and Suites on Clark Road and the Homewood Suites going up on Fruitville Road, near Beneva, but that hasn't been enough to offset the losses.

Economic development officials say they have gotten requests for information in the last year or so from research companies investigating the need for more hotel space in Sarasota. Haley sees that as a good sign.

"Clearly there is renewed interest for new hotel properties," she says. "It's looking a little more positive."

Proponents of a conference center point to their proposal as the cure-all for lack of meeting business. In fact, few can argue the beneficial impact a conference center, with an attached or adjacent hotel, would have. The question is where, and at what cost.

If it were near the cultural district downtown, within walking distance of the premier properties of the Ritz-Carlton and the Hyatt, it would create a very attractive meeting destination that could compete with most any city this size. But developers and politicians have been wrangling for years over the question of how to get it built and have it pay for itself, or at least recoup a large percentage of its expenses.

Consultant studies more than a decade old tout the benefits of a conference center near or in downtown, preferably on the water. Search the news archives from that period, and stories pop up that read just like the current debate: The conference center needs to be placed near the city's amenities. Exactly where and how is still the question. Most city and county officials have come to agree over the years that a public/private partnership is the only way to get a conference center built. The high cost of land makes it almost impossible for a private facility to turn a profit.

"If we thought it was tough 10 years ago to get the land, it's even tougher now," Haley says. "The other stumbling block is financing."

The most obvious source of funding is from tourist tax dollars, but that money is already promised annually, and the current recipients-the SCVB, Sarasota County Arts Council and Sarasota County Parks and Recreation-have been dealing with tightening budgets for three years. Although collections were up significantly in 2004, it would almost certainly require an increase of at least one penny to collect sufficient money to help fund a conference center. Even then, there is no guarantee that the conference center would support itself. While the SCVB now uses its Web site and a staffer to sell meeting planners on Sarasota, selling a conference center would require a whole new marketing plan. Experts say the old "if you build it, they will come" adage does not work with conference centers.

The Ritz's McManemon warns that the SCVB marketing budget is barely adequate now and doesn't come close to meeting the needs for selling a conference center.

Geography doesn't help attract meetings business to Sarasota, either.

Wedged between two tough competitors in Tampa and Fort Myers, Sarasota has to work hard to sell itself as a destination with different things to offer. That low marketing budget-one of the smallest in the state for a community this size-makes it difficult to market Sarasota as a tourist destination. To illustrate the difference in budget constraints, Haley notes that Fort Myers just opened a satellite marketing office in Washington, D.C., making a push for the myriad associations based there.

As it stands, officials' ability to market Sarasota as a meetings destination is limited. But a realization by many that tourism-all types-is the main driver of our economy may be starting to take hold. And although much needs to be done, other factors are starting to help, such as improved air service with the addition of AirTran Airways and renewed, serious discussion of a conference center.

"Meetings are growing for the Hyatt and for us," McManemon says. "More and more people are looking at bringing their groups here. Our meetings were up in '04 over '03, and our pace is ahead for next year, so groups are growing."

But McManemon and others in the industry stress that the growth comes only with hard work, and there is much work to be done.


Building a meeting facility that works.

Tourism and business officials searching for ways to entice meetings and conferences to Sarasota may want to look to the near north as they consider a meeting place to help sell the area.

Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau has experience trying to fill the blue-domed Manatee Convention and Civic Center on the Manatee River. "Sarasota does seem to be on the right track in discussing a conference center as opposed to a convention center," White says. "Convention centers have lots of exhibit space, and you don't need to clutter up a conference center with lots of exhibit space. You've got a performance hall in Sarasota; you've got ballrooms. Don't compete with those people."

Built in 1985, the 15,000-square-foot Manatee facility struggled from the start due to faulty planning. Today it books on average 400 events each year, primarily dog, cat and gun shows, arts and crafts fairs, and small concerts. Manatee County government has to subsidize the $1-million budget to the tune of $300,000 annually.

A narrower focus would have helped make the Manatee building more successful-and less costly. "Here, they built a multipurpose facility," he says. "I think when you talk about multipurpose, you bring up the old adage that if you try to please everybody, you're likely not to please very many at all."

The other big drawback in Manatee County has been the lack of a hotel adjacent to its meeting space. White used to save all the inquiries from meetings planners who looked elsewhere when they learned the Manatee facility was not even within walking distance of a hotel.

"I had file drawers full of them, and we eventually quit keeping records," White says. Last December Manatee County sent out a request for inquiries for a full-service hotel on the grounds of the civic center and developer Corvus International has expressed interest in a site adjacent to the center. White's ready to jump on board if one of these proposals pans out, but after 12 years of big dreams he's not getting his hopes up. "We've all been bridesmaids too many times," he says.

White says statistics show that the large majority of meetings in the United States consist of 500 people or fewer. What companies want are medium-sized, high-tech meeting space with all the latest audio and visual aides.

As a final warning, White says don't buy into the notion that a conference center will cover costs through meetings, food and beverage, or any other sources. He says it must be viewed as a community resource that serves to bring people to town-people who spend money and might eventually relocate here.

"I don't have any debt service on my building, and I still lose money when you figure in depreciation," White says. "Don't underestimate the amount of money it's going to take to operate a conference center. And don't trap yourself into the thinking that it's going to pay for itself. It never will."

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