Group lodging demand has been slow to return to the hotel business, according to recent data from Smith Travel Research. But some U.S. destinations are showing very positive signs of recovery. Interestingly, it's the nation's smaller cities that have improved the most rapidly, according to data from Philadelphia-based StarCite.

While the 25 largest metropolitan areas experienced a 49 percent year-over-year increase in requests for proposals for 2010 through StarCite's platform, the next 25 regions exceeded that, with a year-over-year jump of nearly 58 percent. Most impressive was the next tier of metropolitan areas -- those ranked 51st to 75st in size. They enjoyed a hefty 80 percent increase in meeting RFPs.

"Second- and third-tier cities have been investing and expanding their infrastructure to accommodate more meeting, convention and exposition business," notes Kevin Iwamoto, StarCite's vice president of enterprise strategy. "And it's paying off."

M&C took a closer look at four metropolitan areas that saw dramatic increases in RFPs through StarCite. Here's a look at what these second- and third-tier cities have to offer planners.

Near East at Portland, MainePortland, Maine Picturesque Portland, Maine, the far more diminutive of the Portlands on our list, saw a marked increase in meetings business in 2010. "We've seen positive activity, and it continues to be on the rise," notes Sheila Nee, director of convention sales for the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Portland International Jetport, three miles from the downtown area, will debut a $75 million terminal expansion in September. That project will add 137,000 square feet to the existing structure, as well as three new passenger gates, double the current number of security-screening lanes, a new baggage-screening system and a footbridge to the parking area. The local economic impact of the increased passenger traffic could be quite significant, according to airport officials. It will also likely improve the airlift already enjoyed by the small city, which currently averages more than 100 arrivals and departures from hub cities on a daily basis.

But what Nee really likes to draw planners' attention to is the natural beauty of the region, and the edge-of-the-country quality of the landscape despite its geographical accessibility. "What really makes us unique -- aside from the historic inns and the coastal resorts that can serve as meeting venues -- are the excursions," she notes.
"We love to suggest lobster bakes, team-building kayak trips, trolley tours and the like. We want to remind attendees that they are in Maine."

Developments include the Forefront at Thompson's Point, a multipurpose complex slated to include an 80,000-square-foot events center, a 125-room hotel, and an F&B outlet with meeting and event space. The events center will offer a great deal of flexibility, with 48,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space for trade shows, as well as being a 3,500- to 4,000-seat sports arena or a 4,000-seat concert venue. Ten luxury suites will be offered in that building, and a second-floor mezzanine overlooking the action below will double as a lounge. The developers hope to begin construction by the beginning of next year, with the facility opening by fall 2013 at the earliest.

The new owners of the 200-room Eastland Park Hotel will soon embark on a major multimillion-dollar renovation, to begin in November, of the 84-year-old historic property, which will specifically target the group market. The hotel, which sits on a hill downtown in the arts and shopping district, currently has 13 meeting and event rooms, the largest of which is a 5,600-square-foot ballroom that can seat 500 theater-style. In total, the property has more than 18,600 square feet of function space. Its Top of the East lounge provides a panoramic view of the city.

Hotel Roanoke and Conference CenterRoanoke, Va. Most promising in Roanoke, say officials from the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, is that attendance figures are rising. "Associations never stopped meeting," notes Kelly Burd-Adams, director of sales for the CVB. "But organizations were sending one member instead of two or three. That also applies to sporting events -- teams weren't bringing as many athletes. Now we are seeing those numbers come back up."

Many association budgets have remained flat, says Burd-Adams, so association planners in particular are looking for accessible areas that provide a good value. "They're looking for communities where their members don't have to travel as far," she notes, "and where it's not costing them as much money once they're there." Roanoke's accessibility by car is a major draw for many state associations based in Richmond, Va. The area also has strong interest from education groups, fraternal organizations and the religious market.

Recent renovations at the historic 331-room Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, which is managed by DoubleTree by Hilton, help the area to draw groups on a national level, adds Burd-Adams. The IACC-certified property offers 63,000 square feet of meeting space, including a ballroom that can accommodate up to 1,400 guests. That the Tudor-style hotel was built in 1882 adds regional character to its modern facilities.

The Sheraton Roanoke Hotel & Conference Center, which recently debuted an $18 million makeover, has a more modern look. The property offers 320 guest rooms and 17 meeting rooms, for 17,000 square feet of meeting space.

Oregon Convention CenterPortland, Ore. By far the largest metropolitan area on this list, Portland, Ore., has seen its lev­el of business remain relatively stable on the group side. "We're pretty fortunate here," says Michael C. Smith, vice president of convention sales for Travel Portland. "We're currently seeing a small uptick in the number of RFPs, but they're for smaller groups -- more single-hotel RFPs than citywide -- but we love that." Smith adds, "Finally, the corporate market is starting to come back a little bit, and that's outstanding news. The meetings industry will not be completely healthy until the corporate market returns in full force, and indicators are heading in the right direction."

Attendance at larger meetings in Portland has stabilized, says Smith, and is showing some growth after shrinking a bit over the previous couple of years.

The city's allure is due, in part, to its combination of location and affordability, says Smith. "Our pricing structure is very reasonable, and that's kind of what we're noted for -- no sales tax and affordable prices. So groups looking at the West Coast generally will look at us. And in the current economy, we're looked at a lot more seriously."

In terms of new developments, the 51-room Crystal Hotel was set to open last month, a whimsically designed boutique property constructed in a repurposed triangular building that dates to 1911. Built and run by Portland-based McMenamins Hotels, Pubs & Breweries, the Crystal Hotel has a subterranean saltwater soaking pool as well as a restaurant and bar on-site, the latter featuring live music. McMenamins' Ringlers Annex Pub is next door.

In the downtown cultural district, the renovated Lincoln Hall recently debuted at Portland State University. A $30 million renovation, designed for LEED Platinum certification, restored the original naturally lit layout of the 99-year-old building and added two additional performance spaces. Now the venue features a 465-seat main hall that hosts national and regional dance, theater and music companies, in addition to a 220-seat recital hall and a studio that can accommodate 80 people.

Last year saw the opening of the 14,000-square-foot Left Bank Annex in the Rose Quarter, a three-story transformable event space built in a former machine shop that once was used to build parts for World War II airplanes and ships. The chic industrial space features the high ceilings and huge city-view windows of the original warehouse, and was renovated with sustainability in mind. Salvaged wood and eco-friendly fixtures were used in the building restoration, and the venue is conveniently located near public transportation, dedicated bike lanes, the Oregon Convention Center and, as of next year, streetcar service.


Myrtle Beach, S.C. Meetings business for the corporate and association markets began bouncing back last year in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "A lot of that was short-term business in the year, for the year," explains Kim DaRoja, convention sales manager for Visit Myrtle Beach. "This year, though, we're starting to see one, two, even three years out -- getting back to our normal trend, so that's a good sign."

DaRoja credits much of the rising interest from groups to a number of high-profile sponsorships and publicity campaigns undertaken over the past two years. "Everybody knows what a great destination Myrtle Beach is for family vacations," she says, "but we really wanted to promote it as a meetings and conventions destination. We realize a lot of people don't even know that Myrtle Beach has a convention center." In fact, the Myrtle Beach Convention Center offers 250,000 square feet of space, and the city proper has 89,000 hotel rooms.

That said, Visit Myrtle Beach doesn't want its 60 miles of beaches to go overlooked. DaRoja is constantly hearing from clients that attendees are traveling with their families and extending their stay, combining business with a mini-vacation. Area hotels typically extend the group rate for three days on either side of a meeting for that very reason.

What the city has reaped from its success is being invested in the local infrastructure. "We've had such good years the past couple of years that the airport is expanding," notes DaRoja. A new terminal opened last year, and a current expansion will increase the number of passenger gates from seven to 12. The $130 million expansion is slated for completion next year.

Last year saw the opening of a 1.2-mile oceanfront boardwalk and promenade, which contributed to a revitalization of the downtown district.

Slated to debut last month, the SkyWheel Myrtle Beach is an enormous new attraction on the boardwalk, a 196-foot-tall structure with 42 glass-enclosed gondolas providing tourists with coastline views. A Jimmy Buffet's Landshark Bar and Grill will open alongside, with an observation deck.