From Anaheim to Wilmington, cities head to Washington in search of conference bookings


The District was marketing itself using the tag­line “D.C. Cool” during the 28th annual Destinations Showcase. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

The crew from Kentucky brought bourbon.

Columbus, Ohio, which was touting its walkable streets, handed out foot cream.

From Las Cruces, N.M., came chili pepper-shaped note pads and stress balls, while Fort Lauderdale, Fla., gave away alligator-shaped chocolates.

Representatives from cities across North America came to Washington last week in hopes of securing a second glance from the area’s meeting planners, the coveted gatekeepers to hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in business.

Destinations Showcase, now in its 28th year, is a speed-dating extravaganza of sorts, a three-hour trade show in which representatives from Anaheim, Calif., to Wilmington, Del., woo national groups and trade organizations to their cities.


The city of Alexandria hosted a spice-blending demonstration at its booth. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

On the ground Wednesday, the mood was more social than it was high-powered business.

“This is all about nourishing relationships,” said Mildred Hernández at the Puerto Rico booth, where she’d collected six requests for proposals — called “RFP”s in industry lingo — from meeting planners within the first hour.

The Washington area, home to more than 4,000 trade associations and national organizations, has become a particularly important stop for convention and visitors bureaus as they look to make up for sweeping cutbacks in government travel.

Even as the economy improves, the conventions business has remained largely stagnant. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of meetings held in the United States grew just 2.2 percent to 1.83 million, according to Destination Marketing Association International, the Washington-based group behind last week’s event.

Finding the right city

If Destinations Showcase is a matchmaking event, then Jamal Aaron Hageb is its reigning Romeo. A senior meetings manager for the American Bar Association, Hageb is involved in coordinating more than 100 conferences per year.

On Wednesday, he dashed from booth to booth in a whirlwind of hugs, kisses and “Love ya, babes.”

“You have to have a plan,” Hageb, 36, said. “There are certain cities you want to target. You come in with your [requests for proposals] and you get moving. It’s absolutely important to have good relationships.”

The goal last week, he said, was to find potential suitors for eight upcoming meetings, taking place as soon as September and as late as 2016, with anywhere between 20 and 2,000 attendees.

Hageb showed up with 45 requests for proposals and a camera in tow. He snapped photos along the way, asking old acquaintances to pose with him.

He stopped by the Long Beach, Calif., booth to chat about upcoming opportunities.

“If you can bring me something that’s cost-effective, let’s talk,” he told the representatives. “I have to be able to sell it internally, so it’s got to be cost-effective.”

Then Hageb hit up nine more booths in the next 10 minutes: San Jose, Las Vegas, Reno, Detroit, Guadalajara, Dominican Republic, Toronto, Alberta and Denver.

Meanwhile, Amanda Buckner, a meeting planner for the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association in Falls Church, had narrowed down her list to four cities: Orlando, Dallas, New Orleans and the District.

“This is also a chance to see what else is out there,” Buckner said. “I’ve been walking up and down the aisles meeting people.”

Throughout the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, visitors bureaus had perfected their messages. Some cities played up their proximity to major airports (Baltimore, Chicago), while others emphasized affordability (Galveston, Tex.; Springfield, Mo.) or their merits as a university town (Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.).

At the Las Cruces booth, which had the tag­line “Spice up your meetings,” attendees stopped to ask, “Where are you in New Mexico?” and “What’s the closest airport?” (Answers: the southern part of the state, and El Paso International Airport.)

A few yards down, it was a similar story for Galveston, Tex.

“We had a lady earlier who said, ‘I didn’t even know you existed,’” said Meg Winchester, who wore flip flops and capri pants to market the coastal city. “Being here is a way for us to introduce ourselves.”

In past years, the trade show has helped Galveston secure business from the American Petroleum Institute and the American Association of Port Authorities. Winchester, director of the city’s convention bureau, hoped this year would be similar.

“Once we get people to Galveston, they love our facilities,” she said.

A start, not a finish

An hour into his frenzied marathon, Hageb had visited 43 booths.

“This is the mecca of meeting planning,” he said. “I try to give everybody a chance to bid on our business.”

Last year, 85 percent of attendees said they planned to book a meeting with a city they had met with during the trade show, according to DMAI.

The odds looked good for Alexandria. The Northern Virginia city’s booth attracted a steady stream of onlookers with its new theme, “Taste extraordinary.” Meeting planners were encouraged to make their own spice mixes using basil, rosemary, black truffle sea salt and a dozen other herbs and spices.

It was, many attendees said, their favorite attraction on the convention floor.

The idea had been to promote Alexandria’s mix of restaurants and specialty food shops to set it apart from other Washington-area markets, said Robin D. Roane, senior sales manager for the Alexandria Convention & Visitor’s Association.

“We got some great leads,” she said. “It’s all about being memorable.”

Often, the conversations at Destinations Showcase are just the beginning. From there, cities and convention centers submit proposals and bids, hoping meeting planners will follow through. There are site visits and discussions about transportation, floor plans, dining options and nearby attractions. In the end, it could take months or years to finalize one piece of business.

“It may seem like all we’re doing is gathering people together, but we have to worry about everything from weather conditions to alcohol liabilities,” said Annette M. Suriani, a conference planner in Fairfax.

There are more nuanced considerations, too. For medical association meetings, for example, Suriani scouts out cities with large hospitals and universities to make it easier to find guest speakers. More intimate gatherings might call for family-friendly attractions.

“You really have to get to know each city,” she said. “That’s why I come to these shows. It gives you a chance to establish relationships.”

“And, of course,” she added, “there’s a lot of hugging and kissing. What I can say, it’s the hospitality industry.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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