D.C. convention business picks up, and area benefits from turn toward value

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, August 16, 2010

Walkie-talkie in hand, Joel Kalinowski, meeting planner for Edible Arrangements, breezed through the halls of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center two Fridays ago, checking deliveries, looking in on room setups. It was a few hours until the opening reception for the company's annual franchisee conference and the 500 attendees were starting to pour in.

"Everything is really coming together," said Kalinowski, as streams of carts filled with bouquets of pineapple daisies and strawberry blossoms rolled past him. "The team here has been great, and I've heard nothing but good things from our franchisees."

Edible Arrangements is among a handful of new conferences to land in the Washington area this year. While the downturn took a bite out of the meetings and events business, confidence is seeping back into the industry and local vendors are witnessing a gradual uptick in demand.

Most of 2010 has been marked by slumping meeting and event sales. Destination D.C., for instance, booked 603 events this year, compared with 745 in 2009. Though these numbers do not represent all of the meetings and events that took place in the area, the city's tourism agency does handle a sizeable portion of the business that comes through the District, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Companies and associations have generally tightened their belts in response to the financial crisis. Compared with other markets, however, the Washington area largely staved off the full impact of recessionary restraint because of its diverse local industries and proximity to the federal government.

"If we do a show in another city around the country, we usually see an uptick in attendance once that show rotates into Washington, D.C," said Tim McGill, chief executive of Lanham-based Hargrove, which produces more than 1,000 trade shows, events and custom exhibits throughout North America. The D.C. area market "brings more opportunities for the attendees to participate in tourist attractions and, most of all, the legislative effort."

For instance, McGill noted that there has been an industry-wide increase in financial- and health-care-related meetings in the past year related to national reform efforts.

"While we've always done business with the government, it got a lot stronger because of all of the new initiatives," he said.

Hargrove had a hand in several high-profile government events held locally, such as the State Department's Nuclear Summit in April, and elsewhere, such as the recent G20 Summit in Philadelphia. "Because we are headquartered here, we have been able to overcome the softness by picking up market share," said McGill.

Meanwhile, some of the trends that emerged in the wake of the downturn have proven beneficial for the Washington area, such as the emphasis on holding meetings closer to home. Many of the numerous associations headquartered in the metropolitan area have opted to keep events local to reduce expenses.

Robert M. Moore, vice president of conference management at Gaylord National, said association meetings outpaced corporate events for much of the past year. But in recent months, demand from both segments have largely been on par with each other as business conditions improve.

"Larger corporate events are coming back to town, whereas in 2009 and earlier this year, those events were being delayed or canceled," said Andrew Gerstel, vice president of Widows Catering in Alexandria. "The clients that are coming to us are entertaining in larger numbers, yet they are still scaling back and getting creative in how they approach their events."

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