Citywide meetings are on a post-Covid rebound, here’s why

When the Seattle Convention Center opens its new Summit building in January 2023, citywide meetings in the Pacific Rim capital will have an additional 99,620 sq. ft. of meeting space, 58,000 sq. ft. of ballroom space and a 14,000-square-foot Garden Terrace on which to network and enjoy the pleasures of finally meeting in person.

They’ll also have all of Seattle for pre- and post-show bleisure time, something Kelly Saling, Visit Seattle’s senior vice president and chief sales officer, says has “always been one of our great strengths. We are an interesting city that citywide attendees want to explore.”

Saling says that Seattle’s citywides are recovering “but not all at the same time. Citywides with strong international attendee makeups are recovering but more slowly.”

Saling says, “People are itching to get out and see the world so now, at the tail end of 2022, we see a recovery of citywides that’s very stable.”

She’s eager for the opening of the new convention center Summit building which will increase inventory, “a game changer for sure.”

What Saling says is also changing is the window for booking (much shorter) and final confirmation (longer than before because companies may be dealing with more changeable business climates and budgets).

While Los Angeles’ climate and vibe may be different from the city of mists and strong lattes, Darren Green, senior vice president of sales at the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, shares Saling’s enthusiasm on the return of the citywide meeting. “They are coming back in a robust way,” Green says. “We’re very pleased with the performance.”

He says that there was a period during the pandemic when citywides were off by 25 or 30%, but have “picked up well with the caveat in there that we’ve not yet been able to drive the Asian-Pacific customer back because of travel restrictions but that will come back soon.”

Green says that when those restrictions lift, the “reinvented LAX” will be there to welcome them with much easier access into downtown Los Angeles. There will also be a new 2,000 hotel rooms with robust inventory coming from the new Conrad Los Angeles opened in July, the boutique Hotel Per La Los Angeles (opened in August) and the upcoming Moxy Downtown Los Angeles and AC Hotel Los Angeles Downtown.

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Green says LA’s citywide edge, especially post-Covid with planners still favoring open-air venues, is the city’s variety of outdoor menus. “Citywides in Los Angeles take advantage of our great weather. It’s become an even stronger driver,” he explains.

Green also points to planning options for large groups like full events at movie studios like Paramount or Warner Brothers and venues like Dodger and SoFi stadiums as well as the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

“We see that 2023 will be a good year for citywides, the most since 2019,” he concludes. “The other thing to mention is that we are seeing a lot of short-term corporate citywides, popular because of nearby biotech, high-tech and medical companies.”

Across the nation in the city where freedom will be celebrated at the 2026 United States’ 250th anniversary party in a big way, Philadelphia’s citywide meetings were adversely affected by long-term lockdowns. Maria Grasso, senior vice president of convention division and CEMA board member, says, “We had pretty strict Covid guidance in Philadelphia. The convention center couldn’t handle meetings at one point.”

Never to be defeated, Philly-style, the city took advantage during the downtime to open six new hotels. “We increased our inventory and we were fortunate that no hotels closed permanently. The Philadelphia Marriott and the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown completed renovations in 2021. This year, we had 19 citywide conventions scheduled on the books and all are coming, we haven’t lost any due to cancellation.”

Grasso says, “the biggest challenge now is attendance. They are not fully back to 100% and there’s a lot of factors there, especially since we usually have a lot of meetings with large international attendance.”

One factor that’s positively impacting citywides is Philadelphia’s footprint. “I’ve seen a big change in the outward aspect of meetings. We’ve seen a big impact in our city of a million restaurants and museums. There’s a busy downtown vibe.”

Grasso says Philly is meeting new challenges to get citywides on board by starting communication with customers a lot earlier to help promote attendance. “You have to work harder to get people to show up and feel welcome to be their authentic selves in a safe environment,” she says.

She adds that the walkability of the city is a plus for people weary of hearing about rising crime in cities on public transportation.

“We also work with city agencies like our Walking Street Ambassadors all around the downtown area. They are able to give directions and even certified for CPR and have been in the business center in the center of the city for 30 years.”

The countrywide celebration of the 250th anniversary of our nation’s birth in 2026 is something Grasso and company are looking to as “a banner year for us, along with being a World Cup Host City in 2026. All eyes will be on us.”

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A Strong Outlook

headshot of Emily ScheidererQ & A with Emily Scheiderer, Destination International’s director of education, sales and services on the return of citywide meetings.

Scheiderer works closely with Destination International’s Large Market Roundtable and Convention Sales and Service Committee. We asked her what the consensus of opinion at DI was on citywides.

Have citywide meetings come back?

Citywide events have not fully returned to their pre-pandemic levels; however, they have certainly started the process of return with some destinations being anywhere from 80-85% of 2019 levels.

Are hybrid citywides a thing?

Though some events still offer a form of a hybrid option, we have seen a shift in what this looks like for many groups. The reality of planning two logistical events and the costs associated have been preventative for many. We do still see some offering virtual options for keynote sessions and others focusing more on capturing the content and broadcasting later. There is certainly still a technical tie to events, but I believe what that looks like for individual groups will continue to evolve and will not be a one size fits all.

What are destinations doing to lure planners back to doing citywide meetings?

For many destinations, city-wide events are simply part of their organizations’ DNA. Working with these groups to maximize their ROI and drive attendance is something destination organizations specialize in and have for many years. Those partnerships have continued to develop over the last few years and some of the challenges have only made that partnership stronger; however, at the end of the day, most destinations have simply continued to do what they are good at and that is supporting these large events in their destination.

Is the lowering of hotel inventory in larger and mid-size cities part of the challenge?

Every market is very different but overall, I would say that hotel inventory isn’t as much of a challenge as the changes that the industry has experienced in the workforce itself.

What is the long- and short-term outlook for citywide meetings?

All in all, the outlook for city-wide events is strong. Destination organizations are continuing to work with those event organizers to drive attendance and, in some cases, we are even seeing destinations continue to make considerable investments and infrastructure and destination development to support these groups in the future.

Are second-tier cities claiming big business from larger ones?

At the end of the day, there are always going to be groups of all sizes for all size destinations. There are so many factors that go into destination selection that range anywhere from the cost, logistics and physical size of the venues to the destination’s intellectual capital and attendee experience preferences.

This article appears in the December 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.