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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Corporate meeting guide: Conventions comeback

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Conference facilities expand to accommodate rise
in bookings.

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Meetings and conventions in North Carolina are on
the rise as the limitations of the pandemic fade into
the rearview mirror.

The business community is eager for business as usual, said Rich Phaneuf, CEO of Association Executives of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based organization representing the state’s trade association leaders and meeting planners.

The newly refurbished Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem puts visitors near restaurants, breweries, museums and other downtown attractions.

“If anything, over the past 12 months we’ve experienced a flooded market of association executives wanting to get out and meet in person,” Phaneuf said.

To handle the increasing business in the state’s major conference cities, expansion is the name of the game. Winston-Salem and Charlotte have already enhanced their convention centers, and Raleigh is eyeing a major expansion. 

In Asheville, a new Embassy Suites is coming online next year, providing a modern contrast to three new hotels that celebrate the city’s storied history. Asheville is embracing the romance of the past with the prohibition-themed Flat Iron Hotel, Zelda Dearest, an ode to Asheville’s literary history, and the Radical, which breathes new life into a historic manufacturing building in the River Arts District. All are expected to open this fall, says Michael Kryzanek, vice president of business development at Explore Asheville.

The pandemic restrictions that forced people to flock to the great outdoors have
yielded new opportunities for conference and leisure travelers alike, and Asheville is keeping the momentum going with guided hikes, foraging adventures, river paddles
and biking excursions.

“Local farms are expanding into agritourism, offering farm tours, tastings and opportunities to enjoy our renowned food scene on an organic level,” Kryzanek says.

The Charlotte Convention Center’s $127-million expansion in 2021 means more conference-goers can meet in the Queen City and explore all the greater area has to offer, says Bill McMillan, senior director of sales for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

“Charlotte is busier than ever, and we are receiving leads far above our usual pace,” McMillan adds.

When conference attendees are ready to take a break from meetings at the Charlotte Convention Center, they can board the light rail and visit other areas of the city, like South End, a walkable district offering restaurants, bars and shopping, along with offices.

In some major meeting venues, sales teams are still juggling meeting space for clients
re-booking conferences that were postponed during the pandemic. That trend is easing up and planners are starting to look ahead again. Christian Schroeder, director of sales and services at Visit Winston-Salem is relieved to have some breathing room.

“We joke in the office that it has been a bit of a Tetris game trying to fit the different meetings and conferences in the weeks and patterns planners want, and we’re glad to see them reserving space further out,” he says.

Last year, Winston-Salem put out the welcome mat at its newly refurbished
Benton South, a renovated section of the 150,000-square-foot convention center in the heart of downtown.

And in Raleigh, the meetings sector is enjoying its highest volume of business ever, says Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of Visit Raleigh.

“Our leads are up 36% and in this fiscal year, we have booked 334 meetings and conventions, which is up 16%,” he says.

To accommodate the growth, the city is reviewing design concepts for a convention center expansion. Hotels and meeting facilities in new multi-use neighborhoods like North Hills offer options outside of downtown.

While North Carolina’s hospitality sector is excited that convention business is on the rise, Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina says travel is still in recovery mode.

“While travel increased about 43% from 2021 to 2022, it’s still down about 15% from pre-pandemic levels,” he says. “Hospitality employment is also lagging about 3% since 2019, and jobs are plentiful.”

Tuttle pointed out that most overnight visitors in North Carolina are residents traveling within the state or traveling here from states along the East Coast, he adds. Fortunately, travel to North Carolina has not been largely impacted by airline difficulties.

“We are fortunate that we are mostly a drive-to state, so any lingering air travel issues can actually benefit us when visitors decide they’d rather drive than fly,” Tuttell says. “On the other hand, more long-haul travelers are returning to the skies, giving visitors another option for how to get here.”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.

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