Small Meetings, Conferences and Executive Retreats
Small meetings can equate to big time business. Tapping into this market takes an understanding of what these planners want and need from their meeting venues and experiences.
Some destinations have made it a significant part of their mission to understand the intricacies of this segment of the broader meetings market, using the offerings of their region to entice planners of small meetings, while also providing personal service and planning assistance in a way that’s greatly appreciated by planners of smaller groups.
These groups sometimes have needs that differ from larger ones, and because of their limited number of attendees, many planners of small meetings and events seek out more interactive and experiential sessions than functions that are more rigidly classroom oriented and learning based.
One destination that is very attractive to the small meetings market is Chester County, Pennsylvania and the Brandywine Valley.
Courtney Babcock, director of sales for the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau (CVB), says that "Chester County’s Brandywine Valley offers over 50 meeting options throughout the region, which includes full-service hotels, quaint bed and breakfast properties, and unique venues like a winery or historical society.”
“With no large convention space, small to medium-size meetings work best,” she continues. The ideal size group for the region that could take advantage of the largest selection of options is anywhere from small board meeting of 10 up to an event for about 100 attendees, she adds.
Babcock notes that corporations, state associations and non-profits are among the primary markets who plan smaller meetings. She further explains that, particularly among the corporate segment, many smaller meetings are focused on retreat or executive board meetings and they are drawn to the countryside setting of Chester County.
Team building also is very popular in Chester County, especially team sessions that include culinary cooking challenges like the ones offered by the Inn Keeper’s Kitchen at Dilworthtown, or by The Desmond Hotel - Malvern, a Doubletree by Hilton. Those who wish to engage in more physical or outdoor team building activities might opt for a ropes course at Westtown School or go zip lining at Treehouse World.
"Small meetings are more flexible in what planners can offer to their attendees,” Babcock explains. “Smaller groups allow for more time to engage in a unique experience like a visit to Victory Brewery and taking the time tour the facility and learn about brewing. Wineries have offered grape stomping events for small groups. The CVB is the best resource to help make suggestions and enhance your itinerary with options such as these."
Overall, planners seem to be more interested in interactive experiences today, wanting to take their attendees outside of more traditional classroom settings. “Often, smaller groups will go off-site for activities, such as an escape room challenge in West Chester or they will visit one of our 20 craft breweries,” cites Babcock, adding that a complete list of these craft breweries can be found online at BVBrewScene.com.
"Chester County offers a wealth of non-traditional venues that are often overlooked for smaller meetings, so when the lead-time is short, we can always find the right fit,” Babcock observes. “Think charming bed-and-breakfasts, art museums and historic sites."
"The options are limitless in Chester County for small meetings,” she continues. “If you are looking for a structured setting in a hotel or a unique option at a museum - we have it available. The CVB is your destination expert and should be your first point of contact when looking to host any event or meeting… Our personal service is the key to helping customers reach their goals and achieve success."
Babcock says that the bureau can connect planners with the best venues to meet their needs, whether that is a traditional full-service hotel, an educational setting like West Chester University, or unique venue such as the American Helicopter Museum or the Chester County Historical Society.
Small meetings account for approximately 40 percent of group business in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, says David M. Jackson, CMP, vice president of sales for the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau. “We consider small meetings to be anything from 10 to 49 people."
Small meetings come together for a variety of purposes and with a range of goals, Jackson continues. “For example, we excel in hosting team building retreats with the goal of bringing corporate teams together in a relaxed atmosphere - outside of the formal office setting - where ideas and creativity are allowed to flow freely.”
“We also experience a lot of ‘Think Tank’ meetings,” observes Jackson. “Imagine bringing in a small group of new board members or newly formed sales teams and placing them in one of our five- or six-bedroom/bath condominium units and giving them the freedom to meet out on the deck with a BBQ pit - all while overlooking nature and strategizing about their next fiscal marketing plan or budget. Combine this with the mountain fresh air and you have a setting designed to stretch the limits of the 'way we have always done things'.”
Jackson adds that small meetings are most effective when they have a desired plan and outcome already in mind. So, he says, it is important to know the “why” of the meeting before it ever begins. Without a focused plan, the meeting - no matter its size - has less chance to succeed.
"We have had the opportunity to host small meetings of 8-10 professionals over the past few months where the goal was to sort out a new product launch in the medical field,” explains Jackson. “Another small meeting was looking to heal some emotional wounds that had occurred within the group and the planner felt a change of scenery would help promote healing.”
He goes on to say that there are literally hundreds of scenarios in which smaller groups can interact and get the job done. “We in the Poconos are poised to handle this type of adventure as a natural way of doing business."
When it comes to all meetings in the Pocono Mountains, lead times in general have averaged between 8- to 12-months, but smaller meetings average closer to a 4- to 6-month range. “As a four-season destination, the Poconos are in a constant peak season with smaller shoulder season pockets coming in mid-May to early June, right after Labor Day, and in the month of November, before Thanksgiving."
Nevertheless, he says that smaller meetings are given the same time and attention that larger groups are afforded. In fact, he notes that smaller meetings may require even more effort at times.
“For example,” Jackson explains, “when we host a high-level board retreat, all the attendees are used to receiving the best of care, and naturally they all may want the best room with a view. Organizing this type of high-level group requires a great deal of expertise and care. Of course, this is where the Poconos excels, and why it has survived as a top hospitality destination for nearly 200 years."
In Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the Best Western Plus Concordville Hotel serves as a prime example of the standard and flexibility of county’s venues available for small meetings and conferences. The hotel is home to 114 guest rooms, and its conference space features three ballrooms, the largest of which can seat up to 400 guests.
“About 60 percent of the meetings we host are for groups with between 15 and 20 attendees,” notes Meg Rowe, general manager of the Best Western Plus Concordville Hotel. “The majority of our meetings business is corporate, including training and education, end of quarter budget meetings, and team building exercises that use both large and small breakout rooms.”
Rowe adds that her hotel also has hosted several Town Hall-style meetings for companies rolling out new programs and products, or announcing mergers.
“Planners of smaller meetings often look for unique experiences,” Rowe observes, “which we provide by offering themed menus, local restaurant ideas, and even by encouraging them to ‘get away’ for a portion of the day or evening to places like Longwood Gardens or one of the local wineries where they can continue team building exercises and then return ‘home’ to the hotel to relax.”
As to whether smaller groups lend themselves more readily to interactive and hands-on programs, Rowe explains, “Small meeting rooms provide a more intimate atmosphere and greater opportunity for engaging conversations - but we’ve also had a lot of success in our larger ballrooms where the group can break up into smaller subsets, and then, utilizing themed stations that support their meeting agenda, they can move throughout the room.”
Rowe also notes that the lead times on this type of business can be very short as compared with larger events. “We need only a few weeks lead time for most small meetings, but the biggest challenge can be whether we have meeting space available.”
“One of the biggest advantages of hosting smaller groups is that they tend to come more often than larger training seminars,” Rowe continues. “They become repeat customers with whom we build strong relationships. Our team takes pride in making them feel like they’re on a retreat while they’re here… relaxed, comfortable, and looking forward to coming back.”
By building up strong relationships with planners of small meetings and providing them with the services, facilities and experiences they want and need, these destinations have tapped into this strong marketplace. While these groups do not offer large numbers of attendees, they do account for a large percentage of the overall meetings market.
By getting to know and working closely with these groups, a number of destinations have found great success in the realm of smaller meetings, events and retreats. As a result, they continue to provide planners with excellent options for their groups moving forward.