• Brock Whitfield

Affordable Meeting Destinations

Putting together a great meeting or event doesn’t always equate to spending a lot of money. In fact, there are a number of destinations throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region with venues and convention bureaus offering budget-friendly features and amenities that will have planners appreciating the savings while attendees enjoy their stay and experience.

Each of the following destinations, along with a number of others throughout the region, represent an opportunity for planners to take advantage of offerings that often include things like free parking, lower sales and room taxes, package pricing, complimentary or bundled services, as well as discounted rates for area attractions, off-site excursions and more.

Being budget-friendly doesn’t mean “settling” for something. In fact, each of the following destinations offers plenty of options and opportunities that can include anything a planner wants, from off-site team building and adventures or experiences to high-tech AV to fine dining and more.

Otsego County & Cooperstown, NY

Known for its arts, institutions and museums, Otsego County's natural beauty and outdoor activities along with a history of farming and craft brewing have helped to make this part of New York an authentic, all-American experience. Cooperstown has a Norman Rockwell vibe with its Main Street shopping and restaurants. A classic, charming one-streetlight village, it also is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Cooperstown has been voted as one of “The 25 Best Small Towns in America” by Architectural Digest and one of “America’s Most Charming Small Towns” by Oneonta recently placed as one of the “Top 10 Arts-Vibrant Small Communities” on the Arts Vibrancy Index.

Then there is The Otesaga Resort Hotel, an ideal destination for meetings of all kinds, with more than 30,000-square feet of function space, historic elegance and charm, and offering relaxation along Otsego Lake. Here, guests will enjoy a refined retreat with the genteel hospitality of a bygone era where uniformed valets remember your name.

State College, PA

State College is famous for being home to Penn State University, but it also boasts award-winning hotels, conference centers, and the largest adventure-based team building courses on the East Coast.

In addition to being easily accessible by car from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York City, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, as well as by plane via University Park Airport, State College also offers practically anything a group could want to occupy their free time, including nightlife, fine dining, the theater, historic shopping districts, museums, attractions, concerts and more.

Recreational activities abound nearby, as well, with cycling and running trails, golf courses, fishing and kayaking opportunities. In addition, the Central PA Tasting Trail offers a tour of the area with stops at local microbreweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries.

Top meeting venues locally include The Penn Stater, which is the largest, most flexible and technologically sophisticated conference center hotel in the area, featuring 58,000-square feet of meeting and function space along with 300 guestrooms. Its sister property, The Nittany Lion Inn, is among the top meeting facilities in the region, as well.

According to Dave Gerdes, director of sales and marketing for the Central PA Convention and Visitors Bureau, while it’s true that being budget-friendly is important in attracting meetings to an area, even more so, the biggest factor is about where a destination is situated when it comes to attracting group business.

“Location, location, location still rules,” Gerdes explains, “but price and value is still very important. Groups go where they need to be. No matter the function, there is a reason why most groups meet in a particular location. But spending is always watched with a keen eye.”

Central Pennsylvania, which includes the town of State College, Happy Valley and the surrounding area, combines access, affordability and accommodations about as well as any destination in the state, notes Gerdes. “We are central to so many - over 70 million people live within 300 miles of us, making it very easy to get here from all directions.”

He continues, “We have to be one of the most affordable locations offering extremely competitive room rates, but for university events (graduation and football weekends), such as free hotel parking, free hotel Wi-Fi, and no ‘bundled services’ fees. Our total tax rate is 11 percent, too.”

What’s more, the properties and accommodations in Central PA are outstanding, even without the presence of any major full-service brands, Gerdes explains. “Almost every property has been updated and renovated in the last three years, and new properties have sprung up like the Hyatt Place and Wyndham Garden Hotel. Graduate Hotels will make its entry into our market in September of this year, too.”

Just about any group could be one looking to save money or keep costs down. Some are more sensitive to excessive expenditures than others. When asked which groups he sees falling into this category, Gerdes observes that, from most sensitive to least are: government groups (per diems); bus tours (travelers on fixed budgets for the most part); state associations (limited at times by state funding); youth sports (where parents are paying); social events (such as weddings, reunions, etc.); educational conferences; and finally, corporate group meetings.

When it comes to keeping costs down, Gerdes says tried and true methods continue to work for groups on a budget. “The old rule of thumb still applies today: rates, dates, and space. If a planner gets two out of the three, it’s a win-win as long as both parties work toward that solution. Both sides need to be flexible.”

Pocono Mountains, PA

The Pocono Mountains Region offers four seasons of fun and, along with a variety of diversions, properties for hosting group events that range from four-star resorts to quaint bed and breakfasts.

The counties that comprise the Pocono Mountains Region boast resort offerings, natural scenic beauty, 150 lakes (including Lake Wallenpaupack), as well as charming, historic towns. Its varied landscape inspires a range of experiences, from private and peaceful to bold and exhilarating. Planners can offer groups everything from relaxing retreats to waterparks and adventure courses. There is plenty to explore and discover here.

David M. Jackson, CMP, HMCC, is vice president of sales for the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau. He explains that cost is a major decider for planners in search of a meeting destination. “Other than location, I can’t think of a more important factor. We understand budget restraints and try to let planners know ways to get the best value at the best price.”

The Pocono Mountains can help save costs because of where it is located, Jackson explains. “Right off the bat - we are drivable. Guests find it easy to get to the Poconos without having to incur the high price of airfare. We are within a 200-mile driving radius of 20 percent of the U.S. population. Once here, planners find the free parking and free Wi-Fi to be a value-added bonus and something that positively effects their bottom line. Finally, all-inclusive packages that include meals, meeting space, lodging and group activities help to make planning easy and affordable without the mystery of a la carte pricing.”

Jackson observes that, in his experience, every group has budget concerns. “Planners are being asked to deliver more for less. Planners want the total experience of a destination for their attendees while staying within budget. Markets that seem to lead in budget concerns are government, medical, faith-based and family reunion groups. Not to say that the other markets aren’t concerned, but bottom-line pricing can make or break a decision to select a destination for meetings and events.”

The Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau works with planners and assists them in adhering to their budget and keeping overall costs down. Jackson explains, “We instruct planners who have flexible dates to ask the potential venue, ‘when do you need us?’ In other words, choosing a date and location that works for the venue can easily decrease costs and add instant value to the experience.”

He continues, “The Pocono Mountains Region has very narrow shoulder seasons when peak and peak-peak pricing does not rule. We tend to direct planners to look at the week before Memorial Day, the first two weeks of June before school lets out, the week after Labor Day, and the first two weeks of November before Thanksgiving in order to get the best rates. We also assist in getting local expert speakers and farm-to-table menu ideas as another way of keeping costs down.”

Delaware County, PA

Boasting the sophistication of city life and the tranquility of the countryside, Delaware County is home to several nationally-known hotels, charming bed and breakfasts and historic homes, a number of restaurants, wineries, breweries, bakeries, cafés and other eateries, and is just minutes from some of the area’s top attractions and shopping.

Guests can enjoy local parks, gardens and arboretums, relive history at the Brandywine Battlefield and Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation, or catch a show at a Broadway-caliber theater. The Philadelphia Union plays professional soccer at Talen Energy Stadium, there are opportunities for outdoor recreation, plus there are world-class cultural destinations, such as the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Steve Byrne is executive director for Destination Delco, the official tourism promotional agency of Delaware County, a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia. He notes that Delaware County’s attractiveness for meetings starts with its conveniently location along the I-95 and I-476 corridors.

“It’s a convenient drive from Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties, as well as easily accessible from major cities such as Baltimore, New York, Washington, DC and Wilmington, DE,” explains Byrne. “Delaware County’s ideal proximity to Philadelphia International Airport eliminates additional travel time for attendees who might be flying into the region.”

As for its attractiveness in terms of affordability, he notes that Delaware County maintains the lowest occupancy tax in the five-county region that includes and surrounds Philadelphia. It also is home to a wide variety of meeting and event spaces that are able to offer free parking, which can add up to a considerable savings.

For those planning a meeting or event where they are trying to keep costs down, Byrne says where to allocate the budget varies in importance and depends on the message the planner is trying to convey to their group. “You may want to focus on the presentation and spend more in audio-visual so that the message is clear and concise. If you’re looking to boost morale, on the other hand, maybe giveaway items would be of higher importance, or putting more time into team bonding activities and experiences.”

One tip Byrne suggests for those who want to adhere to a strict budget is to be upfront about it with the venue representatives so they can help the planner to get the most out of the meeting. When submitting an RFP, being specific with the venue about which amenities are essential and non-negotiable - so that their costs can be factored into the overall proposal - is important, too, as it allows the venue to give the planner what they need at a price they can afford.

Sussex County, DE

Sussex County, also known as Southern Delaware, features a resort atmosphere and convenient location that help to make it a popular destination for meetings, retreats, reunions, and weddings. The area offers five-star beaches, bays, waterways, signature golf courses, trails, and scenic beauty to go along with a full complement of meeting- and group-friendly venues. Accommodations range from ocean front luxury to budget-friendly.

Southern Delaware’s culinary options include everything from boardwalk fries to fine dining. Its many offerings also include historic seaside and riverside villages, signature golf courses, tax-free shopping, antique and art galleries, farmers markets, outlet centers and more.

Tina Coleman, communications manager for Southern Delaware Tourism, explains that Sussex County’s location is a big factor in its attractiveness to group meetings and events. Central to the Mid-Atlantic Region, “it is just a 2.5-hour drive from Washington, DC and Philadelphia, and 2-hours from Baltimore. The Delaware Beaches exude a natural beauty that makes visitors feel farther away than they actually drove.”

An affordable destination, Coleman notes that Southern Delaware offers no tax on meeting space, dining, entertainment and shopping. She adds that Southern Delaware Tourism has sweetened the destination’s appeal even further through its $300 for 30 room nights direct rebate offered on group outings. Businesses or groups that book 30 or more hotel room nights at a Sussex County property for a single event and contract with a hotel will receive a $300 rebate by submitting their completed contract and proof of final payment at the time of their stay to Southern Delaware Tourism.

As for suggestions to save money when meeting in Southern Delaware, Coleman advises, “You can save the most by scheduling group functions from Sunday nights to Thursday nights and avoiding higher weekend rates. You can save even more by scheduling a function in our area from October to May.”

Wicomico County, MD

Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay, Wicomico County offers opportunities for outdoor adventure, Eastern Shore culinary favorites, historic and cultural offerings, plus great festivals and a variety of accommodations.

Hotels, bed and breakfasts and other properties in Wicomico County range from a simple overnight stay to longer home-away-from-home or full-service hotels with a wide variety of amenities to suit every taste and budget. Additional options include bed and breakfasts or even camping and RV hook ups.

Wicomico County also is a haven for sports and sports related activities, including both national and regional events - large and small.

According to Vanessa Junkin, assistant director of marketing and public relations for the Wicomico County Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Civic Center, affordability is an important consideration for event planners, “and it’s even better when this feature can be found in a beautiful and convenient meeting location like Wicomico County... Wicomico County is less than a 3.5-hour drive for 25 percent of the U.S. population. This prime location makes travel to Wicomico County affordable for many, too.”

She explains that many venues in the county offer low prices and affordable packages for events, as well. “One is the recently renovated Wicomico Youth and Civic Center, which has a 30,000-square foot arena, a 10,000-square foot auxiliary area, ten meeting rooms and in-house catering. The Wicomico Youth and Civic Center can accommodate many types of events of all sizes and offers free parking.”

Other local meeting venues include Salisbury University and its Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, along with Arthur W. Perdue Stadium and Bordeleau Vineyards and Winery, she notes. “There are also plenty of attractions for visitors to enjoy in Wicomico County and the surrounding area, including a free zoo, historical sites, craft breweries and more. Ocean City, Maryland’s beach and boardwalk are close by, as well.”

Junkin says that people in various industries seek out affordable destinations to fit within their budgets. These can include everything from corporate groups to religious groups to nonprofits to start-up companies.

For event planners who want to keep costs down, Junkin suggests looking at shoulder-season dates, considering all-inclusive packages, and choosing a venue that offers free parking.

Clearly, choosing the right destination for a meeting or event is about more than just cost savings. But by being flexible and upfront about their needs, planners can meet at the perfect space and save money at the same time.

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