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Conference & Stage Expo
For the Record

The Phoenix Convention Center was named Phoenix Civic Plaza when USITT made the decision to hold its 2007 Annual Conference & Stage Expo in the facility. Between the time the contracts were signed and the event took place, portions of the building were demolished and were being reconstructed.

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To a Convention Center Near You (Or Not )

Joe Aldridge
Vice President for Conferences

I am frequently approached by members who want to know why we have been avoiding bringing the USITT Annual Conference & Stage Expo to a city near them. All too often I am asked what I have against a particular area of the country or a city that they know would be "perfect" for the Conference. I take note of the suggestions and questions and try to be as open and honest as is possible in replying. After speaking with a regional section at the 2008 Conference in Houston, I decided that I should share the same information with the rest of the membership.

To be perfectly honest, we would really like to be able to hit every section, in rotation, as often as possible. The reality is that not every section has the resources – convention center, hotels, etc. – that can accommodate our event. Or, if a location has those resources, they are in such high demand that we are unable to negotiate a reasonable price for the use of those facilities, and it becomes unfeasible to bring the conference to that city or region.

The west coast is a prime example of that challenge. In the five years I have been VP-Conferences, I have attempted to negotiate with San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco/Oakland, Portland, and other west coast cities to no avail. We, the USITT Conference & Stage Expo, are an interesting anomaly. We require a tremendous amount of space, – 125,000+ square feet of exhibit space, 35 to 45 meeting rooms on a continuous basis for four days, and 4,000+ sleeping rooms.

In return, we don't generate what they consider "enough" income for these cities to lower the costs of the space needed to an amount that is affordable to both the Institute and to the members. Generally, we can negotiate a decent price on the exhibit and meeting space but not on the sleeping rooms.

As many have noticed, the hotel room rates seem to be getting a bit higher each year. We work very hard to maintain a "reasonable" rate in the cities which are chosen. The six or so desirable cities on the West Coast have set room rates starting at $225 and going higher. Not many members, attendees, or exhibitors can afford three to five nights at that rate. We may have to bite the bullet and pay those prices if we are to take the conference to any of these sites which members consider more desirable in the future.

Price isn't the only sticking point in negotiations. Dates play an important part in finding a suitable location. Traditionally, USITT's Conference is held the second or third weekend in March. On occasion, we go outside of those dates if we are able to negotiate a really good deal for the membership. These dates are prime dates for other conferences and conventions as well, which can create challenges for us in negotiating for a venue that we really want to visit with the conference. We attempt to negotiate as far in advance as is practical in order to lock in favorable rates.

Several times in the recent past, we were fortunate enough to look at cities that had open dates with circumstances that favored USITT. Phoenix was in the midst of a major renovation to the convention center, had open dates, and desperately needed to do business just to show others that they were still operating in spite of the chaos that seemed to be present due to the renovation.

Louisville also was facing a challenge that worked to our benefit. Cincinnati was willing to negotiate rates if we would sign a two-year deal, so 2009 and 2015 became the dates we will be holding the conference in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, we can not count on finding those "bargains" every time we sit down to negotiate.

While many cities seem to be ideal sites for the conference (at least in someone's mind), the harsh reality is that, until we can do a site visit to examine the resources closely, we don't know what we will discover that could prevent us from seriously considering that city as a viable site. In the past five years I have visited numerous cities. While examining the facilities available, we often find that the folks at the local Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) are more optimistic than realistic when talking about the adequacy of their resources.

We produce an RFP (request for proposal) that is very detailed and precise in what we need (minimally) to produce our conference. Even so, I have encountered CVB representatives who insist that our show can be done in a venue that is 2/3 the size needed. Unfortunately, this has occurred in cities that otherwise could have been a perfect fit for our conference.

Finding ways to provide our Conference with the ideal location, nearby hotels with reasonably-priced rooms, and a whole variety of other factors takes time. I have been fortunate to have seen dozens of wonderful cities, have met lots of interesting people, and have personally viewed hundreds of hotel guest rooms, one at a time! All of this was accomplished while educating CVB and hotel representatives about USITT and the good work done by its members.

As I often explain, USITT is a unique organization with very specific needs. The success our of Annual Conference & Stage Expo means we must spend the time and resources to be assured of the correct "fit" that helps make our events so enjoyable to our vendors, members, and guests.

I urge you all to join us in Cincinnati this March and in Kansas City in 2010, see whether you agree with our choices, and then suggest a location for future Conferences.

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