Associations Catering to Event Professionals Prep for August Reunions
Many of the hospitality professionals providing services to events during the pandemic are eagerly awaiting a chance to convene with their peers. In August, two such shows catering to some of the hardest hit industries resume in-person gatherings. Rather than look back upon the unchangeable past, both are assembling with eyes toward a productive and positive future. Here, we preview the National Association for Catering and Events Experience Conference, Aug. 1-4 at the Bellagio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, and the AAHOA Convention & Trade Show, Aug. 3-6 in Dallas.
NACE Experience Conference
Luck doesn’t always run out in Las Vegas. NACE National President Morgan Montgomery and President-Elect James Filtz will be the first to tell you they are fortunate that the organization’s largest annual event occurs annually in August. As a result, they are among a select group of associations that did not need to reschedule in order to reconvene this year.
Having missed out on last year’s conference, association members spread across more than 40 chapters are eager for what essentially amounts to a reunion. “This is their home away from home,” said Montgomery, co-owner of Paisley & Jade, a specialty rental company serving the Mid-Atlantic.
By April, NACE leadership was confident that the show would go on due to the following:
- The event draws about 500 attendees, far more manageable than massive conferences in the thousands.
- The membership’s very nature gravitates toward getting together in-person safely, as hoteliers, caterers and other attendees assisted client get-togethers to ensure survival of their own businesses.
- Volunteers and sponsors are relatively easy to come by, as chapters are composed of individuals in the service industry.
“If we do get 500 people, which would be an incredible number, it will be our most successful conference because we’ve had to innovate so much,” said Filtz, who is director of meetings and special events at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans.
Filtz added that NACE is in a better position than other associations in that it is not as financially dependent on its annual conference for revenue.
Montgomery maintained enough business to keep all eight of her employees, but the pandemic took a big bite out of the catering industry. Many of the event’s past attendees are no longer in the industry, while others just clung on for survival.
A mix of education and networking should serve up new ideas to better serve clients going forward, Montgomery said.
“I don't know about you guys, but I've seen enough really ugly plexiglass bar shields that I never want to see them again in my life,” she said. “We’ve built some really beautiful ones. Those are the kinds of things we need to introduce to people so they can continue to innovate.”
The show’s website pledges comfortably spaced out tables and the way F&B will be served should certainly provide a glimpse for what’s ahead.
“This is going to be about finding those moments of surprise and delight and finding the ways that we can still engage our attendees, show them that there are cool things that we can do without serving the most expensive thing or putting together the most expensive production,” Montgomery explained.
As exciting as the Bellagio event will be, Montgomery noted that this year’s leadership conference in January was a virtual bonanza. Instead of about 100 attendees meeting, NACE recruited 350 digitally. Given the low cost and high level of engagement, she said that could be a taste of what’s to come, as well.
AAHOA Convention & Trade Show
Any hotelier will tell you that one closed door opens bigger and better opportunities. Such is the case for the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which made an early decision to push its annual convention from Spring to August. The reward is AAHOACON, as it is dubbed, gets the distinction of being the first major citywide to operate in Dallas since COVID-19.
Describing the show as the “Super Bowl of the industry,” AAOHOA Vice President of Conventions Akshar Patel said a convervative estimate puts 5,000 attendees in Dallas. As of late April, only 20% of the trade show floor remained available for exhibitors, with 625 booths already registered. With social distancing, the trade show figures to be about 525,000 square feet inside Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
Such a showing and space flexibility is the byproduct of selecting new dates just as the Winter spike of COVID hit. By November, Patel was “barking,” as he puts it, to move the show back a few months. By January, everyone was in agreement and AAHOA had new dates in Dallas, which had already been scheduled to host the event.
There are between 2,500 and 3,000 association members within driving distance (200-300 miles) of the destination, making it ideal for the group’s most important meeting in recent memory.
“This is our members' way of saying that we are ready for travel to come back,” said Heather Carnes, AAHOA’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We have to talk that talk and walk that walk by traveling ourselves.”
Hotels, by and large, have struggled mightily if they are not near a beach or other natural leisure travel destination. The trade show, Patel said, grants access to the best deals available on tiles, furnishings, technology and other amenities needed to welcome guests back. Even with the rush of vacationers this summer, Carnes said it may not be until 2023 or 2024 that the travel industry fully recovers.
The event will paint a path forward for that awaited time. “We don't want to keep on drowning in our misery,” Patel said. “We’re going to solely focus on the future. We’re bringing a fresh approach to things and showing what things you may need to change and here is why there is optimism.”
Because the hotel business is so relationship-based, AAHOA is forgoing a hybrid approach and sticking to strictly in-person encounters. “We’re eliminating the Zoom fatigue,” Patel said, noting small talk about family and life draws exhibitors and buyers closer together. Those connections, he added, can’t be accomplished on a computer.
Carnes said it is only appropriate for the organization to welcome citywides back to Dallas. “There really is no better group to come back than those who represent the heart and soul of the hospitality business, which are the hotel owners.”