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All About Reno

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Not every city has the built-in appeal of major meeting destinations like Chicago or San Francisco. But competition for conference business is heating up as cities nationwide have invested heavily in the infrastructure necessary for top-notch meeting experiences. Why would you book your meeting in a place like Pittsburgh or Detroit or Reno? You might be surprised.


When Phyllis Castens Wiederhoeft, executive director of the Association of Lutheran Development Executives (ALDE), was approached by a smaller association about meeting together in Reno, she says she was neutral.

"I’m not sure I had any kind of impression of Reno, good or bad," she says. "Just that it was a small town. There wasn’t anything drawing us there — except the CVB."

But that was enough. ALDE held its International Educational Conference at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in February for 450 attendees, and Wiederhoeft says it may very well return after rotations to other destinations.

"It has a small-city feel with all the amenities and conveniences the group needed," she says. Plus, her concerns about a religious organization meeting in a gambling city were trumped by terrific room rates.

Unlike other cities that are beefing up infrastructure, Reno already has eight resort hotels and impressive meeting facilities. The trick is convincing people that Reno has matured from the days when it was known as the divorce capital or gaming capital of North America.

"When I got here three years ago, I said to my team, ‘We don’t have a product problem, we have a messaging problem,’" says Christopher Baum, president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA). The old story: Reno was a tired gambling town. The new one: It’s a four-season resort town with a can-do business attitude.

"We’ve always been an unusual destination," Baum says. Eight hours north of Las Vegas, with a high desert climate, 18 ski resorts, and wild horses, Reno has long had the capacity for meetings. But it hasn’t positioned itself that way until recently. Now, with a surge in business development — from a Tesla battery factory to a drone-testing site — restaurants, brewpubs and retailers are opening to accommodate workers filling 50,000 new jobs in the next five years.

According to Baum, changing the story was far more important than adding hotel rooms. RSCVA has marketed aggressively through trade magazines and hired additional salespeople. "We’re big believers in PR," Baum says. Part of the message is reminding executives and planners that Tesla chose Reno for its new $5 billion lithium-ion battery factory.

"When you beat out four other states and win the biggest construction factory job in North America, you get a lot of attention," he says.

The Reno-Tahoe International Airport once again has direct, international flights, and a nonstop flight to New York’s JFK began in May. Reno offers resorts with free parking and free airport shuttles; a burgeoning local food movement; and an art scene influenced by Native Americans, Western culture and the Burning Man festival.

"When you say ‘Reno’ to an association executive now, you don’t get a blank look," Baum says, noting that 60 percent of the city’s meetings are new business. And the rates, which Baum says are "crazy affordable," are appealing. "People who were not willing to talk to us before are doing so now."

This story originally appeared in the article "Meeting Destinations: Expect the Unexpected," in the May/June 2015 issue of Associations Now. Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, June 2015, Washington, D.C.


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