Where It Only Feels Like You Spent A Lot of Dinero

College Football Hall of Fame
College Football Hall of Fame

Have you ever come home from a shopping spree and rationalized that it’s not how much money you spent, but how much you saved? “I could never have afforded that before,” you tell yourself. You are not alone. For 2011, cities are promoting their luxury product where planners can stretch a dollar, like finding a box of unopened Louboutins at a year-end closeout.

Once known as one of the nation’s top convention destinations due to its collection of large hotels, Atlanta has sauced up the mix with smaller servings of boutique hotels. Over 12,000 hotel rooms, including a good selection of lifestyle luxe, reside within a 1-mile radius of Georgia World Congress Center, the country’s 4th largest convention center. Surrounding it are hotels like St. Regis Atlanta, Mansion on Peachtree, The Ellis Hotel and Glenn, a Marriott Autograph Collection property.

“Atlanta’s market has changed drastically in the past five years with the influx of high-end unique hotel alternatives,” says Mark Vaughan, Chief Sales Officer for Atlanta CVB. “There’s more personalized service and pampered hotel experiences, and less reliance on transportation which help reduce groups’ costs.” And he adds, “Atlanta’s now acknowledged as one of the country’s 25 most affordable destinations.”

Landing a whopper of a deal is no fish tale at The Georgia Aquarium, which was already the world’s largest aquarium before the $110 million expansion that opened in April.

“You can have dinner for 1,000 in the 23,000-sf Oceans Ballroom while watching the whale sharks and beluga whales swim by,” says Vaughan. “There’s nothing like this dolphin-styled Cirque du Soleil anywhere.”

The Aquarium is just one example of Atlanta’s lineup of cool, unique venues which don’t charge a mint for large groups, freeing up funds for things like fine dining and top-tier speakers.

Vaughan recommends rentable spaces at The World of Coca Cola, The National Center for Civil & Human Rights and the new College Football Hall of Fame. “The uniqueness of these venues is that they took meeting planners and corporate groups into consideration when being built,” he says.

Breakfast in Paris. Lunch in Venice. Dinner in Egypt. Late night drinks in Hollywood. Where else but Las Vegas could you do all four in one day without the cost of an around-the-world plane ticket? The city of neon lights, celebrity performers and themed block-long hotels has long boasted of its luxury offerings, but now the focus is on price and jaw-dropping value.

“We want the world to know us as a value luxury destination. It’s a mind reset,” says Chris Meyer, CEM/CMP, VP of Sales for the Las Vegas CVA. “We don’t have to sell affordable luxury. We just help groups compare what they can get here versus elsewhere and ask what they want to achieve for their meeting.”

Meyer mentions luxury product like the Mandarin Oriental, Cosmopolitan, ARIA, Wynn Encore, Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace. “No one,” he says, “offers better experiences at a more affordable price point than Vegas.”

Furthermore, Vegas hoteliers have learned the value of working together. There are 25,000 rooms in Vegas’ affordable luxury market, yet hoteliers will say, “If I can’t provide the benefits you need to execute your program, I’ll refer you to another property,” says Meyer. “It’s always Vegas first as the destination.”

When working with clients, Meyer doesn’t go into a hotel feature dump (how many ballrooms, pools etc). “I tell them how to get their value for every dollar spent.” He says studies prove that attendees spend 90% of their time at the host property, so Vegas hotels cement the deal with more group options.

Wynn Encore repurposed its 5-star Alex Restaurant into a special events venue. Its 4,000-sf, 120-seat restaurant La Cave features 2,000 bottles of wine gracing the walls, 48 wines by the glass and handcrafted beer. ARIA frosts the cake with a dining experience set amid the year-old Crystals, an upscale 500,000-sf shopping mall within CityCenter.

“You can design a dining experience in the midst of Versace, Dior or Bulgari and you’d be the only folks in there.”

Only in Vegas can you enjoy singing gondoliers and strolling musicians in St. Mark’s Square at The Venetian or have a reception for 70 within the glass-enclosed Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris, where only the food can challenge the stellar views. Even the renowned Bellagio is upping its game. This fall, the hotel opens an events center overlooking the lake and water.

“You’ll be closer to the fountains than ever before,” says Meyer.

Recently, a 50-pax incentive group left their hotel in Toronto’s entertainment district to climb into canoes waiting at the city’s waterfront for a teambuilding race around Lake Ontario. When they arrived back onshore, every single person in the group broke into huge smiles.

“There was a big bonfire with white glove butler service, china plates, linen and s’mores served from a silver platter—they were completely stunned!” says Tara Gordon, VP of Meeting & Convention Sales for Tourism Toronto. “Not only are they getting exceptional catering in a naturally beautiful environment, but the company hasn’t spent thousands of dollars for a hotel or offsite venue.”

Toronto doesn’t meet corporate demands for affordable luxury experiences as much as it anticipates it. Gordon says, “Our market is the urban-chic customer who wants to explore culture, arts, nightlife, food, festivals and architecture.”

Describing Toronto as a financial and design hub with strong clusters of biotech and pharmaceutical firms, Gordon explains that a strong luxury product is a necessity. “I know luxury is still one of those taboo words that will continue for a while, but what it means to us is a higher-end service experience,” she says. “If clients have luxury on their radar, the offerings now in Toronto are phenomenal deals for the price points offered.”

In the past year, Toronto opened The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, Trump International Hotel & Tower, Thompson Hotel Toronto and Le Germain Maple Leaf Square. In 2012, Four Seasons and Shangri-La are scheduled to debut.

“The secret sauce to our destination is our hotel community, DMCs and facilities,” says Gordon. Toronto has 13,000 hotel rooms within walking distance to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, now undergoing a $30 million modernization. The vibrant downtown urban experience offers 125 museums, over 1,000 festivals a year and more than 100 cultures. In other words, “If you want to attract a global client, you must present a global perspective. We’re blessed with this rich diversity in our backyard.”