MSP: A Meetings Mecca

MSP: A Meetings Mecca

The Twin Cities are enjoying a strong run for meetings and events, which are powering the hospitality industry to robust health.

The meetings and events sector is flourishing on both sides of the Mississippi River, continuing a growth trajectory that started in 2012 and will continue into 2016. In multiple aspects of the industry—leisure travel, group sales, and business meetings and events—the numbers have been strong throughout this year, with both state and national events filling up spaces.

Though the recession certainly put a damper on meetings and events early in the 2010s, the Twin Cities recovered more quickly than other markets and has been on a steady rise ever since, says Kevin Hanstad, director of market research for Meet Minneapolis, the convention and visitors association for the city.

Abundant meetings and events made 2014 one for the record books, thanks to large gatherings like the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and conventions for Shriners International and Meeting Professionals International. And both Minneapolis and St. Paul are on track to meet or exceed those levels this year. A rebounding economy, with business leaders feeling the need to meet, a leisure travel sector hitting a five-year peak and strong showings from repeat and new conventions combined to put 2015 on the map.

“2014 was the second-best year ever for RiverCentre. There’s no comparison to having the Republican National Convention in 2008, but we came close to that in 2014, and that was a major accomplishment. We’re having that kind of year again in 2015, and 2016 looks about the same,” says Terry Mattson, president and CEO of Visit Saint Paul, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “People are really taking notice of what we’re doing in St. Paul.”

Data from Minneapolis illustrates how the city is faring this year. From January through August, Minneapolis hosted 440 meetings and conventions; the city had hosted 381 events in the same period in 2014. Minneapolis also is substantially ahead of where it typically stands with bookings compared to its historical benchmarks, according to Hanstad. “2014 was a stellar year in all respects—we hit all-time records on most of our metrics. Indications are that we will exceed that this year by 14 percent,” he says.

St. Paul’s numbers are strong, too. Last year the city hosted 260 events that brought in 474,000 people and $11.78 million in revenue. The city is projecting that it will host 231 events in 2015 with 504,500 attendees, generating $11.97 million in revenue. “There are fewer individual events in 2015, but increased revenues and overall attendance than 2014,” Mattson says. “2014 and 2015 are our next most robust years since 2008.” That was the city’s best year ever, when it held 290 total events, had 631,000 people in attendance and brought in $11.25 million.

At the Hilton Minneapolis and hotels generally in the Twin Cities, the travel industry is performing very well in 2015, notes Kim Zoulek, director of sales and marketing at the Hilton. It’s been a hearty year for business, group and leisure travel at the Hilton. Annual revenue grew by 10 percent, based on increases in occupancy and average daily rates. “And last year was a good year,” she says.

The hotel is expecting next year to feature more of the same. “The economy is playing a big role,” Zoulek says. “We’re coming out of many soft years, and people need to meet. You get more business done, and there is greater [deal] conversion for all business types when they meet face-to-face.”

Coming attractions

The year started out strongly for both Minneapolis and St. Paul, with events that drew crowds even in the cold months. In St. Paul, the Capital City had a bang-up weekend Jan. 23-25, with 250,000 people attending several events, including the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championships, the North Star Hockey College Cup, the St. Paul Winter Carnival and a fashion show at RiverCentre.

February and March fared well, too, thanks to the state high school hockey and basketball tournaments, Stars on Ice, a new outdoor festival called Lucky Palooza around St. Patrick’s Day, and the Home and Patio Show, all of which brought a total of about 1 million people to the city. (Later in the year, St. Paul hosted big events for Supervalu and the Midwest Poultry Federation, and saw a new attraction open, the St. Paul Saints’ CHS Field. The Saints broke a team record by drawing more than 400,000 fans during the 2015 season.)

Minneapolis also enjoyed a vigorous first quarter, with the city welcoming conventions or meetings for United Rentals, Jostens and the National Association for Campus Activities in the winter—events that aren’t normally held here, Zoulek says.

Other highlights this year in Minneapolis included the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in April and the National Senior Games in July, which generated $21 million in estimated economic impact. In October, the Railway Interchange convention drew 9,571 attendees, a new record.

Marilyn Miller, director of sales and marketing for the Radisson Blu Mall of America in Bloomington, credits much of the strong performance to the broad base of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Minnesota. These 17 corporations represent diverse industries, from food to financial services to health care, so even if one industry is down, others often are doing well.

“In the region, hotels are up 2.3 percent, and that confirms that we’re all on the right track,” Miller says. “The health of the region is so dependent on the Twin Cities’ corporate base. When they are healthy we all benefit from that. They want to train more and get their sales force together to collaborate more, and it’s a win-win for everyone. And we feel that same growth.”

Another related benefit this year is that these companies tended to stay closer to home for sales meetings or other in-house events, observes Pete Zellmer, director of sales and marketing at the Saint Paul Hotel. It’s more cost-effective, and it also gives attendees easy access to corporate headquarters, distributors, manufacturers and others. The Saint Paul Hotel has seen about a 10 percent increase in these types of meetings in 2015 compared to last year.

The 2016 outlook

So far, many signs point to a strong 2016 for the events and hospitality industry. The event generating the most buzz—and bookings—is the PGA 41st Ryder Cup. Held from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, the biennial tournament features a face-off between American and European male golfers that will bring about 40,000 people to the Twin Cities.

Visitors will hail from the United States as well as Europe, filling up hotels across the Twin Cities. Both the Radisson Blu Mall of America and the Saint Paul Hotel report that they already are sold out during the Ryder Cup. Plus, many corporations bring top customers for wining and dining, so hotels and venues are buzzing with meetings, parties and other events during the tournament, Miller says.

“It will also be great media coverage for us,” Zoulek says. Another draw for media coverage will be the new Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, on track for completion in August. Already, the Hilton is hearing from customers that they want to host receptions or client events in the new stadium. And with the Super Bowl lined up for 2018 and the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in 2019, that demand will continue to grow.

“It’s definitely opened some doors for us, and we’re seeing the media attention that comes with it,” Zoulek says. “It just validates that Minneapolis might be a smaller package, but we certainly have all the first-tier amenities that you would find in any major city.”

Also in 2016, St. Paul will host the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, with 10,000 attendees, as well as the Big Ten men’s hockey championship and the NCAA men’s regional hockey championship, which will bring a combined 22,000 to St. Paul in March. Other big conventions include the International District Energy Association annual conference, with 1,700 attendees, and the Minnesota Dental Association convention, with 9,000 attendees.

Minneapolis will have the U.S.A. Volleyball’s Midwest qualifier event, with 15,000 attendees, in April, as well as the Minnesota Craft Beer Expo in February, with about 10,000 attendees—a great time to fill the convention center because it’s usually a quiet time of year, Hanstad notes. The city also will host the American Foundry Society and 10,000 attendees in April.

These events certainly will fill hotel rooms, but it remains to be seen how it will affect occupancy rates in St. Paul. The city has two new hotels on the rise—the first in more than 30 years—including a Hyatt Place on Kellogg Boulevard and a Hampton Inn on West Seventh Street. They will add 350 rooms to the city, while St. Paul also is gaining another high-end hotel as the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel converted to a Hotel InterContinental this year. These changes might help attract larger conventions—or the added capacity could end up lowering rates, Zellmer notes.

Overall, meetings and events professionals contend that 2016 will continue the robust pace of growth the Twin Cities has enjoyed since 2014. Another metric Minneapolis uses—conversion of leads to bookings—is at an all-time high for the city, at 27 percent, compared to its peer cities, at 24 percent, Hanstad says. “We’re firing on all cylinders on the leisure and the business side,” he says. “We’ll likely see more growth to come in 2016.”

Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.