Associations Catering to Event Professionals Prep for August Reunions

July 8, 2021
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.

Associations Catering to Event Professionals Prep for August ReunionsDescribing 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.”


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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.