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Great meetings take good planning, service and food

Anyone who has been a meeting planner long has “war stories” to tell. The air conditioning was on the fritz. The group in the room next door was making so much noise that the speakers couldn’t be heard. Or you arrived only to find out that you’d been bumped from the room you had reserved, and the substitute was far from satisfactory.

Meeting planners don’t want surprises, says Paula April, director of marketing, Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center. Meeting planners consider their event successful when the facility delivers on what was promised.

“They want to make sure the right rooms are used, that they are set up the way the meeting planner wants it, and there is no construction going on,” April said. “Whatever you assured the meeting planner would happen, you fulfill that request. I think that is what meeting planners look for the most.”

Equally important is good, on-the-spot service that meets the needs of the meeting planner. April said service is of paramount important, as is having a “can do” attitude for whatever it may be that is needed.

The Coast Coliseum & Convention Center recently concluded one of its biggest conferences ever. More than 2,000 people attended the Delta Sigma Theta convention, which used every inch of space at the 180,000-square-foot center.

April said the following are some of the most important features meeting planners look for (not necessarily listed in order of importance):

• Good service.

• Delivering on the contract agreement.

• Good quality food service at reasonable prices.

• Rooms that are appropriately environmentally controlled.

• Good lighting.

• Attractive meeting room esthetics.

• Ease of flow of people from one event to another. Meeting planners want events located in close proximity so people don’t have to walk long distances.

• A safe environment for people and equipment. While this isn’t a big issue on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, security is a major issue at meetings in some other areas of the country.

• No surprises like bills with hidden fees.

• Staff continuity. It can take two years or longer to plan a major convention, and meeting planners dislike continual staff overturn. They want continuity with the people they work with because that makes for a more successful meeting.

April said it is also helpful to have a meeting destination that is in an area people want to visit. That increases participation in the meeting or convention.

The Coast has been able to attract larger conventions in recent years because of the large number of new hotel rooms added to the inventory by casino resorts. April says the hotels and coliseum cooperate rather than compete regarding attracting conventions and meetings.

Smaller meetings go to hotels because it is easier if people can sleep near the meeting site. And normally the meeting facilities are free of charge when the group stays in the hotel. The convention center, by contrast, takes groups that are too big for a hotel to handle.

“Because of that, we don’t compete with hotels,” April said. “It’s not a choice between the convention center and the hotels. If a group gets into a hotel, they won’t pay for meeting space. That is complimentary. At the convention center they pay for the meeting space. If a group has to decide between a hotel or here, they will go to the hotel to get meeting facilities free. That’s why hotels and centers are not competing but on the same team to bring in bigger conventions.”

A popular site for hotel meetings on the Coast is Beau Rivage Resort, which was recently named a 2001 Pinnacle Award winner by Successful Meetings magazine. The winners are chosen by the readers of the magazine on the basis of providing the highest level of service for a meeting and incentive travel facility and destination. Criteria considered include overall service, meeting rooms and equipment, recreational facilities, quality of food and beverages, exhibit space, accessibility and social consciousness.

Beau Rivage, a subsidiary of MGM Mirage, has also been named one of the top 100 hotels in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure Magazine.

Steven Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, said casino hotels on the Coast have done a lot to enhance the Coast’s reputation as a meeting and convention center.

“The casino facilities augmented what we already had going for us,” Richer said. “They helped with the four key elements it takes to get a lot of meetings and conventions: room inventory, good air travel availability, meeting space and attractions that make it fun to meet at a place.”

Another casino hotel that is popular for meetings is Casino Magic in Biloxi. Maureen Wooten, general sales manager for Casino Magic in Biloxi, said that corporate and incentive meetings are a big part of their business. Being a smaller facility with about 6,600 square feet of space allows more personalized service.

“We spend a lot of time with our clients,” Wooten said. “It is important to be quick on the draw for their needs.”

Wooten said many of their clients bring in their top clients to a meeting, and want them to really enjoy the experience. Some extras that Casino Magic provides include a foyer outside the ballrooms that has a scenic view of the harbor and the Mississippi Sound, rooms that all have a view of the water and a poolatrium room on the tenth floor that overlooks the water and Deer Island.

“The poolatrium lets them get out of a stuffy ballroom for a change of scenery,” Wooten said. “We have a lot of luncheons and banquets there. We have beautifully appointed rooms, and all of our rooms overlook the Gulf. We have 70 junior suites on the property, so we’re able to provide upgrades for VIPs. We triple sheet our beds, and provide turn down service for all of our rooms. It is really the little extra touches here that people like. Most people really boast about our rooms and our service.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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