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Destination calculation: How PRSA chooses a Conference host city


February 28, 2013

PRSA’s International Conference is one of our marquee events — and not just for attendees. International Conference anchors our Assembly, where we conduct the business of PRSA; helps us discover speakers for our year-round professional development sessions; and provides a forum for PRSA communities.

As a result, people often ask me how PRSA National decides where to hold the International Conference.

We start with a list of requirements. Throughout the years, we’ve learned what we need and what our members value.

A physical requirement for the venue is at the top of the list:  Without the right facility, we could never successfully present an event for 3,000 people. But there is much more to choosing a city, including:

  • Capacity: We need a location that can accommodate a General Session with 3,000+ people in one room, enough rooms to support 16-18 concurrent breakout sessions and 1,100 sleeping rooms on peak nights so that the majority of our attendees can stay on-site.
     
  • Exhibitor-friendly: Our exhibitors and sponsors need an open area where we can generate high traffic and meet the expectations of this important constituency.
     
  • PRSSA: Our students need a nearby venue with its own unique requirements. PRSSA presents a separate conference but joins PRSA’s professionals for General Sessions, and students and advisers need to move between venues quickly, easily and affordably.
     
  • Sponsorship potential: Local sponsors provide funding that helps offset the cost of Conference for our attendees and generates income to host Chapters.
     
  • Affordable sleeping rooms: Hotel rates are generally on the rise and are driven, in part, by increased business travel and limited supply.
     
  • Reasons to visit:  A city’s history, sights, amenities, climate, food and other aspects are major factors for attendees. 
     
  • Accessibility: Frequent and direct air connections to the host city are important to attendees and speakers.  To maximize geographic accessibility for members from different parts of the country, we move to a new region each year.

Site selection

There are also some things that we avoid. For example, based on feedback from our members in prior years, the PRSA Board of Directors made a policy decision not to hold Conferences in convention centers, which tend to have cold, cavernous spaces and long concrete halls that don’t provide the community-based experience our members want.  These considerations make it challenging to select a location — but wait, there’s more.

While many individual hotels are interested in hosting a single PRSA Conference, some hotel chains offer major concessions to obtain our business for multiple years — think of it as a “volume discount.” Some of these concessions — like free Wi-Fi and lower room rates — directly benefit our attendees, while others help keep PRSA’s costs down and can be passed along to attendees through lower registration fees.

Given all of these considerations, there are limited hotel chains that are capable of meeting our needs for multiple years. Fortunately, some hard bargaining at the right time enabled us to secure venues through 2018. In return for making a multiyear commitment, we were able to receive more than $1 million worth of concessions that help us offer the best possible value, benefits such as free Internet for attendees.

Of course, host Chapters play a critically important role in the Conference’s success.  Chapter members recommend local venues for social events, help generate publicity and connect us to local sponsors.  With annual changes in Chapter leadership, we typically reach out to a Chapter about two years in advance to discuss planning.

While we might not always be able to predict where we will end up, we do know what our members need, so that when they arrive at the International Conference (wherever it may be), they have an unforgettable experience. 

William (Bill) M. Murray, CAE, is the chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
Email: william.murray at prsa.org



Comments

Sarah Rasmussen says:

Hello from Colorado, Bill! Thanks for an interesting look into this process - I know there are always a lot of questions about it, and this is great information to share with members. As a proud member and past president of the Colorado chapter, I am disappointed in the national board's decision to eliminate convention centers. Denver's convention center is a great facility right in the heart of downtown Denver. Other than this, I'm sure Denver can meet all of your requirements. I hope we're on a list for consideration once current contracts expire in 2018, and the board starts looking at options in 2016. Perhaps we need to have some folks from the Denver Convention and Visitor's Bureau talk with staff at PRSA National? I know the Colorado Chapter would be an AMAZING host chapter, and that members would LOVE to come to Denver in the fall!

October 2, 2013

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