Courting Customers

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

As a nurse, Peggy Mosher attended numerous continuing education classes. The experience gave her plenty of insights when she and her husband, Randy, decided to build an event and business center.

"I knew what I liked and didn't like," says Mosher, the CEO of Grand Oaks Event & Business Center, which opened in Grove City in 2010. "It's really designed from the clients' standpoint."

Mosher and her counterparts at other Central Ohio venues work hard to keep up with the trends in event planning. As Wi-Fi and audiovisual equipment become standard offerings, meeting locations need to do more than focus on technology to set themselves apart.

Event business has started to pick up as the nation's economy slowly improves. During the height of the recession, fewer companies and associations were holding meetings. The decrease in events made local venues understand the need to keep costs low. It also made venues and their clients more conscious about making events memorable.

Today, meeting planners are looking for remarkable food, a variety of spaces and customized events at affordable rates, according to staffers at local meeting and banquet facilities. Planners also want little extras that make them feel like they're getting more for their money.

The bottom line: Venues need to be flexible and very hands-on to garner repeat customers and attract new business.

Dining Experience

Food has become an important part of professional events. The old "rubber chicken" entrée is no longer accepted as a necessary evil. Planners and attendees alike want local, healthful and interesting food choices, says Kathyrn Burton, general manager of the NorthPointe Hotel & Conference Center, owned by Nationwide and located near Lewis Center.

"Food is a huge part of NorthPointe," she says. "When we're detailing an event, most of the time what we're talking about is food." To jazz up the menu, NorthPointe's chef will prepare pasta, stir fry and other dishes at a station in the cafeteria.

Burton has found that visitors tend to be on both ends of the eating spectrum. Regardless, they want the food to be memorable. "They either come here to eat like they're on a cruise ship or they want to eat really clean," she says.

Event planners definitely want a menu that will generate buzz, agrees Gina Cristofani, sales and event manager at the Columbus Athenaeum. Planners appreciate the Downtown venue's use of seasonal and local foods, she says. The facility has begun to promote the effort more because it's something meeting planners are requesting, she says.

Food "is a big part of what we do," Cristofani says. Meeting planners want their guests to talk about it in a positive way.

The Athenaeum has created a signature dessert: the three-bite buckeye. Staffers often send the treat back to the office with meeting planners who have toured the facility, Cristofani says.

Healthful food is a popular request at the Hilton Columbus/Polaris, says Nancy Howard, director of sales and marketing. "They are a lot more health-conscious," she says. "For breakfast, they want egg-white options."

The hotel, which has 15,000 square feet of meeting space, also has many requests for gluten-free options. Chef Kevin Ball has created a full gluten-free menu, Howard says. "That's the biggest things-healthier or gluten-free."

In an effort to hold the line on costs, fewer customers are providing three meals a day for meeting attendees, Howard says. "They don't take care of dinner," she says. "[Participants] are on their own for dinner."

Scoping Out Spaces

Many meeting planners are looking for more than just a theater or ballroom large enough to hold all their members or employees. They want a variety of spaces so they can accomplish different tasks and make the experience more interesting.

The outdoor spaces at Grand Oaks often sell customers on the 12,000-square-foot venue, Mosher says. The facility has a patio, covered porch, large yard with a gazebo and a three-hole putting green. Mosher included the green spaces so businesses could incorporate outdoor team-building exercises and so attendees could go outside for fresh air during breaks. She added the putting green because she thought it would make meetings more fun.

Inside Grand Oaks, organizations can use the large ballroom and separate smaller spaces for break-out sessions.

At the Hilton Columbus/Polaris, planners can choose from two ballrooms, which can be divided into separate spaces, Howard says. Customers like the ability to scale the room to the size of the crowd. Meeting planners often want access to both ballrooms. "If they have lunch in one room, they don't like to have the same room for their big gala dinner," she says.

In addition to meeting rooms, the 44,000-square-foot NorthPointe includes a variety of places for attendees to hang out before and after sessions. "We have soft seating areas where they can discuss what they learned and the practical applications for it when they get back to work," Burton says. NorthPointe also has areas for socialization. Organizers can reserve the study, the pub or the pub patio for mingling and networking.

The appearance of the Athenaeum attracts some customers who want a unique experience, Cristofani says. The 31,000-square-foot building was built in 1896 and features interesting architectural elements. "That sets us apart," she says.

Something Extra

Meeting planners want more opportunities to customize their events so they can better control not only the price, but also the experience. At the Athenaeum, many organizations prefer custom quotes versus set packages, Cristofani says. The process allows the sales team to rent rooms for shorter amounts of time, waive fees and work creatively. "We're always open to that," she says. "We try to get a price that works best for them."

Mosher says potential customers expect a lot for their money. She has started to include more things in Grand Oaks' basic rates, such as eliminating extra fees for centerpieces or table mirrors. "If I have it, and I don't have to replace it, you can just use it," she says.

"Everybody is just looking for a good value," Mosher says. "They're interested in getting extras."

Another important selling point is for the venue to provide a point person who will help the meeting planner carry the workload, Mosher says. "We're very hands-on, helping with every little thing," she says.

Meeting planners welcome-and expect-help with the logistics, Cristofani says. "We're very full-service," she says. "We personally handle the details."

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.