Sports-themed conventions driving growth

Everyone knows about the Safari Club International convention in Reno every year in late January.

It's also hard to miss all those tall kids who are in town for regional basketball and volleyball tournaments every spring.

And folks who handle bowling bags at Reno-Tahoe International Airport certainly are aware of the arrival of thousands of keglers for one of the national tournaments that calls Reno home.

Together, outdoors- and sports-themed events are becoming a distinctively identifiable segment of the meetings and conventions business in Reno and Sparks and an increasingly important one as well.

In fact, out of 23 major group events scheduled in the Truckee Meadows in the first half of 2011, nine of them represent an aspect of sports and outdoors.

And that, in turn, is good news for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority as it focuses on growth of conventions business as its top goal for the year.

The tourism agency's specific goals include hosting at least four big, city-wide conventions during the year along with eight mid-sized groups and booking at least 285,600 room nights that result from conventions and meetings.

Along with the Safari Club convention, outdoors-related events on the schedule early next year include the Wild Sheep Foundation hunting and conservation expo and the national convention of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Springtime sports events will include the Northern California Volleyball Association's junior tournament, the Jam On It Basketball Academy during the Memorial Day weekend and a Senior Softball USA tournament the last week of May.

And the United States Bowling Congress open championship tournament will run from mid-February until early July.

Because most participants in sports events are paying their own way, the relatively low cost of lodging in the Reno-Sparks market is an important selling point.

"Hotel rates are one area where we can deliver good value," says Ellen Oppenheim, the president and chief executive officer of RSCVA.

The Reno-area's average daily room rate of $73.93 during 2009 was second-lowest among 12 cities in the West that compete for similar meetings and conventions. Only Albuquerque, at $71.45, was lower; highest was Vancouver at nearly $121.

Other segments of the conventions business also are targeted because they match up well with the assets of the region's visitor facilities.

The 500,000-square-foot Reno-Sparks Convention Center, for instance, is well-suited to the needs of manufacturing and engineering groups, and members of those groups often enjoy the gaming and golf that's abundant in the region.

The upshot: The first half of next year will see conventions of groups such as the Institute of Industrial Engineers, the Western States Roofing Contractors Association and the Production and Operations Management Society as well as the annual Western States Tow Show sponsored by the California Tow Truck Association.

John Leinen, vice president of convention sales for RSCVA, says other assets in the community that help woo meetings are the proximity of the University of Nevada, Reno, and the region's growing geothermal energy sector.

"We have a very strong regional pull," Leinen says.

Another little-noticed asset that helps build convention business, he says, is the membership of Reno and Sparks business leaders in a multitude of national and regional groups.

Almost all of them have conventions, and almost all of them are open to hearing a pitch from the hometown team.

The American Association of Airport Executives, for instance, has scheduled its annual meeting in Reno in 2013 booking 4,300 room nights in the process. Krys Bart, president and chief executive officer of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, played a key role in making the sale.

Similarly, the decision of the National Sheriff's Association to conduct its 2017 national convention in Reno reflects the work of Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley.

The same sorts of connections could be used to attract meetings ranging from associations of franchise operators to ethnic, religious and labor groups, says Leinen.

In fact, one of the RSCVA's convention sales managers covering the Mid-Atlantic region is specifically assigned to development of convention business from religious and ethnic groups.

While the big hotels in the region have their own sales forces, the RSCVA convention team focuses on city-wide events meetings that fill at least 2,000 rooms in several hotels at their peak and require the use of the Convention Center or other public facilities.

"The area where we can create the greatest opportunity is in the city-wides," says Oppenheim.

As they're making their pitch for conventions business, representatives of RSCVA emphasize the ease of doing business in Reno and Sparks, the compact setting of the city and its major facilities and the ease of access to business and political decision makers.

But the sales team needs to overcome the perception that air service into Reno isn't particularly convenient, the RSCVA found in analysis of the reagion's strengths and weaknesses.

"We have a great opportunity to educate our customers on how easy it is to get here," says Leinen.

With one-stop service available to Reno from most cities in the nation, he says the RSCVA's pitch is that a change of planes provides a welcome break on a long flight. Besides, he says, Reno-Tahoe International Airport is far easier to navigate than most air terminals.

And just like traditional tourist travel, where a big goal of the RSCVA is to convince travelers to give Reno a fresh look, the agency thinks it's important to get convention planners into town to see the new-look Reno.

Just one familiarization visit by planners to the region in September, Leinen says, landed a 2,000-person event for Reno and caused organizers of 10 other events to put Reno and Sparks into the mix of cities they're considering.

Many convention planners, however, plan their events three or five years into the future. That means that it's difficult to generate much immediate pop from the meetings segment of the tourism economy, Leinen says, but it also provides RSCVA an opportunity to build a solid base of already-booked business years into the future.


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