By the numbers
Top 10 hotel meeting spaces in Collier
Here are the hotels with the most meeting space in Collier County:
1) Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort Golf Club & Spa, 65,000 square feet for up to 3,700 attendees
2) Waldorf Astoria Naples, 48,000 square feet for up to 1,660 attendees
3) The Ritz-Carlton Naples, 42,000 square feet for up to 1,000 attendees
4) The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, 34,000 square feet for up to 700 attendees
5) Hilton Naples, 18,000 square feet for up to 500 attendees
6) The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, 16,500 square feet, for up to 530 attendees
7) Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, 12,000 square feet for up to 250 attendees
8) LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, 11,500 square feet for up to 400 attendees
9) Inn at Pelican Bay, 9,000 square feet for up to 250 attendees
10) Best Western Naples Plaza Hotel, 6,500 square feet for up to 275 attendees
Total meeting space: About 250,000 square feet countywide
Source: Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau
NAPLES — Naples is known for its first-class shopping, restaurants, beaches and hotels.
But when it comes to convention business, it's decidedly third-class.
With its small population, its limited number of hotel rooms and its shortage of direct flights, meeting planners would likely see Naples as a "third-tier" city if it had a convention center.
"Second-tier" convention cities include the likes of Mobile, Ala.; Topeka, Kan.; and Virginia Beach, Va., and cities with "first-tier" status are Orlando, New York and San Francisco.
In all of Collier County, there's about 250,000 square feet of meeting space. That's a fraction of what's available at the nation's largest convention centers, a few of which stretch more than 2 million square feet.
Yet group meetings account for 40 percent or more of the business at major brand hotels in Collier, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy every year.
The Marriott on Marco Island has the most meeting space of any hotel — about 65,000 square feet. If the resort's owners find the money for an expansion and the city approves it, another 40,000 square feet of meeting space could be added across the street, allowing for much larger events on the island.
"The cost of this could be as much as $60 million. So it's a substantial investment," said Rick Medwedeff, the resort's general manager.
For now, the land remains a parking lot for the resort, used by guests and employees.
With the expansion, Marriott Marco could see a significant jump in its group and meeting business, which is already a big draw for the resort.
"Our community relies more heavily on the convention business for our overall occupancy than any other competitor market does," Medwedeff said.
By competitive markets, he's talking about the Keys, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Palm Beach in Florida.
In Palm Beach, for example, groups generated about 33.5 percent of the market's hotel occupancy from 2007 to 2011. That was the next-highest share after the Naples market, which ranged from 35 percent to 41 percent the past three years, Medwedeff said.
In the Naples area, the meetings business has left its mark at The Ritz-Carlton Resorts.
"More than half of our business is related to the corporate conventions, group markets," said Bruce Seigel, director of sales and marketing for the Ritz, which has two resorts in Collier.
Collier County has a few shortcomings when it comes to luring groups, including a shortage of direct flights to and from the West Coast, Seigel said.
Some say there is lost potential because the county doesn't have enough room for bigger meetings and events.
"It's a different niche of business," Seigel said. "It's comparing apples and oranges. We just don't attract that business because we don't have that entity. If we have a convention center, we would be able to bring in different kinds of business because we now have space capacity to bring in that business."
50th-rated meeting place
Naples recently made a list of the top 50 destinations for events and meetings in the U.S.
It came in at No. 49, based on a report by Cvent — the Expedia for meeting planners. A handful of other Florida cities ranked higher, including Orlando at No. 1, in the study that tracked bookings between July 2011 and June 2012.
Last year, visitors had a nearly $1.3 billion impact on Collier's economy, which includes the money they spent on hotels, entertainment, food and shopping. The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates about $337 million — or about a third of that economic boost — came from visiting groups.
"No question it is significant and no question we have it when we need it," said Walter Klages, the county's tourism consultant and president of Research Data Services Inc. in Tampa. "When all the hotel rooms are full when we're in season that's one thing, but when we get into the (off-) season then that (group business) is a very helpful piece of business."
Based on a total average occupancy of about 62.5 percent in 2011, Marco's Medwedeff, a longtime member of Collier's Tourist Development Council, estimates group business last year generated nearly 680,000 room nights in the county.
Money to attract
In 2011, the tourism bureau set aside $500,000 from an emergency marketing fund to step up its efforts to attract meetings and events. The bureau is still spending that money and has used it in three ways: sponsoring social events with meeting planners, picking up the tab for opening receptions for groups, and covering travel costs for meeting planners to check out the area.
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"There certainly are some new ways to incentivize planners to choose us over someone else," said Jack Wert, the tourism bureau's executive director. "It might be subsidizing transportation, for instance, from the airport."
He will seek another $100,000 for more meeting-related incentives this year.
Beyond incentives, the bureau works to attract group business in other ways. Staff works to identify meeting planners with events that are right for this market; reaches out to the planners through direct mailings and email newsletters; partners with hoteliers to identify suitable events, and attends tourism trade shows around the country, where they pitch the destination.
When it comes to group business, Collier County thinks small.
It primarily attracts corporate meetings, such as board meetings and retreats; state and regional association meetings, and what's described as informal groups, such as churches, educational organizations and families for reunions and weddings.
Included in the mix are meetings in the financial and medical industries for training and education — and incentive travel to reward top employees, such as sales agents, for their work performance.
The association market has been growing fast, and that helped make up for lost business when corporate America pulled back on its spending on meetings and events in 2009 and 2010, following the nation's financial crisis.
"Corporate doesn't have to meet, but an association does. So that is a sustainable business whether the economy is good or bad," Wert said.
Often, the sites for annual meetings and events rotate around the state — or even around the country — from year to year.
"So it's a constant challenge to find new business to replace what you had this year," Wert said.
Some groups are more loyal, including the Florida Tomato Committee, which has been meeting annually at the Ritz-Carlton beach resort in Naples for more than two decades.
The Florida Cattlemen's Association has met at the Marco Marriott for more than 30 years. On its website, the association says its not-to-be missed annual convention "has simply become known as Marco." The event brings in 1,400 to 1,600 visitors a year.
"We enjoy the beach, fine Marriott facility, great family atmosphere. (It's) safe. We are familiar with it," said Jim Handley, the association's executive vice president.
'Not a convention city'
Collier County isn't a convention site, and some don't want to resort to that.
When selling the county as a destination for meetings, Debi DeBenedetto, the tourism bureau's sales and marketing manager, said she targets planners for groups needing fewer than 500 rooms who book meetings "that fit our destination."
"We are a resort destination and do not need to be a convention destination," she said. "We need to keep our charm, and being a resort destination is part of that charm."
There are plenty of small and mid-size meetings to "keep us growing," DeBenedetto said.
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Groups that don't come to Naples consider the rates too high or rooms too scarce in the busy winter season — it's not because there isn't enough meeting space, she said.
The bureau's lost business report shows 46 meetings went elsewhere during the past two years for various reasons, including the distance from Southwest Florida International Airport and the high room rate in Collier. Only two planners said they didn't come because there wasn't enough space for their groups.
Wert declined to name the groups and meetings that have been lost, saying it is protected information under Florida law.
"We are not a convention city and don't pretend to be," DeBenedetto said. "Conventions don't typically look for us and I don't look for them."
Collier 'ideal location'
Would a convention center change Collier County?
Chuck Cook, owner of Tallahassee-based Chuck Cook & Associates Inc., which handles meetings for corporations, government agencies and associations throughout Florida and across the country, said it could.
There are many national associations that might bring their big meetings here if there's a convention center to fit them, he said.
"I recommend the Collier County area enthusiastically to clients because of the shopping, the attractions, the beaches. It's just an ideal location for tourism and for group business," Cook said.
Still, even with a convention center, the county could face challenges in attracting larger groups, said Stephen Hacker, formerly with the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, headquartered in Dallas, Texas.
“Here’s the challenge that you have. If you want to bring in a large meeting, a national event, how are people going to fly into Naples conveniently? They are not,” said Hacker, the organization’s longtime president.
Ideally, a convention center should have a 1,000-room hotel attached, but building a hotel of that size along with a new center makes "several leaps of faith" because there may not be enough convention business to fill the hotel right away and the project becomes much pricier, Hacker said.
Competition in Fort Myers
If Naples had a convention center, some of its biggest "third-tier" competitors might include the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and the Charleston Area Convention Center, both in South Carolina, and the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center in Georgia, industry experts say.
But its greatest competition might be closer to home.
In Florida alone, there are more than 40 major exhibit halls, including ones that are privately owned at resorts. There are more than a dozen conference and convention centers in the state that might go head-to-head with one in Naples, including the Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers, considered a third-tier convention center.
Harborside offers 42,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space, but it has suffered without a hotel. There are plans to renovate and expand the center in the next five to seven years, a project that would include a hotel. There are several phases to the planned expansion, which would include purchasing land and building an exhibit hall across the street on its west side.
The project, which would grow meeting and exhibit space to 135,000 square feet, is estimated to cost more than $50 million without the hotel. The hotel would be a private investment, said Rose Bernal-Rundle, the center's general manager.
"I wouldn't run away if there was a convention center in Naples," she said. "It definitely would not make me want to stop the expansion."
Further north on the Gulf Coast, there's other competition — and perhaps a lesson — for Naples.
Oscar Parsons, owner of the Sarasota Bradenton International Convention Center in a third-tier market, said the crowds he expected never came.
His center, spanning 120,000 square feet on 20 acres, is rare in that it was developed privately, with no money or support from the government.
Parsons bought an old Sam's Club warehouse store behind the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport and converted it into a convention center, opening it in 2003. Later, he lured a 135-room Holiday Inn hotel, which has been on site since 2009.
He said the center lacks political support and gets the cold shoulder from the county's convention bureau and convention planners, who seem more interested in dealing with publicly owned centers.
"This is a tough business. We haven't had a decent convention in eight years," Parsons said. "This was the biggest mistake I ever made opening this thing up."