Allowing crop duster planes to land near the pro shop of the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa turned out to be a great barometer of the city’s eagerness to work with the National Agricultural Aviation Association to bring its 2,000-attendee convention to the historic Georgia city.
IN THE CONVENTION INDUSTRY, DESTINATIONS ARE CHOSEN AND FACILITY CONTRACTS ARE SIGNED FOR A LOT OF UNUSUAL REASONS, but none can be considered more outside the mainstream than the selection criteria for the 2010 annual convention of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA). The lynchpin question turned out to be: “Would the hotel next to the convention center allow us to use its golf course as a landing strip for small aircraft?
The answer to that question was “yes,” says Randy Hardy, president of Hardy Aviation Insurance of Wichita, Kansas, a long-time member of the NAAA board and planner of the group’s 2010 national convention and trade show.
“We are all about crop dusters,” Hardy said. “The ability to display the aircraft themselves at the convention center is extremely attractive to our group. But if you start to look for a list of convention centers that have an airstrip next to the convention center, and then narrow that down to a list of centers that have a nearby runaway and are in an affordable price range, well, that list gets really, really short.”
In fact, Hardy says, the ability to put the deal together that allowed crop dusters to land near the pro shop of the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa—located next door to the 330,000-square-foot Savannah International Trade and Convention Center—turned out to be a great barometer of the community’s eagerness to work with the NAAA to bring the 2,000-attendee convention to the historic Georgia city.
“Certainly when you are looking for the right destination for convention, the idea that the community really wants you there becomes a huge factor, and in this case, the actions of Visit Savannah (which worked out the impromptu landing strip arrangements) certainly made us aware of just how much they wanted to make us feel welcome,” Hardy said.
Geography and facility planning also played a big part in the equation, Hardy says.
In a way, the planning started more than two centuries ago when James Oglethorpe, Georgia’s first colonial governor and founder of the colony itself, laid out the town of Savannah and made it the capital of Georgia, with the town center being on the bank of the Savannah River—immediately across the river (and now a short water-taxi ride) from the convention center and its next door neighbor, the Westin.
The hotel’s planners and designers also deserve credit, Hardy says, because just behind the 403-room property they laid out a championship, Robert Cupp/Sam Snead-designed golf course. And the final piece of the puzzle is that the golf course happens to have a paved road racecourse running around its perimeter.
“The planes did not actually land on the fairways themselves, of course, but along the straight-away of the track, which just happens to run past the golf course pro shop,” said Jeff Hewitt, vice president of business development for Visit Savannah. “I think the fact that we were able to make that specific detail happen for the group made it obvious to them that when we say we want to meet every group’s specific needs, we are not kidding.”
With the landing permission secured, all the NAAA convention staff had to do was wheel the airplanes next door to the parking area in front of the convention center and immediately have a compelling display that more or less “puts our name on the place,” Hardy says.
And when the NAAA convention returns in December, the group will be able to do more than just line the crop dusters up outside the convention center—they will be able to roll the planes right onto the center’s 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall floor.
As a result of a post-convention meeting, Hewitt says, the convention center and the NAAA agreed that the group would return if the convention center could install hangar-style doors large enough to accommodate small aircraft, which is being done in time for the December convention.
“When we looked at the cost versus the benefit of having this group return, it was certainly a no-brainer for us,” Hewitt said.
Not only has the NAAA agreed to return with its convention in 2012 and 2015, two other small aircraft-related conventions have booked events in the city.
“In this case, our experience seems to show that listening closely to what your group clientele needs can really pay off,” Hewitt said.
And the fact that there’s simply no such thing as a report titled Convention Centers Where You Can Land Small Aircraft at a Hotel Next Door is representative of the more-or-less serendipitous manner in which Hardy discovered Savannah as a fit for his group.
By his own account, Hardy had no clue that Savannah had sufficient convention center and hotel space to host a 2,000-attendee convention—much less the aforementioned, next-door landing strip—until he made a chance visit to the city.
“Because of our space and room inventory requirements, we go to destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando fairly often,” Hardy said.
Hardy’s initial discovery of Savannah was not the result of a formal site visit.
“I was actually just going there a couple of years back to visit my daughter, who is in the Navy, and upon visiting Savannah, I really feel in love the with place as a destination,” he said. “And the more I looked around the place, the more I liked it as a potential convention destination. One thing I like is that it has plenty of things to see and do, but not so much that the attractions are pulling your attendees away from your meeting sessions. It’s just right.”
The biggest attraction near the convention center, and one that can truly be described as 250 years is the making, is downtown Savannah itself. The downtown streets are still the same cobblestone boulevards that Oglethrope himself designed and had constructed in the 1830s. (An interesting trivia fact is that the stones that make up those streets today are the same stones that were laid when they were taken from the ballast of sailing ships taking cotton from the American colonies to England in the 18th century. The ships were so heavy with cotton bales that they had to remove the stone ballast from their keels.)
Those cobblestone streets in the central business district are replete with historic buildings from colonial days that are now a grand collection of restaurants, bars, galleries and museums for visitors with an appreciation for colonial America—not a re-creation of a colonial city, but a real colonial city that has survived the centuries as a result of painstaking preservation.
“That historic touch alone is enough to attract a lot of groups,” Hardy said. “What worked out particularly for our group is that the there is a really good inventory of high-quality hotel rooms within close proximity to the convention center. In fact, our experience there changed our perception going forward as to what is necessary in terms of a room block that can make our convention a success.”
Hardy explained that before the Savannah convention, the NAAA normally liked to have one convention hotel capable of housing all of the attendees. But with 2,000 in attendance, Savannah does not have such a hotel at this point, although there is discussion of constructing a larger hotel in the near future.
But what the city does have in place now is approximately 4,500 guest rooms in the downtown area, which includes a group of first-class hotels that collectively offer up to 1,600 committable rooms near the convention center. Visit Savannah has a large-convention-friendly transportation policy, which includes free hotel shuttle service for all groups that consume 650 rooms or more on peak nights. And that shuttle system worked perfectly for Hardy’s event.
And there is discussion of constructing another major hotel, a 500-room property next door to the convention center (on the opposite side from the existing Westin, which is under debate for taxpayer-supported financing). Currently under way are three privately financed hotels in the historic district that would offer another 350 rooms collectively.
In addition to the “runway” alongside the Westin’s golf course, the NAAA also found another spot near the convention center for its small planes to make a splash—in this case, literally.
The convention center also happens to overlook the Savannah River. And in one of the NAAA event’s signature moments, a small plane capable of flying along the surface and scooping up water (that it can later dump on fires) swept down as attendees assembled to watch the demonstration.
“It was a memorable event,” Hardy said. “And that can also describe the convention itself.” One+
business value of meetings,
One+ June 2012,