St. louis is keeping its eye on the ball as it enters the major leagues of the groups and conventions game, significantly modernizing its meetings offerings in recent years and showing off high-level skills by hosting major industry events.
"Sports, music, culture—we've got it all in our downtown," says Julie Krull, director of marketing for Destination St. Louis DMC. "The excitement flows out onto the city streets, and visitors get caught up in it. People want to be in St. Louis right now. Everything is on an upward ramp."
Exciting events are on the horizon, and according to Brian Hall, chief marketing officer for the St. Louis CVC, the city is already gearing up to commemorate its 250th anniversary in 2014 with a year-long celebration at historic sites in and around St. Louis. It is also preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Arch in 2015, which will be marked by the opening of new museum experience, the construction of a new pedestrian easement and other upgrades that will enhance visits to the Arch for tourists and attendees.
After hosting 2,000 attendees for the MPI World Education Congress in July, and more than 5,000 attendees at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in 2011, St. Louis has truly established itself as a strong destination for groups.
"This marked a really special moment in the transformation of St. Louis," Hall says. "It represented the city's reintroduction and coming out."
More than $5 billion was invested into the city over the past decade, from the 2006 construction of the new ballpark to the opening of City Garden in 2009 and the growth of the Washington Avenue entertainment district.
"If you haven't been to St. Louis in the last five years, you haven't seen St. Louis. The changes have been that dramatic," Hall says.
The city is emerging as a force in the industry, attracting planners by providing proximity, affordability and a great experience all wrapped into one.
"We give planners everything they expect from a first-tier cosmopolitan city, without all the downsides," Hall says. "St. Louis offers lower cost, less competition for resources and nowhere near the congestion of larger cities, but we are steps above most cities in the Midwest in terms of cultural offerings."
Accoring to Krull, St. Louis is a compelling, renewed Midwest metro.
"St. Louis is an amazing city. Over the last 15 years, downtown has undergone a huge resurgence, and you can feel the energy when you come in for meetings," Krull says.
Much of that energy is focused on the America's Center Convention Complex, which is in the midst of a $48 million renovation. The second phase, which includes ballroom renovations, is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year. The convention center is complemented by approximately 39,000 hotel rooms citywide, entertainment options and rich historical sites.
"So often at meetings, we forget to step outside the walls of the building that you're meeting in," Krull says. "But that's part of what makes America so great; we have so many unique, great cities with vibrant personalities, neighborhoods and culture."
The 212-room Embassy Suites Saint Louis Downtown opened last fall across the street from America's Center, adding its own 5,000 square feet of function space. Local off-site venues include the Missouri Botanical Gardens, paddlewheel boats on the Mississippi River, the Jive & Wail dueling piano bar and the classic Gateway Arch.
"It's great for us that the Gateway Arch is available for private events," Krull says. "With the birds-eye views of the river it adds a lot of panache."
The St. Louis Zoo recently unveiled its new $18 million Sea Lion Sound exhibit, which includes a transparent underwater tunnel that allows visitors to view the 11 resident sea lions up close as they frolic in a 1.5-acre habitat inspired the coastline of the Pacific Northwest.
"Groups have been gravitating toward the zoo," says Donna Andrews, public relations director for the St. Louis CVC. "They've seen huge attendance numbers this year."
The zoo is open seasonally, and groups can rent it for parties, corporate events and retreats for as many as 10,000 people. There are four banquet spaces, and behind-the-scenes tours can be arranged.
Also upcoming is a long-awaited expansion of the Saint Louis Art Museum, which will open in 2013 and include a new 200,000-square-foot East Building with new galleries and public spaces, and 300 additional parking spaces. More than 13,000 square feet of educational space was renovated and galleries were reinstalled in the main building. The museum's collection comprises more than 33,000 works of art, and it can accommodate up to 500 guests for a reception.
According to Martha Little, director of sales at the Greater St. Charles CVB, the town of St. Charles is all about history, but the small community is also all about service and extending a warm welcome to planners and groups.
"We're a small city and a small CVB, so we do a lot to enhance the groups and meetings that come here," she says. "From name tags and goody bags to information tables, we do extra things to ensure that they are comfortable here."
Groups convening in St. Charles will find no shortage of easy, complimentary parking as well as quick access to Saint Louis International Airport.
"One of the benefits of meeting in a smaller community is how easy it is to get around," Little says, "No one charges for parking here."
Twenty miles from downtown St. Louis, the two largest event spaces in town are the 154,000-square-foot St. Charles Convention Center, with an adjacent Embassy Suites hotel, and the Ameristar Casino, with a hotel property and separate conference facility.
"When it comes to selling our destination, those two conference venues are the big points," Little says. "Plus, people want to be here because of the rich history."
Lately, the destination has been selling well.
"We've been seeing meetings and conventions business grow," she says. "Groups are booking shorter-term, but we are seeing higher numbers."
Both major conference facilities are located within a mile of the town's historic district, a 10-block-long neighborhood that has been restored to its 1800s appearance and offers more than 100 specialty shops along a brick-paved street lit by gas lamps. All aspects of the historical district must be approved by the local preservation society.
Off-site venue options include the 1800s-era Grand Opera Hall, the Foundry Arts Center, a former railroad car manufacturing plant-turned art museum that hosts dinner and receptions, and the Lewis & Clark Boathouse on the Missouri River, where the famous duo began their 1804 expedition.
Thirty minutes away is Missouri's wine country, with approximately 12 wineries set amid the cliffs and rolling hills along the Missouri River. Several of the wineries offer group tours and event space.