How the NFCA Picks a Convention Hotel

NFCA-2019-Site-Visit-Atlantic-City Meeting of the minds

Rise and shine, and welcome back to Beyond the Fence

If you know anything about the NFCA National Convention, I'm sure you can imagine it takes juuust a bit of planning. Have you ever wondered just how much planning it really takes though? How about just the length of the process in choosing a hotel per se - before we even get to the Convention itself? Well, let's dive in! 

Before COVID-19 hit the United States, several members of our staff flew to Dallas, Texas, for a "pre-planning" visit. This means a full-day of "plugging and chugging" our Convention schedule into the hotel's space. This particular visit happens nine months before our Convention even takes place - our third trip to the hotel already - but I'll come back to this moment in time.

Before we start, it's important to walk you through selecting a potential Convention location because let's be honest, if our staff had a dollar for every time we hear

We should have Convention in *insert random city/hotel here* ... 

by Everyone

First, we are very fortunate to work with a third-party company in Conference Direct – we love you, Mary! – who helps the NFCA narrow down potential hotel properties.

Second, the NFCA comes with a lot of baggage, literally, when it comes to choosing a Convention location. Let me break it down:

  • Does the hotel have enough ballrooms and square footage to fit 1,700+ attendees? If they do, do they have two ballrooms of that size? Think about this: While you as an attendee are sitting in the Drills, Drills, Drills session taking copious amounts of notes, the NFCA and hotel staff are in the secondary ballroom setting up for one of the largest Convention events (and meals!) in the Awards Brunch happening not 30 minutes later from when the Drills session ends. See how our programming is not exactly conducive to a hotel that does not have two very large ballrooms to work with? We always have to make sure the hotel staff has enough time to "flip a room" - from say theater seating (think side-by-side chairs in rows) to rounds (where you sit and eat your food in a circle) – and potentially get the room ready to serve food at the same time. Tricky, right? In simple terms, does the hotel have two large ballrooms big enough to fit 1,700+ attendees at once? No? NEXT.
  • From there, do they have a third ballroom or a space large enough that can fit an exhibit showexhibit show of 200+ (and growing every year) 10'x10' booth spaces. No? NEXT.
  • If a hotel is still in the running, it has to be able to accommodate at least 1,000 rooms. If we've made it this far, but the hotel doesn't have enough rooms ... We can't go there! If they have 1,000 then we can start talking about room rates. If it's too much over our price-point, we can't expect our attendees (YOU) to pay for it – on top of everything else (registration fees, flights, etc.) – for the duration of our Convention. Too high? NEXT.
  • On top of the rooms, room rate and three large ballrooms, our attendees love to meet, talk shop, discuss business items and so forth. So, does the hotel also have at least 12-15 smaller meeting rooms where we can break off into sub groups each day? No? NEXT.
  • Lastly, and sometimes this is the kicker, do they have our program dates available? Have we recently been to that particular region of the country? How accessible is the hotel from public transportation and major airports? Even when we book Convention hotel contracts years in advance - and we mean years - hotel properties still do not have our specific dates available or we've just hosted our Convention in that region too recently. NEXT.
  • So, let's say we've found a property that fits all of the above (don't worry, they do exist), that's when we go on a "site visit" or what we like to call our "recruiting visits" ;). It's important for our staff to walk the space, see the ballrooms, see the exhibit space, meet their sales staff, talk shop and see if their property would be an ideal place for our Convention, our attendees and the overall atmosphere and experience of "The Greatest Softball Show on Earth." They certainly roll out the red carpet for us and look to wine-and-dine their way into our hearts for the "sale." While there are many, many people involved in the decision of selecting a Convention site, ultimately our Executive Director (Carol Bruggeman), Convention Coordinator (Michelle Vasquez), the NFCA Board of Directors and our third-party company have the final say in which hotel we end up choosing as our official Convention site for a particular year. This decision, of course, comes after a lot of negotiating back and forth about contract terms and "concessions." These are items the NFCA receives for signing with the hotel. You know, things like water coolers in the back of the room or a negotiated keg price ... those don't get included without concessions! 

    Joanna (left), Michelle (L center), Carol (R center), Emily (front right), at the Dallas airport.
    Carol (left), Emily (L center), Michelle (R center), Mary Flynn (right), at the San Antonio Spurs game.
    NFCA "recruit" dinner at the Buddha table at Buddakhan in Atlantic City, NJ.
    Joanna (back left), Michelle (front L), Carol (back right), Emily (front R), at the Celine Dion concert.
    NFCA staff and hotel event planners walking the space in Atlantic City, NJ.
    NFCA staff and hotel event planner walking the space in Dallas, Texas.

    From there, we take our second trip to the hotel – about 15 months out of that property's Convention – usually in September three months prior to the current year's Convention. For reference, we went to Dallas, Texas, (home of the 2020 National Convention) in September of 2019. On this trip, we again walk the space, but more importantly meet our hotel event planner. This person is in charge of our programming from beginning to end and is our "go-to" person for all of our needs. What we've found though, just like in the softball world where coaching transactions are a real thing, you could meet someone on your recruiting visit, get to know them, plan for a year with them and then – SURPRISE! – end up with a new hotel planner 2 months before your Convention :). On this visit we'll also meet the audio/visual (A/V) sales team, the food and beverage captains (such a cool title), the room reservations team and anyone else who may be involved in our Convention planning.

    Michelle Vasquez getting a change of scenery during a site visit in Dallas.
    NFCA staff set-up for the Convention schedule "plug and chug" session.

    Finally, back to this most recent visit in February (still with me?), after careful review of our post-Convention survey (we do read those, every entry!) and our Board evaluations, we go through our programming schedule line-by-line, hour-by-hour and day-by-day, plugging and chugging every meeting, speaker slot, meal and event into the hotel's space. We figure out what each room needs to be set in seating-wise (theater seating, rounds, classroom – that's the one with the table to write on in front of you – or something different), how many seats go in each room (we learn quickly how many seats – and in which type of seating - each room in the hotel can hold) and then we work with the A/V staff to figure out where the screens, stages, etc. will be placed because chances are, each room at some point will need to be turned, flipped, re-oriented, etc. to accommodate our programming. Have you ever attended a session where you thought, "Why am I sitting at a banquet table for a note-taking session?" Well, chances are given the spacing of the hotel for that year, we probably didn't have enough time to flip the room OR we were using the room for a meal right after and it didn't make sense to have the hotel staff flip it and then flip it back again. The more you know … It takes a LOT of planning, a lot of brain power, a lot of coffee, snacks, stretching and bathroom breaks.

    And you're probably thinking, we haven't even got to the speaker portion yet! How do you decide who speaks at Convention?

    Patience everyone … it's only May … ;)

    Stick around … you just might learn something Beyond the Fence :)


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