BY KEVIN MANAHAN
Walking into the exhibit hall at the Oregon Convention Center on Wednesday felt almost like stepping into a formal event for which I was considerably underdressed. Lavishness was the theme, with artsy seating areas and dining tables laid out with elegant settings and décor. There was even a small band playing light jazz music in the center of the room where people were crowded around blackjack tables. Whose high school prom did I crash?
My first impression of my surroundings was appropriate: I was visiting the Bravo! Live event, an annual showcase of the local hospitality and meetings industry. The hall was filled with extravagantly outfitted booths representing every sector of the business, from event design to transportation, along with representatives from big-name meeting venues like Timberline Lodge and the Portland Art Museum. Many of the exhibitors pulled out all the stops; the elaborate food displays were just the beginning. And with so much glitz in one room, it was hard to imagine this industry as yet another recession victim.
When I met James Joyce of Lake Oswego-based Gourmet Productions, he talked about the strategy shifts the company had made to keep itself alive, such as pushing to get new contacts and narrowing its focus to wineries and weddings. But while people were eager to try the beautifully arranged food samples at the company’s booth, Joyce did comment that attendance at the show was down compared to what he saw last year, and that attendees seemed to be more interested in venue shopping or networking than in catering services.
Cheryl Skoric of Bouquets & Balloons similarly observed that last year’s show was a bit busier than this year’s. And despite taking steps into internet marketing to spruce up activity, her 22-year-old business’ services have become a last-minute consideration for budget-conscious customers. “People will buy the food and the entertainment over decorations,” Skoric said.
Joyce and Skoric’s businesses have each been around for years, but even newer and bigger ventures are having a hard time growing. Resort chain Great Wolf Lodge, for example, opened a new location just last year in Grand Mound, Wash. Sales manager Donna Meyers was representing Great Wolf at the show, and while the Washington location has greatly benefited from its novel offerings – family-friendly accommodations and an indoor water park in addition to its 30,000-square-foot conference center – Meyers said this year’s business has flat-lined with last year’s. It’s certainly not a bad spot to be in; it’s better than losing money like so many other companies. But Meyers said one trend she’s noticed recently is customer reluctance to look beyond short-term bookings, a trend she believes everyone in the hospitality and meetings industry is experiencing. “You can get the business, but it seems like nobody’s making long-range plans like they used to,” Meyers said. “So [the future] is much more of a question mark than it ever has been. I’ve never seen it like that.”
There’s no easy solution to keeping these kinds of businesses prospering, especially when people are cutting out luxuries and other nonessentials from their budgets. What’s Great Wolf’s secret for riding out the rough times? Meyers said it comes down to good service, but while the answer is simple, it’s easier said than done. “We have a little bit of an advantage because we’re a new product, but service is service, and that’s really what’s setting anybody apart from anybody else,” Meyers said. “So we’re not taking anything for granted, that’s for sure.”