Potential Hosts Pull Out the Stops for Meeting Planners

Times Staff Writer

The Anaheim Marriott is not going to risk its future by serving Bambi for dinner.

Neither is it going to risk offending anyone's artistic sensibilities by putting kiwi--too much green!--in a salad instead of some nice, color-contrasting strawberries.

Not this weekend anyway as an estimated 2,300 members of the American Society of Assn. Executives--the men and women who organize and choose the sites for their groups' conventions--begin a five-day meeting at the Anaheim Convention Center and also sample the fare and accommodations at surrounding hotels and attractions.

The ASAE members--meeting in Orange County for the first time--are treated with decided respect everywhere they go because they control annual convention dollars of about $24 billion.

Just 50 ASAE members could bring revenues of $70 million to Orange County over the next five years, said William F. Snyder, president of the Anaheim Area Visitor and Convention Bureau.

So, not surprisingly, the bureau is spending about $250,000 for a fancy reception, lavish banquets and a Disneyland dinner for ASAE members. Of that, three major Anaheim hotels--the Hilton, Marriott and Disneyland Hotel--each have chipped in about $37,000 to wine and dine the conventioneers. Other hotels, including the Emerald, Doubletree and Alicante Princess, also have contributed and are offering their own goodies.

And while the convention is more or less in their neighborhoods, tourism promoters from San Diego and Long Beach will be luring groups of ASAE delegates to their cities for entertainment, too.

That kind of stiff competition--not only locally but against other convention sites around the country--is keeping venison off the menu in favor of veal for ASAE members dining at the Marriott.

The decision was made at an elegant, candle-lit taste-test dinner prepared for a dozen top Marriott executives at the hotel last Tuesday that served as a test for this week's crucial ASAE dinners.

"People will look down and see Bambi on the plate," explained Marc Hoffman, food and beverage director.

"We don't want 300 people to say we were the first place they ever tried peacock eyes, then leave to head for a restaurant," said Joe Rothman, general manager of the Anaheim Marriott.

The Marriott executives also seriously debated salad color combinations, whether dining room ashtrays were too big, and how to create rosettes of butter to boost their future convention revenue.

Those types of decisions are apparently typical of the planning for the convention. ASAE delegates--whose members range from executives of the 22-million-member American Assn. of Retired Persons to the 46-member American Council of Spotted Asses (donkeys, that is) from Billings, Mont.--will be treated to everything from an exclusive night at Disneyland to tours of the Spruce Goose and Knott's Berry Farm.

It all began last night when the delegates entered the convention center through a tunnel of multicolored balloons. Once inside, they munched donated oysters, lamb chops and burritos while mingling underneath a 16-foot Angels-style A with Rams' offensive guard Russ Bolinger, Frankenstein, and Mickey Mouse. Delegates could climb around surfboards and a lifeguard's station to watch sand sculpturing, an orangutan and the UC Irvine volleyball team--all while ballerinas and hula girls danced.

The rest of the conventioneers' stay will be equally bizarre or, depending on your tastes, exciting.

Acrobats and White Chocolate

On Monday night, delegates will have Disneyland to themselves to watch flying trapeze artists and a circus parade strutting down the park's Main Street. The following evening, seven hotels will strut their stuff at elaborate banquets. Menus include beef and partridge consomme at the Hilton and white-chocolate conch shells dusted with pink powdered sugar at the Marriott.

Aside from those events, South Coast Plaza hopes to deliver its best sales pitches by providing free bus service five times daily to the Costa Mesa mall. Knott's Berry Farm is donating tiny jars of boysenberry jam and prancing Snoopy characters for convention center entertainment. Many hotels have set up free concierges' floors to provide breakfast, drinks and games.

"Meeting planners have the life style of the rich and famous, believe me," said Sarah Schantz, public relations manager at the Emerald of Anaheim, where almost half of the 500 rooms are occupied by ASAE delegates.

When the delegates are not being fed or entertained, they can watch ASAE lectures or stroll through 300,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space at the convention center. Inside, about 400 exhibitors are selling convention-goers everything from insurance to jewelry to convention packages to Juneau, Alaska.

A lot of promoting takes place at the exhibit hall because it is one of the few places where convention customers come to suppliers. "It gives two or three sales managers from across the country the chance to talk to me," said one delegate, Hugh Ingraham, executive director of Kenosha, Wis.-based Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America Inc.

The promotion does not stop in Orange County--or even once the convention ends. The San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and its members, for example, will play host to 60 ASAE delegates during a three-day sightseeing tour. The convention bureau hopes that spending about $5,000 will generate about $9 million in business during the next two to three years.

Long Beach will spirit away about 2,000 delegates today for a free tour of the Spruce Goose and a concert by the Righteous Brothers.

'Well Worth the Investment'

"Everybody in the world wants this convention," said Bill Miller, president and chief executive officer of the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Council. "If we book even one convention with 2,000 delegates, it's well worth the investment."

The investments seem to benefit just about everyone. "Even if one (convention) has only 1,000 rooms and it goes to Hilton, it helps (overall) occupancy," noted Joe Rothman, general manager of the Marriott, where the ASAE has 70% of the 1,042 rooms. "Maybe they'll refer the overflow to us."

But the hotels' generation of business isn't going to be by chance.

Hyatt Corp., for instance, recently sent a two-page questionnaire to ASAE members to be sure they are treated well at the corporation's hotels.

Not to be outdone, the Anaheim Marriott contacted secretaries for the 16% of the ASAE delegates that it estimates have some say in selecting meeting sites. "We find out what (executives) like. When they arrive, there could be a six-pack of golf balls, a bottle of Jack Daniel's, and if the guy likes nuts, a huge can of Smokehouse almonds," said Hoffman. "Then he says, 'Wow! All the comforts of home!' "

Special planning and perks aren't limited to hotel rooms.

The Marriott will have an extra 50 to 100 staffers on hand to ensure top-notch service.

At the Disneyland Hotel, an electrician spent two weeks rechecking 10,000 tiny blue light bulbs to make sure that all will be lit during a Tuesday night bash. "Attention to detail is part of the big picture," said Marty Berg, entertainment manager. "This is our chance to show we can compete with any city in the U.S."

The major hotels--including Anaheim Marriott, Disneyland Hotel and Hilton Hotels Corp.--estimate that they each will spend at least $90,000 trying to outdo each other to impress the ASAE.

But the stakes can be huge: 20% of those at the Anaheim convention will book meetings in Orange County within the next five years, according to the ASAE--potentially generating tens of millions of dollars collectively for hotels, retailers, amusement parks and transport companies.

"There's nothing else I could do in the next six months where I could hope to get 15, 20 conventions out of it," said Rothman of the Marriott.

Even so, the convention may not be as fruitful as some had hoped.

When Orange County first bid for ASAE's convention business several years ago, a much larger turnout was expected.

The Anaheim Area Visitor and Convention Bureau anticipated ASAE registration of 3,000 to 3,300, but it hit only about 2,300, said Bob Sherwood, convention sales director.

"We probably wouldn't do (an) ASAE (convention) again," said Sherwood. "The benefit we get isn't worth it, and the numbers just aren't there."

Nonetheless, Sherwood projects potential ASAE business of $40 million to Orange County over the next 10 years.

And the ASAE convention's Orange County debut could be only the beginning. By January, 1989, the area will be host for the first time to two other major opportunities for snaring business from the $34-billion-per-year meetings industry. The National Assn. of Exposition Managers will meet in Anaheim in December, followed 13 months later by a convention of the Professional Convention Management Assn.

In luring these groups, hotel owners are hoping their rooms will be filled by people like William T. Bringham Sr., executive vice president of the 195,000-member Sigma Chi fraternity and Sigma Chi Foundation based in Evanston, Ill. "I wouldn't have thought to go to Orange County for a convention. . . . If it impresses us, they'll get lots of conventions out of it."

That is, of course, assuming that impressions are good. Not every city has fared well.

A banquet experience in New Orleans 10 years ago has become an ASAE legend. The entree was "eggplant surprise," recalled William Taylor, president of Washington-based ASAE. "And it did turn out to be a surprise. People were dumping their food on the plate of the chairman of the board and telling him it was inedible."

That's why Bambi on a platter will not be surprising anyone this weekend.

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