by Mike Gorrell

The Salt Lake Tribune

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The group's name really does not convey just how important its annual meeting is to Salt Lake County's economic future.

But Utah's hospitality industry is keenly aware of the rewards that can be reaped from a job well done for the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association (HCEA), whose meeting begins today and runs through Tuesday at the Salt Palace Convention Center. About 700 visitors are expected.

"This is an uber-important group for us," said Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau President Scott Beck, citing HCEA's membership of meeting and convention planners from hundreds of associations representing specialized disciplines within the immense health care industry.

Collectively, medical meetings account for one quarter of the entire convention industry. Last year, the 50 largest medical meetings alone attracted more than 1 million participants. And attendance at international medical meetings increased 23 percent between 2002 and 2006, according to HCEA data.

"They hold a lot of meetings, just by the nature of what they do and what [their members] are required to do because of government regulations," said Beck. "But it's not just because of that. Utah has a great position within the health care field, with Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah Hospital, Primary Children's Medical Center and research companies. We're not an unknown entity in the health care field."

The Grand America and Little America hotels will serve as headquarters for the HCEA's gatherings, a natural fit since these upscale hotels frequently play host to medical and pharmaceutical meetings.

"For Grand America, it's a wonderful fit because they require a lot of meeting space and breakout rooms that hold 12-15 people," said Bruce Fery, Vice President of Hotels for The Grand America Hotels and Resorts. "We're able to accommodate them because we have oversized guest rooms that we'll flip into small meeting spaces."

He said the hotels appreciate medical people because "they usually have a higher discretionary spending level," tend to visit the hotels' retail outlets and restaurants and often schedule additional functions on site. "Instead of one meal on and two off, they'll spend more time on the property."

Having an upscale hotel such as the Grand America, along with the expanded facilities available at the Salt Palace, shows that Salt Lake City has the infrastructure to satisfy needs and desires for meetings large and small, Beck said.

After that, it's all a matter of service.

"There's no room for error. These meeting planners are pros. They want to know when they come to a place that they're going to be treated well," he said. "You have to make sure you anticipate their needs. But we're in the business. We know what we're doing."

HCEA officials obviously liked Salt Lake City enough to bring their convention here, and Executive Vice President Eric Allen said he believes the membership will be impressed, too.

"We think they'll appreciate the major airport hub close to downtown, the natural beauty and the sophistication of this town," he said. "Salt Lake City may be just the kind of destination some of our attendees are looking for to bring their own events to."