By Beth Buehler
There are a lot of facets to planning group travel, but much of it boils down to some basic things to consider. Here are three suggestions to get you started, along with ideas of how to into Colorado opportunities.
Budget – The first thing to know before searching for a destination, venue, activities, caterer and more is what is your budget? Is the entity organizing the gathering fully covering the cost or will conference registration fees, booth fees and sponsorships raise the necessary funds? In the case of a wedding, the bride and groom pay for the celebration, but guests usually spring for travel, hotel and other costs.
In Colorado, there are some destinations that simply cost more based on demand or ability to command higher rates, but even these communities have quieter times of years (especially from early April through end of May and mid-October through mid-December for many ski towns) or available dates to fill. Don’t be afraid to ask destination marketing organizations and sales staff who represent lodging properties and venues about what are good times of the year to find value or if weekdays or weekends are better.
Considering how attendees will get to the destination and get around while there is key when looking at the transportation line item. Will they be flying or driving or can you charter a flight or bus? Amtrak’s California Zephyr also provides great train access to Colorado places like Denver, Grand County, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. Look at places that are walkable or feature quality public transportation like the RTD train system in the Denver metropolitan area, free gondola between Telluride and Mountain Village, and free artist-painted buses that run between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte.
Lodging is another big part of the cost, so have a clear idea if you are looking for luxury, middle-of-the-road or budget. Colorado delivers great options in all categories, from Five Diamond and Five Star to more rustic camps and everything in between. The same is true for venues, from tucked away places that require a sleigh ride and are higher end to city- and state-owned parks with pavilions that are fairly inexpensive for outdoor receptions and dinners.
Speaking of meals, another big chunk of the budget is food and beverage. A plated dinner with linens, centerpieces and the works will naturally cost more than food stations where attendees wander around and make their own selections. During fair-weather seasons, a casual outdoor picnic or a food truck rally in a parking lot or park might make sense. Market halls are popping up around the state in cities like Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, providing all sorts of dining options all in one place.
Also consider important items like décor, audiovisual and entertainment. If your budget is small or medium, where can you be creative but still make a big splash in these areas? Some venues don’t need much décor based on their design and surroundings or are able to provide a few décor items or certain types of linens and furniture for no additional cost. Again, ask vendors for ideas and be open about sharing your budget.
A great way to compare prices without having to contact each supplier individually is to utilize a request for proposal process available through Destination Colorado and some destination marketing organizations.
Demographics and interests – Planning successful group travel isn’t all about budget, it’s also about melding with attendee demographics and interests.
First, where are attendees traveling in from and how long will their travel time be? If limited time is available for the gathering, this can be an important factor to attendee happiness. It’s much different if most attendees are from within the same the same state (like a state association) or region. If flying in, check prices and flight schedules to or near the destination. Colorado’s main airport is Denver International Airport, but regional airports in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Eagle, Aspen, Montrose, Gunnison and more can offer attractive rates and convenience.
What is the age of the people being invited to attend or register, what are their interests (outdoors, culture, food, history, etc.), do they have family schedules to work around and do they lean more toward casual or formal? These are all important questions to ask when formatting an itinerary and selecting destinations, lodging, venues, food and beverage, team-building, and décor and A/V styles.
When planning outdoor activities, it’s vital to know attendees’ appetites for adventure or to provide various levels and types of fun so no one is left out. For example, a summer or fall day in the Colorado mountains could include the choice of fly-fishing, rafting, horseback riding, golf or a walking food tour. In the winter, the selection might include skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, dog sledding, a snowcat tour or spa day.
If the gathering is along the lines of a wedding or reunion, make sure to have a place for participants to socialize during free time and offer ideas of things they can do during free time.
Start planning group travel well in advance – Usually it pays off to have your ducks in a row fairly early when planning meetings and events. Lodging properties and venues will have a better selection of dates available, and there is more time to book transportation and get the word out to attendees. Peoples’ lives seem busier than ever, so get on their calendars early. Plus, if attendees have enough notice, they may elect to make pre- or post-trip plans to enjoy the destination or surrounding area, especially in a bucket-list state like Colorado.
If working far enough in advance, especially for a social event like a ski club or family or military reunion, planners can send out a couple date options via email and social media to survey attendees before signing on the dotted line for lodging and venues. Make sure to look for any competing dates for other conferences, meetings and gatherings your attendees might want to attend. Nothing is more frustrating than overlap and having to chose!
These three suggestions for planning group travel are just a starting point. As you get into the nitty-gritty of all the details for your specific group, I’m sure you will have more to add to the list!
Beth Buehler is editor of Colorado Meetings + Events and Mountain Meetings magazines, has planned numerous meetings and events, and enjoys exploring Colorado.