As a meeting planner for HelmsBriscoe, Kris Finger searches the globe for full-service hotels and meeting spaces for scores of associations and business clients. We recently asked Finger if conventions and hotels have bounced back from the brutal recession and how the Twin Cities region compares with other venues.

QWhat is the scope of the U.S. meeting industry? Does it impact the economy?

AOur industry does about $102.3 billion worth of business in a year. There are about 151,000 people employed by the hospitality industry in the metro area. So, it's a big deal. That is stunning.

QThe meeting industry was hurt by the recession. Has it fully recovered?

AIt's rebounding. ... Last year, we were seeing a lot of cautious optimism. This year, I think what people are anticipating is a return in bookings to that 2007 space, bringing us pretty much back to where we were.

QAre there specific signs that give you hope?

AExplore Minnesota recently had a survey showing 31 percent [of hotels and resorts in the state] said their occupancy this summer was the same as last year. Another 46 percent said it was higher than last year.

QAre hotels seeing other changes?

ADuring the recession, hotels had to drop their rates pretty dramatically. ... But now, hotels are starting to say, "Our demand is going back up." And they want to go back to the rates they had in 2007. The rates have not fully returned, but that is one of the biggest changes we are seeing.

QWhat's the reaction from meeting planners?

AWell, planners are still looking for deals. They still want the same deals as last year for their clients. But hotels want to go back to 2007 rates. The reality is that rates will creep back up.

QSo businesses are going to see costs go up. But is that all?

AHow bookings are actually happening has changed. Before [the recession], companies and associations used to plan really far in advance for what meetings they were going to do. They were planning nine and 12 months out. But with the recession, we've seen a much more conservative approach. Organizations started booking meetings [with] shorter lead times [of] less than three months.

QIs that still the case?

AThe market is loosening up a little bit [and] hotels are changing. If you think that you can just walk in and that they will have space for you, that is no longer the case. Companies that stick with that short lead time in planning will get squeezed out. So groups are starting bookings a little farther out than they used to, say six or 12 months out.

QAre there any large conventions scheduled for the Twin Cities, where such issues will arise?

AThe biggest one on its way here is Meeting Professional International. They are coming to the [Minneapolis] Convention Center in 2014. MPI represents 23,000 members [and] will bring 6,000 meeting planners to this area. That will be a huge point of sale. It's like winning the Olympics for our industry. It's basically the cities' opportunity to sell the city to all these attendees.

QYou plan business meetings in countries around the world. How does Minnesota and the Twin Cities compare? What works here?

AYou have the Twins and activity in the metro area that draw crowds in. Light rail and the connection to the Mall of America is also a great thing. And you don't have to pay tax on food and clothes here. The airport has 1,451 nonstop trips. Only Denver serves more per capita. That is huge advantage. We are only three hours away from either coast, which means it's really accessible. You don't have to spend a full day traveling. Another thing that works here are the skyways. They are a great plus. But I would love to see them extend from downtown to the river and the Vikings stadium.

QWhat doesn't work here?

ARecently, I was talking with a meeting planner in Chicago. She loved working with the people here in the Twin Cities, but she didn't move forward with the contract because there was a lack of housing within a one-block radius of the Convention Center. The Hilton has 581 rooms. But we don't have a hotel with 1,000 rooms, and that is a big deal. There are a lot of [convention] groups [with] 10,000 members. It's great to have midsized hotels, but you need a couple of those big ones to really anchor the city.

QCan city planners make the Twin Cities a more attractive convention option?

AIdeally, the Minneapolis Convention Center would be surrounded by lots of restaurants and shops so visitors can easily spend their money. Now, a person has to invest their time and energy to find and get over to the Nicollet Mall shops or to the riverfront. As a meeting planner, you are looking for that. "Where can my attendees go to escape without losing them for a half a day?" In cities like San Diego, you walk out the convention center, cross the railroad tracks and are bombarded with options. St. Paul is a bit closer to that and a little bit more accessible. But [in Minneapolis], the Convention Center is surrounded by apartments and churches. There is no place I can quickly send them to get lunch. So that means that my client has to pay for lunch.

QDo the cities lose money as a result?

ALook at it not just from a daily decision, which could be losing out on a $3 coffee and a $10 lunch. But look at all the planners who just won't book here because there is not enough to do nearby the Convention Center. You could lose millions. If there were more options like that, we would have much more revenue.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725