Beach Days at MPI’s World Education Congress

After an unexpected venue change in the months leading up to the show, WEC 2016 opened with a beach party on the sand.

From all appearances, everything worked out fine. More than 2,000 attendees descended on Atlantic City this past June 11–14 for three days of education and networking.

Last spring, MPI received some unwelcome news. The original venue for its 2016 World Education Congress (WEC), the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, was now unavailable because the Democratic National Convention would be held there in summer 2016. And the alternative venues offered by the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau didn’t meet MPI’s needs.

But that resulted in an unexpected boon for another town, 62 miles away: Atlantic City. The Jersey Shore destination has been aggressively courting meetings in the wake of recent casino closures — and as MPI’s luck would have it, Caesars Entertainment was nearing completion on the Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center. The 100,000-square-foot venue offers 2,500 hotel rooms just upstairs, a perfect fit for WEC 2016.

“It was serendipitous,” said Michael Massari, senior vice president of meetings and events for Caesars Entertainment. A strong believer in AC even during the upheaval in 2014, Massari played a key role in convincing Caesars to spend $125 million on the Harrah’s conference center. “There’s no question that [WEC 2016] would benefit Atlantic City.”

In May 2015, MPI officially chose Atlantic City — and specifically Harrah’s — to host WEC 2016, which left just a year to plan the meeting. From all appearances, everything worked out fine. More than 2,000 attendees descended on Atlantic City this past June 11–14 for three days of education and networking. Some arrived via complimentary MPI shuttle from Philadelphia International Airport, while many others drove, confirming Massari’s belief that Harrah’s expanded facility “is within a day’s drive for millions of people.”

Although thunderstorms threatened to dampen WEC’s opening-night party at Bally’s Beach Bar, the skies cleared in time, and attendees got a taste of what makes Atlantic City unique: a pristine beach and a six-mile-long boardwalk bordered by cafés, casinos, and the rides at Steel Pier, which hosted an after-party.

Back at Harrah’s the next day, it was down to business. Emcee and comedian Dena Blizzard used salty Jersey humor to animate the general sessions in Harrah’s Wildwood Ballroom, where experimental seating ranged from leather couches to round banquet tables to café-style high tops, all arranged in theater-in-the-round style. Keynoters included Mike Shea, founder and executive director of South by Southwest, and Susan Cain, author of the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

The rest of the time, attendees hit up breakout sessions on topics such as risk management and F&B; dropped in on informal Brainstorm and Campfire sessions in Harrah’s prefunction space; and met with suppliers in a MarketSquare that snaked throughout the hallways and into another ballroom. And of course there were the parties, for which WEC is particularly known. This year, they included The Big Deal, a raucous gambling event at Caesars Atlantic City, and Rendezvous, a rock concert with the band Train, both of which raised money for the MPI Foundation.

MPI President and CEO Paul Van Deventer used WEC to announce several MPI initiatives, including a new three-tier membership model designed to offer flexibility to both planners and suppliers. But the biggest news seemed to be that Atlantic City has arrived as a meetings destination. According to Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC: “[WEC] became an endorsement of sorts.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.