Local firms go elsewhere to hold big conferences

Benefitfocus CEO Shawn Jenkins gave the keynote address at One Place 2012 at the Charleston Music Hall.

With plenty of scenic venues, large hotels and top-rated restaurants, Charleston is an ideal place to host a large, corporate conference.

Many businesses and other groups host their events in the area each year, and even more are expected in 2015 than last year, according to Dan Blumenstock, chairman of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

So it’s surprising that two large, homegrown employers, Benefitfocus and Blackbaud, have moved their largest annual conferences to other cities. For both Daniel Island-based companies, the events serve as a launch pad for their latest technologies and they draw in experts in their fields from around the country.

Blackbaud, which makes software for nonprofits, held its annual “bbcon” conference at the Charleston Area Convention Center from 2000 until 2010, when it was moved to the Gaylord in Washington, D.C. Last year it was held in Nashville, and this year, it’s heading to Austin, the capital of Texas and a high-tech hub.

The conference has grown to 2,400 attendees, so the event had to relocate to a city that could handle an event of that size, said Blackbaud spokesman Josh Lamont.

Blumenstock said the convention center in North Charleston has accommodated events of up to 4,000 attendees before, but he said it’s also understandable that Blackbaud would move bbcon.

“I know they went to more of a regional focus, so I think they’re kind of going to where their customers are,” Blumenstock said.

Benefitfocus, which also is in the software business, has held its annual conference “One Place” at Charleston Place since it launched it four years ago. In March, it will be held for the first time at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando.

Andy Howell, chief commercial officer at Benefitfocus, said Orlando was more accessible for its 700 attendees from across the nation because its airport is larger. Also, the company wanted to add variety. Even so, Benefitfocus is “not outgrowing Charleston,” he stressed.

“We are a Charleston-based company and that’s a huge part of our identity,” Howell said, adding that the company holds a series of smaller conferences and events throughout the year in its hometown.

Lamont said the same thing.

“We host many events — big and small — throughout the year at extraordinary venues throughout Charleston,” he said. “As a global company, ... we host events in various cities and venues.” He added that the decision to take bbcon to the Lone Star State had a practical side: “Austin is also home to Blackbaud’s second-largest office, after Charleston.”