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Leslie Zeck was so impressed with Minneapolis this week that she booked a 2027 conference in downtown for a few thousand dental research professionals.

Zeck is among 2,600 event planners and hospitality vendors at the Minneapolis Convention Center for the Connect Marketplace 2023, which runs Tuesday to Thursday.

"We have a golden opportunity to expose our destination to a large number of meeting planners who might not have come here otherwise," said Melvin Tennant, president and chief executive of the convention and visitors association Meet Minneapolis.

Hotel occupancy hasn't returned to 2019 levels in Minneapolis, largely because of the nationwide business travel slump. But Taylor Swift concerts, Twins games, downtown theater and other events have all drawn visitors this summer, even with three more hotels to fill than a year ago.

Nationally, nearly a quarter of large and small companies said their firms were already back to pre-COVID travel levels, and 34% anticipated a full recovery by the end of 2023, according to a Morgan Stanley survey late last year of 100 global corporate travel managers. Still, another 22% don't think their firms will return to pre-pandemic traveling.

That's why the conference this week was another crucial moment for the region's marketers to showcase the city for the planners who organize conventions and events.

The kickoff night Tuesday centered on a Nicollet Mall block party with Chase & Ovation, a Prince tribute band, at Peavey Plaza. Guests spilled into the Orchestra Hall lobby and Brit's Pub bar. Attendees said they planned dinners at Café Lurcat, Devil's Advocate and Zelo and might even squeeze in a Twins game at Target Field.

"This gives us the opportunity to meet with them face-to-face, especially after COVID," said Leah Wellnitz, sales director for the InterContinental in St. Paul, who came away with some leads.

The area's central North American location impressed Zeck, as did the quantity of meeting spaces downtown and sustainability measures she spotted, such as refillable water fountains and recycling bins around town. The clincher was the skyways.

"In March, we don't know if it will be hot or cold, so this way, we're covered. The city gives us options," said Zeck, director of meetings for the International Association for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Research in Alexandria, Va. "We love the connectivity of the hotels here."

Indeed, with an excessive heat warning in effect for much of the conference, attendees took to the skyways rather than the sidewalks to move around town Wednesday.

Even friendly competitors noted the city's positives during their stay.

"The downtown is really clean," said Brian Murphy, chief development officer of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. "We travel all the time and see cities with trash on the streets."

Matt Tungett, corporate sales manager for Visit Irving, Texas, came in early to walk around downtown. Growing up near the Mississippi River in St. Louis, he especially wanted to stroll near the water here and see the Stone Arch Bridge.

Even as downtown's long-term viability remains controversial, Tungett came away with a favorable impression.

"The city's really nice and easily walkable," he said. "You don't see any sketchy areas."

His colleague Donna Groves, a Visit Irving sales manager, said she was "shocked" at how clean downtown is.

"I like the way there's new buildings next to historic buildings," she said.