“Room nights is not showing the true value of my meetings,” asserts Gregg H. Talley, FASE, CAE, president and CEO of association management company Talley Management Group in Mt. Royal, New Jersey. And since it’s industry practice to use contracted room nights to determine whether an association planner has met the quo to the destination marketing organization’s quid in an event subvention agreement — Talley is on something of a mission to change the standard.
An event subvention — a subsidy DMOs or CVBs provide to help an association offset costs in exchange for a guaranteed level of attendance performance — may sound like a nefarious back-room deal, but in fact the Destination Marketing Association International hailed it as one of 20 best practices in its DestinationNEXT initiative. And subventions are on the rise globally, Talley says, thanks to “oversupply” of convention facilities, especially in the United States.
“DMOs can help you a lot more effectively than you can help yourself with negotiating with your hotel and venue — having an advocate that knows the city much better than you do, has a more holistic view of what other events are also happening and how that impacts your event.” — Scott Craighead, CEM
“It’s better than blindly offering a deal,” he says, “and more tied to a concrete outcome.” Still, Talley thinks it’s time these subventions relied on a measure of economic impact more telling than room nights. “Thirty percent of attendees don’t stay in the contracted room block,” he notes, citing data from DMAI, and thus the true economic impact of the conference is, as he sees it, undervalued. Instead, he asserts that a DMAI economic impact calculator — or “any kind of third-party mechanism” — should determine whether the terms of the performance clause have been met.
Over the July 4, 2015, weekend, the international convention for Alcoholics Anonymous was held in Atlanta, where the CVB offered reduced facilities rent in return for booked room nights. “I made the number this time, but next time I may not,” Talley says.
As attendees become increasingly willing to wait for last-minute bargains online, planners become increasingly unable to guarantee room blocks, he says, and are “penalized for behavior we’re not in a position to control. You just start saying, this doesn’t make sense, the risk you’re asking me and my organization to take on.” The AA meeting, for example, had 57,000 attendees and 10,800 rooms. “I’m interested in moving that to an economic impact — by looking at what their business is valued over the course of the year — $40 million using the DMAI calculator.”
The next cities scheduled to host the AA convention are Detroit and Vancouver; in both cities, “we have an arrangement that works for both parties: a measure that’s total economic value as a layer on top of a desire for a minimum number of hotel rooms,” he says. Talley says he understands how challenging it can be to upend the standard model: “hotels control a lot of that discussion, call the shots.”
As such, an initiative like the partnership between Travel Portland and Airbnb — a DMAI case study for the “Next” practice of Shared Economy Collaboration — may not work for every DMO. Although Airbnb operates in good faith by collecting Portland’s 11.5 percent transient lodging tax on reservations made through its site — remitting revenue to the city while not operating at a distinct advantage over hotels — it’s not yet entirely clear what effect this could have on the event subvention calculus in Portland.
Still, Talley notes, DMOs have the DMAI calculator at their disposal. “They can help educate professional meeting planners; there’s a lot of room for discussion for setting a new standard.”
When Stuart Ruff, CMP, director, meetings, exhibitions and events for RIMS, the Risk Management Society, decided to take a “risk” on an untried city in 2014 by holding the annual RIMS conference and exhibition — 10,000 people from 70 countries — in Denver, he considered it “smart of the destination to consider a subvention. We understand we bring millions and millions of dollars to a destination; we track that.” He says Denver offered a convention center rebate for bringing in a number of attendees that he felt confident he could meet. “They lowered it enough that we knew no other place would beat that,” he says. “They’re willing to show that ‘your convention is important, we want it here, here’s what we’re willing to do.’ As a nonprofit, we don’t have a lot of money, and we have to look at these sort of packages.”
Subventions aside, Visit Denver has “rolled out a comprehensive marketing program for any client that’s going to be using our convention center,” says Justin Bresler, vice president of marketing and business development for the CVB and a member of the DestinationNEXT Advisory Group. “We package it by giving them resources to build attendance and to help attendees navigate the city when they’re here.”
The resources include a curated library of photos, downloadable video clips, postcards, email templates, starter articles for the planner’s meeting website that Visit Denver can customize, and data feeds of business listings and event calendars in a “nicely packaged” XML, updated nightly. Visit Denver’s app developers even can instruct planners on how to tie the feed into their own meeting app. The DMO also does “pre-promotes” such as outreach a year before the conference to get attendees interested, uses the association’s Twitter hashtags to connect with attendees, and offers random “surprise and delight giveaways” such as a miniature figurine of the Colorado Convention Center’s iconic 40-foot-high blue bear sculpture.
Of the top three information sources that most influence how planners perceive meeting destinations, DMOs/CVBs were cited most often (67 percent), according to Development Counsellors International’s 2015 survey of some 200 North American meeting planners with global meeting planning responsibilities. Even the other two leading sources, business/personal travel (63 percent) and dialogue with industry peers (60 percent), did not make quite as much of an impression.
This was certainly no surprise for Destination Marketing Association International. For its 100th anniversary in 2014, it created the DestinationNEXT Initiative, a three-year, two-phase initiative whose stated goal is to “help DMOs to increase community support and engagement as well as build their destinations.” After considerable polling and other research, DMAI distilled its findings into Core, Best (“a practice that shows superior marketplace and/or community result”) and Next (“a new and innovative practice or idea that could be transformative for DMOs and destinations”).
Two case studies for DMO association development — developing the Dubai Association Centre and the African Society of Association Executives — already show promise. Talley was instrumental in organizing the African Society of Association Executives, which will launch in February 2016. As nonprofit management specialists in Africa, “they’re there; they don’t know necessarily that they’re in a profession,” Talley says of the executives. “Emerging destinations want to know how they can build up their not-for-profit infrastructure so it’s in a position to host international events. There’s an informal network now, and we wondered about formalizing the network, valuing the professionalism in that sector and recognizing the opportunity they have.”
Destination DC, whose president and CEO, Elliott Ferguson, is a member of the DestinationNEXT Advisory Group, has just partnered with the Dubai Association Centre, Singapore Exhibition and Convention Bureau and visit.brussels to form the Global Association Hubs Partnership, which they say will “assist international associations to grow and better serve their overseas members by using respective partner cities as regional conduits to extend their efforts around the world.” They also expect the partnership to bridge cultural differences, allow the cities to cross-promote expansion efforts, and “capitalize on the potential of each region’s growth in activities and membership. The team will focus on research, attracting international business and creating unified city site visits.”
DMO association development is also about “activating your ambassadors in the local industries that you’re strong in a given destination, and identifying and turning on the assets that could work for you. There’s got to be a better story to tell and more to the destination pitch,” Talley says. “If there are three cities that can do the meeting, how are you going to go to the next level with other aspects you can bring to bear on the success of your meeting?”
He mentions Philadelphia, which leverages its local community of life sciences professionals for convention bidding, and León, Mexico, which has used its homegrown leather-making industry to successfully target related meeting business worldwide to bring to the destination. “Every destination has a dominant industry,” Talley says.
Ruff notes that the Nashville CVB offered not only event subventions but “research and insight into the world of business insurance, the history of it at the destination, with customer exhibitors that we could potentially have. They were really trying to show that my objectives could be met there. They attracted and enticed us to have a deeper conversation.”
“DMOs are thinking more holistically now, of the entire attendee experience from the moment the person lands, and not just promoting the touristy or traveler part of town, but getting very good at telling the story of what locals like to do. Making it really memorable, not just seeing a downtown hotel and convention center, but to get out and check out the neighborhoods,” says Scott Craighead, CEM, vice president of exhibitions and events for International Association of Exhibitions and Events, whose CEO and president, David DuBois, CMP, CAE, is a member of the DestinationNEXT Advisory Group.
For example, for his expected 2,500-person Expo! Expo! Annual Meeting and Exhibition in December 2015 in Baltimore, Craighead, working closely with Visit Baltimore, discovered an unexpected restaurant. “It’s in a part of town that isn’t right in the heart of the convention district, in an area going through a renaissance period. People always have their preconceived notions about a destination, so you’re trying to get them to create their own experience and memories,” he says.
Given the recent “unrest,” as he and Visit Baltimore Senior Vice President of Convention Sales and Services Amy Calvert characterize it, a little extra effort was needed. Calvert’s team, including a director of public affairs who works closely with city officials, has created videos showing successful, unmenaced conventions, as well as customer testimonial videos, and provided written resources such as crime-is-down notifications from the Baltimore Police Commission and information about the city’s downtown and waterfront guides, available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. “The DMO has been essential, showing their value in addressing that,” Craighead says. “If they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have anyone to help you get through all that.”
“We really have tried to evolve our value proposition beyond being transactional,” says Calvert. “We want to stay relevant to our customers, more than just a portal to distribute business opportunities to our members. We try to be a partner in the success by trying to understand the objectives of the meeting, how they plan to promote it, and we help supplement that with customized solution services and support,” she explains. To this end, the CVB has hired a director of convention and meetings marketing and begun to create customized preshow marketing campaigns, including email blasts. “That level of assistance isn’t something we were providing five years ago,” Calvert says.
Says Craighead, “They are with us every step of the way as far as co-marketing plans and communications to attendees, and a pretty comprehensive plan on branding the event within the city, planning city tours, online resources for attendees, local ambassadors to have a presence at the airport and welcome people as they arrive and answer questions they might have.” Visit Baltimore also sent sales teams to IAEE chapter meetings to get members excited about the destination. “That’s something we haven’t seen before,” he says. “DMOs can help you a lot more effectively than you can help yourself with negotiating with your hotel and venue — having an advocate that knows the city much better than you do, has a more holistic view of what other events are also happening and how that impacts your event.”
Rob Webb, director of meeting and travel services, ASCD, spent his summer touring U.S. cities to line up destinations for the ASCD conference from 2021 to 2026. “It’s a seller’s market, but we’re looking long-term,” he says. “The cities that are in high demand that still show they want our business and are willing to work within our budget — teachers and administrators who can’t afford high hotel rates — the cities we ended up finalizing for future years (DC, Chicago and Denver) showed they could accommodate us.”
He says Destination DC “went really all out with facilities and the entire site experience.” Representatives at all the hotel sites, and even their waitress at lunch, wore customized ASCD buttons. “They went to that extent to let us know that they wanted our business. It really made them stand out.”
The 2016 ASCD Annual Conference & Exhibit Show, where 8,000 to 10,000 educators from around the country and the world are expected, is slated for Atlanta, and the city’s CVB has already provided a video preview so participants can start making plans.
“One of the changes we’re trying to work toward at our conferences is experiences,” Webb says. “Attendees — I call them ‘participants’ — don’t just want to ‘attend’ an event; they want to participate more.” The CVB is offering a list of restaurants with discounts for a dine-around, along with facilitating a buyout of the Georgia Aquarium, two brand-new initiatives Webb trusts will increase attendance — at next year’s conference in Anaheim. ASCD’s CVB representative in Anaheim will be at the Atlanta conference with an information booth to answer questions and get a feel for how the dine-around and the aquarium buyout are received.
Sara Truesdale Mooney, senior director, exhibitions and strategy for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), has been hosting the International Construction and Utility Equipment Exhibition (ICUEE) in Louisville since the 1980s. The most recent exhibition, held in early October 2015, had more than 18,000 registrants and 1.2 million net square feet of exhibits.
AEM has stayed with the city because “it has a unique combination of proximity to our target audience, Class A exhibit space, outdoor space including areas where our exhibitors can demonstrate their equipment in job-like conditions, and dining and entertainment options — all at an affordable price for both attendees and exhibitors,” she says.
But the Louisville CVB, whose executive vice president, Cleo Battle, CDME, is member of the DestinationNEXT Advisory Group, continues to find new ways to support the association’s initiatives — this year, with a “new attendee acquisition program including a special hospitality lounge staffed by a knowledgeable expert, a benefit auction and a free local distillery Bourbon-tasting at the conclusion of the show. The tasting was a big hit and highlighted the local craft distilleries that Kentucky is famous for. They also arranged for the official Kentucky Derby bugler to open and close our show” and take photos with the attendees.
When issues arose with the former catering company for the convention center, the CVB “sprang into action, not only trying to help resolve the issue within the venue but also running to a local bakery for boxes of fresh-baked cookies to offer exhibitors who faced particular challenges with their catering orders.”
San Jose is a penultimate example of a CVB raising the bar on technology offerings. San Jose, dubbed the “smartest city in America” as the Capital of Silicon Valley, flexed its high-tech muscle in 2014 when it launched “Wickedly Fast Free Wi-Fi” at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, Mineta San Jose International Airport and within downtown San Jose — a smart marketing move to meet the ever-increasing bandwidth demands of meeting and convention attendees who come armed with multiple devices to stay connected. And as a further reflection of its culture of innovative thinking, San Jose boasts a unique, one-stop-shop destination marketing model, which allows planners to book the San Jose Convention Center, hotels, unique venues, menus, CVB services and more through one source: Team San Jose.
Michele L. Schaffer, vice president of programming for Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita Support Inc., held her annual event for people with a rare neuromuscular condition and their families in Jacksonville in July 2015. Because so many attendees have “mobility differences,” it is a priority for the organization to source hotels with a large number of rooms that can accommodate wheelchairs, and cities in general that have a major airport, highly accessible public transportation, and many dining and entertainment options within easy reach of the conference hotel. Attendees also tend to be inundated with medical bills, meaning the meeting package needs to be both economical and of sufficient quality that attendees will make the trek with their families.
Jacksonville fit the bill, with both five-star and chain restaurants near the conference site. “When we ran into a couple of issues booking a specific group, the CVB (Visit Jacksonville, whose CEO Paul Astleford is a member of the DestinationNEXT Advisory Group) stepped in and provided us with not only additional contact information, but provided us with an introduction to a manager who had the issue resolved in less than 24 hours. Every time I had a question about resources, they stepped up and provided me with multiple organizations/businesses that had been vetted.”
The CVB also provided an information table during the event registration, providing maps, discount coupons and information on the most accessible and family-friendly attractions in the area. The CVB even offered information on different repair options for an attendee whose power wheelchair malfunctioned.
“The CVB also had signage posted at the airport welcoming our attendees. This was a first for us, and many families commented that they felt welcomed to the city as soon as they stepped off the airplane.”
Although there were no group offsite events (“transportation for 40 or 50 power wheelchairs can be rough!” she notes), the CVB got the Jacksonville Zoo to present at the convention. Individually, some attendees later visited the zoo as well as sports stadiums, local confectioners and beaches suggested by the CVB.
“The CVB wanted to know what they could do to help me provide an amazing conference. They provided suggestions and ideas regarding things that I had not considered. They listened carefully to what I was saying and used those ideas to enhance our conference experience; overall, I feel they went above and beyond to help make our conference a success.” ACF