Long gone are the days when a job well done is rewarded by an engraved plaque or even a gold watch. What’s more, today’s top achievers no longer consider a perfectly planned trip as an adequate “thank you” if its inclusions are simply visiting a place and seeing its sights.
Nowadays, they want to experience all of the activities the destination offers and meet locals who can guide them to spots only residents know about.
Coupled with stats that millennials — representing more of today’s workforce — value an experience over a commodity, planners get the message.
“When we are working with a convention and visitors bureau, we’re trying to find those things that you can’t necessarily find or book yourself. What we’re looking for are those unique opportunities and experiences that you can only get if you’ve got the right connections.” — Sue M. Dykema, CAE
Groups seek authenticity. Underscoring the importance of the “a” word are the most recent findings of Eventbrite, one of the world’s leading event technology platforms, which finds that four out of five millennials say attending live events makes them feel more connected to other people, their community and the world.
So, the question might be how to make group travel intriguing, even irresistible — whether it’s incorporating a locally inspired CSR into the program, using indigenous foods and beverages as a window into the region (through food-tasting tours, cooking classes or events with celebrity chefs) or having a backstage or behind-the-scenes experience? Seems the directive for planners is simple: Seek what is genuine, what is real, what is original — not what is manufactured.
“We work hard with all of the local host committees for our World Education Congress (WEC) in order to provide authentic experiences,” says Melinda L. Burdette, CMP, HMCC, director of events at Meeting Professionals International. She proclaims the association’s most popular behind-the-scenes experience was Freeman AV.
Explaining its favoritism with groups, Burdette says, “As meeting planners, we typically do not hear nor play the ‘producer’ role at our meetings.” She names the following as some of the most successfully authentic WEC events: beach party in Atlantic City, the B-52’s and Joan Jett concerts in Las Vegas and a Fast Lap opportunity with professional race car drivers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“What we’re hearing from convention planners and attendees is that they want to experience what makes Indy unique as a destination and sets it apart from other major cities,” shares Susie Townsend, senior vice president of Visitor Experience with Visit Indy.
They want to know where the locals hang out, experience the neighborhoods, sample its way of life and eat local cuisine. But beyond these desires, Visit Indy’s senior vice president expounds on the city’s long history as a sports destination, citing such events as the Indy 500 (“more than a century old, it’s the largest single-day sporting event on the planet”), the Super Bowl and numerous Final Fours and Olympic Trials. The tally is more than 400 national and international sporting events in recent decades.
Describing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a potential venue, Townsend says, “Think of the thrill of going more than 120 mph on an oval track — a bucket list experience that only a select few will ever have the opportunity to do.” Having recently hosted a behind-the-scenes event at the speedway, the group was able to peek into garages of the drivers, learn how organizers keep more than 300,000 spectators safe and listen in on a drivers’ meeting as the pros prepare for the race. Additional venue options include Lucas Oil Stadium (home of Super Bowl XLVI) and the NCAA’s National Office, its Hall of Champions and Conference Center (all located in downtown Indy). Among Indianapolis’ CSR availabilities are “Back on My Feet” (the opportunity to run with residents experiencing homelessness) and “Keep Indianapolis Beautiful,” the planting of trees, beautification and revitalization of communities.
Of the meeting world’s marriage with authenticity, Townsend says, “The terms experiential and authentic are now a part of most DMOs’ and corporate marketing departments’ best practices. It is the age of storytelling, best told from a personal experience.”
With respect to generational influence, she doesn’t attribute the drive for authenticity to millennials, but rather to a trend inspired by the desires of industry planners to take some risks, create additional value for the attendees and grow their events in a positive way.
Coming from a different perspective regarding the influence of millennials is Pamela S. Dallstream, CMP, CMM, director of education, Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), who explains, “Since they traveled extensively with their parents, they already have an interest in new experiences, but want more than what was offered to their parents — they want something else, something different. Younger people attending the SCCM Congress are asking for more opportunities to experience the local culture during the meeting.”
SCCM’s upcoming February 17-20, 2019, event for 6,000 attendees in San Diego promises to be equally as inviting with VIP tours scheduled for the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the USNS Mercy hospital ship — venues Dallstream selected for their distinctively San Diego vibe.
“It’s back!” says Joel A. Dolci, CAE, of Puerto Rico. As president and CEO of the New York Society of Association Executives (NYSAE), he recently conducted its Five-Star Board Meeting on the Caribbean island. Described as the “association of associations” headquartered in the Tri-State region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, NYSAE’s members are full-time, paid chief executives and middle managers of trade associations, professional societies, voluntary organizations and other not-for-profit organizations and supplier firms.
“This is a group that needs five-star treatment,” states Dolci. “The board is very influential and responsible for more than $5.2 billion a year in meetings and conventions.” Having been there before but concerned from news reports that post-Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rico might not be ready to host meetings, the association president took these important decision-makers for a firsthand look. Here’s what greeted them: San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino serves up an island-style welcome three nights of the week. Called “Authentically Puerto Rico,” the lobby entertainment showcases different island bands and shows. “Is this special?” Dolci asked. “Yes, it’s special for every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night!”
Still available are tours of Old San Juan, Fort San Cristóbal and Casa Bacardi. Located across the bay from Old San Juan and known as the world’s largest premium rum distillery, the Bacardi tour was a hit with the Five-Star Board Members — serving up such options as a rum tasting, mixology class and bottle your own Bacardi. And for the active, there’s still adventures like rappelling a waterfall, zip lining through the jungle and rain forest and kayaking in a bioluminescent bay (ideally during a full moon).
“Puerto Rico is a place that will always guarantee high attendance,” says Vanessa Figueroa, destination support services director for Discover Puerto Rico. “We are a warm, diverse, energetic destination with superb service and top amenities. Many options are available from walking the trails of El Yunque, a refreshing swim in our clear-blue waters, tasting mofongo at a local restaurant or experiencing history as you walk the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan transporting you back to the 15th century.”
There are many factors that ensure a successful program in Puerto Rico. “Let’s start with our people,” says Figueroa. “We are genuinely friendly, heartfelt and service-oriented. Our services team is here to anticipate needs and assure that the attendee experience is a memorable one.”
Since his return, Dolci has fielded dozens of calls, as has his board, wanting to know the status of Puerto Rico. His answer: “Absolutely, no question, go to Puerto Rico — it’s ready, it’s open. In fact, my board didn’t want to come home.”
“An authentic local experience usually incorporates something to do with culture, maybe something historic, something that’s special and unique to the city,” says Sue M. Dykema, CAE, executive director for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), Aesthetic Surgery Education & Research Foundation (ASERF) and the Society of Plastic Surgical Skin Care Specialists (SPSSCS).
When Dykema selected Montreal for the ASAPS/ASERF annual meeting, she incorporated the Canadian city’s uniqueness with a locally inspired cooking class, a Harricana workshop (a Montreal eco-lux brand that recycles furs into new creations) and Cirque du Soleil elements.
Along those lines, here are some made-in-Montreal options. Cirque Éloize teaches basic circus elements to groups through teambuilding components such as trampoline classes, aerial work on silks or hoops and juggling — followed by a show watching the real artists work. Ghost walks through Old Montreal are available year-round, though are most popular during Halloween.
On a foodie’s checklist, Montreal is recognized for its internationally celebrated restaurant scene: Michelin-star chef Joël Robuchon’s newest eatery, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, where diners are seated around an open-concept kitchen; Chef Helena Loureiro’s Portus 360, a revolving restaurant showcasing above-the-city views and featuring cuisine of her native Portugal to its walking food tours in the famous Jean-Talon Market; and a food truck scene for which Tourisme Montreal can help with the reservation process though the Quebec Food Truck Association.
Montreal’s downtown core has a vast range of accommodation choices
— 16,000 rooms — 4,000 of which are linked directly to the Palais des Congrès (Convention Centre) via the brightly lit underground pedestrian network. Among these selections is the recently reopened and newly renovated 950-room Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, the city’s largest hotel and a historic icon that also offers 85,000 square feet of flexible function space (with a 4,300-square-foot outdoor terrace).
“When we are working with a convention and visitors bureau, we’re trying to find those things that you can’t necessarily find or book yourself,” says Dykema about her interest in local experiences. “What we’re looking for are those unique opportunities and experiences that you can only get if you’ve got the right connections — things you can’t just go online and book.”
Among this planner’s most exclusive experiences are a private home tour on Boston’s Beacon Hill and a New Orleans’ event in a 100-year-old antique shop known for its secret room of art and antiques (a venue so exclusive that one typically must be financially pre-qualified to gain entry).
“Greater Miami and the Beaches has long been known for its sunshine and shoreline, but what keeps attracting travelers is something much deeper,” says William D. Talbert III, CDME, president and CEO, Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “With so many cultures coexisting, Miami draws inspiration from all over the world in its dining, entertainment and artistic offerings. The reality is that all of these cultures overlap throughout its landscape, offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy a genuine Haitian meal in Little Haiti, sip a Cuban cafecito in Little Havana and admire captivating street art in the Wynwood neighborhood.”
Among Miami’s one-of-a-kind experiences are touring one of its almost 20 brewers to learn how some of its acclaimed craft beers are prepared, taking a dessert and chocolate decorating class (paired with wine, of course) in Little Havana’s Exquisito Chocolates and even joining a “hands-on” graffiti excursion of Wynwood, where participants tour and then paint their own murals.
Agreeing with Talbert’s assessment of Miami is a CAE-designated meeting planner with a Midwestern association management company who selected the city for a medical conference of approximately 900 physicians last May. “I would define an authentic local experience to be everything from the airport arrival to the atmosphere of the venue to the area’s attractions and its dining.”
She elaborates that the venue should encompass the culture known to the area and include activities and menu options that showcase it, adding that it’s very important to have a “taste” of the area at each reception and meal, if possible. Some attendees want to find the local experience in every aspect of the meeting, including social opportunities. “Most attendees are really looking to make the most out of their experience at a meeting. They want to go home and be able to tell a story.”
With respect to millennials, the association planner explains their constant quest for what’s genuine. “They want the most authentic experience to share with family members and friends who are with them at the event — and those watching from social media.”
Her advice to CVBs: “When meeting planners request information about experiences that are unique to the area — don’t hold back. While something may seem out of the ordinary for that type of conference, the meeting planner could have a different perspective and think it is a great idea. Just put everything on the table that is out there to showcase the culture of your city! I would rather have more to choose from than not enough.”
“In today’s global tourism climate, we know that we must take advantage of what makes our destination unique,” says Talbert. “That is why in response to this demand the GMCVB launched ‘Found in Miami,’ an active domestic and international advertising and destination branding campaign that speaks to the destination’s authentic travel experiences.” AC&F