Cutting-edge educational content and the prospect of networking with peers aren’t the only means of drawing members to attend the annual convention. A more minor, but still significant, draw is the host city, especially when it promises attendees interesting encounters with local attractions and culture. And increasingly, group events are showcasing what the host city has to offer in lieu of utilizing another convention center or hotel space. A reception, for example, becomes all the more remarkable when held at a world-class art museum, a board of directors’ luncheon becomes more engaging if booked at a trendy local restaurant, and so on. The key to these possibilities is often the local destination marketing organization (DMO). If a planner wants a ‘big picture’ perspective on how the city can help to maximize attendance, as well as specific ideas for supplier partnerships, the local DMO is arguably the best first stop.
“The information that I’m looking for from the DMO is a little bit different than the information I’m looking for from individual properties,” notes Kay Granath, CMP, CAE, IOM, founder and CEO of Granath Consulting. “The DMO is going to give me the flavor of the city and what the attraction is for my attendees. Why would they want to come to this city as opposed to another?”
Rosina Romano, director of meetings for the Entomological Society of America, also looks to DMOs, particularly CVBs, when she wants to imbue her annual meeting with local character. “I primarily use CVBs to help us make our meetings feel like we’re not just in any city,” she explains. “So we do an off-site student reception where I want to bring the students out of the convention center and into the downtown area. I work with the CVB to send out requests for proposals (RFPs) to destination management companies (DMCs) in the area and to come up with ideas that will really be of interest to entomologists. They also help with organizing tours and suggest restaurants that handle groups well. I lean on them for all of it.”
Granath, a self-professed ‘champion’ of CVBs for her entire career, and Christopher Kirbabas, director of programs with the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), think CVBs are somewhat under-utilized by their peers, which is surprising given the value proposition of these organizations. “Planners that do not work with the CVB are missing out on a treasure trove of knowledge and resources that can be of critical value to you and your members — and to your budget’s bottom line,” Kirbabas says. He gets the DMO involved in the SAH’s annual conference from the beginning of the planning period. “They don’t necessarily need to help us design an event, but providing input and resources to help with cost-saving approaches is critical for us,” he says. “They may have resources at their fingertips that I don’t know about, and if they can help provide a cost-saving approach or a different idea that works even better, then great.” One of the resources at a CVB’s fingertips is information on any incoming conventions over the client’s dates, which can impact the booking decision or motivate date flexibility. That’s also part of the ‘big picture’ that CVBs can provide.
When it comes to executing the convention, some CVBs go ‘above and beyond’ or ‘the extra mile,’ according to their planner clients. These popular phrases can mean different things to different planners. For Kirbabas, it means the CVB is a partner “every step of the way.” He gives the Glasgow Convention Bureau, host of the SAH’s 70th Annual International Conference, as a prime example. “The Glasgow CVB made SAH feel so welcome to its city from the moment the city was booked to past the time our attendees left Glasgow after a very successful and rewarding conference.”
Helena Dean, SAH’s director of communications, elaborates on the extent of the CVB’s assistance: They “met with staff face-to-face at the start of the conference, attended the Glasgow Seminar and tours, and shared photos on social media — always being there to provide assistance with PR, partnership contacts, connecting us with the Scotland CVB, images and anything else we needed. They continued to foster the relationship past the conference through social media as well.” As a result of this attention, the group feels that their event is truly important, not only to individual venues and suppliers, but to the city itself. “When a CVB makes your organization and event feel important, by giving it the attention it deserves, it shows,” she observes. “We’ve had the opposite — where we felt like we weren’t important enough because of our small size and the popularity of the host city — and it’s no fun feeling like the small fish in a big pond.”
The starting point of the partnership is often a visit to the CVB’s website, which then becomes the planner’s first brush with the organization’s service quality. The information and functionality of the meetings section of the site is a kind of service to the user, and planners certainly have their preferred features. For Kirbabas, “The most valuable feature on a CVB’s website is a listing of local vendors who provide services that I need to source. Vendors, from shuttle buses, audiovisual and printers to catering companies, help make the search process that much quicker and easier so I can then move on to other projects.” Dean adds that the image galleries are also an important resource from a marketing perspective. “Having a large and diverse selection of high-quality images with captions and credits is always a huge help. You can never have too many images,” she says. “The travel and transportation section is helpful as well.” In particular, the ability to see potential off-site venues on a map or to sort venues based on distance from the convention center is an advantage.
Website information and tools only supplement an exploratory, initial conversation with the CVB, of course. The representative should be able to make a compelling case for bringing the convention to town and, ideally, raise points in the city’s favor that are not immediately obvious. “When they come in to do a presentation for us, we always say, ‘Tell us everything that’s not on your website,’” Granath says. “I can go to the website and find out how many guest rooms you have, what your weather looks like and how big your convention center is, and I can look up a list of all of your meetings. But tell me something that’s unique about your city and something I’m not going to find on the site. Some of them have a difficult time delivering that kind of information, because they’re used to doing a presentation with all of those facts and figures. They might talk about sustainability programs the city is doing or some of the socially responsible programs they have available. It’s very helpful for our marketing people to dig deeper into what they have. If we’re doing a specialty medicine group — are there any facilities in that area that they should be contacting for either attendance, or for tours or experts?”
Many second-tier city DMOs need to be especially good at spelling out their value proposition since planners may have reservations about selecting them. On several occasions, Granath and her team successfully partnered with the Greater Palm Springs CVB, an organization that both made a convincing case for that second-tier city and delivered on the promise. “People perceive that it’s difficult to fly there or that there is not going to be enough to do, but we found that many of our groups were very happy with it,” she says.
Just like the pitch for the business, the site visit should go beyond the generic ‘best of the city’ and showcase venues that uniquely fit the client’s event and demographic. Part of the responsibility for creating an optimal site visit falls to the planner, who must communicate to the CVB representative the specs for potential venues. “I ask that when we go to places for offsite meals that it’s always a place that can host a board of 50 in a private room, rather than just seeing the hot new restaurant that won’t take reservations,” Romano says. “I want to maximize my time and I’m always thinking, ‘Will this be a fit for my board, my planning committee, my reception?’ That saves a ton of extra time.” Budget is always a factor, and some planners want the CVB rep who is guiding the site visit to display budget sensitivity. “Ask me what my budget is for off-site venues, and then don’t show me venues that are too far out of my price range,” Kirbabas advises. “Don’t waste my time showing me venues we won’t be able to afford, but also don’t waste the time of the venue.”
Romano’s CVB rep for Portland, which hosted over 3,400 attendees for an entomology conference, was particularly effective during the site visit, she says. “When we came in for our site visit he showed us everything we needed to see as well as going down these extra rabbit holes of ‘What if we explored this?’” she says. “With Portland, the convention center is across the water, but a lot of off-site event sites are in the downtown area. So, he was really great about helping people get from one area to the other.” The CVB has a deep knowledge of the logistics of their city, and that can certainly make a CVB-guided site visit more time-efficient. “You don’t always know how much time you need to leave between the hotels and the convention center, so I love having them coordinate that for me,” Romano adds.
The best DMOs are as logistically savvy as they are creative, and a major creative area is helping with promotion assistance. Compared to third-party event companies, CVBs can be underestimated in regards to their branding prowess. The Glasgow Convention Bureau’s award-winning branding elements, for example, took the excitement at the SAH’s meeting to another level, according to Kirbabas. “The branding of the city of Glasgow ‘People Make Glasgow,’ helped create a mood for our attendees, and we capitalized on their city branding. Branding and welcoming elements that are always appreciated are digital signage and/or street banner signage around the city or at least in front of the conference location.” The social media connection was an additional benefit. “People use those branding opportunities to take selfies and post to our social media, which generates eagerness and excitement of our attendees to be at the conference and can show to members not at the conference what they are missing,” he explains.
VISIT DENVER showed a bit of added creativity when it comes to welcome banners, Romano says. “They took those banners and repurposed them as large shopping totes. Those from the planning committee got them as souvenirs, branded from the meeting. Our president really loved it.”
On-site promotional ideas can emerge during pre-con meetings, and the most effective CVBs will have a presence at these meetings as well as subsequent stages of the convention. “If the CVB rep can be present at my pre-con meeting with the hotel, convention center and vendors, that is ideal,” Kirbabas says. “I like to have all players in the same room at the same time.” Once the meeting is under way, the CVB can serve as a backup to the assistance the group is already receiving from convention center and hotel convention services managers (CSMs). “During the event, we use them as a safety net if there’s something that comes up where we need to get information,” Granath says. “We had two instances last year where we had weather issues. We were in Boston during a nor’easter and in Savannah when a hurricane threatened. And both of the planners that were in those situations were working with the CVB heavily to get the right information to our attendees.” Post meeting, the CVB can also be an information resource, providing stats on the convention’s economic impact and attendee spending, which can be relevant to planning future conventions. “Many CVBs will send out a post-event survey, and I’m sure that’s helpful to them in getting information. But, I think the follow-up afterward to see where there are any issues they could improve on is more important,” she says. “We try to have the relationships with the CVB people so we can do that. We’re happy to act as a reference for them if things go well.” Kirbabas also sees the follow-up as a mark of a very customer service-oriented bureau. “I like to have them check in with me about a month or so afterward to see how everything went and if there is anything more they could have done,” he says. “I would think that kind of constructive feedback is valuable to them to help attract more clients and welcome back returning clients.”
One kind of experience that will surely result in some negative feedback is if the DMO sales representative had promised something that wasn’t delivered. Apart from enthusiasm, energy and an extensive knowledge on the city, Romano prefers a representative who is “honest with me about what the city can provide, and upfront in the sales process. If they can’t do something — then say that.” Indeed, every planner appreciates a ‘can do’ attitude in their supplier partners, but only if it’s coupled with integrity. | AC&F |