It’s almost a cliché for a convention and visitors bureau to bill itself as a “one stop shop” for planners, but recently, the idea has been taken a step further with the formation of Synchronicities, a partnership among three convention and visitors bureaus in disparate areas of the country: the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau, Visit Baltimore and the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. Planners working with all three cities (e.g., for different installments of the same meeting) can now enjoy a “united sales and services platform,” as described by Casandra Matej, director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The partnership also allows the CVBs to expand their marketing reach, combine their resources and share knowledge. “One of the strengths of the Synchronicities partnership is the sharing of intellectual capital between the three cities,” says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. “The communication between the cities will ensure consistent service delivery and simplify the meeting planning process.” According to Jay Burress, president and CEO of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau, Synchronicities has already yielded ROI for the three organizations. “Senior leadership from all three destinations have dedicated the time and resources to make our solution very valuable for planners, and we are seeing results from our joint effort,” he comments.
A more localized “synchronicity” occurred 10 years ago in California, when Team San Jose was launched. The organization unified the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, hotels, arts, labor and venues in order to further the city’s tourism and overall events industry, including corporate meetings. Team San Jose serves as an intermediary for planners working not only with the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, but also with the Center for the Performing Arts, Montgomery Theater, Parkside Hall, City National Civic and South Hall. With the recent 169,000-sf expansion of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, the city has begun to draw more conventions. And via Team San Jose’s convention calendar, planners can stay up to date on incoming groups in order to determine whether their desired dates will work. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has a similar calendar at Vegasmeansbusiness.com, which is an especially critical aid in a first-tier meetings hub. The site also allows corporate planners to categorize their event before submitting an RFP in the “What’s Your Event?” section, which distinguishes among corporate meetings, executive meetings, incentive meetings and small meetings (under 500 attendees).
Once a planner has decided a city is viable and initiates the RFP process through the CVB, there are certain signs that he or she is dealing with a quality one-stop shop, observes Kevin Fleetwood, marketing director with Atlanta, GA-based CRIF Lending Solutions, a loan origination software company. “First off, somebody gets back to me immediately with who my contact person is: ‘Hey, I’m the person to send the RFP to. I’ll be your primary contact, and in case I’m not here, this person is my backup.’ ” According to Fleetwood, unless one has worked with the CVB before, it can be difficult to divine who the contact person is, even by looking at the CVB’s website. When the organization identifies that contact, “I already know upfront that they are interested in my business,” he says.
Fleetwood is currently working with the San Diego CVB for the 2015 CRIF Lending Solutions Forum, to be held next April at the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa & Marina in San Diego. He has found the staff to be especially detail-oriented in the RFP process, which is one of his main reasons for using a CVB. He notes that his contact “read through my RFP and asked me questions about it. She knew my program very well, so that she sent out the RFP only to those properties that matched the specs in her opinion.” And when preliminary results were received, they were organized in a user-friendly spreadsheet. “She had it laid out in such a fashion that I could easily go through it and check and see what worked and what didn’t,” says Fleetwood. “That’s especially key when you’re comparing multiple properties in multiple cities.”
Smaller CVBs, he has observed, “have a tendency to let their hoteliers send the results directly to you even though you request they not, either because they don’t have the staff to (compile the results) or just because they’ve never done anything like that.”
And after the shortlist of properties had been established, another nice service that the San Diego CVB provided was to inform the other hotels that they are no longer in the running. “For the CVB to let them know was much better,” Fleetwood says.
Planners are busy people, and the best site visits optimize a planner’s time with the most relevant meetings and experiences. A capable CVB goes a long way in that regard, helping to develop the itinerary and connecting the planner to the key players at the destination. The Long Beach CVB, for example, offers to “suggest venues, research date availability and make initial contacts to assist you in coordinating your…pre-planning visits.”
Farther up the West Coast, Conni Siegmund, PMP, CMP, director, retail independent marketing with Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health, benefited from a masterfully coordinated site visit to Seattle, thanks to the local CVB. “We bring out an army of people on our site visits, 20–30 people including meeting planners, our marketing team, exhibit company, AV reps and more. So I really leaned on the Visit Seattle crew to set up all the relevant meetings I needed, and we would have three to four meetings happening simultaneously,” Siegmund relates. “They would help set up meetings with the convention center, IT people, in-house AV, different DMCs, different ground transportation companies and so on.” The ultimate result was a smoothly run Retail Business Conference, which brought thousands of pharmacy professionals to the Emerald City in 2013.
Fleetwood finds site visits especially effective when the CVB provides a guide to accompany the planner, a person who is knowledgeable on everything from airport transfers to local events taking place. “For example, I happen to be doing my site visits at the end of March, first of April, which also happens to be spring break time, and I had not a clue that people descended on San Diego for spring break,” he relates. Some CVBs, Fleetwood notes, will provide a guide who is “just sent to drive you around,” with little understanding of the planner’s goals for the site visit.
Apart from providing the “inside scoop” on logistical issues during the site visit, the CVB can help to keep it running on schedule. Not only will they make the introductions between planner and hoteliers, but they also can“keep the hotels on a time frame,” says Fleetwood. “They will tell them, ‘We’ve got an hour and a half,’ for example. Hotels tend to want to keep you at their property, which means less time spent at other properties. And if you are running behind, they call the hotel that’s next and let them know.”
Having a Plan B in case there is an unforeseen glitch in the site visit also is important. “In San Diego, a hotel called and said they had booked a meeting over the time I would be booking one, and so they were no longer available. And the CVB knew what to do over the time I would be meeting with that hotel: They took me around to Old Town San Diego and some of the other places that might be used for evening events,” Fleetwood relates.
To conclude the visit, the CVB asked Fleetwood how their service was and whether he needed further information. And, as a nice touch, “they took all of my hotel materials and FedExed the package to my office for me so I didn’t have to carry it around.”
CVBs have long offered a list of materials and services to help planners promote their event and the destination. The services in recent years have expanded to include new media. The Anaheim CVB, for example, provides editorial content, destination images and a video library, local media outreach and video coverage of the meeting, along with social media promotion and targeted blog posts.
And the New Orleans CVB has “a whole e-marketing plan put together,” notes Lorie Thomas, director, events and trade shows with Bellevue, Washington-based Concur Technologies. “So they were prepared to offer us all those services, which I thought was pretty remarkable.” Concur, which held its annual client conference in May in New Orleans, has its own social media and PR managers to handle the e-marketing, “but for companies that are smaller and maybe don’t have those assets, the CVB is prepared to fully support them and be part of their team,” Thomas adds. Quality content also is important, of course, and Thomas observed that “if I had utilized their services, I wouldn’t have had to provide much editing.”
Similarly, Siegmund noted that Visit Seattle’s supplementary materials and marketing services were ahead of the curve. “We were using 13 different hotels across the city, and they created a customized map for us that just had our hotels on it,” she relates. And when it came to ensuring that enough pharmacy professionals filled those hotels for the Retail Business Conference, CVB reps were very hands on. “They did something no CVB has ever done for me before: They got on calls with our salespeople,” says Siegmund. “We have an internal salesforce of 400 or so people who sell the packages to come to our show to our customers. And my Seattle contact would get on regional conference calls with our salesforce, (saying) ‘Here are ideas for how you can sell Seattle to your customers.’ ”
What “sells” a city to attendees is not just its venues and sightseeing experiences, but also a sense of being at home in what may be an unfamiliar destination. With this in mind, CVBs often coordinate the installment of branding elements for the group’s visit. Team San Jose, for example, allows groups to “Own the City” via welcome and event signage at the convention center and airport, on public transportation and street poles, and so on.
Toward the same end, Visit Jacksonville can (with 30 days notice) secure a welcome letter from city of Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, and/or a welcome letter from leaders at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
For Hazelwood, Missouri-based Aclara’s April 2015 Client Conference in Nashville, Bob Whittemore, marketing campaign manager, suggested an even more personal welcome from a city official, and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. followed through with the idea. “This year they’re working with the city and the mayor of Nashville is making a welcome video for our customers that we’re going to put on our website. That’s huge,” says Whittemore. “Our hotel, the Renaissance Nashville, the city, mayor’s office and the CVB appreciate our business, and when you spend this much time and money in the city, it’s nice to be appreciated.”
A welcoming overture is extended south of the border as well. Cecilia Cruz, executive director for the meetings industry for the Mexico Tourism Board in Washington, DC, encourages planners to see what’s new in Mexico for themselves, citing Mexico Tourism’s “Live It to Believe It” campaign. “This campaign is really about inviting everyone to Mexico,” Cruz says. “If you don’t go, you can’t imagine how beautiful and how amazing it is — and not just our beaches and sun. We also have good venues and good cities and good infrastructure for all of the MICE segment. I invite the meeting planners to go and visit Mexico and live it to believe it. We will welcome them when they want to go and visit on a FAM trip or come to our road shows so they can know Mexico and do business in Mexico.”
Mexico’s new government is working hard to address areas of concern to make tourism in the country world class reminds Cruz. “We are increasing security and doing many, many things in the cities, in the venues and in the resorts. I know it is one of the things that meeting planners care about. We also care very much about it. I think it is one of the most important things we’re working on.”
One sign that a CVB really knows its city’s resources is when a planner is truly pleased with the organization’s vendor referrals, and even develops lasting partnerships with those companies. For instance, the Nashville CVC recommended a certain DMC to Whittemore, “and I’m using that DMC for the third time,” he says. The organization also has referred him to a company that will assist in coordinating a 5K run for the upcoming conference, personally introduced him to the owners of three venues that can accommodate an outside function for 650 participants, and recommended numerous honky-tonks for client events. “I’ve been very happy with all their recommendations; they always point me in a direction that saves me a lot of time and a lot of money,” he says. And unlike other CVBs Whittemore has worked with, the Nashville organization was more focused on fitting their recommendations to his needs. “I’ve worked with other cities that have a ‘package deal’; they email you and say, ‘This is what we’ll do for you.’ Nashville has always said, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”
With corporate social responsibility (CSR) on the minds of many planners, CVBs today often refer groups to organizations that can provide these kinds of activities. Visit Orlando is one example, matching groups with volunteer projects such as building houses, preparing meals, landscaping work and book drives. And the CVBs themselves regularly highlight social and environment responsibility at their destination.
The Greater Miami CVB, for instance, notes that The Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association is working closely with the Miami-Dade Office of Sustainability to promote Miami-Dade’s Green Lodging & Restaurant Program. One new feature is that hotel rooms in the city now have cards that guests can use to indicate that they would like to reuse these items during the course of their stay. Through the CVB, planners can learn of these initiatives and convey them to eco-conscious attendees.
During the meeting, the best CVBs stay in touch with the client, even though the client is now primarily dealing with facility convention staff. The New Orleans CVB, for example, “stopped by our show to make sure everything was going well, which was impressive,” Thomas notes. “Normally, once the sale has happened, you’re kind of old news. They kept in contact with us throughout the course of the planning and the event, and they followed up after to make sure we got what we needed. They were very interested to make sure the whole experience from start to finish was a good one.” That includes helping a planner with post-con communications. “I do a pretty extensive post-con document, and the Seattle CVB kept in touch with me to make sure they got all of our notes and feedback,” Siegmund says.
The New Orleans CVB “kept in contact with us throughout the course of the planning and the event, and they followed up after to make sure we got what we needed.” — Lorie Thomas
To a planner, a CVB is more than just a list of meeting services, it is a group of people who deliver those services with a certain disposition and personality. “The way they treat me is the way I think they’re going to treat the rest of their guests,” Thomas maintains. “I’m looking for a CVB who’s going to treat my customers, if they happen to reach out to the CVB, with respect, excitement and enthusiasm.”
The best CVB representatives also will give a planner a sense that he or she can depend on them. “The thing that sets Visit Seattle apart from a lot of CVBs is that they really excel in relationship-building,” Siegmund says. “From their salespeople to their convention services people, I felt like they were my friends. And one of the reasons I want to go back to Seattle is just so I can work with them again.”
Such a “good friend” always will have a planner’s needs in mind, even during those times when their involvement isn’t, strictly speaking, required. “It takes nothing for a CVB to send you an email to say, ‘Hey, I know your program’s a few months away. Is there anything we can help you with?’ It’s just good business policy,” says Fleetwood. C&IT