Promoting a city effectively is in part an educational effort: convention and visitors bureaus seek to correct any misconceptions about their destination and raise awareness of its lesser-known virtues. It is of course a boon to the local tourism and meetings industry when the town receives positive attention in the national media, but simply being noticed will not create a full appreciation of what the city has to offer.
Nashville, for example, has been increasingly in the news in recent years with Music City Center opening in May 2013 and the Country Music Hall of Fame completing a $100 million, 210,000-sf expansion last year. The press that resulted, not to mention ABC’s “Nashville” series, which debuted in 2012, made the city “like a new discovery to a lot of folks. It’s been a great spotlight for us,” says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
Yet a deeper knowledge of the city’s culture among the general populace, including some meeting planners, can still be achieved, Spyridon feels. “Everybody is aware of Nashville as the home of country music. It’s been a big benefit for us, but at the same time it’s kept a lot of people from understanding the depth and breadth of the city, the dining scene, the diversity of music and the overall quality of the destination,” he explains. “And that seems to be going through a transformation as well, where on one hand people have a broader understanding of how big country music is, and even better for us a broader understanding of the overall music scene in Nashville, which includes gospel, rock (and other elements of) Americana.” (Also see “The New Nashville” on page 44.)
Beyond a diverse music scene, Nashville boasts historical sites that the CVC often brings to planners’ attention, including Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, currently celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, and The Parthenon at Centennial Park, built in 1897. “So we have the home of a president and an exact replica of the Parthenon in Athens, both of which are incredible event venues,” says Spyridon. And it takes a little work to raise awareness of such features among corporate meeting planners, who naturally view the city mainly as a great place for country music-themed programs.
On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board (LATCB) has similar work to do in raising awareness of the new Broad Museum, opening downtown this fall. When planners think of Los Angeles, they tend to focus on offsite possibilities such as the L.A. Live entertainment district and Universal Studios Hollywood. Museums may not come to mind, but the Broad Museum could change that, insofar as it will house “the largest collection of contemporary art in the U.S.,” notes Darren Green, senior vice president of sales with the LATCB. “Customers are wowed about it when they visit: ‘I never expected that L.A. would offer that.’ ”
In terms of misconceptions, some planners may harbor a view of the country’s second-most populous city as highly congested and polluted. But Los Angeles’ transportation will be eased with the expansion of the city’s metro rail in the next couple of years, Green notes, and “you’ll be able to take the subway all the way out to Santa Monica from the convention center. Eventually you’ll be able to take the metro from downtown all the way to the airport.”
The L.A. Metro is one of the city’s underappreciated aspects, Green feels, but the TCB has made strides in that regard. “We had a customer advisory board meeting back in October and held it at Universal Studios. We put all of the customers on the metro and took the subway downtown. It was an incredible experience. The L.A. Metro is new, so it’s very clean, with no graffiti and very safe with a lot of security. Customers said they never knew L.A. had such a state-of-the-art transportation system.” The city’s cleaner air is also something to appreciate. “I lived in L.A. about 10 years ago before I came back, and there was an issue with smog at that time,” he recalls. “Now it’s practically nonexistent, and it’s a testament to our environmental initiatives.”
Denver faces a more benign misconception, but one that still may impede some planners from considering it. “One of the biggest misconceptions about Denver is that we’re cold or under snow year-round,” says Rachel Benedick, vice president of convention sales and services, Visit Denver. “We actually have very mild winters. While the mountains get the majority of the snow in winter, Denver can be sunny and warm. Our golf courses and outdoor cafés remain open all year.” Visit Denver seeks to get that message across “through our trade and consumer marketing campaigns showing Denver’s brilliant blue skies, outdoor activities — such as year-round bicycling on our 850 miles of bike trails — or dining in outdoor cafés and on rooftop bars. And we invite planners to come to Denver at any time of the year. It’s more often we have a beautiful, sunny ‘bluebird’ day than a cloudy day.”
Michelle Harris, director of events with Columbus, Ohio-based Thirty-One Gifts, a direct sales company, planned a successful National Conference for about 6,000 of the company’s consultants in Denver last July. Gatherings for all the participants were held at the Pepsi Arena, while training programs, awards ceremonies and more were held at the Colorado Convention Center where they could break out the groups. Beginning with her site visit, the experience “enlightened” Harris on the metropolis’ smooth transportation logistics. “It’s so easy to get around and walkable,” she remarks. “And we went into it thinking that the location of the Pepsi Arena seven to nine blocks away from the convention center and most of the hotels was really going to impact what we did with traffic. Quite honestly, it never became a problem at all.”
“We do consumer research every year, and in our study, we found that people think of Denver as very friendly, diverse, young and active,” says Benedick. Accordingly, Visit Denver affords planners opportunities do something active on site inspections and fam trips, as opposed to just viewing meeting spaces and speaking with hoteliers. “We have plenty of urban adventures, such as biking around the city using Denver B-cycle (our citywide bike-sharing program), grabbing a beer at one of the more than 30 breweries in Denver, or even taking in a baseball game and a sunset at Coors Field,” she adds.
The LATCB is investing more in the fam trips, notes Green, but at the same time tailoring the programs to what planners will tend to want to do in the city with their groups. “Many planners who do incentive programs or themed events want to do a red carpet event similar to one of our award shows,” he says. “So we give customers some creative ideas on how to put that L.A. spin on their program when they host it here. We’ll try to do fam trips around the Grammys, the American Music Awards, the Emmy Awards and People’s Choice Awards. We have access to the shows and venues with our partnerships here at the LATCB, so we can select customers to come have that red carpet experience. Many will want to use those venues for their conferences.”
The Nashville CVC has been taking a more targeted approach to familiarization, says Spyridon. “If a planner is interested in coming we try to customize (the experience). If it’s one or two people at a time, that’s fine. We find we would rather talk specifically to someone who has interest. If we can spend quality time with quality prospects, our closing rate is significantly higher.”
The same effort to customize carries over to the destination marketing for the meeting itself. In providing marketing assistance, “we really try to listen and see what the needs are and come up with customized solutions,” says Spyridon. “It might be social media, designing a Web page, creating logos, etc.” And again, the emphasis is on moving away from generic country music themes. “If planners engage us, I’d say we have had a great deal of success in broadening that. If they do it in a vacuum, they tend to gravitate toward the easy, stereotypical approach,” he observes. “There are ways to use the music theme that are not as (predictable). For example, you might use lyrical words that tie into the brand, playing on words like ‘harmony,’ when you talk about bringing your attendees in harmony, and getting them in tune. Instead of boots and a banjo, how about a keyboard or a woodwind instrument? These are ways to leverage (the music theme) but also broaden it.”
CVBs also can be part of the planning process by equipping planners and attendees with tools that help them navigate the city. Visit Denver has recently launched an interactive Denver Destination Planning Guide iPad app that allows planners to quickly and conveniently find everything from hotel maps and service provider listings to unique venues and itineraries in Denver and throughout Colorado, Benedick points out.
The CVB also has developed a “Come Early, Stay Late” program designed for pre- and post-meeting visits. “The program allows delegates to quickly and easily find great deals in world-class resorts within a two-hour drive of Denver,” she says.
According to Harris, the CVB “provided us links to things to do around the city that we included in our communications to our consultants as well as placed on our internal website. We also had a campaign with hashtag #Share31, where we tried to give back to the city. So we did things like 31 free coffees: We would give coupons that they could take to the local coffee shop so people in Denver realized that we were there.”
As much as CVBs do for corporate clients before and during each event, they also can help to ensure that future meetings are successful by soliciting client feedback on their meeting venue projects. For example, while Los Angeles works to get a major expansion and modernization plan approved for its convention center, the LATCB is seeking feedback from both association and corporate planners on what kinds of features they would like to see in the new and improved facility. “We want to make sure we’re investing in the right areas that will attract the groups we want to bring to L.A.,” Green says. “We’ve drafted what we call a white paper asking questions about the ideal amount of meeting space, breakout space, connectivity, the flexibility of the space and so on.”
Similarly, Visit Denver has completed a yearlong study of the Colorado Convention Center, “which offered recommendations on what we need to do to keep the building relevant to changes in the meeting industry,” Benedick says. An updated convention center will help the city fulfill what the CVB sees as a “potential huge growth in attendance in fields such as medical, bioscience, energy and technology/engineering,” she adds. These kinds of studies can certainly have a destination-marketing angle: They position the city as one that takes a proactive approach to planner satisfaction. C&IT