“I can do this myself for less” is often the rallying cry during cash-strapped times, but as destination management companies that are part of a larger alliance can attest, less can often lead to more headaches, wasted time and unfulfilled expectations.
“L.A. can be a broad, confusing market for outsiders,” says Annette Gregg, CMM, MBA, vice president, corporate West, for destination management company AlliedPRA. She recalls one international company — $300,000 over budget thanks to the exchange rate — that came to L.A. wanting a unique, seven-day experience for the attendees. The AlliedPRA Los Angeles team sprung into action: They secured access to a celebrity home, offered drinks on a balcony overlooking the Hollywood Hills, organized a private dinner on the back lot where “Seinfeld” was filmed as well as one under the Space Shuttle Endeavor (“this resonated with the group, she says), provided access to members-only Magic Castle — a mansion (huge mansion with different magic acts going on throughout the house) that is the private clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts — and, for the pièce de résistance, found 250 box seats for the Hollywood Bowl July 4 fireworks.
“Each one of those was an economical solution,” Gregg says. “Economical” for someone with a huge network of contacts honed over numerous years, absolutely. For a planner from overseas trying to create a nonstandard experience for a large group? Not so much.
“A local expert is almost like an orchestra leader, bringing all the instruments together, not playing instruments themselves.”
— Annette Gregg, CMM
“A local expert is almost like an orchestra leader, bringing all the instruments together, not playing instruments themselves,” says Gregg, who joined AlliedPRA in April. “Exclusive access to certain venues, or knowledge about a brand-new offering or venue that a planner never would have known about, create a uniquely local experience that gives them a true sense of the destination they’re in.”
Crafting an unforgettable attendee experience can be even more of a challenge when it requires more than just “buses, boats and balloons,” but the creation of a lasting monument to the group’s time on location.
When Germany-based medical equipment maker Dräger Medical approached Chris Lee, DMCP, CEO of Access Destination Services’ team, it was with a tall order: a CSR program that would leave a permanent impression on the community, even 10 years later, and that also would allow 500 attendees to participate at the same time. As always, the team went through a lengthy interview process to determine Dräger’s objectives; they discovered that the company’s CEO wanted a project that would benefit children.
Ultimately, Access found an orphanage in Arizona with a plot of land and housing but no real play area. Together, all 500 Dräger attendees spent a day transforming a one-acre dirt lot into a play park with swing sets, a basketball court, 18,000 sf of grass complete with irrigation, a concrete walking path, planter boxes and planted flowers, and a refurbished skate park. Local contractors helped out some, but 90 percent of the work was done by attendees, says Lee, with some last-minute assistance from the kids themselves during recess. For the CSR project, Dräger won an award from Pharma Forum. The project was one that required a team that was truly on the ground, with ears to it, and indeed two of Access’ team members were raised in Arizona and instrumental in scouting. Access also was able to handle the risk management aspects of the project and to find reputable contractors.
Sometimes working with one DMC involves working with multiple partners in the destination, as when Terry Epton, CIS, CITE, DMCP, president of Hosts New Orleans, produced the opening event for the New Orleans CVB and Brand USA at IPW (formerly International Pow Wow). The million-dollar event took place in June at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, an experience he describes as “atypical” in that it was a complete community effort.
Epton says, “It was complicated and multilayered, with north of 6,000 attendees.” Hosts New Orleans took on the coordination and production of the IPW Superdome experience. The team was tasked with showcasing “the brands that New Orleans stands for: first is our food, second is culture and music; following that, European heritage and architecture.” Hosts worked with Centerplate, which provided bar service and essential F&B setup, while the Hosts team handled the specialty aspects: “We had to pull together dozens of local restaurants and famous chefs in a place they don’t normally work,” he says.
The evening began with the top tier of VIP buyers on floats from Harry Connick Jr.’s Krewe of Orpheus with policemen on motorcycles and marching bands in a giant parade into the Superdome — the full Mardi Gras experience included buyers throwing branded beads from the floats and a kind of theater-in-the-round from which local entertainers performed. “We also had a nod to the international crowd, with vignettes of German, Brazilian, Caribbean and Venetian carnivals. It was a very well thought out and extraordinarily detailed event,” Epton says.
Lee, too, finds that working in concert with other locals can help bring off complicated events such as the one Access planned for Kawasaki in June 2015. The company wanted to celebrate its top dealers in a way that would highlight San Diego as a destination and offer the dealers — some 2,000 — a chance to network. On top of this, they “wanted to do something very grand,” Lee says: a demonstration of the newest line of Kawasaki motorcycles that the dealers and the public would see at the same time. Essentially, they wanted an incentive merged with a marketing event that would encourage Southern Californians — already known to be fans of motorcycles — to post images on social media.
For the team, this was fraught with all the obvious challenges such a mix might potentially entail. What to do? “We came up with the idea of a block party in the Gaslamp Quarter and obtained permitting for four blocks for a private event, three blocks additionally for public,” Lee explains. To add to the challenge, on the only available evening, a Padres game was in play a mere two blocks away.
Working with the San Diego CVB, the mayor’s office and the Gaslamp Quarter Association (“to get through red tape”), the team decided on private demonstrations for the attendees as well as bleachers set up for the public in a gallery area “similar to the ‘Good Morning America’ setup” and offered 10-minute bike demonstrations every half hour for two hours. Once the baseball game ended, Lee estimates some 4,000 people had a gander, providing a great level of exposure for Kawasaki as well as an inimitable experience for the attendees. “We got great reviews; even the San Diego police gave us thumbs up,” he says.
“A true incentive is to provide an experience for an individual that they cannot buy at any price. They need to have the experience created by someone else,” says Stuart Gardner, president, Florida Meeting Services, a member of Global DMC Partners. Case in point: He once arranged to have 20 attendees dine in Stiltsville, a collection of wooden houses on stilts in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where they arrived by a high-performance Cigarette boat.
But what of planners who aren’t looking for an “experience” per se? Jenelle Benoit, director, marketing and communications for Global Eagle Entertainment, which provides media and technology for inflight entertainment, organizes incentives primarily for the software engineers and technical operators at her company. She finds she’s more likely to have to coax attendees out of their comfort zones than wow them. Still, for an event in Singapore planned for the fall, she intends to use a DMC for the first time.
“Since I’ve never been there, it is great that I can refer to Destination Asia (a member of Global DMC Partners) as my partner in sourcing local staff, location scouting, transportation logistics, etc. Because they are the experts in the region, they save me time from researching reputations, quality and prices since they are able to work within my specified budget. Time management is the number-one benefit for using a DMC.”
Epton notes that a planner’s decision to use a DMC is “very high stakes; they’re placing their jobs and reputations in our hands.”
“If you’re having a fais do-do (Cajun party), choosing the right caterer for that event is very different from a mansion on St. Charles Ave,” Epton says. The local CVB can suggest some options, but its mission is to showcase the destination. The DMC then finesses the ins and outs for a company’s brand image and reputation through the events.
Knowing who the best local suppliers are presupposes the inverse: knowing who to avoid, not just in general, but in the context of a specific meeting’s objectives. “In the last 10 years, we’ve had the same suppliers,” says Gardner. “It took 21 years to get to that point, because suppliers didn’t understand our needs. It’s a constant exercise in reaffirming our relationship with suppliers or moving on if those relationships pass on for one reason or another. We’re only as good as our worst supplier, so constant communication is everything. We have to let them know that we do this level of meeting rather than this level.”
Access, AlliedPRA, Global DMC Partners and Hosts Global all vet their suppliers — and their partners. “We put a very high premium on being customer-centric,” says Epton, whose DMC is a member of Hosts Global Alliance of 60 DMC members doing business in hundreds of destinations. “It’s not so much about driving revenue as it is about upholding reputation and being the standard bearers.”
Says Catherine Chaulet, president, Global DMC Partners (GDP), a consortium of 60 DMCs who represent more than 100 destinations around the world: “We select our DMCs on how strongly positioned they are in their market. Many DMCs want to be part of GDP, only a few are chosen. We always start with client feedback. They know best and are critical to our decisions. We do an in-depth due diligence of factors that are critical to our clients, such as the DMC’s ability to provide unique experiences, creativity, reputation with clients and vendors, crisis management plans, financials, insurance levels, number of years in the industry and their five-year plan.”
Understanding what a client needs over the long-term is one of the elements that sets Global DMC Partners apart. “We provide much more than just lead generation and access to DMCs,” Chaulet says. “We have a deep understanding of the client’s business model and their programs. Over the years, we have become their strategic solution by assisting them beyond just one program. We help clients by giving them access to the largest network of DMCs worldwide as well as in-depth DMC reporting, and contingency planning across multiple programs and markets.”
For Lee, it’s about a continuing conversation that winnows down to the client’s ultimate objectives. He asks: How would you define success? Gregg wants clients to “feel they have a one-stop shop that will own the project to the end.”
Since in the end, planners may and do choose a DMC based — all things being equal — on how the DMC rep comes across (Does he seem like he’s got it together? Does she answer questions frankly? Is this someone my team would enjoy working with for months on end?), all alliance members take hiring and training seriously.
Says Epton, “This business is not something that you automatically know how to do well; it has easy entry, but to be good at it takes experience. We put a great emphasis on finding good people and keeping them, never accepting mediocre people into our company.”
Gregg emphasizes continuous quality assurance and training: poring over client evaluations with her team, developing their skills to a rigorous standard, offering weekly training webinars. When hiring, she looks for a developable skill set, which she views as more important than specific past DMC experience.
Chaulet’s mission at GDP is to build an organization that addresses the ever-demanding and ever-changing needs of meeting planners when it comes to creativity, safety and spend management. GDP achieves this through collaboration with their DMC members and client advisory boards, ensuring they are meeting as often as possible to share best business practices and new trends in order to constantly set the bar higher in the event industry. New partnerships — such as GDP’s partnership with Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI) and SongDivision, an experiential music agency — also have formed as a result of this collaboration and allowed GDP to expand their unique offering to clients.
“We have an emergency plan for anything from hurricanes to electrical storms,” says Gardner, who as a Florida specialist has experienced such emergencies from time to time. Now more than ever, the best DMCs are crisis management specialists: They know where the nearest local hospital is, what the host hotel’s preparedness plan is and who can step in if the planner herself becomes indisposed, and they verify attendees’ emergency contacts and cooperate closely with local law enforcement and security personnel.
“We will do 100 to 125 groups a year, half in Orlando,” says Gardner. “There’s considerable buying power in that. It allows us to provide concessions to the end user, and they get us as a security blanket — the ice cubes are frozen, the coffee is hot. You get our presence: For about the exact same money as you would do on your own, we do it.” Lee expresses the same thought: “Even with our fee, the client comes in for same price as clients pay if they go direct.”
And there it is, the mutual sticking point for DMCs and their clients: the price. “Planners are under pressure to find the lowest price,” says Gregg. “What I learned over time is it’s not always about price.” Having worked as a corporate planner with a financial firm, as a third-party planner who used DMCs, and as a CVB manager, she can see the industry from multiple perspectives. “To sacrifice based on price can be penny wise and pound foolish if going for the lowest price can hurt our participants’ experience.” She recommends planners be transparent about their budget at the outset, which saves everyone’s time and avoids dissatisfaction.
Gregg finds that focusing on the price per attendee rather than the overall amount can put the overall spend into perspective for clients. Epton elaborates on this idea: “Once the planner has done a site inspection, seen the options and met the people involved, it’s not about price but about what’s going to be the best fit for the brand. If you ask, ‘Would you risk your company’s image to save $25 per person?’ most all would say no.”
And Chaulet finds that among member DMCs, an ever-present issue is the client’s perception that DMCs are padding the bill — often putting the onus on the DMC to “prove” the pricing is real. “In a very competitive landscape one of our goals is to showcase the value that DMCs bring versus just the cost. In reality, through their creativity, local relationships and contingency plans, DMCs provide irreplaceable cost efficiencies and savings to planners,” she concludes.
Benoit, a first-time DMC client, echoes this sentiment: “Education on what a DMC has to offer and their pricing structures were my biggest hurdles, and I think spending more time on educating new and potential clients would make my life much easier.”
Addressing the general feeling among DMCs about the impression of overcharging as a business model, Epton notes: “Our company was founded in 1958. If we were just middlemen buying low and selling high, we wouldn’t be in business today.” His solution? “More exclusive relationships with customers would make us much more efficient, and those efficiencies would result in better value for the customer. When we’re the official supplier, the customer can get and deserves a much better deal from us.”
Chaulet indicates, “We facilitate and foster best-practice sharing not just within our network of DMCs, but also with our clients. One of our main goals is to be a platform and knowledge of resources within the event industry.”
GDP is constantly putting solutions in place to give corporations and third parties better visibility of their DMC spend and help them manage it. “Larger corporations have very little idea what their true spend is. The way meetings and events are managed in companies tends to be very fragmented with multiple people in charge of events. Most of the spend is neither consolidated nor centralized making CFOs and procurement very nervous with meeting and event spend,” Chaulet says.
“Ultimately, a planner struggling with pressure from her company on expenses should have enough resources and information to confidently say, ‘This is the budget, this is the spend, that is what I’ve been able to save the company.’ This is a core offering of GDP, helping companies get a strong hold of this spend and help them better manage it.”
Lee advises planners that the DIY approach can ultimately cost more, not just in missed opportunities and less than stellar reviews, but in actual dollars. He says, “Recognize that trying to go direct and plan all details and elements of a successful meeting or incentive is like remodeling your house yourself: It sounds like a wonderful idea — you’re going to save money, go to Home Depot or Lowe’s, watch videos — then halfway through the project you’re fighting with your partner, it costs twice as much, and it looks nothing like you wanted.” C&IT