In recent years, increased importance has been placed on “experiential travel,” meaning immersive, local, authentic experiences.
The trend may be driven by millennials, whose dislike of old school, packaged experiences and preference for authentic community has moved the dial as to what tourism partners offer. Yet research shows that travelers and meeting goers of all ages want to experience destinations from a uniquely local perspective.
In addition to highlighting the destination itself, the right experiences give attendees a break from meetings, shake things up and more often than not send them back to the business at hand energized and able to think in new and creative ways.
A study commissioned by PCMA and IAEE found that destination is the No. 2 driver in attendees’ decision to register for a meeting. The study also found that about half of attendees are likely to combine a meeting with vacation, another half are likely to bring a guest, and three quarters take advantage of what destinations offer by getting out and about during, before and/or after meetings. If the experience is positive, three-quarters will consider returning to a destination on their own dime.
That translates into considerable potential economic impact, giving CVBs and tourism offices impetus to connect attendees with experiences that provide a deep dive into the local ethos — whatever it is.
Many CVBs and tourism offices have risen to the challenge of showcasing their cities and regions in ways that truly are local, authentic and engaging. Here are some examples.
Food, music and unabashed reverence for the art of celebration set New Orleans apart. Yes, food and music are everywhere but nowhere do they more wholly define a destination than in New Orleans.
“Our food, music, artists, writers, entertainers and culture of celebration is a way of life with each of us who choose to make this our home, so we work hard to have it be part of what people experience when they come to New Orleans for special events,” says Cara Banasch, V.P. of convention sales and strategy with the New Orleans CVB.
Banasch says the team integrates culture early into the process. “Onsite tours, we try to schedule fun moments that demonstrate elements of our cultural traditions. That might be a walk through Mardi Gras World to see the handmade floats of Orpheus or a stop in the kitchen of Commander’s Palace to have Chef Tori McPhail do a special presentation of a local specialty dish.”
Not surprising for a city all about celebration, the CVB and its DMC partners have an extensive list of authentic experiences that engage all the senses and provide a true understanding of local culture.
“We host groups at crawfish boils, tailgate parties, our 143 annual festivals and cooking classes,” says Banasch. “We’ve had groups ride in Mardi Gras parades and cook red beans at a team member’s house. The key is that they immediately understand that none of this is a gimmick. We actually do these things here, and they bring people together. As a result, we talk more, we have new ideas and we understand one another. That’s what most people want for their meetings, and in New Orleans we don’t create it specially; it lives within our traditions and our community all day every day.” (Also see “New Orleans” on page 48.)
Patricia Bayona, director of meeting services for the Miami CVB, points to two evocative experiences that showcase the city.
“Little Havana used to be mostly Cuban,” Bayona says. “Today it is Latin American. The experience is about 21/2 hours and offers lunch at a homestyle Cuban restaurant, a stop at a local fruit vendor and at an ice cream shop specializing in tropical fruit flavors or maybe a typical Cuban coffee place.”
The group also visits Domino Park, where older Cuban men and women still play dominos, and galleries along Calle Ocho featuring Cuban and Latin artists.
A highlight is the tiny cigar factory. “These are traditional rollers. One is a woman who used to roll cigars for Fidel Castro. She has a black and white image of herself in the cigar factory in Cuba where she rolled for Castro. She’s one of the best in the world and now rolls for VIP clients across the globe. All rollers are identified and tour participants can purchase cigars on the spot.”
Wynwood Arts District is where graffiti is celebrated as a true art form. The best graffiti artists in the world have been commissioned to create works on walls in this area that was once an abandoned warehouse wasteland. Today, tech companies are moving in, there are restaurants helmed by top chefs and galleries feature art from renowned artists in many genres.
Angela Abate, sourcing supervisor, venue sourcing solutions, CTW Meetings & Events, calls Wynwood vibrant and energizing. “Driving up to it, my first thought was, ‘Where are they taking us?’ As we entered the first restaurant on our food and art tour, we were immediately welcomed. We then took golf carts around to see amazing, beautiful works of art as well as delight in a delicious culinary experience.”
Most groups sign up for a walking-and-culinary tour. But the CVB also connects groups to DMCs that provide a hands-on experience.
Adolfo Solórzano Z., national sales manager for AlliedPRA South Florida, says of Wynwood, “It is a neighborhood that has morphed quickly into a happening location and is taking the space of more iconic Miami neighborhoods like South Beach on many Google image feeds.”
The AlliedPRA team offers several Wynwood experiences focused on creativity and local immersion. “This includes a hands-on collaborative art project where attendees are taught techniques in street art by local artists then given spray paint and a 20-foot, dual-sided canvas on which to release their own brand of creativity. There’s also a new form of dine-around experience using eco-friendly transportation that incorporates both the artistic and culinary creativity of the neighborhood,” Solórzano Z says.
He notes that Wynwood may not be for every group, “But it is for those that crave creativity and immersion in the evolution of art and a city. The raw art of Wynwood is how we convey that.”
Local here means Chesapeake Bay crabs, craft beer, literature, makers and history. The city also has the uniquely Baltimore “hon culture.”
The hon culture arose between the 1950s and 1970s, when working-class local women often dressed in bright, printed dresses with outdated glasses and beehive hairdos. Slang for honey, hon is almost always used at the end of a sentence, e.g., “How bout dem O’s, Hon?” The hon culture was made famous by Baltimore filmmaker John Waters. Baltimore Hon impersonators provide an authentically local welcome to attendees at meetings and conventions.
Edgar Allen Poe impersonators also can be booked. The poet lived and wrote here for a time and died in Baltimore in 1849. His ghost may or may not still roam the Fell’s Point neighborhood, but his legend lives on in historic sites and the Baltimore Ravens, named for Poe’s famously haunting poem.
The CVB helps groups experience authenticity in multiple ways. “We have set up block parties or dine-around experiences in Baltimore’s Little Italy for attendees to immerse themselves in the neighborhood while trying the many Italian restaurants in one evening,” says Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. “Our services team has worked with groups to host themed crab feasts or suggest locations and ideas for crab feasts, such as at Phillips Crab Deck in the Inner Harbor. And we’ve held a cookout reception for an international scientific group at one of Baltimore’s most popular craft breweries, Union Craft Brewing, which allowed attendees to experience the city’s brewing culture.”
Groups also have embraced the increasingly popular maker’s culture. At Treason Toting Co., attendees can customize their own Treason bags. The shop’s owners, born and raised in Baltimore, pay tribute to the city’s craftsmen heritage and to the spirited notion that “It’s noble to betray social and group expectations and to shatter the status quo.”
Murder, revenge, betrayal, romance — the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys is one of the bloodiest in U.S. history. It caused such havoc that litigation eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, groups are transported back to the 1800s on a tour through the area not far from West Virginia’s capital where it all unfolded.
Another quintessentially West Virginia experience is Exhibition Coal Mine, an hour from Charleston, where visitors ride through the passages of the vintage mine, at times in the dark. Veteran miners act as guides, providing authentic accounts of the life and work of West Virginia coal miners. Planners can learn more through the Charleston CVB.
Food and beer contribute mightily to Portland’s allure.
“Travel Portland strives to make meetings in Portland memorable for attendees,” says Jeff Miller, president and CEO of Travel Portland. “Portland has one of the hottest culinary scenes in the world, in part because our talented chefs and makers enjoy collaborating with each other and being involved in their community. Travel Portland works year-round to keep up with the latest trends and cultivate relationships with local talent. This way, we can help groups create custom experiences for their attendees that demonstrate the true spirit of Portland.”
A recent example, Miller says, is a group of medical professionals that participated in a cooking class and intimate dining experience with Gregory Gourdet, executive chef at Departure and runner-up on Bravo’s “Top Chef” season 12.
Jim Rumsey, COO of the Society for Investigative Dermatology, says the group wanted a teambuilding format in which existing leadership and identified future leaders could get to know each other better. “Operating in small groups and working hand-in-hand with chef, they prepared starter dishes, appetizers and desserts for that evening’s dinner. All attendees came away with a greater appreciation of one another and a newfound respect for collaborative cooking with one of Portland’s finest chefs.”
Intimate experiences like this, Miller says, “give attendees a chance to learn about Portland from the people who make the city so special.”
The Mile High City is a place where urban sophistication and rural adventure meet. Mountain recreation is certainly one way to experience authentic Denver — but not the only way. In 2017, Travelocity and The American Distilling Institute named Denver the No. 3 Craft Spirit Tourism Destination in the Country. It’s also one of the top craft brew cities and a culinary hotbed. Planners can provide authentic experiences via whiskey tastings featuring the city’s top distillers, including Laws Whiskey House, Leopold Brothers and Stranahan’s; on craft brewery tours; and at acclaimed restaurants.
Red Rocks, however, is the crown jewel of the city’s only-here experiences. It’s the only naturally occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world. Part of Denver‘s Mountain Parks system, Red Rocks has been the setting for spectacular receptions, networking nights and even group fitness classes.
Vicki Kelly, CMP, convention services director with Visit Denver, says her team recently arranged a tour in RiNo, Lo-Hi and LoDo, three of the city’s trending neighborhoods, which included stops at chef-driven restaurants, a very local ice cream shop and a new multi-vendor market. The group also boarded Denver-made e-Tuks for a pub-crawl, and ended their visit with a tour at Red Rocks.
With IPW in Denver next spring, ideas for immersing attendees in authentic Denver abound. Kelly says possibilities include a culturally driven event at the highly regarded Denver Performing Arts Complex and a function at the Denver Bronco’s stadium focused on sports, recreation and local beer culture that would likely include virtual kayaking, zip lining, pop-up craft beer gardens and appearances by Denver pro athletes. The final night is slated for Red Rocks.
Phoenix has long shown off its cowboy and Native American roots. But the city also has a rich Mexican heritage.
“After many years of promoting Native American and cowboy themes,” says James Lammy of Southwest Conference Planners, “planners have discovered an equally important culture of the Southwest, the traditions and influence of Mexico and its people, from the colorful celebratory outfits used in their traditional Charreada, to the authentic south-of-the-border spices in their delicious dishes. There’s a facility in Phoenix where you can experience all of that and more called Corona Ranch.”
Visit Phoenix recently hosted a group at the ranch to showcase authentic Phoenix culture. The group was greeted with margaritas and mariachi before enjoying the Charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo.
Downtown, the CVB has given planners a real feel for the city via bike tours that take participants past striking murals by local artists to tastings at local restaurants and beer samplings from Arizona craft brewers. The group also hiked South Mountain at sunrise, a distinctly Phoenix experience embraced by locals and visitors alike.
The surrounding Sonoran Desert is one of Scottsdale’s most powerful local elements.
“Our authentic story can be found in our lush desert setting. With its remarkable clarity of light and exotic cactus blossoms, the Sonoran Desert leaves meeting goers feeling inspired,” says Rachel Sacco, president & CEO of Experience Scottsdale.
The CVB partners with tour companies and venues that allow groups to tap into the Sonoran Desert, including Arizona Outback Adventures, which leads adventures in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, 30,000 acres of pristine, protected desert. “As groups hit the trails,” Sacco says, “tour guides expand on the depth and breadth of the Sonoran’s diverse ecosystem.”
Event Team Inc. leads a teambuilding exercise highlighting the city’s Native American culture, during which teams form tribes and work together to create a tribal name and chant and design and construct a teepee.
Desert Botanical Garden provides a stunning Sonoran backdrop for events and functions, and Desert Foothills’ indoor and outdoor settings for groups of 50 to 1,000 make the natural landscape a compelling design element.
Sacco notes that attendees also can experience indigenous culture through Native-inspired spa treatments. “Centuries ago, American Indians used local plants, cacti and herbs in their healing practices. Today, Scottsdale spas incorporate such ingredients into their treatments, from jojoba body butter to red adobe clay masks.”
Last year the Meeting & Incentive Americas Forum, attended by 200 domestic and international planners, also learned about Scottsdale’s evocative natural environment via a jeep tour through the Sonoran and rafting on the Lower Salt River.
Alcatraz, Summer of Love, Haight Ashbury, The San Francisco Giants — just a few of the quintessential San Francisco opportunities for planners.
Among the most powerful experiences is a Hornblower Cruises program on Alcatraz. Groups cruise to the prison, tour, then sit with former guards, inmates and children of prison workers who lived on the island to hear firsthand accounts of life inside and out when Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious criminals.
Don’t remember the Summer of Love? It’s still fun to be transported back to 1967 via Magic Bus on a colorful tour that takes in Haight Ashbury, Fillmore West and other landmarks of that era and beyond.
Groups can arrange batting practice with the Giants and buyouts of the city’s famously irreverent, ever-evolving production, Beach Blanket Babylon.
Deirdre Lewis, senior director, convention services and events for San Francisco Travel, and her team are currently working on a program for 400 that brings the city’s Chinese culture front and center. “We’re planning to have the group do a quick walk through Chinatown, then close a street and serve Chinese food and have dragon dancers, fire crackers, etc.”
Groups also have access to top chefs and wine makers, San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. By partnering with top tour operators, vendors and venues, San Francisco Travel gives planners reasons to return again and again.
Many countries also connect planners to experiences that immerse attendees in local history and culture. Great Britain, with a history rife with murders and intrigue, not surprisingly offers places where attendees might encounter ghosts, including London’s Hampton Court, where two of Henry VIII’s wives are said to haunt the halls. Attendees can follow in Jack the Ripper’s bloody footprints on tours through London’s alleyways, the serial killer’s identity still obscured by history. Planners can learn more from Visit Britain.
The island of Barbados offers much for groups. “As a safe and hospitable destination, we know that the people of Barbados are the primary reason visitors say they develop a love affair with the island. Hence in curating experiences, we know that our people have to be where it starts and finishes,” says Petra Roach, director of the U.S. for Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.
One local experience Roach recommends: “Oistins on Friday or Saturday night, a happening fish fry that brings out hundreds of locals and visitors alike who sit together feasting on some of the best freshly caught seafood and Bajan fare the island has to offer.”
Barbados is the only place outside the United States that George Washington visited, and the house he stayed in is now a museum and available for events. As for activities, Barbados has polo, cricket, and Bushy Park, which Roach calls “the best race circuit in the Caribbean and ideal for teambuilding experiences.”
Few places offer the diversity of experiences Australia does. Paul Griffin, business events manager, Americas for Business Events Australia, points to a recent incentive program in the Great Barrier Region for an American technology company.
The program, created by Australian DMC ID Events, included exclusive access to the Great Barrier Reef with Quicksilver Cruises, Australian wildlife encounters during an exclusive guided tour of Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures and discovery of Aboriginal culture with a private Mossman Gorge Dreamtime Walk.
“It exceeded all expectations and had guests commenting for weeks about how amazing their Australian experience was,” Griffin says.
Authentic and local may be current industry buzzwords, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling. Sharing a destination’s authentic culture is one sure path to creating memorable, inspiring, meaningful experiences with the power to elevate groups and CVBs alike. C&IT