No matter how experienced a planner may be, or how many cities they may have visited, there’s always something new and important they can discover from destination professionals. The value of insider information such as calendar conflicts is priceless say planners. And forging a partnership with a trusted friend at a Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) or Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) is a smart way to do business. CVB destination experts provide invaluable assistance to meeting planners, saving them considerable time and money. Memorable group meeting experiences are a sure bet when planners take advantage of the services and benefits afforded by CVBs, such as site and venue selection, RFPs and site inspections, meeting planning and logistics, marketing and promotion, vendor selection, government and CSR connections, and much more.
“Planners seek partnerships to save time, better understand what’s going on at the local level, and enhance meetings and exhibits,” says Christine Shimasaki, CMP, CDME, managing director of empowerMINT, a Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) initiative that educates planners on the value of DMOs (see related story on page 12). “Planners are asking, ‘What kind of local partnerships do I need through DMOs to be more productive if I can’t grow my own staff?’ ”
Last year, DMAI formed a industry-wide advisory board of meeting professionals who meet and examine ways to improve DMO services, encourage more planners to use the organizations and overcome industry misperceptions. “Some planners don’t know about the breadth of services that DMOs provide,” says Shimasaki. “Or there are perceptions that DMOs prefer to send leads to their member hotels. There are misperceptions that DMOs have a membership bias and about what it means to be a membership or non-membership DMO. At the same time, DMOs have to challenge themselves. What is it that they don’t do on a consistent basis?”
A CVB destination expert can guide planners on space and price so they have enough information to make the right decision for their group. “Space is one thing, but pricing is becoming more and more important,” says a financial industry meeting planner who wishes to remain anonymous. The four-day meeting for 50 financial managers was held in Columbus, Ohio, last year. “You are going to keep your eye on someplace that is economically to your advantage. If someplace is significantly less to rent, that’s something you clearly have to consider. While you don’t want to go to a place that’s tired and dumpy, in this day and age you must look at price and the perks you get as far as food and beverage, Wi-Fi and ancillary things that can add up,” notes the planner.
A staff member at Experience Columbus encouraged the planner to consider the city. “She has been a long-time friend,” he says. “She made sure we stayed on her radar. I had never been in Columbus before, and she made sure we were looking at the right hotels and gave me direction on what properties would be convenient for attendees. I did my own due diligence as far as venues and room rates, but when it came down to what area of town to consider, she guided me through the process. She and the Columbus CVB were great.”
While this meeting was held at the Hilton Columbus, the planner has previously met at convention centers and touts the advantages of those in second-tier destinations. “It’s silly to rule out what some people consider second-tier cities,” he says. “Places like Columbus and Indianapolis have convention centers (the Greater Columbus Convention Center and Indiana Convention Center) within walking distance of plenty of activities and hotels. If you are looking for a two- or three-day experience that focuses on training and education, not an incentive, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot whether you are in a dynamic downtown.”
Take Statehouse Convention Center (SCC), for example. The Little Rock, Arkansas, facility is competing for larger national meetings. Last fall, Cynthia Tomei, CMP, FAHM, meeting planner for Chicago-based Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, hosted a meeting in Little Rock of 325 information management managers, employees and executives from Blue Cross Blue Shield companies nationwide. The event’s sessions were held in the SCC, which offers 220,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space, and attendees stayed at the Little Rock Marriott, which is adjacent to the SCC.
The meeting ran smoothly. “We had some functions in the Marriott and some in the convention center, but it was seamless because the Marriott catered both places,” says Tomei. “We also used the hotel’s AV provider, so the center was almost like an extension of the hotel. It was convenient. You took an escalator from the Marriott lobby down to the center. The service was fabulous. The facility was so clean and well maintained.”
Tomei’s group met at the SCC because no hotels were large enough to self-contain the meeting. “I don’t necessarily look at centers because they’ve expanded,” she says. “We prefer a hotel that is large enough to host everything under one roof. We turn to centers when we have to, and that’s for a multitude of reasons. It’s comfortable to walk down to a meeting from your hotel space versus having to cross the street or go through a walkway. Hotels tend to be more flexible and negotiable. If the convention center is a union center it increases the rental price.”
Synchronicities, a new three-city sales partnership has been forged among the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau, Visit Baltimore and the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. According to a statement, the partnership was “designed to assist meeting professionals in maximizing return on investment.”
After significant in-depth research with meeting professionals by way of focus groups and surveys, the three cities developed Synchronicities, which they say offers meeting professionals and attendees “an unbeatable combination of value and resources.”
And, of course, the new tri-city arrangement offers planners the option of meeting in one or all of the three cities.
As a matter of fact, Synchronicities announced that an organization has already selected Anaheim, Baltimore and San Antonio to host their annual conference in 2015, 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Destinations without convention centers want to build them. Destinations with convention centers want to expand them. In both cases, destinations want to create more meeting facilities, amenities and contiguous exhibit space to compete for more and larger group business and be in a position to hold concurrent events.
That’s why more cities and regions are commissioning studies to determine whether the cost of building or expanding a convention center is worth the financial return. The studies invariably predict a beneficial economic impact.
For example, a study by Duluth, Georgia-based Strategic Advisory Group projects that building a convention center in Albany, New York, would yield $25 million in annual spending. Also, a $200 million expansion of the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee from 189,000 sf to 250,000 sf would bring $114 million additional per year to the region, according to a study by HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting in Chicago. The economic impact of expanding the Washington State Convention Center would rise to $436 million a year from $272 million a year, according to Visit Seattle.
Another study reports that convention centers are a destination’s most significant revenue producer for hotels. Convention center expansion increases hotel revenue per available room (RevPAR) 1.6 percent per year during the five years after construction, according to a study of 15 large cities by Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago-based real estate services and investment management firm. Cities without convention center expansions had a 0.4 percent decline in RevPAR over the five years.
But a new book questions the accuracy of studies that predict the financial impact of new and expanded convention centers, especially those using public funding. Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities (May 2014, University of Pennsylvania Press) by Heywood T. Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is based on an examination of predictions in 50 cities. Saunders, a formidable urban development expert, asserts that an abundance of convention centers results in intense competition and discounted rates, causing lower financial returns than expected.
Shimasaki says there are several reasons why some new or expanded convention facilities don’t meet financial expectations. “It’s critical to understand that building a facility is just part of the equation,” she says. “There are lots of other reasons why a facility and destination are selected. A lot of times, due to local issues, the facility isn’t put in the best place; or the expanded space isn’t contiguous; or there isn’t a headquarters hotel or hotel package that is connected; or they aren’t marketed correctly. You can spot facilities where it’s a challenge to attract events, and you can see other cases where they have fixed the problems and are doing well now.”
Tomei, like many planners, depended on the local CVB for guidance and assistance. “I had never been to Little Rock before and wasn’t familiar with anything in the city,” she says. “I had conversations with the (Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau) about what I needed help with. The CVB was amazing about getting me information about venues, maps and restaurants that were within walking distance for my folks. They would email a lot of the information. I did a site inspection and pre-planning meeting, and they drove me around.”
“I had conversations with the (Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau) about what I needed help with. The CVB was amazing about getting me information about venues, maps and restaurants that were within walking distance for my folks.” — Cynthia Tomei
Another financial industry meeting planner, who is based in Nashville, turned to Visit Music City, the city’s CVB, for a five-day meeting last year for 200 risk managers and loss prevention professionals. “The CVB was critical in every aspect of the planning,” says the meeting planner. “It was a total turnkey approach. They helped promote events at the previous year’s conference, and they helped us put out a bid package to hotels. They sent out promotional booklets and brochures that were available to our members. They helped us choose venues for different events that would support our theme, which was Music City. We wanted to tell the story of Nashville to our people.”
With the assistance of the CVB, the group held functions at the city’s most famous venues. “We rented out the Country Music Hall of Fame for a tour, a cocktail reception and dinner in the rotunda,” says the planner. “We went to the Wildhorse Saloon, a nightclub. We rented out the top floor and line-danced to a country music band. We also toured the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and RCA Studio B, (a famous recording studio).”
CVBs make a difference south of the border as well. For instance, 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.”
Adam Lawhorne, CITE, CIS, is CEO of Chicago-based Meeting Incentive Experts, which operates offices in Los Cabos, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Lawhorne notes the significant investments being made in new resorts and infrastructure in Mexico as evidence of the progress the country is making. “The people that are investing in the country are not just Mexicans, but also Europeans, Canadians and Americans. I don’t think they would invest that kind of money if they thought they were going to have a problem with violence and safety concerns. With this new president that has come in and the infrastructure and things that are changing and really getting better in Mexico, people are seeing a difference when they come down for a site inspection.”
In summary, planners shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to the destination experts at the CVB, the DMO or the tourism bureau for assistance. Having a trusted partner at the CVB will smooth the way for effective, enjoyable and memorable meetings and events. I&FMM