When Bonnie Godsman, CEO of GAMA International, an organization dedicated to promoting the professional development needs and leadership skills of leaders in the insurance, investment and financial services industry, looks to orchestrate a meeting or event in a specific destination, she values the relationships GAMA has established with destination organizations across the world.
“As a global financial services organization that has recently expanded its meetings and member experiences beyond the U.S. border, utilizing a destination organization has been critical to the successful rollout of our international initiatives,” Godsman says. “Our membership base, being financial services professionals, lends itself to an expectation — from content development agenda setting to event experience to transportation. All of these items we would never be able to accomplish in a credible and culturally sensitive way without the help of a destination specific organization.”
Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International agrees. A seasoned tourism executive with more than 35 years of experience in the industry, Welsh has implemented a strategic realignment for Destination International to deliver the resources members have determined to be essential to the success of their organizations. Destinations International is the world’s largest resource for destination organizations and also provides a wealth of information to meeting planners who are looking to enhance their relationships with destination organizations across the U.S. and throughout the world.
“A convention and visitors bureau (CVB) plays a critical role in meetings and conventions,” Welsh says. “As partners in the meeting planning process, CVBs connect the destination’s unique attributes to elevate the event experience, source local ‘thought leaders’ and help evaluate a meeting’s economic impact and success.” As meeting and event planners are asked to do more with less, CVBs can become an extension of their teams, and all of a destination organization’s or CVB’s services are free. Quite simply, it’s why the sales and services department in CVBs exist.
Destination organizations know their market inside and out and can be a game changer for meeting planners looking to organize meaningful, experiential meetings and events. In fact, as Destinations International has found, destination sales professionals help drive more than 1 in 5 group room nights in their communities within the U.S. every year.
And destination organizations continue to improve their offerings to meet the specific needs of the meeting and event planners with whom they work. For example, VisitPittsburgh provides specialized event-specific services, such as the organization’s Bring It Home campaign, which creates connections between the CVB and locals who are members of national associations. As a result, contacts that the CVB makes at such organizations as the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and other corporations and foundations can help meeting and event planners when they are orchestrating an event in the area.
To help make meeting planners’ lives a bit easier, especially as it relates to destination visits, the San Diego Tourism Authority recently created its Site Experience Program with the goal of streamlining the site experience for planners. As part of the program, the San Diego Tourism Authority sends a video to the planner to let them know who will meet them at the airport while also sending pertinent info to the hotel or hotels about what the planner is looking for in a venue — saving time and effort on everyone’s part.
According to Natasha Caputo, director of Westchester County Tourism & Film, in White Plains, New York, as a destination organization, Westchester County Tourism & Film offers a breadth of venues that cater to every group size, a variety of accommodations, great dining choices, activities and more. “The right destination connection can make all the difference in linking planners with the right resources to make their event a success,” Caputo says. “We aim to be an extension of the meeting planner’s staff and work to create the right atmosphere and environment for a productive and memorable group experience.”
In the case of Westchester County, given the county’s proximity to New York City and its “convenient-from-anywhere” location, the region has fast become a go-to destination for meetings and events. And, as a result, a lot of meeting planners turn to Westchester Country Tourism & Film to help with the logistics of their events. As Caputo explains, the atmosphere and slower pace provide a literal breath of fresh air, with ample opportunities for inspired creativity. The county’s venues cater to almost every group size and the region offers a full variety of accommodations and meeting locations, dining choices and activities ranging from corporate scavenger hunts and team-building events to refreshing outdoor adventures.
“We have set ourselves apart when it comes to accommodating inspiring and uplifting events. However, our work never stops,” Caputo says. “We continue to strengthen our offerings and this year alone, have seen renovations, rebranding and new openings for events spaces around the county.”
Destination organizations and CVBs are the go-to community experts in the destination management for financial and insurance-focused meetings and events. CVBs are not only the destination experts, they are the influencer within the destination to drive results for a meeting planner’s event.
Destination organizations know what works and what types of meetings and activities have been successful for financial and insurance-focused groups in the past. As Caputo explains, meeting and event planners can gain valuable insights on unique area experiences that they might not otherwise discover. For example, Westchester County can engage groups in The Give Back program, designed to provide groups and corporations an inspiring outlet for giving back to those less fortunate. Three of Westchester County’s top charitable and environmental organizations — Food Bank for Westchester County, The Westchester Parks Foundation and Teatown Lake Reservation — are hard at work helping to improve the lives of people every day.
“The potential for missed opportunities like those mentioned exists when planners fail to take advantage of destination organizations,” Caputo says. Westchester County offers a Meeting Planner RFP on its website that is a great tool and starting point for connecting with the right resources and venues for their meeting.
Carolyn Davis, CMP, owner and senior meeting and event planner at Strategic Meeting Partners LLC in San Diego, California, sees destination organizations as a pure time saver for your meeting and event planning business.
“A destination organization in an unfamiliar city is always my first call, as they can bring me up to speed on what the city can deliver for a meeting quickly,” Davis says. “They will then do the initial leg work for me, providing assistance in listing hotels that meet my criteria, as well as providing me with a list of other suppliers that I may need in building out the meeting.”
As Davis explains, to leverage the wealth of information at their proverbial fingertips, many destination organizations provide a list of hotels that meet a meeting planner’s criteria and will even send out a meeting planner’s RFP to appropriate locales. A destination organization is also the expert of the city’s key attractions and the city’s mass transit plan and they are able to refer meeting planners to other contractors and suppliers, while also providing directories of hotels, maps of the area and lists of suppliers. This wealth of knowledge and expertise is what meeting planners need to leverage in orchestrating a perfect event.
As Welsh explains, destination organizations and CVBs serve as an extension of a meeting planner’s staff to provide real-time collaboration and access to the city experience and connect meeting planners to the resources they need to be an event advocate within the destination.
One thing Welsh and his team at Destinations International hear repeatedly is that planners don’t always think of a CVB as the first step in their event-planning process. Because of this perception, Destinations International is working with industry partners such as MPI, PCMA and IMEX Group to heighten the awareness of what services CVBs provide and why they are a critical resource to meeting planners.
“Destinations International is working to drive awareness on the value CVBs can deliver on behalf of the meeting planner to make an event successful,” Welsh says. “CVBs will be an advocate for a planner’s business event strategy by being aligned and focused on their meeting objectives and business outcomes. It is through our vast industry partnerships and resources that meeting planners will not only know how to use the CVB as a resource for every meeting but will utilize their complimentary services to help in the planning and execution of their event.”
Cindy Hayes, CMP, DMCP, director of sales with PRA New Orleans, says there are key advantages for meeting planners when working with destination organizations.
“One of the most important things in life that is irreplaceable is time” says my boss weekly. “You can’t get it back,” Hayes says. “By working with a destination management company, meeting planners will work with local experts on the ground. They won’t waste time researching and vetting vendors on the internet.”
Hayes and others at PRA New Orleans save clients a lot of time that could be allocated elsewhere. “Using a destination company provides planners with an in-depth knowledge of the destination. With our company, we have long-standing relationships working with the best and most reliable suppliers and treat them as partners.”
Meeting planners can make the most of their relationships with the destination organization partner by truly understanding the expectations of their internal clients and sharing those expectations with their destination organization partner.
As Hayes explains, so many times, she is on the same page with the planner but their stakeholders had something different in mind. Planners can leverage their partnership with a destination organization by understanding that all their supplier-partners have been rigorously vetted and subject to annual reviews to ensure they meet the highest quality of service standards and safety.
“One of the biggest, most common mistakes that meeting planners make when working with a destination organization is not clearly understanding the expectation of their stakeholder and communicating something that was totally different,” Hayes says.
PRA New Orleans had a client who asked the company to sign a reverse force majeure clause in their contract. “We made sure that same reverse clause was in our supplier/partner contracts,” Hayes says. “Unfortunately, a hurricane hit South Florida where the majority of attendees were traveling from to attend the meeting, so they had to cancel. Our production team leveraged the relationships we have with the supplier/partners who understood the client needed to cancel their events due the hurricane hitting their home office location. Not long after they were back up on their feet and operating, our client rebooked the meeting. Had it not been for the extraordinary relationships our event producer had with our supplier-partners, we would not have been able to recreate almost the same experience a few weeks later for our client and their guests.”
Davis thinks an event planner can make the most of these relationships when they fully understand what that specific city’s destination organization or CVB offers, as it tends to vary from city to city. For example, a second-tier city may offer a meeting planner more financial incentives than a top-tier hotel. “Most will offer complimentary site inspections that include housing and a fully flushed out agenda transporting meeting planners with a guide for site inspections of the hotels and attractions the meeting planner is considering for their meeting,” Davis says. “This is a win-win for all parties involved.”
That said, a key mistake for meeting planners to avoid making is not providing the destination organization with all the facts or to provide general information of the meeting. “It’s an ethical mistake to take advantage of their hospitality for personal use, such as bringing their entire family for a site inspection of SeaWorld,” Davis says.
Maintaining a strong hold on the meetings and conventions arena requires some strategic initiatives on the part of destination organizations and CVBs. While a meeting planner may already know that a convention held in Wisconsin represents good value compared to other destinations or urban markets such as Orlando, Las Vegas or Chicago, destination organizations in more expensive locales can help meeting planners “scout” the region for more budget-appropriate venues and lodging. Free parking, easy ground transportation, spacious accommodations, location, access to leisure activities such as golf, spas, waterparks and outdoor sports all can add value to a meeting destination. And the experts and destination organizations understand this.
Meeting planners greatly appreciate the value quotient that coincides with free parking, affordable room rates, flexible food budgets, free amenities such as waterparks and money-saving green practices. Experts agree that there are countless partnership opportunities for unique and experiential meetings and events and destination organizations to guide those itineraries and experiences.
“I believe that the relationship between destination organization and meeting planners will continue to grow as cities, their hotels, restaurants, attractions and suppliers continue to change,” Davis says.
As planners are being asked to do more with less, Hayes thinks the future holds even a greater partnership between meeting planners and destination management companies. “Each side can always learn from the other,” Hayes says. “But it will be even more important to work hard to develop relationships based on trust.” I&FMM.