CVB ShowcaseMay 6, 2024

Meet the CVBs Elevating Events By
May 6, 2024

CVB Showcase

Meet the CVBs Elevating Events
Miami’s sandy beaches and wonderful weather continue to draw groups to its South Florida shore year-round. Courtesy of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau

Miami’s sandy beaches and wonderful weather continue to draw groups to its South Florida shore year-round. Courtesy of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau

Ours is a fast-paced industry. Cities and regions across the country are ever evolving, expanding, preserving and upgrading. Hotels are newly built or renovated, new venues open and major development projects break ground. What’s happening in your favorite U.S. destinations? CVB execs are happy to tell you. Although the past few years have been challenging on a number of fronts, CVB CEOs are optimistic about the future.

David Whitaker, president & CEO of Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, says he’s encouraged by “the level of interest, leads and RFPs being generated and the confirmations received so far in 2024.” He adds, “For the current fiscal year, we’re pacing ahead of our goal to secure future major citywide conventions for the Miami Beach Convention Center. Most encouraging is the expanded interest in hosting international meetings and capitalizing on our gateway status — especially with key Latin American markets.”

One of last year’s hallmarks was an unprecedented demand in leisure travel, making it hard at times for groups to get the places and spaces they wanted. Whitaker says that’s dissipated in Miami. “The ‘log jam’ that was created with the high level of leisure travel has worked itself out as we, and others, get back to a more normal cadence of lead generation and rate stability.”

That said, he notes that the “new normal” for the industry remains “the incredibly short-term nature of opportunities and expectations.”

One focus for Whitaker and the GMCVB is maintaining the highest level of customer service, which he calls both a primary opportunity and primary challenge. Introducing or reintroducing planners to the renovated and expanded convention center, and incorporating and expanding technology are front and center for the GMCVB team.

The one thing Whittaker would like planners to know: “Our culture is built on a customer-first approach, grounded in creativity and flexibility — and quite frankly, it’s also our greatest strength.” As for his best advice for planners, “Take nothing for granted!”

Michael Heckman, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation, agrees that things are looking good. “So far, 2024 is shaping up exceptionally well,” he says. “We’re pleased with our early sales figures. Hotel performance continues to trend in the right direction. We had several exceptional major events to start the year, including a couple of large-scale conventions and the College Football Playoff championship in early January.”

And he’s seeing business travel continue to improve alongside growth in leisure travel. “Based on how we finished 2023 and the trajectory we’re on, this is exactly what I expected,” he adds.

But challenges remain. “For a destination like ours that gets a significant number of international travelers, the visa backlog continues to be an issue, though the federal government appears to be making headway there,” he notes.

Worker issues remain, too. “We hear from our partners and industry stakeholders how hard it is to find and keep talent — whether in the hotel space, restaurants or other businesses … Our industry has to do a better job of positioning the value proposition we offer and the opportunities for building a career, not just getting a job.”

Then there’s the proverbial elephant in the room — or sky. “I’m also concerned about problems on the horizon in air travel,” Heckman says. “The issues we’re seeing in plane manufacturing will cause delivery delays just as airlines are phasing out older aircraft. There are personnel concerns as well as folks retiring. These are significant headwinds the industry will need to figure out to maintain and grow capacity to meet demand.”

When it comes to the meetings industry as a whole, however, Heckman is upbeat. “Our industry has shown incredible resiliency and flexibility in recent years. The pandemic made clear that people want to meet in person. To meet that demand — giving travelers and meeting planners what they want — our industry has exhibited a willingness to rapidly change and evolve. I’m proud of what we’ve done as a sector to adjust and continue to deliver.”

As for Houston itself, he says clients are often surprised by the city. “The walkability of our convention campus provides increased opportunities for networking, reduces transportation costs and directly connects with our broader sustainability initiatives. They’re also usually surprised by our abundance of green space, which doesn’t square with their image of Houston, so that’s a good thing.”

To planners, Heckman says, “A really transparent, open dialogue between destinations and clients emerged during the pandemic out of necessity. Those conversations helped us solve unique and challenging situations. Just because the pandemic is behind us doesn’t mean we can’t continue that level of direct communication. There are a lot more short-term requests these days and effective, open dialogue will help us get to the finish line.”

Deana Ivey, president & CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, says they’re continuing to see incremental growth. “There’s been an uptick in business travel, and international travel continues to gain momentum for Nashville. We’re still seeing a lot of short-term bookings, but we now have additional availability with a surge of hotel rooms coming online and the fact that leisure travel has normalized.”

Looking ahead, Ivey says Nashville is on track for a record-breaking year. And though the city still feels residual effects of the pandemic, there’s light ahead. “We anticipate a full recovery by 2025 compared to 2019.”

What planners should know, Ivey notes, is that the Music City brand is authentic. “More music is created, written, produced and performed here than anywhere in the world. Visitors come here to experience music along with art, culture, sports and the amazing culinary scene.”

By the end of 2027, she continues, “we’ll become a premium destination for major events when Nashville’s state-of-the-art domed stadium and East Bank development complex open. Mega concerts and special events will take place year-round. We’ll be able to accommodate larger convention groups in the downtown campus. Nashville is poised for continued growth.”

The big news at New York City Tourism & Conventions is that president & CEO Fred Dixon leaves in June to head up Brand USA, the nation’s DMO. Before going, he gave us his insights on the state of NYC Tourism, which is experiencing another year of growth.

“This year, we’re projecting a total of 64.8M travelers — 51.5M domestic and 13.3M international — which would mark a 97% recovery of 2019 benchmark visitation,” Dixon says. “Business travel accounts for approximately 20% of all visits to New York City annually, and in 2024, we are expecting 12.6M business travelers.”

Like other destinations, NYC is still seeing shorter booking windows. However, Dixon says, “We actually view it as an opportunity; we’re well equipped to accommodate groups with various timelines and needs. With over 121,000 rooms in active inventory and about 10,000 more planned over the next two to three years, we have an incredible variety of hotel and venue product for groups of all sizes and types.”

Dixon says two primary challenges are “inflationary pressure at home and abroad, as well as lingering visa wait times in some markets.” But he points out that the city can meet any planner need, including budget options, thanks to a diverse product mix. “Our Convention Development team is dedicated to finding creative solutions for business planners’ event needs in New York City, whether they require budget-friendly options, sustainable practices, unique activations or assistance overcoming obstacles such as dates and space. Whatever the task, our team is ready to support.”

He lists assistance with public transportation, an accessibility guide, the NYC Delegate Pass and a dedicated promo code among the tools available to planners to help them meet whatever their needs may be.

All in all, Dixon believes the travel, meetings and hospitality industries are strong and time has shown that face-to-face meetings are not going anywhere. “The travel industry continues to benefit from strong and growing demand. Travel remains a top priority among consumers, and our data shows that travel demand to NYC is continuing to increase in 2024 and beyond. Face-to-face meetings, trade shows, conferences, conventions and exhibitions continue to provide undeniable value for businesses and inspiration for employees.”

Not surprising, his top advice to planners is to leverage the resources and expertise of local DMOs. “Utilizing these services not only enhances your event’s quality but also makes sure your event supports the local economy, creating a win-win scenario for everyone involved.”

Across the country on the Pacific Coast, San Francisco is on track with forecasts but down in some key areas as the specter of the pandemic still negatively impacts today’s business. “While we expect to see growth in transient visitation and overall visitor spending, our citywide events are below their historical impact,” says Scott Beck, president & CEO of San Francisco Travel Association. “The diminished impact of meetings and conventions is the direct impact of being unable to sell Moscone Center for two years during the pandemic.”

Beck acknowledges that leisure travel demand has increased but says that hasn’t been a problem. “The strength of the leisure market is never a problem, only a management issue. Unlike some of our peer cities, we didn’t see leisure travel impacting business travel last year. Business travel hasn’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels due to the slow return to the office in San Francisco, but it continues to grow. The booking window for business travel continues to be short, and the booking window for events at Moscone Center is shorter than in the past — around three years compared to over five years pre-pandemic. However, the booking window for self-contained meetings at venues other than Moscone Center has returned to normal, which has trended to be shorter overall.” There are other residual shifts from the pandemic that also affect meetings. “For urban destinations, the impact of hybrid or remote work environments continues to have the largest impact of any post-pandemic or industry shift. In addition, the lingering impact of organizations being asked to do more with less staff, budget and resources has clearly impacted the recovery of the meetings and convention industry. While the fears around inflation have diminished, increased costs of doing business are also impacting our ability to meet the demands of our clients. Greater creativity, collaboration and efficiency are necessary to be successful and provide more value to planners, attendees and travelers.”

While some negative narratives continue, San Francisco Travel has experienced great success with its Ambassador program. “One of the initiatives most valued by our customers is the city’s Welcome Ambassador program,” Beck says. “These very visible Welcome Ambassadors are posted on streets in key convention and tourism areas to greet visitors and provide directions or other assistance. They provide a sense of welcome and immediately give our visitors a sense of place, enabling a much deeper connection with our vibrant neighborhoods and iconic natural points of interest.”

Among the trends Beck sees in the industry is a continued emphasis on sustainability, a trend San Francisco is well suited to support. “This is important for the entire industry, as we must do our part as stewards of the natural environment to ensure the well-being of future generations,” he says. “San Francisco continues to be a national leader in sustainability, and is the only city in the world to have achieved the most advanced LEED Platinum certification for its convention center and airport.” In addition to sustainability, he’s also seeing increased emphasis on DEI and well-being.

Beck wants planners to understand and make use of San Francisco’s unique assets and San Francisco Travel’s resources. He says, “We often say that San Francisco meets you where you are. Attendees can connect to San Francisco’s spirit of innovation through its people, food, art and natural beauty. This city of 49 square miles continues to have an outsized impact on the world. There’s a reason so much of what has transformed the world started here! San Francisco Travel offers a wide range of services to support planners, from targeted attendance-building programs including video assets, customized websites and social media strategies to CSR suggestions and ways to make our destination an integral part of any event.”

It’s not all about the big cities. One result of changes brought on by the pandemic is more attention paid to what second- and third-tier cities have to offer. Durham, NC is one of those cities, and it, too, sees a lot of positives in 2024.

“This is shaping up to be a promising year for Discover Durham, says Neil Curiel, director of sales at Discover Durham. “Like everywhere else in the world, the pandemic halted tourism here in a way we’ve never seen, shifting the market and forcing us to reexamine our strategy for selling Durham as a destination. Now that we’re on the other side of recovery, we’re focusing on gaining momentum. Many people in the industry were disappointed to see that business travel did not bounce back instantly. Instead, we’ve looked for new opportunities in a business market that looks different than it did before. For instance, we’re seeing strong demand for a return to in-person meetings over the next few years as companies aim to maintain in-person connections in a hybrid environment.”

Echoing many others, Curiel says booking windows are shorter but he’s seeing some changes. “For a while, people were apprehensive about long-term planning given the disruption caused by COVID, but we’re starting to see an increase in demand for this year.”

Although the city isn’t quite back to 2019 levels, Curiel sees many reasons for optimism. “With hybrid work being integrated into the new norm and costs still limiting many travelers, we’re not surprised to see that we’re not quite there yet, but we’re at a healthy point in our growth and recovery. Where there are still shortcomings in occupancy, we’re actually seeing a return of RevPAR and overall stabilization of the entire market.”

One focus of Discover Durham today is to connect planners in meaningful ways to the things that make Durham uniquely Durham. After all, a city doesn’t have to be top tier to have assets that make meetings memorable.

“We want to connect planners with true, authentic Durham experiences for their events. Whether it’s meeting Wool E. Bull, the mascot for the Durham Bulls baseball team, or networking with furry friends at the Duke Lemur Center, we work with planners to layer Durham’s charisma and unique culture into their events.”

Durham has small-town, southern charm with all of the thrill of the big city. Even surrounded by other cities within the Triangle metro region, Durham stands out.

“It also offers an array of unique meeting spaces among walkable districts and quaint neighborhoods that provide far more than large conference room can,” says Curiel.

Best of all, perhaps, Curiel wants planners to know this: “Your meetings are VIP events when you’re in Durham.”

Across the nation, optimism and opportunities abound for 2024 and beyond, and you can leverage that wherever you decide to meet. C&IT


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