How Meeting Planners Can Get More From CVBs and DMOs

How today's convention and visitor bureaus have become full-fledged partners in the meeting planning process.

Can sightseeing be educational? That question was posed by planners of the Pure Michigan Governor's Conference on Tourism, hosted by the Michigan Lodging & Tourism Association in March 2017. They wanted attendees to explore the city while also learning from the destination's example.

With the aid of Visit Detroit, the city's convention and visitors bureau, the team created "edutours," which leveraged the city's local business expertise and unique resources in experiential ways. Attendees visited Ponyride, an incubator for creative entrepreneurs in the city's Corktown, and toured the $650 million development growing around the new Little Caesars Arena, where they spoke with Little Caesars' customer-service training professionals about how to bring a consistent high level of service to their own customers.

"Detroit is changing, and we want to take groups into the community to give them this broader picture," says Harriet Carter, director of membership and services for the bureau. "We want to help change the format of a conference in a way that complements the event."

The Governor's Conference was a successful test case, and Visit Detroit now offers such customized local programming for other groups. A manufacturing conference might include a Shinola watch workshop, for example, or security professionals might visit the Quicken Loans Security Command Center, which monitors threats in the city's Central Business District around the clock.

Visit Detroit's efforts illustrate the evolution of CVB services. Destination marketing organizations traditionally have been a handy source of information about a city's hotels and attractions. But this role is significantly expanding.

"In the last several years, CVBs have worked hard to reposition their relationship with planners and make it less transactional," says Melissa Cherry, COO of Destinations International, the professional organization for CVBs. "They are offering more of a partnership, assisting planners with the overall objectives of their meetings — understanding what they want, determining how the CVB can make their events more successful, and bringing all of their expertise, skills and resources to bear."

And planners are taking notice: In the study, The CVB and the Future of the Meetings Industry, conducted by market research firm Destination Analysts in tandem with DI and Miles Partnership, being a "partner/advocate in meeting planning" was cited by 16.3 percent of planners as a benefit provided by CVBs, making it the fourth-highest quality in the ranking.

Enlightened CVBs "consider their unique place in the market based on local knowledge and the creative economy."
— Gregg Talley, Talley Management Group

The value of a CVB partnership now goes much deeper than logistics, says Gregg Talley, CEO of association management firm Talley Management Group. This has led to "mission-based site selection" — a focus on the business or organizational outcomes the planner is seeking for the event, with destinations working to create a real connection to the industries, educational institutions and other relevant resources in the community.

Talley points to Boston's success in showcasing its educational and health-care offerings, and Philadelphia's life-sciences programming. The bureaus in both cities are able to make introductions to the experts and help incorporate local expertise into event programming. "They consider their unique place in the market based on local knowledge and the creative economy — because that's where it's all moving to," Talley says. 

More Tactics for Better CVB/DMO Partnerships

Getting a Green Boost

Sustainability is a growing priority for many planners, but for the Unitarian Uni­versalist Association, it's a central mission for all events, most notably for its annual general assembly, held last year in Kansas City, Mo.

"They have one of the most rigorous sustainability programs of any convention group I've ever worked with," says Esther Walker-Young, senior services manager for Visit KC. She learned about the group's green priorities when the UUA declared its goal to divert as much of the convention's waste as possible.

The Kansas City Con­vention Center, as well as the Kansas City Marriott Downtown and other conference hotels that housed the 3,500 attendees, already had green programs in place. But getting a comprehensive picture of the event's environmental impact required creating a hub between the various venues and the working parts of the program. That's where Visit KC offered a hand.

"After all was said and done, we diverted 92 percent of the Unitarian Universalist Association event's waste."
— Esther Walker-Young, Visit KC

Walker-Young and bureau representatives accompanied UUA representatives on planning trips to area recycling facilities such as WCAmerica, Missouri Organics Composting and Ripple Glass. They also connected planners with the sustainability organization Bridging the Gap, which helped develop an overall strategy for the conference's waste management.

"From the outset, Walker-Young really took the time to understand UUA's unique event vision, and then was able to rally tremendous support, enthusiasm and resources from the local community, venue and hotels," says Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability for MeetGreen, a third-party planning firm that specializes in green meetings and has worked with the UUA since 2005. "Having this level of advocacy and buy-in from Esther and her destination team was a true difference-maker for the event's sustainability."

Prior to the conclave, the convention center's average waste-diversion rate was 12 percent — about one-third of the national average of 34.7 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "Our immediate goal for this particular conference was to beat the national average," says Walker-Young.

A green ethic pervaded every element of the conference. Not only did the UUA recycle bottles, cans and food waste, but they measured and took aggressive steps to reduce the metric tons of all types of waste that went to the landfill. The result, thanks in large part to Visit KC's efforts to connect the dots: "After all was said and done, we diverted 92 percent of the Unitarian Universalist Association event's waste," says a proud Walker-Young.

Assessing a Group's Impact

Negotiating for next year's meeting is easier when armed with solid economic-impact numbers from this year's event. But getting those numbers can be a challenge. CVBs can help, notes David Kliman, owner of hospitality consultancy the Kliman Group.Visit Salt Lake is one bureau that has mastered the task.

"Say an association group goes to the city and blocks 750 or 1,000 rooms, but they're going to have 3,000 people at the meeting," Kliman posits. "Salt Lake City doesn't report out on the typical room-night pickup like many destinations do. They report the economic impact of all 3,000 people, because they know those 3,000 have registered and walked into the meeting space."

The Visit Seattle convention-services team similarly uses its community relationships to provide planners with detailed data about the size and scope of their meetings — not just in terms of room nights, but the overall impact of the group's activities. For example, the bureau recently assessed the impact of the annual meeting of the International Trademark Association, including its 285 affiliated events, such as dinners and networking activities.

During the International Trademark Association’s annual meeting, Visit Seattle set up welcome programs and staffed kiosks at entry points including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
During the International Trademark Association’s annual meeting, Visit Seattle set up welcome programs and staffed kiosks at entry points including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

"We helped facilitate the approval  process for these affiliated events as well as coordinating communication between the sponsors about the association's venue choices," says Katy Willis, the bureau's director of convention services. "We also helped to prepare partners for the incoming opportunities within the city during this time. In total, the group contributed more than $20 million in economic impact to the city over three days of meetings. We were able to garner that data from the community and share it with the client."

The demand from planners for this type of data will only grow — and CVBs are in a unique position to provide it.

"ROI and metrics are really important right now, and CVBs have the tools to share that data about economic impact — as long as planners ask," says Destinations International's Melissa Cherry. Just as CVBs aren't simply sources of marketing materials, meeting planners are "part of the decision-making for the whole organization," she notes, which has made it more important to get clear measurements around not just attendance numbers, but revenue and the wider economic impact on a destination.  

Easing On-The-Ground Logistics

Sometimes a big-picture partnership manifests itself in on-the-ground details. When Portland, Ore., welcomed the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference this spring, the city itself was a major selling point for the group. Portland's attractions and its homegrown literary community were big draws. But the swelling number of AWP's conference-goers — this year at 15,000 — proved a test for the city.

"We run 30 concurrent events five times a day," notes Cynthia Sherman, CMP, director of conferences for AWP. "We usually have a headquarters hotel and four or five others; this time we had 11."

Adding complications was the fact that the Oregon Convention Center is in the midst of a major renovation, upgrading some features and adding a headquarters hotel. Attendees needed to understand how to get around the facility and the city.

Visit Detroit has developed a range of educational tours that give groups a deeper sense of the city and its cultural resources.
Visit Detroit has developed a range of educational tours that give groups a deeper sense of the city and its cultural resources.

In fact, "accessibility" was a major theme of the program, with the goal of removing barriers to entry to the conference (whether due to mobility, financial or geographic issues) and, more broadly, providing easier entry points for those aiming to break into to the publishing industry.

For the logistical challenges, Travel Portland provided details on public transit, including a customized map that charted the hotels, the OCC and locations of the conference's main venues. Any attendee visiting the event's website could scroll through pictures of many of these locations, linked to information about accessibility. Travel Portland supplied tips about scooter rentals, volunteer assistance services and more. The CVB also provided vouchers for Portland's TriMet mass-transit system, so AWP members could use the city's bus and light-rail network to get around.

"Travel Portland even came to our First Timers event to give an overview of the things attendees could do in the city, talk about transportation and give out passes," says Sherman. "It was very well-received."

Lessons Learned — And Shared

The services offered by CVBs can help meeting professionals leverage what's available at the destination to enhance the attendee experience, while planners in turn often get to share their experiences to help make the process go a bit smoother for their successors.

San Francisco Travel, San Francisco's CVB, "very much solicits input and feedback from planners who bring large conventions and trade shows to town — whether it be an association from out of state or a high-tech company in the area," says Robert Hope, convention and meetings director for the American College of Surgeons, which is bringing its 11,000-attendee Clinical Congress to the city in October.

SF Travel worked closely with the ACS ahead of time to ensure they were kept up to date on construction at the Moscone Center, which was undergoing a major revamp (which has since been completed; see more here), including bringing Hope and his team to town periodically to review the renovation's progress and think through how best to use the new spaces. The partnership was so effective that Hope considers the SF Travel team an extension of his own staff. The bureau included the ACS on its Customer Advisory Council, made up of planners who provided input to SF Travel and the Moscone Center throughout the renovation process.

"They solicited our feedback and wanted to know what we were interested in to make Moscone the best convention center possible," says Hope. 

Making a Splash

A great way to make attendees feel special is to give them a sense that the destination has been expecting them. CVBs do this in a variety of ways, such as displaying prominent signage or logos outside the convention center, in hotel lobbies and other public areas.

For the International Trademark Association's annual meeting in May 2018, which drew nearly 11,000 participants, Visit Seattle went so far as to light the Washington State Convention Center Arch in the organization's signature orange color (the first time this had been done) and created the first "Visit Seattle Music on the Streets" program, featuring 20 live outdoor performances around the convention center, so attendees could experience the city's historic and vibrant music community.

For one recent group of 1,500 that held its event at the newly expanded Boise Centre in Idaho, the Boise CVB took an even more hands-on approach. Since attendees were on their own for breakfast and lunch during the convention, the bureau saw to it that area restaurants were expecting a wave of important customers.

"Our BCVB staff hand-delivered fliers to all downtown restaurants and informed management and staff about the influx of visitors they would be seeing during the conference," notes Terry Kopp, director of sales for the bureau. "It was a huge help as restaurants were able to be adequately staffed in advance to handle the increase."