The relationship between convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) in cities large and small and the planners who bring events (and important tourism money) to those cities is really no different from any other relationship, business or personal. What each side wants is to know they can trust the other side to be honest and open, to be considerate, to communicate clearly and to do all that is in their power to make the relationship work.
What CVBs Say
“Planners trust us to get them the best information on our destination and the hotels and other venues that meet their needs,” said Beth Gendler, CMP, CDME, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (Alabama). “They need to know the CVBs have their best interest in place even if it means we don’t have a property that fits their needs. By the same token, the CVB needs to be able to trust the planner’s request for proposal (RFP), specs and history are accurate. This helps us match them with the right properties and get them the best information possible.”
Marissa Bell, public relations manager for the Chattanooga CVB (Tennessee), agrees trust has to work both ways.
“When our team engages a planner for an event or meeting, we are asking them to trust that we will point them in the right direction, from where to stay to where to eat to what to do and even what services to consider for the ins and outs of their event. Planners must trust us to decide to use our services – or to continue to use us in the future,” said Bell. “It also impacts other relationships as planners share their experiences with each other, good or bad. We then must trust planners that they will follow through in bringing their event to our city, keeping appointments we might set up or connections we make for them to resources in our community.”
Ashleigh Bachert, vice president of sales for Visit Tulsa (Oklahoma), wants transparency, trust and good communications.
“I need to know the planners’ needs and their budget. CVBs want to make planners happy, and we’re willing to do a lot,” said Bachert. “When we work with planners who know what they want and can tell us which items mean more to them, then we can deliver on their expectations instead of falling short because we didn’t know what the most important items were, either because they didn’t tell us or we didn’t ask a question in the right way.”
Bachert stressed it is important planners provide accurate information.
“I need to trust the numbers provided for room and show attendees is close to accurate and the booking process is consistent with purchasing habits. Our funding is tied to room nights and other metrics, so this information is important to our team so we can continue to justify our funding and existence.”
Lynsey Smith, TMP, CTIS, director of sales for Visit Natchez (Mississippi), stresses CVBs cannot promise things they cannot deliver.
“You’ve got to follow through on everything you say you will, or how can planners trust you will take care of their group? As always, honesty is the best policy,” said Smith. “Never promise the sky if you can’t really give your planners that. I don’t like letting people down, so I’m very up front about what realistically can and can’t be done.”
As with any business dealings, it is always good to follow up. Linda Atkins, vice president of services for Visit Austin (Texas), advises planners to put everything in writing and request follow up from the CVB in the same manner so there are no assumptions. Everyone wants a successful outcome, so open dialogue is key.
Tammy Clampett, director of sales for Visit Hot Springs (Arkansas), sums up the importance of trust and good communications this way: “The more information a planner can and will provide allows the CVB to best accommodate and anticipate their needs. When the CVB representative and the planner realize they are on the same page, trust can allow the planner to open up to new ideas the CVB representative may provide. Being open to new experiences keeps the event from feeling stale and repetitive and helps attendees stay engaged. Our goal is to make the planner look like a rock star, and on best days, we succeed!”
What Planners Say
For planners, trust needs to start the moment they submit a request for information. For instance, Paula Yost, an independent event planner for corporations and international trade associations, wants to trust CVBs are sending RFPs to all hotels in their area that meet a group’s needs.
“I don’t want them to just send it out to their favorites or partners. Same thing when I ask for recommendations for local entertainment sites or speakers; I want to trust that I’m getting everything that might fit my group, not just the CVB’s favorites,” said Yost.
Beyond just knowing they can trust the CVB to follow up on promises, planners have some other items on their relationship “wish list.”
Betty Brock, membership and meetings director for the Tennessee Fuel and Convenience Store Association, wants CVBs to give equal respect to smaller meetings.
“I don’t always feel that a smaller meeting is given the attention it needs. I believe some cities forget about the smaller customers who helped them become successful in the first place and are only interested in larger meetings,” said Brock.
Amy Birdwell, an event planner with Arena Offshore, LP, in The Woodlands, Texas, would like CVBs to think outside the box.
“I have tried to work with a few CVBs and found it was very difficult to engage them with my specific concerns,” she said. “I’d like them to think a little more out of the box rather than drawing on a few tried-and-true activities and venues they offer by default to every inquiry of a certain size.”
On the nuts and bolts side, planners want CVBs to make things clear from the start. Elaine Ledbetter, conference planning associate with Ivy Hill Associates in Stephenson, Virginia, would like a simple way to find out who she will ultimately be working with at a CVB, while Yost said she would like easier-to-navigate websites.
“I want to be able to upload my RFP without having to answer myriad questions,” added Yost. “A prompt response is great, and I’m happy to discuss our needs and answer any questions at that point.”
Industry Trends Cause Concern For Both Sides
Many of the trends noted by planners and CVBs are issues out of their control, for better or worse, concerning growing cities and larger hotels, advancing technology, and even government actions.
Brock, for instance, is worried about the over-building of hotels in some areas and that properties are losing their connection with buyers.
“I will continue to do business with people I know and respect,” she said.
On the other hand, Ledbetter, is concerned about the “perceived nickel and diming” by facilities and vendors.
“There has been a change in the industry, it no longer is a client driven market,” she said. “Hotels and facilities are no longer hungry for our business.”
Gendler worries that over-worked planners might not have the time to seek out new destinations.
“As everyone is tasked with more and more in their jobs, site visits aren’t a top priority, which can result in new locations not being considered,” she said.
One major concern that is really out of everyone’s hands is the impact local and state government decisions can have on tourism and the meetings and events business.
“Legislative action is always a big deal as some political moves force travel bans to be placed on states,” added Bachert.
In Chattanooga, which is known as “Gig City” for being one of the first in the United States to install gigabit internet and to now offer 10-gigabit internet, Bell likes some of the new trends in technology.
“Meetings and events are capitalizing on improvements in technology that help increase productivity and attendance and decrease costs,” she said. “Advances in technology also enhance the digital experience when attendees are here. This trend is a great opportunity for us, and our high-speed internet and tech community is a great opportunity for planners to increase the efficiency of their event or meeting.”
Stephanie Andrews, director of convention services with Visit Amarillo (Texas), welcomes positive trends toward “greener” events.
“We are moving away from stuffing and handing out plastic bags of brochures and information to all attendees, instead offering digital versions to download,” said Andrews.
For those who still like paper in hand, she said they provide a welcome table at registration or the event venue with physical copies of things like city maps and brochures. Another positive Andrews noted is the trend for groups to “give back” to the communities they visit (e.g. by helping with cleanup projects, food kitchens or by donating items to local organizations).
Planners Ask And CVBs Deliver On Creative Events And Requests
– Rosanne Mastin, marketing communications manager, Louisville Tourism: In an effort to build excitement for our destination, we created a horse race activity during a group’s annual awards luncheon. The activity included having the official bugler and track announcer on stage to officiate, use of a high-definition (HD) horse race video, custom racing forms with tradeshow terminology for horse names (i.e. Ineedaforklift). Each table had one winner who received a bottle of bourbon which served as a centerpiece. The crowd was so engaged in the race and laughing at the fun, yet familiar, horse names. Social media posts were amazing following the lunch and we expected everyone tried to go to the track while in Louisville.
– Lynsey Smith, director of sales, Visit Natchez: Because we are such a walkable destination, we had a planner who wanted to do a mini pub crawl led by a second line band. It was the reception after the formal reception, and they wanted to have fun! Each bar had a themed cocktail geared towards the group’s industry and a local community college had a few patient members of the band willing to lead the group. What was initially a strange request turned into an activity we have pulled off more than once.
– Marissa Bell, public relations manager, Chattanooga: We worked with a planner once to source local artists to decorate one of our attractions with art inspired by the Tennessee River. For this group, we also commissioned a couple of local artists to create works related to their convention, which we installed on the sidewalk outside of the convention center. We also once helped a planner create a public art scavenger hunt and hid items in local shops for them to take a picture of to prove they found each clue.
– Linda Atkins, vice president of services, Visit Austin: We have an airstream trailer we use on both the leisure and meeting side of the industry. It is custom branded with the look and feel of Austin. To support meetings locally, we have displayed it in some convention trade shows as an Austin information area or lounge and also as a backdrop for a live music performance.
– Leslie Smithson, communications director, Charleston, West Virginia CVB: Our Appalachian Power Park, the 4,500-seat home of the West Virginia Power, a Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, lets attendees enjoy the excitement of minor league baseball. The ballpark offers a private area where conference attendees can relax, eat, and engage in team building exercises, and The Power works with the CVB to recognize the group on the public announcement system and can arrange for the group’s ambassador to throw out the first pitch.
– Stephanie Andrews, director of convention services with Visit Amarillo: We converted a 10,000-square-foot dirt-floor arena into a regulation University Interscholastic League (UIL) wrestling tournament space by covering every square inch with a 2,000-pound tarp and then covering it with mats.
– Amy Peralta, CGMP, sales manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism: I had a planner ask if a hotel would allow them to bring in cadavers and store them in the hotel’s freezer for a medical conference. This was a bit strange, to say the least! I also had a group that required bringing a mobile dairy classroom, otherwise known as livestock.