by Jonathan Vatner | February 01, 2006

dan fenton


San Jose CVB chief Dan Fenton felt a membership-based bureau was a conflict of interest.

A few years back, the San Jose (Calif.) Con-vention and Visitors Bureau eliminated its membership department. Poof, and it was gone. Members-only events went by the wayside. The bureau’s card-carrying members no longer had cards.
    “We wanted to make sure we recommend to our clients those businesses that are a match for them, not necessarily those businesses that pay $300 a year to be a member,” says Dan Fenton, bureau president and CEO.
    Hotels, the primary beneficiaries of the bureau’s marketing, still pay dues to the SJCVB, above and beyond the hotel tax, but they’re no longer called members; now they’re “partners.” From the hotel perspective, it’s a small change, but in San Jose, the hotels never minded paying membership fees. Besides that, though, all the other institutions, including restaurants, florists and the auto repair shop that wanted to join just to display the sign in the window, have no financial ties to the bureau.
    Nobody seems to miss membership. Indeed, discarding the program has given the bureau far more freedom to be an unbiased source of information for meeting planners. Take the meeting planner’s guide, either online or off. Before, it listed every business willing to pay to land a spot, even those that weren’t ideal for meetings. The guide might have been missing dozens of great restaurants, and if a major attraction or fantastic venue didn’t pay dues, it, too, would have been left out. Now, San Jose’s guide contains only the businesses that the bureau, with the help of meeting planners, deems most fit.
    Or what happens if a planner wants an honest recommendation regarding a local vendor? In memberless San Jose, the CVB doesn’t have to worry about offending businesses that don’t get to see every lead.
    In the past, says Fenton, “Lots of times, members’ feelings were that the CVB was going to give them some type of advantage or recommend them. That just created conflict.”
    The San Jose CVB is the most dramatic example in an industry taking a hard look at its membership structure. The current system is rife with bias: Bureaus that are paid by some businesses and not others are pressured to direct leads to the paying businesses in a process that is driving meeting planners elsewhere for information on a city. A number of bureaus are working to reverse that trend.