February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Building a Better Bureau February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998
Building a Better Bureau

Under pressure to generate revenue, CVBs are changing the way they do business. But where does that leave meeting planners?


Most meeting professionals have worked with convention and visitor bureaus in the past. Often, CVBs are not only the first point of contact in a destination, but they also play a crucial role throughout the planning process, serving as a conduit for everything from exhibition space to party favors. But planners who haven't dealt with CVBs in the past year or so might be in for a big surprise.

Facing new marketing and funding challenges, bureaus are making big changes in the way they do business, changes that could affect your next meeting. Interviews with CVB executives, industry consultants and meeting planners indicate that many bureaus are redefining themselves and how they serve their customers.


A CVB promotes a destination and, if privately run, its members. In the promotion of both meetings and leisure tourism, CVBs target planners, travel agents, tour operators and the general public through advertising, direct mail and other media.


Private bureaus have members; public CVBs do not. Most private bureau members are tourism-related entities (hotels, restaurants, DMCs, sightseeing attractions, etc.). Private bureaus' board members may include local government officials and representatives from major area corporations. A CVB is typically a for-profit association. Of the more than 300 U.S. bureaus in the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, 68 percent fall into this category, according to a recent IACVB survey. Other bureaus are chamber of commerce divisions (7 percent); the rest are agencies of city, county or state government. Most bureaus representing mid-size or large cities are private.


In addition to marketing members, many CVBs will also supply information on service providers that are not members. And CVBs are supposed to be impartial and not recommend one supplier over another. * M.L.


For many bureaus, the biggest issue is getting the money they need to operate and market their destinations. Heavily dependent on hotel taxes, many CVBs are finding this revenue no longer covers their needs, and they're searching for new sources of income.

"Increasingly, CVBs are being asked to justify their entitlement to hotel tax and other public funds -- their communities want to see how these dollars are being spent, and they want to see a return on their investment," says David Moulder, manager of convention services for Coopers & Lybrand in Dallas. "At the same time, there's a lot more competition for hotel tax money. More of it is going into a general fund instead of coming back into the tourism industry."

Adding to the squeeze is the fact that many CVBs are finding that staying competitive in the marketplace is more costly than ever. "Generating more revenue is something we're all concerned with because the marketing demands are much greater now than they were a few years ago," says William Peeper, executive director and CEO of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The community is demanding that we get more aggressive in attracting new visitors and in developing new markets, especially on the leisure side."

At the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, president Spurgeon Richardson says the combination of new marketing demands and the need for additional funds is having a "radical" effect on how the CVB must operate. "We're getting involved in everything from seeking more corporate sponsorship to promoting cultural tourism," he says. "Our role is changing dramatically, and the need for return on investment is why."


It's little wonder that CVB executives from Buffalo to San Diego are saying their bureaus are becoming more "entrepreneurial." Among the earliest and most visible indicators of this has been the trend for CVBs to charge for registration and other meeting planning services that they used to give away.

Orlando is among the many bureaus that now charge for registration assistance, and Peeper makes no apologies. "We're telling our customers that we're a business just as they are, and we have to make business decisions just as they do," he says. "We'd like to provide services to you at no cost, but we have to ask a fair market price."

At the same time, he says the CVB, like any good business operation, strives to provide value. Orlando's registration service comes with a money-back guarantee. If the planner is dissatisfied with the service, the staff member handling the job is pulled off the account and the work provided by the staffer is not included on the invoice.

Another traditionally free service, destination literature, is also under scrutiny. Some bureaus are starting to charge for quantities over a certain amount, and others are limiting the amount they provide. "We don't want to start charging for literature, but we're getting more judicious," says Robert Imperata, executive vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc. "In the past, clients would ask for 5,000 pieces when they only needed 500. Now we're qualifying what people really need."

Taking a philosophical attitude toward the service fee trend is Theresa Breining, president of Concepts Meetings & Trade Show Management in San Diego. "I'm aware that bureaus need additional sources of revenue and, as a result, some things are no longer free," she says. "It doesn't bother me. On the whole, bureaus still save you time and money."

THE REWARDS OF CVB MEMBERSHIP CVBs, unless they are government-run, are funded largely by dues from their members -- primarily hotels and other suppliers that benefit from tourism. In return, members receive such benefits as listings in visitor guides, marketing support and leads about upcoming meetings.

As a general rule, the more a business is dependent on tourism, the more likely it is to join a CVB. "Just about all hotels, especially those with any meeting space, are CVB members," says David Moulder, manager of convention industry services of Coopers & Lybrand in Dallas. "The dues are relatively small, and it makes good marketing sense."

Adds Linda Howell, president of the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, "It's unusual for companies that derive a direct benefit from tourism to not be bureau members. What they get in marketing and leads far exceeds what they pay in dues."

While a CVB is likely to represent all area hotels, that may not be true of restaurants, sightseeing attractions and other businesses not fully dependent on tourism. "Not all tourism-related suppliers want to be members," says Helen Chang, spokesperson for the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, which, with 2,100 members, claims to be the nation's largest membership bureau. "It's their decision. We don't keep them out."

Most CVBs have different categories of membership. For example, the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has a new category called "promotional partnership" that allows members to select from an Ă  la carte menu of options. "Companies can pay only for what they need, whether it's being listed in the visitors guide or being notified of leads," says president Eugene Dilbeck. "It's a way to encourage wider membership."

Membership dues vary according to the size of the bureau and the size of the company involved. Typically, CVBs have a sliding scale of membership dues based on the level of services the member requests and how large its revenues are. While bureaus are reluctant to disclose figures, one CVB executive said that full membership dues at her bureau, a large one representing a major city, start at $425 per year and average about $650.

CVBs rarely include nonmembers in their directories or pass lead information to them, but they will put a planner in touch with a supplier who is not a member. "If a planner needs a specific supplier or service that we don't represent, we'll still help them get it," says William Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We don't say, 'Oh, they're not a member.' We provide the contact."

Far from exclusive, most CVBs are required to accept any local suppliers that requests membership. However, few CVBs set any specific standards. "CVBs are not better business bureaus, and we don't rate places," says Long Beach's Howell. "It wouldn't be practical."

But not all bureaus have "members." For example, the publicly funded San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau is city-run. While it has no dues-paying members, executive director Steve Moore says the CVB still works with "stakeholders," hotels and other suppliers comprising the local visitor industry. "We stay in close contact with our stakeholders and we publish a broad-based directory of service providers." * M.L.


Fortunately for planners, the entrepreneurial mind-set does not always have a direct impact on their budgets. CVBs are also finding new ways to promote their value to the surrounding community and, at the same time, bring in more dollars from a variety of sources.

Particularly creative in this regard is the Greater Buffalo (N.Y.) Convention & Visitors Bureau, which recently decided to put its logo on golf shirts, hats and other items and sell them at the convention center, in local stores and on its Web site. The CVB has also developed a program on a local cable television station that talks about the hospitality industry and how the convention bureau does its job.

According to CVB president Richard Geiger, the logo items and television show serve several purposes. "We're doing things that make money and promote the city at the same time," he says. "With the TV show, we're educating the general public, the business community and the political leadership about who we are and what we do. If they can see our value, it can help us get more support for things like marketing and pushing through a convention center expansion."

CVBs are also looking at their Web sites as potential revenue generators and, as a result, users may be seeing a lot more online advertising from suppliers mixed in with the usual destination information and booking services. "Our Web site receives about three quarters of a million hits per month, so there's clearly potential here for advertising from hotels, airlines and others," says David Radcliffe, president of the Phoenix & Valley of the Sun Convention & Visitors Bureau and chairman of the board of the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus. "There's a lot of talk about this, but we've only begun to explore the possibility."


If CVBs are embracing any business concept with gusto these days, it's the strategic alliance. Bureaus are forming new partnerships all over the map --with economic development agencies, arts groups, ethnic chambers of commerce, local corporations and even with their competitors. Among other benefits, the new alliances allow CVBs to stretch their marketing resources much further. The alliances hold potential benefits for meetings as well, providing access to more venues, speakers, technical or special-interest tours and information sources.

One indicator of this is the fact that CVBs, which have long formed partnerships in the leisure market, are teaming up to attract meetings. The San Francisco and Orlando bureaus opened a joint sales office in Chicago last September; bureaus in San Jose, Calif.; Minneapolis; and Memphis, Tenn., later followed suit. This winter, Orlando is forming another partnership with San Francisco, Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta, in which the five CVBs are jointly publishing a calendar of upcoming conventions and trade shows in each city. The calendar is being sent to overseas tour operators and travel agents to encourage international attendance.

Karen Jordan, immediate past president of the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus in Washington, D.C., believes such joint ventures make sense. "It's born out of the need for bureaus to help marketing dollars go further and to make the most out of alliances," she says. "I think we're going to see more of it."

Meeting planners may indirectly benefit from CVB joint ventures as well. Vicky Betzig, an independent meeting planner and managing director of JRDaggett & Associates in Chicago, thinks it's a "good thing as long as the salesperson is trained to handle both cities. I'm in favor of anything that enables bureaus to have more local representation. That way I can develop relationships with people who are nearby."

CVBs also are actively forming new partnerships within their own communities, working more closely with local corporations, medical facilities, cultural organizations and others outside the tourism industry.

"CVBs are looking beyond the hospitality industry to get major business leaders to serve on their boards and play an important advisory role," says Michael Mahoney, director of hospitality for Coopers & Lybrand in Los Angeles. "They recognize that these people can help the CVB run as an effective business and have good ideas for marketing the destination."

Among those pursuing such relationships is the East King County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Bellevue, Wash., where CVB president Richard Gartrell has invited local corporations, among them Microsoft Corp., to work with the bureau in promoting the region. A Microsoft representative now sits on the CVB board, and the company is helping the bureau construct its Web site.

"We're broadening our membership and we're looking beyond the hospitality side," says Gartrell. "We have a wealth of successful corporations in the area, and why not take advantage of that knowledge?"

Gartrell maintains that cultivating such relationships with the larger business community also makes the region more desirable as a meetings destination. "If a planner needs alternative sites, corporate sponsorships, a behind-the-scenes industrial tour or chances for attendees to network with local business people, we're better able to provide this," he says. "We have the connections."


Still another type of strategic alliance for many CVBs has been born out of the desire to promote "cultural tourism," a broad term that can encompass everything from the performing arts to ethnic heritage. At the Albuquerque CVB, it has meant joining forces with a local performing arts organization called Magnifico to further enhance the city's cultural appeal. "We see this as a way to expand our membership base to include theaters, art galleries and other entities that have never been involved with the bureau before," says Mary Kay Cline, interim president of the Albuquerque CVB.

In Phoenix, the CVB recently created a multicultural affairs division, which works with local ethnic chambers of commerce to broaden the city's visitor appeal. Similarly, the Greater Los Angeles CVB hired a director of cultural tourism to develop suggested visitor itineraries that include neighborhoods, museums and performing arts venues that aren't always among the city's most publicized attractions.

While cultural tourism is primarily aimed at the leisure market, it also benefits planners with new ideas for creating a richer program, notes planner Vicky Betzig. "The more help or suggestions I can get about new venues, leisure-time activities or alternative meeting sites, the better," she says.


As CVBs strive to improve their business operations, what is happening to the services they provide to meeting planners? CVB executives say part of the new entrepreneurial mind-set is finding more efficient and cost-effective ways to provide planners with the help they need.

For most bureaus, the biggest service challenge is still finding a way to please both members and planners. "It's a real catch-22," says Imperata. "We have a responsibility to our clients not to overwhelm them with calls; we also have an obligation to our members who want to know about potential business."

Despite this, Jordan says bureaus are getting better at giving planners only what they want. "CVBs are becoming more one-and-one in their approach," she says. "They've heard the complaints about too many leads being sent out. Leads are more likely sent only to those hotels that meet the planner's specific needs."

Adds Eugene Dilbeck, president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, "We try to inform our members that if they inundate people, it will only backfire on them. We're trying harder to make the right match."

Imperata says the Pittsburgh CVB now asks each planner to fill out a questionnaire detailing specific meeting requirements. Leads are sent only to those companies that provide the needed services. Other CVB executives say they urge planners to be as specific as possible about their meetings. "Give us a one-page outline of what you want," says Reint Reinders, president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Often we just have sketchy information to go on."

Holding big potential for planners to receive more customized service is the growing number of CVB Web sites. For many bureaus, the Internet is emerging as an effective, relatively low-cost vehicle to market their destinations and to provide quick assistance to planners. "We've designed our Web site with maps and point-and-click features so planners can narrow their choices," says Reinders. "If you need a seafood restaurant in La Jolla with 100 seats, you can find it."

A new online service provided by the Denver CVB is "Hot Dates in Denver," offering information to planners via e-mail about hotel room blocks available for short-term bookings. The information is sent only to planners who indicate they want to be notified.

"CVBs are recognizing that people are changing their booking habits and they want technology," Dilbeck says of the program. "And, from our standpoint, it means we can reach hundreds of planners at very little cost." What more could an entrepreneur ask? *

HOW TO WORK WITH A CVB If you don't know how to work with a CVB, you could end up with information that is useless to your meeting. Here's how to get the most out of a bureau.

STATE THE FACTS: To minimize the leads that don't fit your needs, be very specific about your requirements from the start.

CUT THE CALLS: If you prefer suppliers to contact you by mail, fax or e-mail rather than by telephone, say so. There's no guarantee that all suppliers will comply, but it may help.

FIND AN ALLY: By establishing a one-on-one relationship with a CVB contact, you're more likely to get the assistance you need.

GET ONLINE: Many CVB Web sites offer meetings-specific information. Some sites can receive requests for proposals and offer online booking for housing. A quick way to find a destination's Web site is through M&C Online (www.meetings-conventions.com).

PLAY DETECTIVE: Do some research to make sure you're not missing a great venue or service provider that is not a CVB member. Check with DMCs, hotel and restaurant associations, other planners and local restaurant critics. * M.L.

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