Meetings & Conventions: Building a Better Bureau
Building a Better Bureau
Under pressure to generate revenue, CVBs are changing the
way they do business. But where does that leave meeting
BY MARIA LENHARTM
ost 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.WHAT IS A
CVB?WHAT IS THEIR PURPOSE?
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
ARE THEY PUBLIC OR PRIVATE?
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
WHO DO THEY MARKET?
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
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."
FEES FOR SERVICES
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
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
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
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
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 à 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
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." *
SPREADING THE WORD
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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 YOU LIKE IT
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
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
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
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
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. *
Back to Current Issue indexM&C
| Events Calendar
| Incentive News
| Meetings Market
| CVB Links
| Reader Survey
| Hot Dates
| Contact M&C