October 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Click and Go - October Current Issue
October 2000 image

Click and Go

Cities are making it easier for planners to get information, inspect venues and even negotiate online

By Lindsay Morris

Peggy Westby, CMP, doesn’t have time to wait for a return phone call, let alone a packet of information via overnight mail. When researching possible meeting sites, she finds the idea of waiting even a few hours for information to be frustrating. If a day or two goes by, she might just choose another city. Westby, director of educational services for the St. Paul-based Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership, says she probably could not do her job without the Internet. Convention and visitor bureau sites are her first stop in the planning process. “Often, I can get all of my questions answered by just going to the site first,” she notes. “It allows me to look at things at my own pace, on my own schedule.”

And, Westby admits, if pressed to make a decision, she is likely to choose a destination that has a great Web site. “If they’ve taken the extra time with their site and provided me with enough information, it shows they’ll take the time to do the job right when we need them,” she says.

A good CVB site is one that provides thorough information in a clear and accessible format, says Bill Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Customers want to communicate quickly,” he notes. “They need to get in and out. It has to be fresh, and it has to be current.”

A planner visiting CVB sites can expect to find a listing of hotels, attractions, events calendars and photos. Most of the better sites also feature a separate section for meeting planners, with a comprehensive list of meeting hotels and links to the properties’ Web sites, zoom-in maps, floor plans, photo galleries, virtual tours, online hotel reservations, discount coupons, weather information and a directory of local resources.

Virtual inspections
A good site enables a planner to perform a virtual site inspection without leaving the office. Those who want to seal the deal electronically can send requests for proposal and book hotel space online.

“How many times have I trudged over concrete floors for hours on end, hoping to find a suitable site for an event, trade show or convention?” asks MaryAnne Bobrow, owner of Fair Oaks, Calif.-based Signature Events Management Company. “The value of a virtual tour is that I can check the floor plan and eliminate sites in advance if I see that columns here and there will interfere with my needs. I want to see where the windows are, where the columns are and where the exits are. If they show me the color of the carpet, that’s all the better. Once I’ve toured, I can then narrow my selection down and do physical site inspections on one or two finalists.”

The Internet has cut Bobrow’s planning time considerably, she says. “Now I can see the floor plan and conference call with others who are looking at the same online site. Meetings on site selection and show development are much more efficient. Room sizes, maximum settings, ceiling height, etc., are all there for me to see.”

Redesign rush
As Web sites proliferate, competition is heating up. Karyn Gruenberg, vice president of marketing for the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, recalls this year’s annual meeting of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, when about 30 CVB executives were asked whether they are redesigning their Web pages. “Twenty-nine hands went up,” says Gruenberg, including her own.

The decision to redesign was part of a natural evolution, notes Gruenberg. Each department outlined feedback it had received from visitors to the site; all pertinent praise and criticism were examined, and this fall the site was relaunched.

Since the early ’90s, when the site was first conceived, meeting planners and travel professionals have been a target audience. Because planners often are short on time and need a rapid response, Gruenberg says, the bureau has put more emphasis on answering requests in a timely manner and providing information in a concise format. “We want to be able to make it easier for planners to communicate with us,” she says.

Online requests for proposal further speed the process. The forms offer easy-to-answer fields and extra space to type specific details when needed.

Greater Columbus’ Web site,, for example, has an electronic RFP featured under the heading, “Spec Form.” In categories like “type of organization,” “total number of people,” “total number of rooms blocked” and “preferred arrival/departure days,” the planner can scroll through a list of options. The form even asks the planner to specify when she will need a response.

If the planner prefers to use her own form, the bureau will accept it as an attachment to an e-mail message in a Microsoft Word document or text-only file format.

The “Conventions & Meetings” section at the Greater Minneapolis site features a form that takes users through the process with clear, step-by-step instructions. Planners receive an automatic confirmation that the request has been received. A follow-up e-mail or phone call serves as a second confirmation.

Many sites provide feedback in about 24 hours. And some include a message board that allows for discussion.

Phone fans
While a growing number of planners are conducting business online, many still prefer the telephone or in-person discussions.

“There’s nothing like talking to the person on the phone,” says Lynne Tiras, CMP, president of the Houston-based International Meeting Managers Inc..

Cathy Ewing, CMP, of Kansas City, Mo.- based Bayer Corp., also turns to the phone first. Says Ewing, who plans about 100 meetings per year, “I typically will call the CVB as a starting point and explain a little about the group I’m bringing, so I can get a quick take on whether or not they can meet my needs. Then I go to the Web site.”

Perhaps to woo more of the phone holdouts, the IACVB Foundation’s CVB Futures Project, a recent study conducted by Arthur Andersen LLP (with support from industry consultants D.K. Shifflet & Associates), provides bureaus with some insight into clients’ needs. “While the majority of CVBs have a Web presence, they may be underestimating the challenge of providing the customization and personalization features that the consumer of tomorrow will require,” the paper states.

The study details users’ gripes involving both the technical aspects of navigating the CVB sites and the lack of consistent information found there.

What bureaus must keep in mind, says Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County (Mich.) Convention & Visitors Bureau, is that the need for interpersonal communication has only increased. “As e-mail and the use of Web sites has skyrocketed in the meetings industry, these tools have been seen by the bureau as a way to communicate directly to the customer and get past some of the clutter,” he says. “I know meeting planners are responding favorably to that.”

A PORTAL FOR ALL, a new site launched in May, is designed to help planners find convention and visitor bureau Web sites quickly and to communicate their needs to several cities in a matter of minutes.

To use the site, which serves as a portal connecting users to CVB information worldwide, users can link to a specific CVB site or first visit information links provided for each city. Links include a six-day weather forecast, current time, a map, area airports and newspapers.

Reservations can be made for lodging, airplane tickets or car rentals from the CVB Web-site entry page on Officialtravelinfo. com. When a booking is made, the site sends a confirmation number via e-mail. If the requested reservation is not available, the site will suggest alternatives. was developed by two bureau presidents, Bill Peeper of the Orlando/Orange County CVB and Bill Hanbury of the Greater Milwaukee CVB, with the support of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus.

“We’re going to make it as easy as possible for customers to get as much information as they want,” says Peeper. Users remain within the Officialtravel realm until they type a new URL into their browser. This lets planners send multiple requests for proposal and perform several virtual site inspections from one site.


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