by Brendan M. Lynch | February 01, 2007

illustrationConvention and visitor bureaus perform vital community services, from marketing their destinations to rolling out the welcome mat for meeting planners and tourists. And that’s profitable work. In a given year, CVBs help bring in travel and tourism spending worth $100 billion in tax revenue for local, state and federal governments, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association.

But, like businesses in any industry, CVBs operate differently, with varying levels of successes, failures and sometimes even scandal. To bring some consistency to how bureaus operate -- and ideally infuse some universal standards into their procedures -- Destination Marketing Association International, the Washington, D.C.-headquartered trade group that represents more than 600 bureaus in 25 countries, is rolling out an accreditation program for CVBs. Here’s why -- and what it means for the planners who depend on their services.

Out from the scandals

Besides money and visitors, CVBs also can bring a city unwanted notoriety. Indeed, at times the universe of destination marketing organizations appears beset by incidents of graft and controversy. “Think back over the last five years, and it seems like there have been a variety of different issues that have raised the issue of credibility,” acknowledges Doug Price, senior vice president of professional development for DMAI (formerly called the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, or IACVB).

The examples are many: Last year in West Palm Beach, Fla., the CVB’s comptroller was accused of embezzling $1.5 million in bureau funds that were intended, in part, to pay taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service. In 2004, local hotels in Akron, Ohio, threatened to boycott their own local CVB over an alleged lack of accountability and communication. In 2003, Denver residents awoke to the headline, “Visitors Bureau Fires President; Strip Club Party Among Issues Cited.”

Of course, these are isolated cases and should not condemn the entire industry. However, such scandals have lead to a decline of confidence and credibility in CVBs in the minds of some -- especially because they make for compelling “gotcha” journalism and receive more than their fare share of publicity.

“I think that we’re past the scandals,” says Doug Neilson, president and CEO of Visit Milwaukee. “This was an issue years ago, and it was also an issue in the corporate world across the board in every industry. Because we’re a publicly funded CVB and are scrutinized in that way, it’s important that we should have credibility and accountability.”

Many CVBs receive public funding and are subject to state open-records acts, whereby reporters (or anybody else) may access records pertaining to finance or operation. But DMAI’s Destination Marketing Accreditation Program (DMAP) goes much further, requiring regular audits, liability insurance, annual budgets linked to strategic plans, adoption of DMAI’s accounting system and other essential elements that will make transparency and accountability the name of the game -- and scandal less likely.

Model operations

Another source of difficulty for CVBs is their lack of uniformity in purpose, organization or operation. Even identification as a “convention and visitors bureau” is increasingly rare, with many groups converting in recent years to the industry-preferred appellation “destination marketing organization” or DMO. (For the purposes of this article, the terms are interchangeable.)

According to the 2005 Profile of a Convention and Visitor Bureau complied by DMAI, 65 percent of CVBs are not-for-profit entities, while 18 percent are government agencies. Half are membership organizations -- with hoteliers, cultural groups, event service suppliers and restaurateurs being the most typical members. Most CVBs (87 percent) receive operating funds from bed taxes. However, additional funding can come from public sources, such as states and cities, and private sources, such as membership dues, donations and sales at CVB-operated visitor centers.

Like other industries’ programs, DMAP establishes universal standards for destination marketers, in hopes that standardization will demonstrate to a bureaus’ stakeholders and clients that the organization is accountable and meets an industry measure of excellence.

To become an accredited DMO, a bureau must complete a thorough application process whereby it must comply with 54 mandatory standards and 33 voluntary standards.

“That was one of the more difficult things in the accreditation process,” says Valerie Pena, executive director with the Bloomington/Monroe County (Ind.) Convention and Visitors Bureau, one of the first bureaus to become accredited. “They give latitude because some CVBs are in a chamber of commerce, some get money from offices of economic development, some are run on innkeeper’s taxes, some get money in other ways. It’s not so much about how its funded as being able to communicate how its funded, so it is clean and understandable to the public. They’re not trying to make everybody the same.”