Meetings & Conventions - Reaching Out - October
How a host city can help make visitors from other nations
feel at home
By Terence BakerIt seemed like a typical afternoon
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. But amid the crowds, like
a carefully coordinated SWAT team, uniformed men and women fanned
out at strategic points, eyes peeled for the incoming passengers on
their list. These secret agents were not federal employees but
Airport Ambassadors, dispatched to greet some 25 representatives
from different countries arriving for a technology conference.
"Our Ambassadors are volunteers who know how confusing airports
can be," says Karen Turner, who oversees the airport-sponsored
program. "For this particular conference, they had to meet people
from South Africa, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere, many of whom had
never been to the United States before."
The greeters helped attendees find their luggage, change money
and safely board a shuttle to their hotel. "One of them even had to
reassure a South African man that there were choices in American
food besides barbecue," Turner adds with a chuckle.
Airport greeters are just one way cities are welcoming
international visitors. As the number of foreign groups electing to
meet in the United States and Canada increases, cities are vying
for the economic benefits of playing host and that means offering a
warm welcome as well as practical services.
"In the last five years, we've definitely placed more emphasis
on international travelers," says Peter Hedlund, vice president of
sales at the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors
Association. "And it has paid off." Indeed, over the past few
years, Minneapolis has played host to an international
telecommunications conference, a United Nations-related conference
and a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that drew 60,000 attendees
from 87 countries.
Such factors as a welcoming smile and local information
presented in a delegate's own language go a long way toward
establishing a host city's reputation and ensuring that visitors
enjoy a positive, productive stay.
The best airport experience is akin to a good visit to the dentist:
It's quick and painless. "We try to get our groups out of John F.
Kennedy International Airport as fast as possible," says Ina
Selden, president of Manhattan Passport, a destination management
company in New York City. "The international terminal is such a
Carole Sharapata, vice president, transportation operations, at
Destination Dynamics International, a DMC in Dallas, agrees.
"Meeting groups at the airport is our bread and butter. Once the
group is safely at the hotel, the battle is more than halfway
The best CVBs work with local authorities to ensure helpful
multilingual signage at this important gateway. Other initiatives
include the conspicuous availability of multilingual brochures, as
well as airport concierge desks staffed by multilingual
Services such as Dallas' Airport Ambassadors, whose
representatives speak a combined 35 languages, are particularly
effective in guiding groups to and through customs and baggage, two
gauntlets that can unnerve even the most seasoned travelers.
Philadelphia's welcoming program includes custom-made buttons
handed out by multilingual staff. Airport greeters can even guide
arrivals to the city's restaurant-reservations desk inside the
terminal and help them make dinner plans. Tourism Vancouver
performs similar services and also arranges for visiting delegates
to avoid service fees and receive preferred exchange rates at
Vancouver International Airport bank locations.
Some cities involve the airport in their efforts. In Atlanta,
"there are 30 nonstop flights a week coming here from Europe, so we
meet regularly with the airport on improving how international
guests are treated," says Bill Howard, vice president of marketing
and tourism for the CVB. One result of these meetings was that
management of the international concourse at Hartsfield Atlanta
International Airport was outsourced to Airline Group
International, a company well-versed in the needs of foreign
travelers in terms of security, customs regulations, signage and
baggage handling. The next step, says Howard, is getting Atlanta's
subway system, known as MARTA, to join in the cause.
An efficient airport encounter is a nice way to begin one's visit,
but the true test of a city's hospitality lies in its hotels' home
port for the duration of the stay. Seattle-King County CVB has a
program called Operation Welcome. This includes informing staff of
arriving groups’ cultural needs, meeting them at the airport (the
CVB has at its disposal greeters who speak 22 languages) and
providing an information bureau inside the terminal.
When Denver hosted some 5,000 delegates attending the G8 Summit
in 1995, each member country was assigned its own hotel. This had
obvious advantages when it came to providing consistent information
and services tailored to the guests’ lingual, religious, dietary
and other needs.
In Las Vegas, the CVB hoists the flags of international groups
at host hotels, a sign of respect as well as a helpful identifying
marker for guests. And in Mobile, Ala., which attracts a sizable
number of Asian visitors, the CVB teaches suppliers that Japanese
visitors expect their luggage to be in their rooms before they
It's only natural for cities to show off the local color. In New
Orleans, jazz bands often greet arrivals. In Philadelphia, groups
might be entertained by mummers, the wildly costumed troupes of
pantomime artists indigenous to the city. Here, too, Ben Franklin
look-alikes are posted in strategic tourist centers to welcome
newcomers with Liberty Bell pins and colorful anecdotes about the
Revolutionary War. And many events are staged in front of the
Philadelphia Museum of Art, on the steps known to fans worldwide as
an important location in the movie Rocky.
Special events can showcase the destination throughout the
meeting. In San Francisco, the CVB helps promote guided tours of
Alcatraz, the city's fabled island prison, while Miami attracts
Latin American groups by spotlighting its strong Hispanic culture
in everything from music to food.
New York's Ina Selden, while cautious about falling for easy
stereotypes, says there are general characteristics of people that
bear catering to: "Many British are looking for bragging rights as
a result of their visit, such as 'I found a restaurant that served
the biggest steak I ever saw,' while many Germans want an emotional
experience — anything a city can provide that can take one's breath
away, whether a dramatic view from a skyscraper or a moving
classical concert." The Dutch, she adds with a laugh, "are just
looking for coffee every 10 feet."
Who's the best host? Michael Payne, executive vice president of
Smith, Bucklin & Associates, an association management company
with offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., says larger cities do
the best job of looking after international guests because they
have greater resources. On the other hand, according to Julie
Heizer, director of tourism at the Washington, D.C., Convention and
Visitors Association, "secondary cities tend to display the most
initiative" to sell themselves.
One midsize city making a serious effort to promote itself
internationally is Mobile, Ala., population 203,000. Brenda Scott,
president and CEO of the Mobile Convention and Visitors Corp.,
says, "We are as sophisticated as larger cities, but we have to try
harder." This credo is manifested in Mobile's ongoing training
program, one that involves not only tourism professionals but
informing the community about visitors’ cultural roots via local
Even as competition heats up, a number of cities are working with
other localities to strengthen their marketing positions in
attracting certain groups and to share practical information on how
to receive and look after them.
The CVBs of Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York realized they had a
unique opportunity to work closely with Delta Air Lines, for which
these cities serve as domestic hubs. The three share information
with each other and the airline. This allows international
travelers — armed with images, information and contacts — to feel
welcome even before they set foot in this country. Each of the
three cities takes turns hosting a trade show, to which specially
selected European suppliers and planners are invited.
A similar synergy is practiced in Boston and Vancouver, two of
the five cities that have banded together on the Web as BestCities.net (along
with Copenhagen, Denmark; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Melbourne,
Even within a city it is possible to create alliances. VIP
Chicago is a joint effort of the CVB and the Office of Tourism.
Initiatives include linking visitors with key city representatives
and services, identifying unique leisure options and assisting
international groups with special programs and services. Call it
the team approach to saying, "Welcome."
THE STANDARD RED CARPET
It is not difficult or expensive to make
international delegates feel welcome in a U.S. city. Following are
some simple and effective ways CVBs can help roll out the red
Signs, buttons and banners. Post signs
welcoming the group at the airport, at the hotel, at the convention
center and in the city center and in as many languages as possible.
Have all hospitality staff wear buttons emblazoned with the event's
name or logo. Plaster the town in banners that announce the
presence of the group and thank delegates for coming.
Staff of all nations. Station
bilingual and multilingual staff at critical spots such as airports
and convention centers. Many CVBs, in cooperation with the hotel
community, have lists of employees and volunteers they can draw
from as necessity dictates. The Greater Miami bureau, for example,
has access to hospitality employees who speak Bengali, Bulgarian,
Macedonian, Hindi and Lao-Thai, among other languages. And in
Atlanta, the CVB offers its employees free Spanish classes.
Languages that staff members speak should be printed on their name
Spread the word. Have the CVB inform its
members, including hotels, restaurants, shops and transportation
firms, of the arrival of international groups. Details about the
languages they speak and any cultural dos and don’ts can be sent to
newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets.
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