October 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Reaching Out - October 2000 Current Issue
October 2000

Reaching Out

How a host city can help make visitors from other nations feel at home

By Terence Baker

It seemed like a typical afternoon at 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.

First impressions
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 mess."

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 won."

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 employees.

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.

Checking in
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 are.

Around town
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."

Host wars
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 news outlets.

Joining forces
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, Australia).

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."


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 carpet.

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.

American flagStaff 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 tags.

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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