October 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Top-Drawer BUREAUS October 1999 Current Issue
October 1999
Jim Reilly of the Greater Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau
Jim Reilly of the Greater Chicago
Convention and Tourism Bureau

Top-Drawer BUREAUS

By providing excellent service and information to planners, these CVBs stand apart

By Maria Lenhart

Some convention and visitor bureaus promise to bring out all the bells and whistles for large conventions, but Lisa Block, director of meetings and conferences for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., wanted just the opposite. With an annual convention of more than 13,000 delegates booked into Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center, she was concerned whistles from freight trains running close to the facility would disrupt the general sessions. So she made a call to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, which took steps to ensure no whistle blasts would accompany the keynote speaker. "This is the type of problem that crops up in almost every city, and we count on CVBs to work with the community to avert those problems," says Block.

Like many planners who work with bureaus on a regular basis, Block depends on CVBs for much more than the traditional services of sending out leads to hotels and securing space at the convention center. In her eyes, a CVB that excels is one that offers a strong working partnership that extends from the initial contact all the way through to the post-meeting evaluation.

"After the meeting is booked, good service and personal attention from the CVB are critical," says Block, who typically makes a half-dozen site visits to a city in preparation for an annual convention. "When bureaus do things like assist with site visits, set up appointments with local vendors and help us find interpreters, it greatly improves the quality of the experience. And it saves us a lot of time."

First impressions. For some planners, the quality of the CVB can even sway their decision to meet in a certain city. "If I don't know a city, the CVB is my first impression of that city," says Theresa Breining, president of Concepts Meeting & Trade Show Management in San Diego. "As much as we try to be objective, it's a somewhat emotional decision to select a city. It's not just about facts and figures, but about attitude."

For Breining, the CVBs that do the best job are those that are respectful of her needs and candid about the facilities they represent. "We know that CVBs have to be impartial toward their members, but we can't be told that a hotel or venue can meet our needs if it doesn't," she says. "I also expect the bureau to have an understanding of who my group is and what the meeting is trying to accomplish. If they do, then I feel I can trust their recommendations."

Independent planner Delia Chang, president of ProMeet Inc. in Honolulu, adds that the most important CVB attribute can be summed up in one word: responsiveness. "It's not just about being timely, although that's important, but also recognizing the particular needs and demographics of your meeting," she says.

Along with knowing their customers, Chang expects CVB sales staff to have a thorough knowledge of what they are selling. "They have to know a lot more about their area than just the logistics," she says. "Does the group want to get involved with community service? Do they need a special off-site venue? The CVB needs to know what resources are available for a wide variety of experiences that go way beyond hotels and meeting space."

Some planners also count on CVBs to be up on the latest changes affecting their areas. Teri Anticevich, vice president of L&A Meeting & Management Services in Elk Grove, Calif., contacts CVBs for advice and news about the area even when she already has a hotel in mind. "I expect them to know about hotels that have just opened or which ones have been renovated," she says.

Great expectations. While planners' expectations of CVBs may be high, the expectations the best CVBs set for themselves are far higher. For these bureaus, serving meeting planners and other customers is just part of a large and growing list of responsibilities that range from spurring convention center expansions to attracting hotel developers to educating elected officials and the community at large on the economic value of tourism.

"CVBs have a much more complex mission today than they had even five years ago," says William Peeper, executive director of the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau and immediate past chairman of the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus. "We're involved in everything from visitor security to traffic issues. We're also playing a much larger role in city planning and in developing new areas for tourism. We've moved from destination marketing to destination management."

To further define the evolving role of CVBs and what distinguishes the great from the not-so-great, we sought the perspective from the chief executives at a cross section of bureaus. While the CVBs differ in size and the challenges they face, each one has been chosen by M&C readers to receive a 1999 Gold Service Award. Here is what they had to say.

Anchorage:Out of the cold
When Bill Elander, president and CEO of the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau, joined the bureau 12 years ago, Anchorage drew almost no out-of-state meetings business. Since then, Elander and his staff have worked to alter what he describes as "the perception that Alaska is too far, too cold and too expensive" to be a good choice for a convention. Despite these obstacles and the fact that Anchorage has little availability for groups during the popular summer months, meetings business has been growing at the rate of more than 10 percent a year.

Elander credits the city's emergence as a meetings destination with the CVB's emphasis on building personal relationships with planners, its efforts to promote meeting attendance and its frequent familiarization trips. "We do a lot of research into who planners are and who are the most likely to be potential customers," says Elander. "Have they met in Alaska before? Have they met in other places that are regarded as too far or too cold? If so, we know we have a live prospect, and we do everything to encourage the business."

Part of encouraging business is to maintain a sales staff comprised of longtime Anchorage residents, most of whom have been with the CVB 10 years or more. "These are people with roots in Anchorage who can build long-term relationships with planners," says Elander.

To let meeting planners know Anchorage wants their business, the CVB organizes frequent "road shows," for which representatives from local hotels, airlines and attractions host events and make sales calls around the country. Fostering a collaborative, proactive effort among the city's hospitality community has been a major mission of the Anchorage CVB, one that took years to build.

"There was a time when people here didn't understand that we could be a meetings destination everything closed up after Labor Day," says Elander. "Now, step by step, we've been extending the season. October is now one of our busiest months."

Birmingham:A will to overcome
Birmingham has had more than its share of challenges that face second-tier cities competing for meetings business. Along with a stigma stemming from its days as a battleground during the Civil Rights era, the city offered such poor air service that local residents routinely would choose to fly out of Atlanta, 150 miles away.

Today, partly through the efforts of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, both the city's Civil Rights legacy and its much-improved air service now draw groups to Birmingham. Emphasizing such attractions as the Civil Rights Institute, which traces the struggle for racial equality, the CVB has helped develop a strong market among African-American convention groups. "We promote the history of the Civil Rights movement, and we facilitate ways to make it part of the meeting," says CVB president James Smither.

To help improve air service, the CVB has worked closely with airport officials to attract low-cost carriers to the city. Now with competitive fares and nonstop service to nine major U.S. cities, Smither says it's not unusual for Atlanta residents to fly out of Birmingham.

Once groups are booked, the CVB takes a service-oriented approach to ensure groups get a good overall experience. "Sometimes it involves securing a parade permit or working with the local press to give them good coverage or no coverage if that is what they prefer," says Smither.

Boston:Catching up with demand
When asked what makes a CVB excel, Pat Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, says it's all about passion. "People who work for CVBs should have a passion for the city they represent," he insists. "After all, you're not selling widgets or mainframes, you're selling something that you live, sleep, eat and work in."

If the CVB has had a major challenge during the past few years, it is representing a city that is almost too popular for its own good. "There has been a real squeeze on our association business," he says. "Not only have many associations outgrown our convention center, but hotel room demand from corporate and high-end international travelers has exploded. All are competing for the same dates and rates."

Relief is on the way, thanks to several new hotels under development and a new convention center opening in 2003. Playing a central role in making things like this happen, the CVB delivers a pro-tourism message that extends from city hall to groups within the visitor industry. "A CVB is not just about sales and service, but educating the community on the impact of tourism on the economy," says Moscaritolo. "You've got to nurture this support. We wouldn't be getting a new convention center if the mayor were not on our side."

The Greater Boston CVB also is active in recruiting membership outside of the visitor industry. "For instance, our members include a half-dozen hospitals," says Moscaritolo. "They're invaluable partners for our international medical meetings."

The CVB also has made the most of the Internet. In a collaborative effort with 19 other CVBs in New England, the Boston bureau has been instrumental in creating Meetingpath (www.meetingpath.com), a Web site that enables meeting planners to send online requests for proposal and gather information about more than 4,000 suppliers in New England. Since the site's debut in 1997, more than 1,500 planners have registered with Meetingpath, and more than $20 million worth of leads have been generated.

Chicago:Easing labor pains
No longer complacent about Chicago's ability to draw the largest conventions and trade shows, the Greater Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau has learned to focus on service and do what it takes to compete with a growing number of cities that can handle mega- events. "When some of the big shows talked about leaving us, we realized that we could lose some of our best business," says CEO Jim Reilly. "In the past, we were not a service-oriented bureau. Now we know we have to be."

Seeking the input of planners, the CVB set up a Customer Advisory Council in 1997 that meets twice a year and serves as a focus group. When the planners expressed their concerns about Chicago's high labor and transportation costs, the CVB and others in the tourism community listened. Subsequent talks with unions resulted in the relaxation of some rules, and the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority now pays half the cost of busing attendees from hotels to McCormick Place, the city's convention center. The authority also created a new bus lane for easier access.

To give even the largest trade show or citywide convention a personal touch, the CVB has launched a program called We're Glad You're Here that includes decorating the city with banners welcoming the group and arranging personal visits to each show by CVB staff and city officials. Each delegate receives a copy of the Chicago Tribune that is wrapped in the show schedule.

The Chicago CVB also has worked to make the city more hospitable for small and midsize groups that use the convention center. In advance of the completion of Lakeside Center in 1997, a facility at McCormick Place designed for midsize trade shows, the CVB added such services as One-Stop Chicago, which enables each planner to work with a single account manager throughout the planning process. The bureau also recently added a full-time sales manager to handle corporate accounts that use the convention center.

Kansas City:Up to date
If a meeting planner has a concern about an upcoming meeting, the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Bureau wants to know about it, according to president Wayne Chappell. "We encourage clients to call us when there's a problem," he says. "We don't want to hear about it during the exit interview when it's too late."

Chappell believes customer service is paramount to running a successful CVB. "We never let the salesperson get divorced from the account, even if the meeting is five years out," he says. "We're also a one-stop shop that will contact the chief of police, the fire department whatever is needed to ensure the safety and security of the meeting."

Community involvement also is emphasized at the CVB, which has its own "speakers bureau" among CVB staff who frequently make presentations on the importance of conventions before Rotary clubs and other local groups. The CVB also sends out a monthly newsletter to the mayor's office and the city council. "We're in constant contact with people, and our pitch is that everyone benefits from convention business in some way," says Chappell.

So successful is this effort that the CVB can rally as many as 600 local volunteers to help out at conventions by greeting arrivals at the airport, giving directions in hotel lobbies and staffing visitor information centers.

In-depth knowledge of what Kansas City has to offer is another CVB strength. "Planners get a complete information packet of everything that's going on during the meeting, whether it's a special jazz concert or sports event," says Chappell. "We make the most of everything that is special about our city."

Louisville:Racing for business
When the Louisville & Jefferson County Convention & Visitors Bureau wants to show planners what Louisville can do, it goes all out. Fam trips are not relegated to the city's off season but during the most celebratory time of year, the Kentucky Derby Festival. Similarly, the CVB will pull out all the stops to win and maintain a coveted piece of convention business.

As an example, the CVB helped clinch a seven-year contract with the Future Farmers of America by arranging a site visit that showed the group just what kind of support it could expect from Louisville for its annual convention. "They came expecting a breakfast with the CVB staff, but what they got was a welcome from 300 people, including the mayor and the governor of the state," says CVB president Ron Scott. "We also raised more money for their annual convention than any city had before."

As with other successful bureaus, close ties with elected officials are maintained. The CVB has enlisted the mayor of Louisville for promotional tasks that include traveling with hospitality representatives on sales missions and working the booths at trade shows. Currently the CVB is lobbying the state Legislature to support a $96 million expansion of the Kentucky Fair & Exhibition Center.

"No matter how many services you offer, you cannot serve your customers well if you do not have a strong relationship with the local government," says Scott.

Orlando:On to the next
When the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau was formed 15 years ago with a staff of two, meetings business in Orlando, which had just opened a 150,000-square-foot convention center, was a brand-new concept. Now with 153 employees, the CVB is charged with marketing a first-tier meetings destination where exhibition space at the convention center soon will top 2 million square feet.

How did so much happen so fast? CVB executive director Bill Peeper, who has headed the bureau since its inception, says it all comes down to salesmanship. "Our sales team is the reason we're building that second million square feet at the convention center," he says. "We've been able to generate demand in excess of capacity. We always know we can fill that next stage."

While Peeper says the CVB is a sales and marketing organization first, he adds that its role as a service organization follows close behind. "CVBs are in relationship sales, and part of what makes customers comfortable is the level of service they get during the sales process," he says. "Each salesperson is expected to stick with an account all the way, and each one has a convention services person as a backup."

With 21 sales reps stationed in Orlando, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., Peeper expects his team to meet with customers on a face-to-face basis, not just by telephone. And, despite Orlando's capacity for handling mega-events, he expects sales staff to cultivate small meetings as well as large ones.

"We have eight salespeople dedicated to corporate meetings, which are mostly small," he says. "More than 65 percent of our leads are for meetings with fewer than 250 room nights."

The CVB also strives to match planners with the right hotels and vendors. "As a membership bureau, we can't recommend any one supplier, but we can provide the planner with two or three choices that really meet their specs and needs," says Peeper. "Planners have told us that they don't want to be inundated with leads. We've listened.".


As anyone who has worked with them knows, the quality of convention and visitor bureaus varies widely. There are no industrywide standards for bureaus and no way to assess their professionalism before getting down to business. But that soon will change.

The International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that includes most major CVBs in North America, plans to roll out an accreditation program next year that will evaluate bureaus based on at least 100 criteria, from marketing plans to service levels. CVBs that pass the muster will receive accreditation, which will be subject to re-evaluation every four years.

The setting of official standards for CVBs is long overdue, says IACVB president Edward Nielsen. "This industry has an aversion to the 's' word," he says. "But our members say they want us to provide them with more education, and it's becoming a bigger focus for the organization."

IACVB also is expanding its Certified Destination Management Executive program, which was introduced five years ago for CVB senior executives and is administered jointly by the University of Calgary (Alberta) and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. To earn the CDME designation, participants must complete five CVB management courses and pass an examination. So far, 175 executives have enrolled in the program, with 41 earning the credential.

Next year, IACVB plans to introduce a CDME masters degree program, also geared toward CVB executives. The program will enable participants to earn college credit through Purdue University.


Palm Springs Desert Resorts:Eight is enough
For the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention & Visitors Bureau, the mission is not just to represent one city, but eight. The CVB was formed 10 years ago to replace two separate bureaus, one for Palm Springs and one for the seven other cities in the Coachella Valley.

"We have to ensure that we market all the cities as one unit," says CVB president Mike Fife. "What we've tried to foster is a spirit of friendly competition that recognizes the entire destination comes first."

Among the challenges of marketing eight cities is the need for support and cooperation from eight city halls. To facilitate this, the CVB has two boards, one comprised of hospitality representatives and another comprised of the eight local mayors. The mayors meet once a month to discuss issues related to tourism and the CVB.

"It's a great system because the mayors get to understand how vital tourism revenue is to their communities," says Fife. "Tourism is our No. 1 industry. If we don't provide the visitor with a rewarding experience, there is nothing left to fall back on."

In selling the destination, the CVB relies heavily on site inspections, including an annual golf tournament for meeting planners held in June that enables planners to judge the region for themselves. "We can't recommend one community over another, so we give planners an overview," says Fife. "Once they've made a choice, then we'll talk specifics."

The CVB also works hard to correct a widely held notion that the desert is only for the elite. "This is an area where movie stars and political leaders have homes, and so the perception is that we're very expensive," says Fife. "We have to provide education to show it's not so."

San Antonio:A place at the table
Unlike many CVBs, the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau does not have to worry about its relationship with city government. It's part of it.

Although most CVBs are made up of members from the private sector, the San Antonio bureau is a government-run entity that reports to the city manager. Such an arrangement has clear advantages, according to executive director Steve Moore. "We have a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect the visitor industry," he says. "We're active in ensuring that new sports facilities will be available for meetings. We were part of the process that determined the need and selected the site for a new convention headquarters hotel."

On the downside, Moore says, a city-run CVB cannot pay its sales reps what they can get in the private sector. Despite this, the bureau is staffed by longtime employees and has gone from booking 600,000 room nights a year in 1987 to 1.5 million in 1998.

Moore says the CVB emphasizes quick response to all inquiries from planners. "There's no excuse for not being prompt in this era of e-mail and instant communication," he says. "Planners don't want to be left hanging. We're concerned with moving business, not just booking it."

San Francisco:Industry partner
John Marks, president of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, says a lot of people think he and his staff have it easy. "They assume that San Francisco just sells itself and, to a certain extent, they're right," he says.

But despite several years of high demand for hotels and meeting space, Marks knows that taking good times for granted is something no CVB can afford to do. "You must always have the attitude that anything can happen," he says. "Otherwise, you lose your skills and your customers."

Marks believes the key to success for any CVB is maintaining a long-term sales and convention-services staff that can nurture long-term relationships. "In many ways we're the glue for the city," he says. "There's a lot of turnover on the hotel side, so we become the partners that customers feel comfortable with."

Marks, a past chairman of the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, expects his staff to be active in meetings industry organizations. "We attend their educational sessions, make presentations and help underwrite their foundations with financial contributions," says Marks. "We don't just view ourselves as sellers but as industry partners."

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