Getting the OK

DMAI’s new accreditation program sets higher standards for bureaus

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.”

illustrationThe BestCities Global Alliance is a small group of bureaus around the world that was founded in 2000. Members -- representing Cape Town, South Africa; Copenhagen, Denmark; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Edinburgh, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Singapore; and Vancouver, British Columbia -- pledge to uphold service standards and provide planners with benefits loosely akin to what airline alliances offer frequent flyers. Planners can share event details and profiles with BestCities destinations simultaneously, negotiate with multiple members and expect the same standards of service from all.

“We’re focusing on international association meetings and larger corporate meetings,” says Lisa Klint, Copenhagen-based general manager of the BestCities Global Alliance. “They could rotate to Edinburgh or Melbourne year to year, and we’d share the profile of the group and have a leads exchange.”

In November 2006, the BestCities alliance announced plans for a Global Certification Program, with help from London-based Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance Ltd. and a hospitality consultancy in Dubai, to improve the quality and performance of service standards.

“The certification is for services relating to meeting planners,” notes Klint. “It covers the 35 service standards that all of our partners need to adhere to. It takes those standards and puts them into a quality management program that can be managed by a third party. We’ve put best practices and tools into the process so we could assess who has the highest baseline among the BestCities partners. It is compulsory for the partners to be assessed. We will do that in February and March with internal audits, and Lloyd’s will perform the extended audits after that.”

But what is the difference between DMAI’s DMAP accreditation and BestCities’ Global Certification Program? Klint explains, “From what I know of DMAP, it’s for the whole aspect of being an organization, with all stakeholders and markets considered, while ours is tailored to service given to meeting planners and ensuring that there is consistency across the globe. You know, there’s a big difference between how a U.S.-based CVB works and how a CVB in Europe or Asia or Dubai works.” -- B.M.L.

Accreditation nation

The DMAP process has its roots outside of DMAI. The process of accrediting CVBs began in Indiana in 2004, when state officials developed the Accredited Destination Management Organization, or ADMO program, with the Purdue University-based Institute for Convention & Visitors Bureau Accreditation. ADMO was later transformed into DMAP, which is in the final stages of beta testing, with several CVBs having already achieved accreditation.

“The state of Indiana raised this issue in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” says DMAI’s Price, who helped build the accreditation program at DMAI. “They were suggesting that the industry needs standards and saying, in effect, ‘We here in Indiana are taking the lead on it.’ And they did. They came up with an extensive review process for accrediting bureaus, originally targeting the state of Indiana, and it spread to Wisconsin, Tennessee and other states. They approached us and said this program would have more credibility if it wasn’t state-based. They were right. We saw they had the pillars of a basic program, and we decided to enhance it and take it over. Now it’s internationally available, and you need not be a member of DMAI to become accredited.”

For CVBs seeking accreditation, the hurdles are high. First, there’s a fee. For members of DMAI, the costs are $1,000 for the initial application, $400 yearly for maintenance and $750 for renewal after four years. For nonmembers, the fees are roughly double.

Aside from the cash outlay, DMAP requires bureaus to show transparency and clearly explain all relevant policies and procedures to prove they measure up to the program’s standards of organization and provision of service. Standards were created to ensure a core competence in governance, finance, management, human resources, technology, visitors’ services, sales, communications, membership, branding, destination development and other areas.

“When I got involved in it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope I can get it done in time,’?” says bureau director Pena. “It made us kind of stop and go back and not just do status quo. That was good for me. Some of it seems like basic stuff, and you say, ‘We do that!’ But are your ducks in a row so that at any given time you could produce solid info about what you do?”

“We were pleasantly surprised that we were already meeting the mandatory standards,” says Judy Widlowski, vice president of finance and administration with Visit Milwaukee. “We put an internal team together to collect the information along with collateral materials and prepared it for DMAI. It was a time-consuming process, but as we thought we were achieving excellence, this was confirmation of that.”

Even if a bureau passes muster with DMAP’s mandatory standards, the voluntary standards included in the program give these organizations goals to achieve and a road map to betterment.

“The voluntary measures are something for us to shoot for to improve ourselves,” says Visit Milwaukee’s Doug Neilson. “Besides, as time rolls on, some of these voluntary measurements are going to become mandatory.”

As DMOs will need to go through the accreditation process every four years to maintain their DMAP status, many see the value in making progress on voluntary standards ahead of time.

Are planners affected?

While a CVB’s organizational structure or auditing policy does not immediately effect a meeting planner, a bureau’s overall standard of performance does. Destination marketers provide a range of crucial services to meeting and trade show planners. In general, they pave the way for an effective event and take stress off the planning process.

For instance, CVB sales or meeting staff ordinarily can assist in locating event or meeting space, securing hotel guest room blocks and setting up site inspections. Additionally, CVBs serve as links between planners who might require a range of services, such as ground transportation, catering, entertainment and off-site event help, and qualified local suppliers of such services. Also important, a CVB usually markets the destination to potential attendees. DMAP guidelines ensure that approved bureaus are providing certain of these services.

“We have heard from planners that one of the frustrations with bureaus is the lack of consistent service offerings around the world,” says DMAI’s Doug Price. “As a meeting planner, you absolutely should have confidence in working with accredited DMOs anywhere.”

Another pet peeve is sales calls. “One of the biggest areas of feedback we hear from planners is the desire to not get inundated with publicity and unnecessary contacts from vendors in a destination,” explains Price. “We make sure there is an opt-out clause in the contract, so that if a planner doesn’t want to hear from anyone but the CVB, they won’t.”

Marketing excellence

While accredited bureaus are proud of their DMAP status, few are actively hyping it -- at least not yet.

“We have the plaque hanging in the lobby, and we did the press release when we were accredited,” says Bloomington’s Pena. “We have not used it from a marketing standpoint yet. From our end, it was a matter of making sure our mayor, our city council and other stakeholders all felt like, ‘We have a good bureau here, and we don’t have to be concerned about them doing something wacky.’ But as more CVBs become accredited, meeting planners will begin to look for that as a sign such bureaus are more driven to excellence.”

In all, six destination marketing organizations achieved accreditation through the Destination Marketing Association in 2006: the Alexandria (Va.) Convention and Visitors Bureau; Boise (Idaho) Convention and Visitors Bureau; Greater Louisville (Ky.) Convention and Visitors Bureau; Visit Milwaukee; Greater Naples, Marco Island & The Everglades (Fla.) Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Tourisme Montreal.

Another group of nine destination marketing groups based in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Wisconsin rank as the true pioneers of DMO accreditation, having been accredited under the original ADMO program developed in Indiana prior to 2006, and are considered to have DMAP-approved status.

Soon, these organizations and many more might be using DMAP to sell themselves and their services, as the DMAP seal of approval gradually adorns more industry websites and promotional materials. “I’m looking forward to this as one of those things that adds credibility to us if a meeting planner of an association is looking at us,” says Jack Moneypenny, Visit Milwaukee’s vice president of sales. “We live in the days of suffix initials like CAE, CMP and CDME, and when they’re in there it adds a little comfort zone. In years to come, it is something that will hit people like, ‘If a bureau isn’t accredited, why aren’t they?’ There are still just a few bureaus that are part of this. Once 200 bureaus are a part of this, it will be big in the industry.”

That time may not be far off as DMAI ramps up its efforts. As it moves from the beta test phase into regular implementation of the DMAP program this year, the association plans to accept applications three times per year, with as many as 25 applicants per review cycle. According to DMAI’s Price, “As of today, for first review class, we have 18 bureaus who have expressed intent to participate. For 2007, we’re up to a total of 28.”