For many meeting planners, the first call they make during the planning process is to a convention and visitors bureau (CVB). “They’re able to arrange initial contact with everything from lodging to catering to transportation to ground needs, entertainment, everything,” says Mike Davidson, senior manager of corporate events for T-Mobile. Not only can they send out RFPs, they also can arrange site visits. Some CVBs even cover the cost of meeting planners’ flights to and from the destination.
This relationship is particularly important for novice planners. Jacinta LeDonne, state programs coordinator for the American Egg Board, remembers the first event she planned on her own. Part of a two-person planning team, she found herself shouldering the full load of an impending event in Alexandria, Va., after her co-worker abruptly left the company.
“I relied heavily on the CVB because I hadn’t been there and didn’t do the site visit,” LeDonne says. “I gave [my sales manager] my budget and what I was looking for and told her what kind of people I was bringing.” Knowing the age range of attendees, the sales manager was able to suggest appropriate activities to LeDonne and discourage ones that would have isolated older attendees. “I think the most important thing I learned from her was that you have to take the whole age range of attendees into [account] when you’re deciding what kind of activities you’re going to do,” LeDonne says. “That’s something I had not thought of.”
Joyce J. Ginsburg, an independent meeting planner/special events consultant, says CVBs give less-experienced planners access to important advice and information that definitely saves time and might save the company money. “Newer meeting planners should turn to the CVB because it eliminates them having to do [a lot of] research,” Ginsburg says, pointing out that CVBs often offer candid advice about vendors. Without their help, she warns, “if [the planner] gets someone on the phone who’s a good salesman, she’s going to be ‘buying the store’ because she doesn’t understand that she could have gotten a better rate.”
Professional meeting planners also see the value of partnering with CVBs. “If I don’t know the lay of the land or the idiosyncrasies of the market, that makes my job more difficult,” Davidson explains. “A strong bureau can galvanize all of those resources and give me a jump start on everything I want to accomplish.”
Dominic Phillips, president of Dominic Phillips Event Marketing in San Francisco, says he’s found CVBs to be an important source of local knowledge, especially when it comes to knowing the history of a venue and the events that have been held there.
“[That’s] very important, because you can find the perfect location for your group, but if the last people who went in there were competitors or represent an anti-brand of yours, it can do considerable damage,” Phillips explains. “For example, if you were with Ford and are trying to push the American-ness of your car and you [hold] a conference in the same space Toyota [used last month], people will say, ‘Oh they’re just chasing Toyota; they’re copying Toyota,’ instead of making their own associations with your brand. Or, if the press was reporting on a venue being non-green and you, as a sustainable group, meet there right after, people will wonder why you are supporting a center that’s not sustainable. It makes it look like you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have the proper leadership.”
A CVB’s knowledge may help planners avoid booking during times that would put their event at a disadvantage. Once a CVB knows the parameters and needs of a planner’s group, Ginsburg says, they can warn them if there’s a competing group meeting in town around the same time or if there are other circumstances that might warrant choosing other dates.
CVBs also can help planners avoid attrition fees. LeDonne says, “CVBs can be very helpful in telling you if you need to start low and … what hotels will be more willing to give you a bigger chunk of attrition.”
Marguerite Leishman, meetings manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education, says every time she’s faced attrition woes, CVBs have been instrumental in helping her find solutions. In one case, they suggested she bring a future event to the same hotel to offset attrition charges. “[The CVB] was very good about helping us negotiate that deal with the hotel,” Leishman says. They also helped smooth the waters, explaining to the hotel that Leishman’s group was a good, repeat customer.
Another way CVBs help planners avoid attrition is by offering proactive marketing support to help boost attendance. “They are a great source for promotional materials,” Leishman says. “They have videos, CDs or DVDs to promote the city. [Many] will put together special flyers or e-blasts and other digital ways to reach more people.” In addition to advertising the city’s attractions, Leishman says CVBs also have helped her identify potential local audiences and trade show exhibitors. With corporate travel budgets being slashed, “some exhibitors may only exhibit with us because of the city that we’re in,” Leishman explains.
LeDonne doesn’t hold events that are open to the public, but she uses promotional items from CVBs to market destinations to her own group. “They send me publications on the area and … brochures on [group activities] so attendees can start looking at what we’re going to be doing when we’re out here.”
Services CVBs offer planners range from providing temporary event staff, serving as a housing bureau and finding speakers to setting up event Web sites, arranging transportation and making reservations for VIP dinners. “Having that person [at the CVB] helping me make all these arrangements before I go out there helps me know that I have someone I can count on during the event,” LeDonne says. Leishman adds, “It’s wonderful to know that you can call them, and they’ll take it off your to-do list.”
Now that planners have such a wealth of Web-based venue and supplier data available online, Ginsburg and Phillips wonder if tech-savvy meeting planners will begin to bypass CVBs. But Leishman points out that CVBs offer far more than just information.
“They will do almost anything you ask,” Leishman says. “And if they don’t have the staff to do it, they will find someone who can. They’re really great at troubleshooting for you. … CVBs are there to help you partner as best you can with the city you’re coming to, and more planners should take advantage of them and use the talents that are there.” And, she points out, much of the assistance they offer is free.