By Michael Humphrey
For some planners, the first step toward a successful meeting or event is the convention and visitors bureau (CVB). And why not? If you’re heading into a new town, or trying to figure out which venue fits best, planners know the local CVB is going to have a treasure trove of information and connections to get them started.
But for new planners, sometimes the idea of contacting the CVB can be less than appealing. Usually that’s due to five misconceptions about the organizations:
1) They might charge for their services;
2) They are salespeople for their city or region and they’ll never leave you alone once you call;
3) They’ll shoehorn you into a venue that just doesn’t work, because they want to get your business no matter what;
4) They’ll talk over your head, because they’re used to dealing with well-seasoned planners;
5) They might not care about your group if it’s too small.
Every CVB is different, but these notions are false across the board. And for planners who don’t use their available bureaus, resources that can’t really be found anywhere else are slipping past.
“The CVB is the planner’s secret weapon,” says Vienna Bowling, director of meeting and convention sales for the Branson Lakes Area CVB. “We’re local experts. We’re going to know the ins and outs of what’s what, and most importantly what’s available for meetings and other occasions.”
Most of us have come across a CVB on vacation at some point, whether it’s in the office picking up brochures or getting some friendly advice at an outpost. It may have never crossed your mind how they sustain themselves.
Not all CVBs are alike. In fact, they’re not all CVBs. There are Tourism Councils, Tourism Departments, CVAs (Associations) and Welcome Centers, and sometimes Chambers of Commerce serve in the role of CVBs.
But you know you’re dealing with the right people if the group’s goal is, as Destination Marketing Association International puts it: “representing a specific destination and helping the long-term development of communities through a travel and tourism strategy.”
So, yes, they want your business. But unlike most sales organizations, the benefit for any specific sale is secondary to the overall perception of the area. Getting a meeting into a town one time is not the goal.
“We’re not going to play games with the planner,” says Sarah Vickery, director of sales and marketing for the Cape Girardeau CVB. “Usually when someone calls, we’re going to be able to help them find the right place here. If we can’t, we’ll refer them to another area that can accommodate them. That’s rare, but it’s better to refer them than to give them a bad experience because they might have a meeting down the road where the fit is obvious.”
Making the planner happy is the long-term goal. That’s because most CVBs are either funded through a hotel tax or a membership fee, and for both scenarios, sustainable success is the key. That means return customers are a premium.
“We want meetings that come for 10 or 15 years, not one year,” says Lorah Steiner, executive director for the Columbia CVB (see profile on page 36). “You don’t gain that kind of loyalty without providing excellent service.”
What CVBs Offer
Just as each CVB is unique in its structure, services will vary from bureau to bureau. But most will offer these basic services (some are based on group size):
• Disseminate requests for proposal (RFPs) to area hotels, meeting venues and transportation services. Many bureaus’ Web sites have a template for RFPs or are willing to help create one.
• Help cut through red tape and get to the right people.
• Organize a site visit for the planner. This service usually provides the connections you need to meet the right people or a guided tour of the community by CVB personnel, as available.
• Provide literature on a variety of meeting venues, hotel choices and attractions.
• Give advice on timing of your event. CVBs have thorough calendars of what’s planned in their areas and can guide you toward dates that will work for your group.
• Provide contact information for local services such as printing, catering, rentals, etc.
• Organize volunteers or employees to register meeting attendees or provide information on local attractions, based on the size of the group.
• Send out press releases about your meeting to local media (and beyond when appropriate).
• Arrange for visits from local dignitaries, based on group size and when needed.
The Five Concerns
So let’s get back to the five misconceptions about CVBs.
1) They might charge for their services.
According to Vickery, “basic services for our CVB are completely free. I have never heard of a CVB around here that charges for basic services, although I can’t say that definitively. I can say we don’t and most of the CVBs don’t.”
There may be costs for more complex services, but the list above generally is offered without charge.
2) They’ll try to sell you forever once you contact them.
“When I go out to buy something, I make it clear to the salesperson if I want to hear from them again,” says Steiner. “Of course we’re going to follow up on requests, but not to the point where we alienate potential visitors.”
3) They’ll shoehorn you into the wrong venue.
“We work for the client,” says Bowling. “We want to build credibility and you don’t do that by overselling your city. Now, I can get pretty creative in finding space that will work for most clients. But the main point is to serve the planner’s needs.”
4) They’ll talk over your head.
“I usually deal with people who are not professional planners,” says Vickery. “Not only do we know how to communicate with people who maybe have never planned an event, we can help them ask the right questions based on our experience.”
5) They won’t care about you if your group is too small.
“We can always help a person, even if it’s with just basic information and contacts,” says Bowling. “It’s no secret that we’re trying to keep the hotels busy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to help smaller groups, because they are important.”
What You Need to Know
The truth is, says Vickery, you don’t really need to know that much to call a CVB and get started planning a meeting. But here are some tips to help you have a good CVB experience.
• Be flexible.
“Probably the most common problem we see is a client who is a little too rigid,” Bowling says. “If you can be just a little flexible on dates and space, then you’ll probably get the event you want affordably.”
• Picture the outcome.
CVB leaders suggest that you have an idea of your desired outcome of the party. What should get accomplished, who should be the most pleased, what defines success?
“If you have some ideas of what you need and who is going to be there, we can go from there,” Bowling says.
• Don’t inflate your numbers.
“It might be tempting to promise more hotel room nights, with the expectation that you’ll get better service,” says Steiner. “But the truth is we can provide the best experience with the best information. Over-promising attendance generally does not make for a better experience.”
• It can’t hurt to ask…
“(Planners) should know that everyone who works in the CVB will bend over backward for their customer,” Vickery says. “We’re not creating a meeting, we help create an experience.”
• …but don’t expect everything for nothing.
While CVB services are usually free, don’t expect outrageously low prices from the service providers themselves. For instance, don’t expect great room rates during peak seasons, or champagne at beer prices, or the grand ballroom for the price of the community center.
“(Planners) can negotiate, but there’s a limit,” Bowling says. “It’s a better experience when planners are realistic.”
• Visit, if at all possible.
CVBs are experts at giving good tours, both of their towns and prospective venues. They can’t always make a tour happen themselves, but they can certainly help get one started. Be sure to ask.
• CVBs don’t negotiate for you.
“We put the RFP out there and then the negotiations happen between the venue and the client,” says Steiner. “We can help make the connections and that’s going to save a lot of time.” MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)