No Way! Are convention and visitor bureaus dinosaurs? Are they at risk of disappearing into history as other species evolve and become dominant? After all, a number of new online companies are offering planners services that traditionally were the province of the CVBs.

PlanSoft and EventSource, for example, offer online site selection and electronic RFPs, sometimes with the added feature of hotel rate auctions or budgeting tools. Sites like Travelocity's offer complete travel booking tools for the leisure traveler. Passkey.com, b-there.com, and wyntrac.com all offer real-time group housing reservations; they may also offer event registration and airline and car rental reservations. These are the most visible companies, but hardly the only ones, and the list seems to grow daily.

Do planners still need CVBs, which in the past have prided themselves on providing personal service and being the only one-stop shop for site selection, if those planners can now get those same types of services from a Web site?

There's no question that dot-com companies are shaking up the entire meeting industry. They're absolutely chipping away at CVBs' turf. And that's been a wake-up call for CVBs. But servicing the meeting planner, the CVBs' raison d'etre, is still very much in the mix.

"They're making us acutely aware that we have to be more competitive, more aggressive, and more responsive to our customers, and that we must brand our bureaus," says William Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Are these companies a threat? No. Are they competition? Yes. Is there anything wrong with competition? No. Are we going to fight it? Yes."

Even as the new dot-coms compete with the bureaus, however, they're funneling business to them, giving them more opportunities to offer planners services that can't be found online - yet. As an executive at one of the online housing companies quipped, "We still haven't found a way to provide nightly turndown service from the Web."

Role Usurped? If CVBs build on their strengths and fight the competition effectively, if they shape up their offerings and sharpen their marketing strategies, they'll survive. In fact, many CVBs already are upgrading their Web sites to make them more competitive, and some are even forming alliances with the new companies. But, most important, bureaus have decided to cooperate in the new Internet world with those they really consider their biggest competitors: each other.

The most dramatic alliance is OfficialTravelInfo.com, or OTI, recently announced by the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus itself. Its site links to nearly 1,000 CVB Web sites worldwide. "People will go to an Internet source, and we want to drive them to the official entity," says Brenda Scott, president and CEO of the Mobile (Ala.) Convention & Visitors Corp. But the site not only links CVBs, it partners with eight dot-coms - including some that might have been considered competitors.

Some CVBs admittedly were blindsided by the industry upheavals. "The emergence of technology has fundamentally changed the way everybody does business, but a lot of CVBs didn't see it coming," says William Hanbury, president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau. (At press time, Hanbury announced that he will leave the Milwaukee bureau on December 31 to become the full-time CEO of OTI.) Consequently, "There was some fear that bureaus would be taken out of the loop. And in some respects, bureaus are being `disintermediated.'" That is, their role as the intermediary between planner and supplier is being usurped.

That's especially true of the CVBs' role as information providers, says Leslie Hogan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The distribution of travel information definitely is being taken away from the CVBs' domain," she warns. Information is available from many other sources, both online and off line.

But Internet companies are actually helping in some ways, says Marla Wills, executive vice president of the Arlington (Texas) Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You could look at those companies as competition, but they might have potential for added exposure for the city." Companies backed by deep-pocketed venture capitalists can afford to advertise more extensively than a nonprofit CVB, she points out. "If your city is accessible through a site like PlanSoft, it has national exposure. If those sites drive business to your city, and it doesn't cost you a dime, where are you losing?"

A similar opinion is voiced by Bob Imperata, executive vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some third-party vendors are having "a positive impact," he explains, "The Net, e-mail, and e-commerce are generating many more questions and inquiries to each bureau. Some bureaus can't handle all the inquiries. So the technology is a driving force for the bureau to increase its staff." Hardly sounds like a dying breed.

Wills acknowledges, however, that CVB salespeople might be hurt if they can't meet their goals because other sources bring in the business.

The People Behind the Site There will be an inevitable shakeout in the online world, but that doesn't mean CVBs can be complacent. The survivors will be even stronger.

What are CVBs doing about it? Hitting harder on the things they do best. Top on the list is offering reality - not virtual reality. "It's been predicted that one day you'll be able to put on special glasses and see any place in the world that you want to visit," says Scott. "But you're still just looking; you're not experiencing. Planners have to get the flavor, really explore the destination, and they can't do that online. The bureau offers them the opportunity to get the experience. We're not shaking in our shoes that online companies will replace us," she says emphatically, adding, "Sometimes what you see online isn't what you get."

CVB execs also are confident that they have the edge when it comes to service. "The dot-com server can't call anyone and make anything happen," says Peeper.

Says Richard Scharf, senior vice president, sales, for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, "We must take on the responsibility of helping meeting planners achieve their goals, and you can't do that on a computer." When the American Water Works Association met in Denver in June, there were 14,000 attendees, and nearly 6,000 hotel rooms were booked on peak night. "Our convention services department wanted to be sure the community understood the magnitude of that meeting," says Scharf. So the CVB organized a pre-con meeting at which the association's meeting planner presented a profile of the group and the objectives of its meeting to hotel representatives, taxi drivers, and other members of the hospitality community. The planner later told Scharf that the pre-con played a major part in the success of her meeting.

Officialdom Counts And even though CVBs are no longer the sole information source, CVB executives insist that the scope and quality of their information is superior. In fact, the dot-coms themselves sometimes turn to CVBs for information. "In some instances, those companies were coming to us," says Imperata. "PlanSoft, for example, didn't have every facility in its program. They had to go to another source for complete answers and realized that the bureau was the most all-encompassing entity."

Hanbury adds, "I'd hope that bureaus would provide that information. Although there was a great fear of these sites, I believe bureaus have to open their arms so they won't be disintermediated." So, if you don't want 'em to beat you, you'd better join 'em.

The bureaus are joining the new companies, and each other, in OTI. "IACVB is taking the lead and getting bureaus to work on a common platform for information distribution," says Boston's Hogan. "There was a need - a huge opening in the marketplace - and that's why all these other companies sprang up. But unless someone unifies us, we can't compete." Even unity isn't enough, she says. "We need to partner with the tech companies, as everyone in the world needs to."

There's enormous value in the OTI partnerships, says Hanbury. "IACVB's founding partner relationships will make us one of the most visited sites in the world."

OTI can also help CVBs reclaim their role as information providers. "We have been the keepers of the information - who knows it better than we do?" says Scott.

The Boston CVB was a pioneer in forging alliances and adopting online technology. It led the way for the 1997 launch of Meetingpath.com, a regional Web site that now has 21 CVBs in the six New England states as members, and a database of 4,000 suppliers that planners can target with electronic RFPs. The number of RFPs planners send per month averages about 30. The site is funded by sales of upgraded listings purchased by suppliers.

When Alliances Make Sense A number of CVBs, especially those that handle group housing, are considering alliances with dot-coms. "We're re-evaluating our housing provider and are looking for online capability," says Dan Herbers, senior vice president, sales, for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We see that as the wave of the future. If we're not part of it, we won't be able to offer the best possible service. I don't see those companies as a threat," he says.

Nearly three dozen cities have partnered with online housing company Passkey, and it's a founding partner of OTI.

Scott voices some concerns, however. Mobile is in fact looking for an online housing company. "How do you sift through all these services and decide how to integrate?" she asks. Because there are still so many questions, she says, IACVB was "adamant - we're not giving exclusivity to anyone as a partner for OTI. Our bylaws state that. These are uncharted waters."

Big Changes for Planners Whether partnering or not, however, CVBs across the country are redoing their Web sites to bring them up to speed. When the Arlington CVB's new site is unveiled, "It will have a portal look," says Wills. "The online companies are driving that," she says. "We look at what they're doing well; we can do it too."

The Greater Pittsburgh Web site is undergoing big changes, offering streaming video, 360-degree virtual tours, and online hotel reservations and ticket purchases. But it could be two years before the meeting planner site is launched, which says a lot about the CVB/planner relationship: "The group business we've been able to secure has been very solid, so there's less urgency to put up that site," Imperata says. "In focus groups, planners tell us that online is fine, but it still comes down to the personal relationships."

Milwaukee is investing $100,000 this year to rebuild its Web site (www.officialmilwaukee.com), says Hanbury. The site now has a search capability that will enable a planner to search a hotel database with exact specs; and it offers online housing reservations. The new site also "allows the bureau to generate one-to-one marketing initiatives," says Hanbury. "We have eight or ten thousand names in our meeting planning/association database. We can load those names into the system and aggregate the data any way we want. Those are valuable Internet-based marketing strategies that we didn't have before."

By year-end, the supplier database on Orlando's site will be so comprehensive that "a planner who wants a florist, a photographer, or whatever will be able to tap into the databaseand then drill down for information on a specific company," says Peeper. "That's much like what some of the big guys are trying to do at the national level. The difference is that they're looking to generate tons of money because they've spent tons. Our goal is to provide a service - we're not driven by the profit motive.

"We'll get to officialdom before anyone else does," Peeper says emphatically. "Hey - we live here!"

When Bill Peeper used the online adult entertainment industry as a perfect example of how CVBs can thrive in the Brave New World of the Internet, he got the attention of the CVB execs assembled at the annual meeting of the IACVB last July. He said that it was one of the few industries that has made money on the Web because head-on competitors cooperated in ways they had never before imagined.

Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County CVB, along with William Hanbury, president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee CVB, rolled out an ambitious new Web initiative called OfficialTravelInfo.com, or OTI, at the Minneapolis meeting. Its new Web site (www.officialtravelinfo.com) will serve as an electronic front door linking 1,000 destinations' Web sites, allowing CVBs to stake their claim as the "official, trusted, and reliable" source of destination information to tourists and professional planners alike. It's an attempt to compete with the for-profit dot-coms, like Travelocity, says Hanbury, which have already firmly established an e-commerce platform.

Collective Wisdom Peeper quoted from an article in Upside magazine that says the adult entertainment industry has been successful online because its members cooperate and profit (they actually send customers to each other's sites), manage the traffic, attack the search engines, and ensure repeat business by keeping content fresh. "So stop looking at each other as competition," Peeper said.

The stakes are big in the online travel industry. IACVB is working to harness the power of 500 million visitors and 11 billion annual hits to individual CVB Web sites. Peeper estimated that CVBs now send out 100 million pieces of consumer literature a year and collectively spend $550 million marketing their destinations. Each IACVB member was asked to carry the OTI logo on its consumer travel literature and the OTI link on its Web site.

Hanbury, who has been named the CEO of OTI, explained that the OTI site will eventually have an e-commerce platform, generating revenues from consumers and meeting planners, in which IACVB members would share.

IACVB has identified eight founding technology partners for OTI, which has been created as a corporate subsidiary. Those founding partners will license online software to member bureaus at a much lower cost than if each were to buy it individually. For instance, said Hanbury, "Passkey on the OTI site could be perfect for a smaller city, which doesn't want to pay for the Passkey license if it will use it only once a year."

StarCite is the lead partner on the meetings and conventions side, and will provide lead generation and a database of hotels. Cvent.com will provide event planning and marketing tools to planners. And Passkey.com will provide the standard for housing, both group and individual.

Phase two, launching in early 2001, will include e-news, either as multimedia newsletters or magazines, customized to users' destination needs; and a reverse newsletter that will alert CVBs and cities to industry news and leads. That audience management system will be powered by MEIsoft.com. Other founding tech partners are Naviant. com, AcrossMedia.com; iPIX.com, and OneVoice, which will add voice to Web sites.