It seems that convention and visitors bureaus get a bad rap from corporate meeting managers. The gripes: CVBs are too association-focused, they take care of only citywides, they don't value corporate business, they send leads to every member hotel including many that are clearly inappropriate, their response time is slow, they have a limited scope of services, and they don't work with hotel companies' national sales offices.

It's quite a list of objections.

But a panel of CVB heavies convened at the recent Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Conference to answer all of those objections — and demonstrate to planners in attendance that CVBs not only understand the corporate market but are investing time, money, and personnel to prove it.

First up, longtime CVB executive Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. “The association market traditionally has been the CVB's niche — to fill the convention center,” she says. “And hotels and the CVB were measured by the number of room nights booked. But that has changed.” In St. Louis, she notes, “we have a dedicated corporate sales team.”

Bruce MacMillan, who recently left his position as president and CEO of Tourism Toronto/Toronto Convention and Visitors Bureau to become CEO of Meeting Professionals International, takes up the point. “CVBs used to have a volume approach. Now there is an increasing focus on yield. Our hoteliers love volume but they love yield more. Yes, we track room nights, but we also track spending by groups.”

Perception or Reality?

Some corporate planners have yet to be convinced. “I've had the experience of giving my information to a CVB and getting 100 e-mails back to me,” says one. “That'll scare you off real quick.” However, she adds, “I do think that as CVBs get more involved with planner associations such as FICP and MPI, they are beginning to do a better job at streamlining leads. I would say most of the problems are with smaller city CVBs, though there are a few large cities whose CVBs have crossed that line. I'd like to see more consistency.”

CVBs looking for a model would do well to emulate the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I started working as the dedicated sales manager handling corporate accounts seven years ago,” says the bureau's Cindy Hall. “Since then, due to the increased volume of corporate accounts, we have expanded the number of sales representatives that service the corporate market.” Hall notes that not only will she limit the number of properties who get your lead, she won't even tell them who you are. “I have a conversation with the planner and I send the lead only where the planner wants,” she says. “We do not have to send the lead to everyone in our membership. We can also keep your name and company information confidential so they don't contact you.”

Just be sure you have that conversation. There is still the perception that CVBs have one way of doing business, says Ratcliffe. So, she emphasizes, “make sure you ask the question. Make it clear that you want only four-star properties and above.”

MacMillan believes CVBs bear responsibility for asking questions too. “There has been a cultural shift,” he says. “We have to demonstrate our value. The first thing is to understand the customer.”

Training CVB staff is part of that. “Say you have a meeting with 50 rooms on the peak night,” says Christine Shimasaki, executive vice president, sales and marketing, at the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We are not training our salespeople to send that lead to everyone.”

Shimasaki also wants to hear from you. “We have a lot to learn from corporate meeting planners,” she says. “We've had a small-meetings customer advisory board since 1996. That's 62 percent of San Diego's meeting business. One-third of our staff is focused on small meetings.”

In Los Angeles, too, says Katie Callahan-Giobbi, senior vice president of sales, LA Inc., “We've created a special position. We now have a salesperson dedicated to small meetings — 35 or fewer rooms on the peak night.” The position was created in particular to handle demand for “very short-term corporate meetings,” she notes. (Callahan-Giobbi will move on to the position of executive vice president of the MPI Foundation in mid-March.)

On-Time, Online

Shimasaki answered planners' concerns about response time: “Our advisory board members told us they get no response from the hotels. It's like a black hole. Our salespeople said once they send the lead to the hotel, they don't know where it goes.” To smooth the communication, the San Diego CVB has invested in technology to make the process Web based. Leads get sent to hotels, which then post responses at a password-protected Web site. The planner uses a password to view the responses. “Now we can track what the hotels are doing, who's fast and who's slow,” she notes.

And Callahan-Giobbi points out, “CVBs don't have the luxury of looking at real-time availability the way NSOs do, but we can give you independent properties that you might have overlooked.”

Speaking of NSOs, Ratcliffe says that historically bureaus and national sales offices haven't partnered enough. “The dirty little secret is who gets the credit,” she says. However, she adds, “there is absolutely no reason why the NSO and CVB reps should not both get credit for booking the business. The roles complement one another and together they can book more business into hotels and cities that they can partner on. We are spending some time working with NSOs to help educate them on our city and how we can partner with them.”

What Else Do You Do?

Meeting planners in the insurance and financial services industry are experienced. They know that CVBs have collateral materials for conference promotion, will help with site inspections, and can provide information for attendees planning pre- and post-meeting activities.

But consider these other ways the CVB can be in your corner:

  1. Need to organize a press conference? The CVB knows the local media.

  2. Need a speaker? The CVB can look to the community for meeting content.

  3. Need to stretch your budget? How about a nontraditional sponsorship opportunity? The CVB can connect you with local businesses that might want some visibility at your event.

  4. Need a limo to pick up your CEO on the tarmac at the airport? The CVB has the contacts you need.

  5. What if a presidential motorcade is planned through your meeting city at the same time you want to transport hundreds of attendees to a reception? OK, it might not happen to you, but when it happened in St. Louis, Ratcliffe and the CVB were able to get the inside scoop on the super-secret route and plan conference transportation to avoid expected street blockages.

“Think of the things you want to do that are nontraditional and ask the questions,” says Ratcliffe. “Our role is to say yes.”

Shimasaki sums it up: “Build a relationship with CVBs. You never know when you might need them.”