The Investors Group kicked off three conventions for its top salespeople last August in Calgary the way you'd expect they should: with a genuine cowboy welcome. At the start of the meetings, the company's top qualifiers and their guests joined in a "White Hatter" ceremony. A Calgary tradition for more than 30 years, the ceremony is a fun way to make visitors feel at home in the city. Attendees are given white cowboy hats and told to raise their right arms and repeat the following: "I, (speaker inserts his or her name), havin' visited the only genuine Western city in Canada, namely Calgary, and havin' been duly treated to exceptional amounts of heart-warmin', hand-shakin', tongue-loosenin', back-slappin', neighbor-lovin' Western spirit, do solemnly promise to spread this here brand of hospitality to all folks and critters who cross my trail hereafter. On the count of three, we will all raise our hats and give a loud 'Yahoo!'"
"It was a great big sea of white hats, a lot of huge smiles, and laughter," recalls Terri Okurley, corporate meeting planner with The Investors Group, a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based financial services company.
The ceremony's roots trace back about 50 years to the white cowboy hat's adoption as the symbol of the hospitality of the city, which represents Canada's western frontier. At first, the hat was presented very formally to special guests as a free gift. As its popularity increased, the CVB was asked to take over the role of ambassador. The bureau could not afford to give away the hats, so it began charging fees, which now range from $20 (Canadian) for a straw hat to $70 for "prestige" felt. (Discounts are available for groups of more than six people.)
The bestowing of the white hats became more fun than formal in the 1960s when the "White Hatter" ceremony was created. The ceremony has since been performed thousands of times--nearly 350 times just last year.
Al Bailey, manager of special projects and merchandise at the Calgary Convention and Visitors Bureau, says The Investors Group ceremonies, which included about 5,900 people, were the largest he has led in his 19 years at the CVB.
Okurley says the ceremony was a big hit among the conference attendees and company executives, because it unified the groups and supported the conferences' theme: that The Investors Group is a "one-of-a-kind" company. "The ceremony was short and simple, and got people excited about things to come," she says.
Saved from the Storm By the Mobile CVB The timing couldn't have been worse: Just a week before more than 600 people from Japan and the Southeast were due to arrive in Mobile, Ala. for the Southeast U.S.-Japan conference, Hurricane Georges struck. The street outside the convention center in which the delegates were to meet from October 3 to 5 raged like a river behind television correspondents reporting on the storm.
Instead of canceling the conference, sponsors Alabama Power and the State of Alabama worked with the Mobile Convention and Visitors Corporation to pull off the conference as best they could. The city spent a week frantically cleaning up from the hurricane to prepare for the conference and a downtown music festival that was expected to draw 200,000 people.
The headquarters hotel, the Adam's Mark, was so badly damaged that only about 75 rooms were available. Some American delegates stayed there and coped with periodic losses of electricity, but the 120 Japanese visitors and others from seven Southeastern states were moved by the convention bureau to a new headquarters, the Admiral Sims, and two other hotels.
"It was hectic," says Jim Riedler, who coordinated the 23rd annual conference for the state of Alabama. "It was a real team effort."
By the time the delegates arrived, everything seemed to be back on track. Accommodations were set, and crews were putting the final touches on a huge air-conditioned tent in which the group would be treated to an elegant dinner. Fifteen chefs and 100 maitre d's had been flown in from New York for the event.
But the morning of that welcoming dinner, Mother Nature once again wreaked havoc with the conference, this time by pounding the city with torrential rains. The already saturated ground could not absorb the falling rain, and by noon the floor of the soaked tent began to float. As Brenda J. Scott, CEO and president of the Mobile Convention and Visitors Corporation, puts it: "We probably gave a whole new meaning to Murphy's Law."
Scott knew they would have to move the entire production to the only available dry space left: the convention center's exhibit hall. She had her doubts about the last-minute location. Crews had worked on the tent for days, and she wondered, "How do you take that kind of ambience and re-create it in hours?"
But by that night, the exhibit space had been miraculously transformed into a banquet hall complete with chandeliers. "It was glorious," she says. "It was seamless when the delegates got there." Formal lunches and breakfasts also were relocated from the Adams' Mark to the conference center.
Scott notes that her bureau's thorough preparation for the conference enabled the staff to act quickly in the crisis. The Mobile bureau had begun planning for the conference 10 months earlier and had also trained its 23 employees and the staffs of the hotels in which the Japanese visitors would be staying.
"Sometimes we think it's our job to book a piece of business, and then we're out of it," Scott says. "I think when you're a second-tier city, you work harder."
Treated Like Royalty by the Milwaukee CVB When Rockwell Automation, maker of industrial controls, relays and automation products, organized a conference this April at its headquarters, attendees got a welcome unlike any they had ever experienced: 700 (that's right, 700) volunteers greeting them at the airport.
The Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau recruited the volunteers--who hail from all walks of Milwaukee life-- to welcome the 350 Rockwell distributors and systems integrators and 200 Rockwel employees, give them directions to the company's programs, and in general make them feel like royalty.
The CVB also hung welcome banners around the convention center, placed signs in windows of area businesses, and distributed ribbons with the conference logo among stores and restaurants throughout the city so attendees would feel special everywhere they went.
"It was a nice touch," says Bill Severson, manager of meetings and special events at Rockwell Automation. "Attendees felt they were being recognized not just by us, but by the city." The move also gave attendees the impression that the Milwaukee CVB places a high value on the company.
Which it does. Greater Milwaukee CVB Director of Convention Services and Housing Kathryn Gleesing, CMP, says Rockwell Automation is very important to the city. The company frequently holds meetings there, using the convention center twice since it opened in July 1998. And its parent company, Rockwell Corporation, is in the midst of moving its headquarters to Milwaukee.
But you don't have to be a hometown company to get the red carpet treatment. The CVB calls out itscorps for every large meeting that takes over the mid-sized Wisconsin city. Those big meetings now number about 20 a year and are expected to double with the new convention center.
Gleesing says the CVB started out with 36 volunteers for an event six years ago. Today, over 700 citizens and business people have logged more than 15,000 hours assisting meeting attendees. The volunteers range from kids to retirees, and they tell Gleesing they enjoy helping out because it's fun to meet local business and political leaders.
"They are wonderful, always smiling," she says of the volunteers. "They're up at the crack of dawn. They are out in the rain. It's really taken us to another level of service."
Full of Ideas at the Akron CVB For the past 15 years, 5,000 staff and guests of NEC America Inc. have descended each August upon Akron, Ohio, for a pro golfthat NEC sponsors. And each time, the Akron/Summit Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc. is ready for them.
CVB Vice President Gregg Mervis says he and three members of his staff begin gearing up for the week-long event up to eight months before it takes place at the Firestone Country Club in Akron.
The first night of the event features a theme party for 500 NEC VIPs. Event planner Nancy Rasmussen, NEC America director of corporate public relations, prides herself on coming up with a unique and memorable party each year. Mervis says the CVB staffers brainstorm ideas for the party to help out Rasmussen and then go with her to visit sites. "We know each year the challenge is to surpass the year before," he says.
NEC has held parties at the Inventor's Hall of Fame and the Hale Farm and Village, a turn-of-the-century working farm. Last year, Akron's mayor helped Rasmussen reserve Canal Park, home of the Akron Aeros, a double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. At the party, dubbed the "NEC Field of Dreams," guests got to play on the professional ballpark and meet the mayor.
After 15 years sponsoring an annual golf event in Akron, Rasmussen says the company is very familiar with the city and needs less help finding sites, but it still depends on the CVB's enthusiastic volunteers to keep the tournament running smoothly.
A week before the event, more than 20 volunteers show up at tournament offices located in the six to eight hotels that NEC books for its guests. The volunteers open boxes of tournament materials, wrap gifts, answer phones, and do anything else that's needed. "We can't bring enough support staff," Rasmussen says. "We've come to rely on them."
During the four-day professional tournament, the volunteers continue to assist NEC with organization and guest services, and more than 500 citizens in local service organizations work at the event.
Rasmussen says volunteers return year after year because they have a lot of fun working at the event. "It's like having an annual reunion with family you don't see all year."
Out on the Town With the Cancun CVB Officially, Alejandro Compean is the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau's manager for conventions and incentives. Unofficially, he's the island's tour guide for television and film crews.
Compean has worked with E! Entertainment Television, the Discovery Channel, and others that come to film on the beautiful tropical island. "For some reason, I always end up with the TV people," he says "I did a good job in the beginning, and I was stuck with it."
However, Compean says he doesn't mind a change of pace from meetings and incentives, and film crews appreciate his knowledge of the island and the mechanics of TV production.
Last November, he was called upon once again when Beyond Productions of Australia came to Cancun to film a piece for a one-hour special on the world's 10 best beaches, which aired in March on the Travel Channel.
Operating with a tight budget, associate producer Sonia Harding had to seek out the assistance of CVBs around the world to set up the shoots, which focused on beaches, accommodations, attractions, food, and nightlife . "As there was no budget to take me to Cancun, I needed a person with good local knowledge to advise me," she says.
Harding says she struck gold when she found Compean. During the two months before the Beyond Productions crew made their trip, Compean wrote e-mails and called Harding to arrange the trip and educate her about Cancun. "They were very curious about more than just the beaches. They wanted to know about the culture," Compean says.
Once the crew arrived, Compean spent four days and nights showing them the island hot spots and acting as a translator. Drawing upon his experience with filmmakers, he advised the crew on the best days and times to film each attraction.
"I have to say that Alejandro was outstanding," Harding says. "It gave me great peace of mind to know my crew was in good hands."