Are you meeting in a city you've never used before? Need information--fast? We've done some legwork for you by figuring out which resources work and which don't when you're exploring unfamiliar territory.

Convention & Visitors Bureaus A convention and visitors bureau is by far your best bet for general information about a city. Every major city in the United States has a CVB, and many international cities have CVBs, as well as national tourist offices located in the U.S.

What can a CVB do for you? According to a Corporate Meetings and Incentives survey published last August, readers most commonly use CVBs for printed information (such as meeting planner guides and restaurant/attraction guides); to connect with local suppliers; to solicit bids from member hotels; to arrange site inspections; and for brochure shells and other promotional materials. A CVB can also help with booking space in a convention center, on-site registration, and other meeting logistics.

Meeting planner guides from CVBs include specifics on hotel meeting space, attractions that are open for group events, and sometimes even sample agendas for incentives. However, it's important to note that a CVB meeting planner guide is a sales tool for the city and, as such, will typically not include any negative information. In addition, most of the listings in the guides are provided by the member institutions.

Most CVBs are not allowed to offer opinions as to which hotel, restaurant, DMC, or other supplier is the best for your group. That's because in most cities the mission of the CVB is twofold: provide services to its members and promote meetings, conventions, and other tourism. Because most CVBs are driven by membership, their mandate is to sell their members fairly, giving all members an equal chance.

That doesn't mean you can't get the answers you need, just that you might have to rephrase your questions. For instance, most CVBs cannot answer the question "What is the best hotel in town?" They can, however, answer a question along the lines of: "Which hotel is most commonly used by groups similar to ours?" or "Where have groups similar to ours had good experiences?"

The Internet In addition to printed materials, many CVBs now have Web sites that provide a range of information--some more than others. It's very time-consuming to try to find a CVB Web site simply by searching on an Internet browser, so call the CVB and ask for the address or check out the CVB Web Directory in Corporate Meetings & Incentives' August 1996 issue. Other links to CVB sites: the International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, www.iacvb.org; the Meeting Guide, www.mmaweb.com/meetings; or Meetings-Net, CMI's Web site, www.meetingsnet. com.

You can also search for a city on the Internet to get general city information, but chances are it will be more frustrating than informative. A recent search for "New York City" and "hotels" yielded 18,290 results. When we added "meetings" to the search, it was narrowed down to 7,823!

Most of the general travel Web sites are exactly that--too general--with the exception of the TravelWeb, www.travelweb. com, which allows you to search for hotels by inputting parameters such as the city, price range, and amenities required. The results include specific hotel and general city information, as well as meeting facilities and photos.

Guidebooks Geared to individual travelers, guidebooks such as Frommer's or Fodor's won't provide the specific details that you'll need to book hotels or decide on meeting or function sites. Still, they can be helpful for gathering general information about a city and offer one big advantage over CVB publications: Their listings come from independent reviewers. In addition, guidebooks are not constrained by membership policies that require them to list all members (or eliminate non-members).

When consulting a guidebook, make sure you carefully read its criteria for selection: Is it including all spots that fit into a category, good and bad, or just what its writers recommend? Also, check out the editorial sections (at the beginning of the book and usually preceding each section) for the truth about topics such as crime.

Although there are literally hundreds of companies publishing guidebooks, only a handful produce general guides to a number of the popular cities for meetings:

Access: Updated regularly (check copyright to see how recently); $13-$20; approximately 35 guides for major cities, states, countries; (800) 331-3761. More complicated to use than others because it groups everything (hotels, restaurants, attractions, etc.) together under geographic subheads rather than dividing by geographic region within category subheads. Less comprehensive than other guides, but does provide its own rating system.

Fodor's: Updated annually; $10-$20; 30 guides to U.S. cities, 50 foreign guides; (800) 533-6478. Listings for recommended hotels, dining, and attractions divided into geographical sections and by price range.

Frommer's: Updated annually; $12.95-$21.95; about 100 titles, including city, regional, and country guides; (800) 428-5331. In addition to listings for recommended hotels, dining, and attractions divided into geographical sections and by price range, includes a "Best Bets" section for each category. Frommer's offers the most comprehensive listings among the guidebooks surveyed here.

Zagat Surveys: Updated annually; 32 restaurant guides for U.S. and Canadian cities and London, U.S. Hotel Resort & Spa Survey, America's Top Restaurants; $9.95-$12.95; (800) 333-3421. Notable for its unbiased reviews derived from surveying large numbers of restaurant- and hotel-goers.

City Profiles USA (Omni-graphics, Detroit, 1997): $85; (800) 234-1340. A more comprehensive source of information on 200 U.S. cities, including annual events, popular attractions, and contacts from the mayor's office to local business services.

DMCs Whether you're just checking out what a city can offer or have already decided on a city, a destination management company (DMC) can be invaluable in terms of special events venues, transportation, theme ideas, and more. A CVB can give you a list of member DMCs, and hotel convention services managers can provide you with the names of companies they've worked with. You can also check with DMCs you've worked with in other cities for recommendations in the city of your choice.

In the summer of 1995, the Association of Destination Management Executives was formed to "raise the level of professionalism among members," says the association's executive vice president, Sylvia Rottman, president of the Denver-based DMC Great Events. ADME recently published its first directory, is working on establishing a Web site, and is planning a certification program. The Denver-based association can point you to a member DMC in the city you're interested in; call (303) 394-3905.

Asking the right questions up front can prevent problems later.

Other Resources A few suggestions from meeting planners:

* Check with members of industry associations. Planners who have already done the legwork for their own meetings can save you time and energy by sharing information about a particular city. In addition to calling personal contacts, you can post a query about a city on an industry bulletin board such as MPINet (call MPI at 972/702-3000 for membership information) or MeetingsNet, the home page for Corporate Meetings and Incentives.

* Call businesses similar to your own in the city you're considering. For example, Anne King, marketing communications manager of Walker Interactive Systems, based in San Francisco, says if her com-pany is considering a meeting in New York, she will call a software company based there. If she doesn't already have a personal contact, she'll make cold calls to a company's marketing or meeting planning department. "I've found that even strangers are super-willing to make those kinds of contributions," says King.

* Contact the hotel chains. If you have a favorite chain, check with that company's corporate sales or meeting department to see if they have hotels in the area you are considering. In addition to hotel stats, your sales contact can provide general information on the city, as well as popular attractions, theme venues, and so on. Also contact hotel representational offices, companies that represent a variety of hotels in different locations. "I keep a set of requirements with a couple of hotel representational offices," says independent meeting planner Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, based in Charlotte, NC. "I might work through them if I already know which city the meeting will be in or if I'm considering a few different cities."

* Make the most of your company's corporate travel department. "We go to our inside travel agency with all the parameters of the meeting in terms of number of people, the time of the event, and the geographical area that we're considering," says William Severson, manager of commercial services, Allan Bradley Company, Inc., Milwaukee. "They do a search, recommend locations based on our parameters, and gather all the information so I don't have to make all the phone calls."

* Start your own destination files. "We keep a file for every single city that comes up--not just the cities we know we'll be going to, but all of them," says Stephen Montgomery, vice president and COO of Electronicast Corporation, San Mateo, CA. In these files, Montgomery keeps articles he has clipped from trade magazines, maps, brochures from hotels, and so forth.

* Query company personnel. If you have offices in other cities, check with staff who live there. Don't forget asking around in your own office. Marilyn Berg, assistant to the vice president of sales and marketing for the Appleton, WI-based Anchor Food Products, Inc., says the company considered Scottsdale as a meeting site because "some of our personnel live there and others have stayed there, and everyone likes it."