Bill Peeper wore many hats when he first became president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau in 1984. He had to: The staff consisted of him and one other person. But that was OK because there wasn't much convention business. The Orange County Convention Center had opened the year before, but “in the early days, if people even knew of Orlando, they knew it only as a place with two great attractions: Disney World, which then was only the Magic Kingdom, and SeaWorld,” says Peeper. “There wasn't a lot of understanding about what was going to happen here — only a blank 20-year booking calendar.”

Peeper came to Orlando in 1981, filling the dual position of director of marketing for the Orange County Convention Center, which was then being built, and director of the Orange County Convention Bureau, precursor to the Orlando/Orange County bureau. He was tapped to be president of the new bureau when it debuted in 1984. “I got [the job] almost by default,” he says. “I can't say it was because I was really good-it was more like, ‘Let's give it to him and see how he does.’ I've been lucky.”

Modest, too. It was more than luck that allowed Peeper to grow the CVB to its current staff of 150, with four sales satellite offices and tourism offices in five countries. Now, after more than 25 years as president, the almost-63-year-old Peeper is ready to pass on the torch, stepping down at the end of the year. It's not a retirement, he clarifies, as much as a “redeployment.” He's currently exploring new opportunities. “If I can write the script, I would love to stay here in Orlando and give back to the city that's been so wonderful to me.”

We spoke with him about the changes he's seen in the industry and the challenges it faces.

FIM: What single accomplishment related to the meetings and convention industry are you most proud of?

I'm really passionate about the bureau profession. When I was involved in the leadership of IACVB [now the Destination Marketing Association International], we did a futures study. We were trying to understand, on a very macro level, where the profession was going, what the association needed to be thinking about, and what we as professionals needed to do to move forward. One of those things was accreditation of bureaus, and that is becoming a reality.

FIM: What are some of the things you're proud of achieving at the CVB?

We started in the publishing business about two years after the bureau started, and I think we're the only bureau in the country with a major publishing division. Last year we printed more than 26 million pieces of material, and we even do work for some community partners.

We were also among the first to recognize the value of statistical information and research. We now have four professionals on staff who are highly sought-after by our members for market analysis.

FIM: What are the biggest challenges you see facing the meeting and convention industry today?

There are a lot of theories about how relevant meetings are going to be and how you build content that is meaningful for attendees. It seems to me that somewhere along the way, it would be interesting to have conversations about how you take the meeting planner who is logistical and merge that with the educator. I've kidded with the dean of hospitality [of the University of Central Florida's Rosen School of Hospitality Management] that he needs to go to the school of education and create a hybrid program. I'm not sure he agrees with me! But more and more, meetings are going to be competing for people's time, and they're going to have to continue to be relevant.

There's also a struggle going on — if I have to go to a meeting and you're going to intrude on my personal time, at least send me somewhere fun. The other side of that is that you don't want the perception that you're going on a junket. My bet is that in the end, combining business with pleasure will win out because people are so time-deprived.

FIM: What are the biggest challenges you see facing CVBs today?

Because we're so tied to public funding, there are going to be enormous challenges for bureaus as elected officials must decide if they want the money to go to law enforcement or fire protection or visitors. This is endemic across the country now.

One of the other [challenges] is going to be the whole issue of relevance and performance measurements within the community. This leads to an accreditation process being so important. [It can] validate that a bureau has the correct procedures and metrics in place.

FIM: Where would you like to see the meeting industry in five years?

It's not practical, but in one way I'd like to see the industry go back 10 years. There weren't as many lawyers in the business and I think the relations between clients and suppliers were a little stronger and meant a little more than they do today. I think generally people felt they had a little more fun in the business, and it would be nice to go back to that.

On the other hand, I truly hope we continue to validate the fact that meetings are the greatest delivery of adult education in this country and that the trade show is still an unbelievably economical way to demonstrate products and services. We'll probably have a job continuing to convince people of that in the years to come. [Futurist, speaker, and author] John Naisbitt talks about how, as we move into a more technological society, we need to touch people more — the concept of high-tech, high-touch will be more important than ever before.

FIM: What ethical problems do CVBs and meeting planners face today?

One that is starting to diminish but I still hear about occasionally is the level of expectation that some planners have with regard to how they are treated or the amenities that are provided to them. In this day of scrutiny and accountability, it's getting increasingly difficult to always provide that level of amenities or courtesy to planners, but I also think most of them understand the reality these days.

And if we go with the premise that it's a buyer's market for convention centers, I see a growing belief among planners that their business is important and they want to see just how many concessions they can extract. But what they're really doing is extracting tax dollars out of the community. When you go back to the fiscal dilemma that cities are in, it gets a little tough. A lot of planners don't understand that the days of communities thinking the convention center is a loss leader are gone. Centers are under incredible pressure to address the bottom line.

FIM: How do smaller meetings fit into the mix in a city such as Orlando?

The majority of leads we send out of this bureau are for 300 to 350 attendees. I don't know if corporate planners understand that the small meetings they bring in are very important to the community. The reality is that while the 4,000- or 10,000-room meeting gets the headlines, you win ballgames with singles and doubles — those smaller meetings are important to us and we need that business.

FIM: Do you see CVBs becoming more or less of a resource for corporate planners?

One of the things that bureaus have not really been able to do well is communicate with corporate planners that we are a great resource for them. Many don't really understand what we do and what a huge resource we can be. For some planners, money is no object, and they can hire DMCs and third parties to help, and that's great — but we can do the same thing, and our services are 99 percent complimentary.

FIM: What's your advice to corporate planners who are wary of being inundated with supplier responses?

Before you do anything, ask the bureau rep point-blank if they're going to send your information to every hotel or just to the hotels that can handle your business. Most of the major cities do not send blanket leads — those days are over. At our CVB, for example, you can even go to our Web site and self-select the hotels you're interested in if you want to.

CVBs: Your New Best Friend?

In today's hot hotel market, the role of convention and visitors bureaus has never been more valuable for meeting planners seeking space. “Going through a convention bureau and letting them move that potential piece of business among the whole competitive set so that meeting planners can get a better assessment of the total marketplace is really helpful,” states Bill Peeper, who at the end of 2006 will retire after 22 years with the Orlando/Orange Country Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Christine Shimasaki, executive vice president of sales and marketing at the San Diego CVB, agrees. “I think [the seller's market] is a huge opportunity for convention and visitors bureaus, because as availability and supply tighten, what meeting planners are going to need is a source that enables them to do a comprehensive search for availability — and that's what CVBs are here for.”