The buttons, bows, and banners may be on the way out in some areas, but citywide planners can depend on their local convention and visitors bureau to work both harder and smarter to provide the services that matter most in this recessionary economy, say CVB reps around the country.
Debora Sexton, executive vice president of the Chicago CVB, says, "Yes, we’ve had some reduction in our overall budget, but we are not cutting sales and service." She echoes other CVB reps when she says, "In fact, we are continuing to increase the services we offer, but we’re doing it in a more cost-efficient manner." Instead of throwing the whole gamut of services at a convention, Chicago’s taking a more strategic approach by asking each convention client what it most needs. "For example, if a group wants to beef up its spousal program, the CVB will provide more information on other events going on simultaneously with the convention to encourage spouses to participate. If their biggest issue is international attendance, we’ll help them out with an e-campaign," she says.
Bill Howard, vice president of marketing, tourism, and communications with the Atlanta CVB, says, "We did cut back—it wasn’t like we’re escaping without any sacrifices. But we made the decision early on when the recession worsened after September that we would sacrifice only those things that did not affect what we see as our core business, which is the group conventions, meetings, and events industries."
"We’re examining everything a little more thoroughly than we did a year ago to make sure we’re getting the best return on investment, but we haven’t slashed a program," says Mark Theis, vice president of the conference division with the San Francisco CVB. "If anything, we’re trying to come up with innovative, inexpensive ways we can bring tangible enhancements to our customers." San Francisco has loaded its Web site with stock ads planners can use to lure their attendees to the city. They’ve also upgraded their postcards and other collateral, and encouraged their sales and service managers to be more proactive about asking what they can do for a show without creating major out-of-pocket expenses. The CVB also is in the process of integrating the city’s calendar of events into a direct link meeting organizers can put on their Web sites so attendees can see what else is going on during the convention.
Forexpecting slippage from their international attendees, the San Francisco CVB is providing direct marketing strategies to help them capture bigger international attendance numbers. "We’re placing our consumer ads where their audience is," says Theis, such as in publications like Digestive Disease Week. "We don’t have to buy a front-page ad in London’s International Times; we work with the medical societies to determine where their core international attendees come from and how we can get the message to them effectively and relatively inexpensively. Using technology to market directly through e-mail and sharing membership information helps everyone."
Unlike most cities, Philadelphia has had the good fortune of actually receiving increased funding for its meetings budget through the Mayor’s Hospitality Industry Support Fund. The fund was set up to help the city keep up with competitors like New York and Washington, D.C., which have been stepping up their advertising campaigns since last fall. "In times like this, you never cut—we’ve increased our services and promotional activities" says Jim Herrmann, Philadelphia CVB’s vice president of convention sales. "Our customers need us more than ever."
The Philadelphia CVB used the $400,000 windfall to add a great rates section to its Web site, and provide eight additional sales missions. But Herrmann is most proud of a new convention brochure the CVB has developed to promote the city’s culture, history, restaurants, arts, and entertainment in the convention organizer’s promotions. "It’s not just a one-page piece of collateral," he says. "It’s an eight-page setup that’s customized to the specific convention and the events going on around the convention." Because 50 percent of the meetings in Philadelphia in 2002 are health care-related, the brochure also includes a history of medicine in the area. "We picked up the entire tab for it. It’s a big expense for us, but it saves our customers money they don’t have right now, and it should help drive attendance, which is what we all want."
Most cities, though, haven’t gotten a funding boost and find themselves having to tighten their belts and sharpen their pencils. But their commitment to the meetings industry stays strong as budgets shrink. "We’ve just had to work smarter, to focus in even more on services our customers tell us they need," says Sexton. "Everyone understands that there’s a finite amount of dollars. We’re working with our customers to prioritize their service needs, and provide them with as many as we possibly can."