Not long ago, if you were a corporate executive looking to meet in an unfamiliar city, the first thought that probably came to mind would be to call the convention and visitors bureau.
With the ad-vent of dozens of Web sites and companies specializing in providing site selection services, CVBs have begun to evolve into a different kind of entity, one that some observers say will heighten their visibility and importance in their communities and enable them to better do the job they were originally created to do.
The CVBs are the first to acknowledge the changing situation. "I do think that a lot of the site selection will migrate to site-selection companies and Web sites like PlanSoft and StarCite," says Leslie Hogan, senior vice president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Where we used to be the only game in town for dispensing information about which hotels were where, how many room nights were available, and what meeting space was available at whatever point in time, now we're not."
For Hogan, this isn't all bad news. Far from being the competition, she and others in similar positions say these site selection firms and Web sites will serve as effective information-gathering tools and valuable business partners.
"We view these firms as an extension of the client," says Bill Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Therefore, we see them more as partners."
Why Choose a CVB? One thing CVBs can offer that other entities can't is immersion--in their particular market, in their supplier base, in the political climate of their city. In short, their knowledge comes from being integral parts of their communities.
"No (third-party) firm will ever carry the local knowledge of the community that the CVBs do," says Ed Nielsen, president of the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus. "Nobody's going to be able to do that but the bureaus because they're official--that is, they're funded by the community."
He also sees CVBs within his organization of more than 1,000 members, representing more than 470 bureaus in 29 countries, as playing an increasingly pivotal role not only as the marketers of their cities but also as the deal makers.
That's the case for Tracy Cartier, director of communications for Learning Express, an Ayer, Mass. based chain of franchised educational toy stores. "I can't imagine doing a convention without talking with someone and having that human contact that CVBs provide," she says. "When we plan our annual convention, we talk to our franchisees to get an idea of places to go to have the convention; then I simply call the CVBs."
Although she acknowledges the potential value of the online meeting-planning sites, she prefers the human touch she has found in dealing with the CVBs in San Antonio, Las Vegas, and Orlando, where Learning Express has held its most recent annual conventions.
"We've never used the online sites or site-selection companies," she says. "I'd never turn down electronic tools to gather information, but when you're talking about an experience that your people are going to have, you want to deal with people from the cities where you're having your meeting. There's also the fact that CVBs can offer registration and other services in helping you conduct a successful meeting."
Turnkey Site Selection Others see CVBs as restricted in the services they offer because their member suppliers pay the freight. Site selection firms and Web sites, they say, can more fully meet clients' needs.
"What we have seen is that CVB member hotels pay a per-room fee to the bureau," explains Roger Helms, founder and CEO of HelmsBriscoe, the Scottsdale, Ariz.based site selection giant. "This presents certain challenges to the planner of the meeting.
"For example, the CVB will give you a list of hotels for your meeting, but it will be a longer list than you need," he continues. "If you call and say you want an upscale hotel, the bureau will send you a list that includes the Days Inn. They have to, because that Days Inn pays a fee to them to bring them business."
He also believes the CVB-member relationship can result in planners getting less-than-objective information from bureaus. "A bureau has a tough time saying, 'You don't want to stay at that hotel, the service isn't very good.' We'll say it because we're not swayed by the politics of it all.
"What the bureaus are going to have to do is figure out how they're going to fund themselves adequately," he continues. "I don't know what the answer is going to be to that question, but once it's found, I see them evolving into a high-end, product-knowledge marketing machine for their destination--the ambassador for their city, if you will."
"CVBs, by their very nature, are intermediaries whose job is to say, 'Here's Cleveland, you gotta be here,'" says Ed Tromczynski, president and COO of PlanSoft.com, a major meeting information Web site. "They're the megaphone, if you will, for getting the word out about their city; then their job is to turn that megaphone around and use it as a funnel to bring in business to their members."
CVBs also aren't the best solution for individuals who haven't targeted a specific city. Let's say a company wants to meet somewhere in Arizona, but isn't sure where. " You'll have to make a call to the Phoenix bureau, then you'll have to make a call to the Scottsdale bureau, then to the Tempe bureau, maybe even to the Tucson bureau," says Helms. "That involves a lot of time, where all you make is one phone call to us and we make the several calls for you."
Still, firms like his work with bureaus regularly and see them as having great value. "I have always been a believer in and proponent of bureaus," says Laurie Mirman, founder and president of Site Services, a site-selection firm based in Irvine, Calif. "We use their services all the time, and it's a great enhancement."
CVBs also recognize the value of site selection firms, says Mirman, who notes that in the 1980s and '90s, CVBs were unfamiliar with firms like hers simply because there weren't that many around. (She started her company in 1984). "They viewed us as competition," she says.
"The healthy way to look at us is that we're not competitors, and bureaus have begun to realize this. I think there's been a dramatic shift over the past couple of years in the quality of the people working at bureaus and their knowledge of companies like ours, a very positive change for all parties concerned."
Indicative of that is the recent involvement of bureau representatives in annual workshops her company hosts to discuss industry trends and issues and solutions to various problems. "We've been doing this for eight or 10 years, and lately we've been inviting the bureaus to participate. At this year's meeting, which was held in August, about half the attendees were from CVBs."
Online Answers Where do the various online site selection firms that have emerged in the more recent past fit into the equation? It depends on the buyer, most observers say.
Mirman, for one, isn't nearly as high on these sites. "There are those who say the online venues are the definite wave of the future," she says. "Call me old fashioned, but I don't know how you can conduct meeting-planning business without that personal interaction. The way this online stuff is being portrayed is that you'll never have to pick up the phone to plan a meeting, let alone have a face-to-face relationship.
"I'm of the opinion that there will continue to be several ways people to do business," she adds. "Some will take the tech route with the new electronic tools, others will use companies like ours, and yet others will deal with the CVBs or a combination of the three."
Ironically, perhaps, the online companies seem to share Mirman's "old-fashioned" view of face-to-face business relationships, and see it as one of the areas in which CVBs excel.
"The CVBs certainly aren't going away," says Linda Savino, marketing communications manager for AllMeetings.com, an online meeting-planning firm. "Meeting planners will always need the personal touch--those warm fuzzies--to get certain services done, to finalize tours, to arrange spousal trips and help conduct them. Bureaus are also your link to other markets that need to be coordinated. You can't do that online."
Like the bureaus themselves, Savino, who formerly worked for CVBs in Niagara Falls and Long Island, N.Y., does not see meeting-planning Web sites as competition for CVBs. "Our prime target audience is the nonprofessional planners, the administrative assistants who plan the small meetings. It's tough for CVBs to coordinate these small, often last-minute gatherings," she says. "Actually, we help drive this business to cities where the CVBs often don't have the time or manpower to spend on smaller meetings."
PlanSoft's Tromczynski agrees. In June, PlanSoft and the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland announced a formal alliance that he says will enhance Cleveland's online presence and strengthen the value of the CVB's Web site by providing greater exposure for CVB members and increased search capabilities for meeting planners worldwide. Tromczynski says his company has more such partnerships in the pipeline.
"CVBs have never had a lot of money to get heavy into technology, at least not the bureaus in second-tier cities," he says. "By partnering with us, they get a very effective international megaphone at a very inexpensive cost. If you look at the fact that it would cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to set up and operate their own online technology, with a partnership like ours it can be done for about $15,000 a year."
The Future of CVBs Tromczynski believes that the PlanSoft-Cleveland partnership will free the bureaus up to do other things they do best--in other words, provide that personal touch to convention visitors to make their event more satisfactory and do the follow-up necessary to encourage their return to the city.
"To me, that human touch is quality assurance," he says. "Who's worrying about details like the weather, especially in cities like Cleveland, and who's worrying about the traffic--all those little details that, if handled by CVB people, can make a meeting all the more successful and memorable? I think this quality-assurance aspect is a very big deal, and I think partnerships like this can free CVBs up to provide these personal touch services and to do other things--like marketing and follow-up--that they often don't have the time or manpower to do."
In the future, such business partnerships may free up CVBs to focus more on community and economic development, which Orlando's Peeper sees as their eventual role--and one that will have a far-reaching impact.
Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Cleveland, where the CVB has initiated the Spirit of Hospitality Career Training Program, which takes local welfare recipients off public assistance, trains them, and places them in jobs at area hotels and restaurants. According to the bureau, the program is the first of its kind and is serving as a model for similar industry efforts nationwide.
"The travel industry truly has become an economic development industry, and CVBs are very much a part of that," Peeper says. "We're no longer the little storefront office that passes out brochures."