Bill Peeper wore many hats when he first became president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau in 1984. He had to — the entire staff consisted of him and one other person. But that was OK because there wasn't much convention business to attend to at the time anyway. The Orange County Convention Center opened in February 1983, but “in the early days, if people even knew of Orlando, they knew it only as a place with two great attractions — Disney World's 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 had been intimately involved with the convention center since he first 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 existing Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “If there was a bureau from 1981 to 1984, it was me,” he laughs. Which no doubt accounts for why he was tapped to be the president of the new bureau when it debuted in July 1984. “I got it 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. Because clearly it was more than just luck that allowed Peeper to grow the CVB from a staff of two to its current staff of 150, with four convention sales satellite offices in the U.S. and tourism offices in five countries. Orlando now ranks No. 2 in the list of cities attracting the most major trade shows, bumping Chicago to third place, according to the April 2006 edition of Tradeshow Week 200. In addition Orlando ranks as the city with the second-largest number of hotel rooms in the U.S. (Las Vegas is the No. 1 trade show city and the city with the most hotel rooms; Chicago is now third in the Tradeshow Week 200 ranking.)

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 could 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.

MM: What is the one accomplishment you are 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's now becoming a reality. The whole issue of branding bureaus was what led to changing IACVB to DMAI.

I'm also most proud of the people in this organization who really do the work. You're only as good as the people around you. Trite, but man, it's true!

MM: How have medical meetings contributed to Orlando's growth? What stands out to you about medical meeting planners?

Like everyone else in the world, we love medical meetings. They've been a significant part of our growth and an important market segment for us. More so than others, medical meeting planners really want to take care of their attendees. It's almost a passion for them. You'll hear them talk about “my docs,” not “the doctors.” It's personal for them.

MM: What trends do you see related to medical meetings?

All the cost issues and the rules of pharma really affect what medical meetings can do. We now see many medical groups that enjoy the wide range of hotel rates that are available. The days are gone when they all stayed in five-star hotels.

MM: What are the biggest challenges facing the meeting and convention industry today?

There's a lot of talk going on today about how relevant meetings are going to be and how to build content that is meaningful for attendees. This may never be a reality, I don't know, but 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.

MM: 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 have to 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 back to the accreditation process being so important. [It can] validate that a bureau has the correct procedures and metrics in place. Then stakeholders can look at the bureau with confidence and know that the performance measurements weren't drummed up in the back of a boardroom by the staff but, rather, are the results of staff complying with industry norms. That will go a huge way towards revalidating the legitimacy and significant economic engines that bureaus really are.

MM: Do you have any advice for planners booking citywides and convention centers in this seller's market?

When it comes to the convention centers, I really don't think it is a seller's market because of the proliferation of convention centers around the country now. Although I can buy into it being a seller's market for hotels, there are still a lot of options for planners out there.

The thing is that these days we'll have a planner tell us [that in past meetings] they had 20,000 people. Great, tell me where they stayed. Then the planner tells us they had 20,000 registered and that's why they need that many rooms, but the reality is they had 8,000 staying in the room block and the others found the deal of the day on the Web. It's really difficult for bureaus and hotels to take [that many rooms] out of inventory.

We've told some groups to lower the block and then we'll work with them to find incremental rooms on an as-needed basis. We will have to get more creative with these kinds of things.

MM: Any ideas how?

I must confess, I don't have the answer anymore. With hotels trying to control inventory and rate, I can't help but think that eventually they will limit the inventory they give to third-party housing bureaus. It might sound delusional today, but the need to maximize revenues on those buildings will force the industry to look at things differently.

MM: 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 that 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 — those days are gone. Centers are under incredible pressure to address the bottom line. They are public entities that can be scrutinized even more easily than bureaus vis-à-vis expenditures.

MM: What public issues do you think the meetings industry should take a stand on?

Passport issues and security are important, if only to make sure we can get international attendees to shows. That's a great concern to a lot of groups and has a detrimental impact on us all financially. The frustrating thing — and this isn't aimed at any one industry association — is how we as an industry have not been able to clearly communicate to Congress that while there's not a soul who doesn't believe we need secure borders, the impact of international travel for conventions, trade shows, and tourism is more than just a nice little thing. It's about helping the balance of trade, it's about cultural relations with people around the world who look to us as leaders in science and technology and come here to learn. There's a cultural and financial price to pay that I don't think Congress is aware of. I know the travel industry associations are working feverishly to address this issue, but it will take some sort of uprising and I'm not sure that those associations understand their role yet.

MM: Where would you like to see the meeting and convention 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 true than ever before.

Commitment to the Community

Beyond needing to foster economic development, convention and visitors bureaus have “an obligation to be a good community partner,” says Bill Peeper, outgoing president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. For example, the bureau builds marketing plans on a pro bono basis for the Orlando Museum of Art when it has special exhibits and helps market those exhibits. “We also do research on how the arts and cultural community impacts tourism, which is important to them and to us,” says Peeper.

The bureau also helps local school children through a program called A Gift for Teaching. “We encourage exhibitors to donate anything they want to leave behind to this program so that teachers have the tools to do their jobs,” he says. “We've also adopted an elementary school and won state recognition for a mentoring program where employees volunteer.”

Peeper also hails the “social responsibility” he sees in organizations that come to Orlando. “Sometimes [a group] will have a corporate teambuilding day where they do something to help the community or they tell us they'd like to donate money or have an education day and invite all the high school science students, for example, to come for special programs,” he explains. “We get requests like that a lot. It's really interesting how they want to give back to the community here. And we should say thanks — no, double thanks — one, for bringing the meeting here to begin with, and two, for helping out our community.”