When it comes to meetings and conventions, every destination has a unique story to tell. Here's a look at six CVBs from around the country where new developments are shaping opportunities for meeting planners.
Appointed president and CEO of California's Monterey County CVB in February, Tammy Blount says her mandate is to drive tourism, in particular meetings and incentive travel. She has hired a new sales director and restructured the sales department, with one sales person focusing on large meetings, another on small meetings, and a third on sports tourism.
“Tourism is huge. It's our second biggest economic driver,” Blount says. It's easy to see why, with attractions like Big Sur, world-class golf courses, historic missions, beautiful beaches, and the area's famous music and art festivals. “Traditionally,and incentives have been a big focus of our group efforts — we have so many unique, creative hotels and venues for this market. But there's room to grow citywides too.”
The Monterey County Convention Center in downtown Monterey offers 30,000 square feet of function space, and within the county there are 11,000 guest rooms in hotels and resorts.
Formerly director of the Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau in Washington state, Blount is co-chair of DestinationAssociation International's Advocacy Group, which promotes issues relating to CVBs, also known as destination management organizations. She sees the rise of more and more tourism improvement districts, where guests staying in hotels in these districts pay an additional daily flat fee, and that money is earmarked for tourism/CVB funding.
TIDs are common in California and Washington, and they are growing around the country, she says, as more and more tourism agencies struggle for funding. “You might be seeing these charges on your bill,” she says, “and it's good to know why.”
“We're seeing more corporate meetings coming in from drive-in markets that are farther out than in the past, especially from Missouri and Ohio. So we are expanding our marketing efforts in that direction,” says Tifani Jones, director of sales, Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau Inc. She says as more and more salespeople work from virtual offices, there's been an uptick in drive-in meetings for corporate meetings of about 50 or fewer people. There's also been growth in the number of association groups looking for an alternative to a downtown meeting and one that is conducive to bringing family members.
Wisconsin Dells, about 60 miles north of Madison in the south central part of the state, bills itself as the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” thanks to its plethora of waterpark resorts and attractions, including the country's largest outdoor waterpark, Noah's Ark.
While leisure travel accounts for the majority of the millions of visitors to the area annually, meetings are a growing component of the area's business mix, Jones says. There are 8,000 hotel rooms in a wide variety of properties, including the 752-room Kalahari Resort, with Wisconsin's largest indoor waterpark, full-service spa, and 100,000-square-foot convention center.
Several properties have recently expanded conference space, including the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort and Chula Vista Resort. Groups that book into area conference hotels get free waterpark passes, which is a perk that has been shown to be a strong attendance driver, Jones notes. “It's all part of the value package that we can offer attendees and their families as an affordable Midwest destination.”
As demand has picked up, especially on the leisure side, Jones cautions that planners need to look further out, or be willing to shift dates or patterns, when booking a meeting in the area. “Resort business is pumping up and that means last-minute bookings are hard to accommodate without impacting prices.”
A good CVB is like a bridge, says Patrick Moscaritolo, president and CEO, Greater Boston CVB. “We provide access to so much more than hotel rooms and convention center space. We can connect you with resources and venues that are going to help drive your attendance.” He gives as an example: “This year is the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, and I can't tell you how many groups we've helped get access to the park and Red Sox officials.”
Corporate meetings business has roared back in the Boston/Cambridge area, he says, but the bureau is finding that corporate planners are still booking with very short windows — because they still see a lot of uncertainty in the market. However, he says that the bureau is helping many of those same groups find additional hotel rooms at the last minute, often requiring a second hotel. “In an age of uncertainty, CVBs are awesome partners for a lot of different reasons. We're a free resource, an extension of your staff.”
With citywide business bouncing back, strong business travel market fueled by the city's world-renowned hospitals and educational institutions, sports teams, and biotechnology companies, the average hotel rate for the Boston/Cambridge area jumped 9 percent last year, thanks also to the very limited supply of new room inventory. Room tax revenues have increased too, but Moscaritolo estimates that funding for the state's tourism organizations is probably still a third less than what it was five years ago.
“With funding dollars tightening up everywhere, I can't stress enough how important public/private partnerships have become for CVBs today,” he says. One example is a partnership the bureau formed with the operators of Logan International Airport, Cambridge Office of Tourism, and the Association of Massachusetts Independent Colleges and Universities.
The goal of the partnership was to increase international conferences and visitors. One measure of success: The Boston/Cambridge area ranked as the country's top destination for international conferences in three of the last four years in an annual survey conducted by the International Congress and Convention Association.
That partnership also helped bring about new nonstop flights to Japan, the first nonstop service to Asia out of Boston, using the new 787 Dreamliner aircraft, 250-seat jets designed for long-haul, fuel-efficient travel without requiring the longer runways that larger aircraft need.
“We've found that 25 percent of attendees to Boston/Cambridge come from international destinations,” Moscaritolo says. “This is definitely an area we can grow.”
With competition for meetings increasing, even successful cities can't just rest on their laurels, says Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We've got a new story to tell,” he says.
Philadelphia officials cut the ribbon in February 2011 on the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center, which now has more than a million square feet of salable space. “For the first time, we can host two large events simultaneously,” Ferguson says, explaining that on the day of the ribbon-cutting the center hosted both the largest flower show in the world as well as the annual meeting of the NASPA, Student Affairs Administrations in Higher Education.
Moreover, the center already has bookings to host six or seven national organizations that are able to book Philadelphia for the first time, Ferguson notes. Among them is the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting, bringing 18,000 attendees to Philadelphia this year.
Downtown hotel room inventory is growing along with the convention center, with the recent openings of the Le Meridien and Palomar hotels, and with a Monaco hotel and a Home2 Suites from Hilton now under construction. The addition of a 700-room anchor hotel to complement the 1,408-room Marriott attached to the convention center would be ideal, Ferguson says.
New cultural attractions are another feather in the city's cap. Chief among them is the Barnes Foundation Museum, with its world-renowned collection of Impressionist art, opening this summer on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where other cultural landmarks include the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Franklin Museum of Science. The city's historic district will be home to the Museum of the American Revolution, opening in 2015.
City Hall's Dilworth Plaza, just blocks from the convention center, is being transformed into a beautiful park and gathering spot, which will be available for private functions for up to 4,000 people. The Lenfest Plaza, which includes the 53-foot-tall Paint Torch sculpture designed by Claes Oldenburg, is another new park near the convention center.
Ferguson says the bureau will be reaching out to planners with e-marketing campaigns over the next year to let them know the new Philadelphia story.
The bureau is also increasing its partnerships with other organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, in an effort to draw more attendees, particularly international ones who might be interested in doing business in the Philadelphia area. “Attendees are multifaceted for us, and we're eager to help with attendance-building,” he says.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in February that the city's Office of Tourism and Culture would merge with the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau, with CCTB's CEO and President Don Welsh leading the new organization (which had yet to be named in March). The reorganization is expected to save $1.3 million in administrative costs, money that will be invested in national and international marketing campaigns, with the goal of attracting 50 million visitors annually by 2020.
“Mayor Emanuel has set forth an extremely ambitious set of goals, which led us to develop a solid plan for the next decade. The three areas that draw visitors are business, attractions, and culture, and we are going to emphasize all three as we work to increase the number of visitors to Chicago,” Welsh says.
The merger was one of a series of changes that are reshaping the landscape in the Windy City for tourism and convention business. In October, an 18-month legal battle to reform labor practices at the city's McCormick Place Convention Center, which Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn brokered, was brought to an end when the reforms were passed into law. New board members were announced in March for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which oversees McCormick Place and Navy Pier.
Navy Pier, the city's lakeside convention center and entertainment complex, is now under the management of a nonprofit board and is poised to embark on a massive face-lift. And the long-awaited expansion of the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place is under way, adding a 460-room tower that will bring the hotel's room count to 1,260 by this summer.
Welsh says conventions and meetings are picking up. “We saw a slight rebound in 2011. We had more meetings, but they were smaller in size as meeting planners have reported flat budgets since 2010. Organizations are now seeing a slight increase in demand, which makes 2012 look better overall. Meetings related to the medical industry look strongest overall. The outlook for 2013 looks promising.”
Construction begins this summer on the 1,000-room JW Marriott Austin, scheduled to debut in 2015 with 115,000 square feet of meeting space. The Marriott is two-and-a-half blocks from the city's 800,000-square-foot downtown convention center, and it has already booked its first meeting: The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners will utilize more than 2,500 hotel rooms in the downtown area.
“Austin has a strong mix of national, state, and corporate meetings business, and with the new Marriott we'll be able to attract even more national conventions,” says Steve Genovesi, senior vice president, sales, Austin CVB. “We have a great package of hotels downtown with a variety of price points.”
But of course, Austin offers much more than that. The buzz about Austin is building beyond its reputation as the “live music capital of the world,” with its more than 200 live music venues, not to mention the South by Southwest Music Festival, which this year drew more than 225,000 visitors to the city.
The city has also received national and international kudos as a new Mecca for foodies, sports teams, film buffs, and technology hipsters. This last accolade comes mostly as a result of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, a trendy annual technology conference at the Austin Convention Center, where, BTW, Twitter was launched in 2007.
“Meeting and incentive planners will find a lot of different attendance-drivers in Austin,” Genovesi notes, “especially if they are trying to bring young professionals to their events.”