As March Madness peaks in the college basketball world, it’s meetings madness for the 2013 Social Media Tourism Symposium. For the fourth year in a row, the conference is deciding its host city by a public vote on Facebook, held over a period of weeks, -style.
The meeting, known as SoMeT, is for destination marketers, hotels, and other tourism entities to network, share ideas, and explore howis affecting the travel industry.
For potential host cities, the bid process started in the traditional way: tourism bureaus submitted requests for proposals showing they had the meeting space, hotel rooms, and wireless Internet access to keep an estimated 300 social media savvy attendees happy over the dates of the event—November 6–8. This year, an additional prerequisite was added: Someone from each interested city must have attended the conference in the past.
Then the fun began. The symposium pitted the 13 cities that submitted RFPs against each other during specified voting periods on its Facebook page. Anyone with a Facebook account could vote. An initial 48-hour voting period narrowed the list down to eight and determined each city’s “seed” for the tournament rounds. Over the course of 10 days in March, organizers held semifinal and quarterfinal voting, and the final two cities—Missoula, Mont., and Huntsville, Ala.—will square off from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday, April 2. More than 52,000 votes have already been cast in the tournament.
“The event is really community driven,” says Dave Serino, who founded the symposium in 2010 and also leads strategies and operations at Think! Social Media. “For the cities in the running, the experience becomes a live workshop to put their various social media strategies into action.” Bureaus must rally local supporters and potential attendees any way they can, but primarily using social media such as Twitter and Facebook. “Each year, the first presentation of the conference is the host destination explaining how they garnered votes and built consensus,” he says. “It’s been a pretty interesting presentation.”
The symposium’s three previous winners—Loudoun County, Va.; Tunica, Miss.; and El Paso, Texas—have all been lesser-known tourism destinations. But tourism is a valuable part of the economy for cities both large and small, Serino says, and the goal of both the voting experience and the conference itself is to promote that value. “It’s not about the size of the city or the type of facilities they have as much as it is about how they rally their community to show support for the event.”
Beyond the obvious economic benefits of hosting a mid-sized conference, bringing hundreds of social media–focused attendees to a city has an added plus: Internet buzz. At the 2012 event in El Paso, attendees posted more than 7,000 tweets and 700 Instagram photos using the event hashtag—and about three quarters of them were about experiences outside of the actual conference, Serino says. “That was incredible exposure for the city of El Paso,” he says. “It gave the tourism bureau a nice little footprint of how people interact and … what path they take while they’re in the city, and those posts went out to all their friends and followers.”
For planners who might consider using SoMeT’s voting idea to find a host city for their own meetings, Serino warns that it might not be the best method “if you’re a bit of a control freak. … You have to realize you’re going to relinquish all control, and you have no idea where your event’s going to end up,” he says. “We want to reward the destination that works hard to get the event there. We do our best to work with the destination, but it’s a bit of a challenge back to us.”
If allowing the public to vote on the host city is too much of a gamble, planners can still learn from Serino’s full-participation philosophy. Not only do attendees help pick the location for SoMeT, they also weigh in, via forums and questionnaires, on everything from guest speakers to the overall structure of the event. The goal is to “give everyone ownership,” Serino says.
“People don’t want to ride the bus anymore, they want to drive it,” he says. “We want to give people as many options as we can to drive the bus.”
Editor’s Note: After a total of 24,524 votes were cast in the final 12-hour round April 2, SoMeT announced Huntsville as the official host city for its November 2013 conference. The Alabama city beat Missoula by 3,014 Facebook votes.