This was no ordinary business conference, it was Boyd Group’s 16th Annual International Aviation Forecast Summit. Airline executives, industry leaders, and the press would be flying in from across the world to discuss the latest economic projections and market data.
“It was a small group in terms of room nights and direct spend,” Lockett said, “but for us as a destination that has been touted as ‘up-and-coming’ to have the leadership of our domestic airlines meet and experi
ence the city firsthand - I don’t know how you put a value to that. It’s absolutely priceless.”
“Priceless” meetings are a difficult concept to communicate during city budget reviews. It may not be possible to quantify the benefits of national press coverage and future business opportunities, but for Lockett, it was important to articulate the total impact of the aviation summit on the city.
“That’s the ultimate quest for DMOs: How do we value what we’re doing?” Lockett said. “It’s becoming more challenging and complicated.”
It’s especially challenging when you realize that while meetings and conventions are big business - worth more than $260 billion a year, according to the Convention Industry Council’s (CIC) landmark Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy study released last year - the value they bring to a destination is more than just monetary. Yes, with the right metrics, a CVB or DMO can show city officials exactly how raising hotel taxes affects sales at the local convention center. Or how a high-profile trade show can generate the equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising for local hotels and attractions with a relatively small direct spend. The possibilities for meeting professionals to activate, lobby, and educate stakeholders are endless, said Gregg Talley, CAE, chief strategy officer for CIC and president and CEO of Talley Management Group, as long as you have the right data.
But many events - such as Albuquerque’s aviation summit - have a value that goes beyond direct economic impact, with opportunities that can’t be quantified by any tool. They are, to use Lockett’s word, priceless. Pittsburgh, for example, had a chance to show off its transformation from blue-collar steel capital into a thriving, eco-friendly metropolis when the city hosted the G-20 Summit of world leaders in 2009. The media coverage alone was worth at least $100 million to the city, according to Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh. “We were able to say, ‘If Pittsburgh is good enough for the leaders of the free world to meet in, then it’s certainly good enough for your meeting,’ ” Davis said. That strategy worked. Pittsburgh has already booked at least five major events as a direct result of the G-20, Davis said, including a gathering of global leaders for the United Nations’ World Environment Day in April 2011.
Not every stakeholder was convinced that hosting the G-20 was a good idea. Extra security would cost more than $19 million, and downtown Pittsburgh essentially would have to shut down for the duration of the event. “Locals questioned why we would suspend commerce, ” Davis said, “and we were able to say, ‘Because it makes so much sense.’ What kind of message would it send if Pittsburgh passed on this? You have to embrace these things. It was a lot of coordination, but so worth it. It’s part of our résumé now.”
Charlotte, N.C., hopes to see a similar boost in future bookings after it hosts the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which will bring more than 30,000 delegates and 15,000 members of the media to town this September. Hosting an event of this magnitude and prestige shows that the Queen City can confidently handle citywide events with ease, according to Mike Butts, executive director of Visit Charlotte.
“Communicating direct spending and economic impact are invaluable tools for CVBs hosting large-scale events,” Butts said, “but it’s also important for us to communicate the positive customer experiences and the 50,000-plus jobs in the city’s hospitality community…We strive to share with our stakeholders and community just how these organizations best utilize city assets and why they chose Charlotte, so they have a vested interest in continuing to support events that impact the city.”
Some events deliver less-tangible value from the attendees they attract rather than the press coverage they receive - such as AIBTM, the Americas Meetings & Events Exhibition, which draws thousands of convention and meeting buyers from across the country. Baltimore won a three-year contract to host AIBTM, beginning with the show’s debut last year, and Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, makes sure to invite Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to walk the show floor. “When you bring the mayor and council members in, they see what all the different cities are doing to win meeting business,” Noonan said. “It’s not that [other cities] are doing more, but it’s the sheer volume of competitors. We have to fight for these meetings! Most mayors and city council members get it, but to see it in action is a real eye-opening experience.”
Building the Brand
There’s also the question of the ultimate intangible: reputation. How a destination is perceived - in terms of hospitality, friendliness, business and cultural relevance, prominence, physical attractiveness, and any number of other subjective measures. It’s difficult to calculate the value of a good reputation and even more difficult to buy one, because a good reputation is a tapestry of many different interwoven threads - and it’s not always apparent where each one is coming from. But that’s not to say a destination can’t earn a good reputation.
Indeed, Cincinnati has found that some of the best returns on the multicultural events it hosts have nothing to do with money. Instead, these events are helping overcome a negative image that was set in April 2001, when racial tensions sparked a four-day riot in city streets. Cincinnati’s attraction as a meeting destination for minority and multicultural groups was devastated by images of looting and unrest. The solution was Operation Hospitality, a campaign launched by the mayor’s office to win back convention business by involving local stakeholders such as the Chamber of Commerce, the chief of police, and community groups and associations.
Thanks to the team effort, said Jason Dunn, director of multicultural affairs for the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, Cincinnati has attracted 12 of the top 25 African-American conventions - including the 2008 NAACP Annual Meeting, the 2008 National Baptist Convention USA Inc., and, in 2009 and 2010, the Gospel Music Workshop of America - and is competing for the other 13. And while these large association conventions certainly bring in money, they also can boost membership in area chapters, increase tourism, and support the mission of local community groups and boards. “For multicultural events, word of mouth travels more quickly than any other type of advertising,