By Jennifer N. Dienst, Contributing Editor
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For years, second-tier cities have started — and dissolved — partnerships. But one alliance between three cities has found a formula that works. And it's based largely on friendship.
The competition to get group business is fierce among destinations. But some convention bureaus in second-tier cities have looked to like-sized cities on both sides and in the middle of the United States as friends, rather than foes — forming alliances to jointly market their similar yet geographically diverse destinations to associations whose meetings rotate on a regional basis. “Despite competing for business, the destination marketing industry is an extremely collaborative [one] that recognizes the value of partnerships,” said Kristen Clemens, vice president of marketing and communications for Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI). These collaborative efforts, she said, “happen when opportunity and relationships allow.” Over the past decade, several multi-city alliances have sprung up — including those between Spokane, Hartford, and Madison; Baltimore, Sacramento, and Fort Worth; Dallas, Fort Worth, and Irving; and the Capital Cities Collection, made up of Providence, St. Paul, Raleigh, and Baton Rouge — and fizzled out.
Spokane, Hartford, and Madison, for example, no longer have an official alliance due to some of the members’ restructuring changes and budget cuts, although a friendly, informal partnership still exists. “We just decided [the alliance] wasn't worth continuing to market,” said Keith Backsen, Visit Spokane's vice president and director of sales. “We continue to this day to share information back and forth, and we've still offered incentives at times for bookings of more than one of our cities.”
The Capital Cities Collection also is on “hiatus” according to Kristin McGrath, CDME, vice president of sales and services at the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. And a Visit Baltimore representative said the partnership between Baltimore, Sacramento, and Fort Worth is being rethought.
But at least one partnership is still going strong: the Three-City Alliance. For the past nine years, VisitPittsburgh, Travel Portland, and VISIT Milwaukee have found that by combining their marketing and advertising dollars, they can make a stronger and longer-lasting impact with their clients.
Survival of the Fittest
Currently, the Three-City Alliance is headed up by Jason Fulvi, VisitPittsburgh's executive vice president; Michael Smith, Travel Portland's vice president of convention sales; and Brent Foerster, VISIT Milwaukee's vice president of sales and marketing. The partnership started nine years ago when Fulvi, Smith, and Jack Moneypenny, who was VISIT Milwaukee's vice president of sales and services at the time, were having a casual conversation at ASAE's Springtime Expo about pooling their limited funds to throw a larger, better client event during Springtime, and a bigger idea struck them: Why not partner to offer a three-city package deal for their clients?
“We were all chasing the same type of business, but not necessarily for the same year,” Fulvi said. “We said, what if we start talking to customers, and look at ways to incentivize them to book our destinations?” Ultimately, the team decided on cash incentives for meetings that book two or three of their destinations. Single-hotel business — not just citywide meetings — also qualifies for incentives.
So far, it's worked. Meetings that have booked all three cities through the alliance include the American Society for Quality's World Conference on Quality and Improvement, the Mathematical Association of America's MathFest, The Wildlife Society's Annual Conference (see sidebar on p. 67), and the American Association of Public Health Dentistry's National Oral Health Conference, to name a few.
“There's no doubt that the partnership has increased the number of leads that we get,” Foerster said. “There's been at least a couple of bookings every year because of [the alliance].”
Finding What Works
In addition to offering similarly sized convention centers, downtowns, and hotel inventories, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Milwaukee have several other attributes in common. Each city makes sustainability a priority — a big selling point for the partnership. Portland has been called the “Greenest City in America” by Popular Science magazine, Pittsburgh has the fourth-largest number of LEED-certified green buildings in the United States, and downtown Milwaukee consistently ranks high on Walk Score's list of America's Most Walkable Neighborhoods.
Foerster said that the alliance has helped shine a light on Milwaukee for some meeting planners who may not have previously considered the destination. “Portland has always been thought of as an environmentally friendly city, and Milwaukee, traditionally, hasn't,” Foerster said. “But we have far more environmentally friendly initiatives than people realize.” Recently, the Three-City Alliance paired up with the Convene Green Alliance for an event, and a potential client expressed surprise over Milwaukee's green efforts, wanting to learn more. “That would have never happened if it weren't for the alliance,” Foerster said.
To make sure all three CVBs know the product they're selling, members of their sales and marketing teams attend each other's meeting-planner fam trips. This enables them to experience each destination firsthand — and also affords them the opportunity to meet potential new clients. The alliance also brings senior sales and marketing staff together each November for a brainstorming session that takes place in the cities on a rotational basis.
Before that meeting takes place, “we will ask every department what they are working on, so that we can ask our Three-City partners what they're doing and if there's something we can partner on,” Fulvi said. As a result, the partnership has expanded beyond just the sales departments. “Our marketing folks are starting to get to know their marketing folks, and our housing folks are starting to get to know their housing folks,” Fulvi said, “and we're slowly starting to move to a more holistic approach from an organizational standpoint.”
Beyond sales and marketing events, the alliance is learning to combine its assets in other ways as well. “Are there suppliers that we can all go to as a collective unit to get more buying power?” Fulvi said. “We've started taking a look at advertising and other services that we all buy, like housing and online services, to spread our dollars further.”
Building on a Winning Formula
When asked why he thinks the Three-City Alliance partnership has remained intact when so many others have petered out, Fulvi is quick to respond. “I really have to believe that it goes back to the fact that we're built on a foundation of trust and friendship,” he said. “There's got to be that connection between the partners, so it has longevity. They've become some of my best friends. When you work with a best friend, there's a lot of trust there. If Mike in Portland or Brent in Milwaukee makes a decision for the partnership, I know they made the right decision.”
The cities continue to build on their first jointly hosted customer event at Springtime Expo, have partnered on customer events in Chicago, and are also working on other opportunities. “We split costs three ways,” Fulvi said, “so we're able to do an extra-special event and stretch all of our budgets a little bit further.”
The alliance has also started co-locating their booths at industry trade shows for easier networking. “We have to push to have all three of us together, either in a straight line or across from each other,” Fulvi said, “so if I'm talking to a customer about Pittsburgh, I'll ask them if they've ever considered Portland or Milwaukee, and if they haven't, and they want to talk to somebody, I will walk that person over to one of my partners.” Foerster, Fulvi, and Smith even want to build a custom booth just for the alliance.
Of course, there are times when the three don't operate as a unified force. “We understand the boundaries of the relationship, and we respect each other,” Fulvi said. “Whenever there's a piece of business that we know one of the other two is part of the bidding process, then it's competition like anyone else. But when we don't have that, we try to work together.”
What's in It for Planners?
“The planners on our customer advisory board think this [alliance between the Portland, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh CVBs] is the best thing since sliced bread,” said Travel Portland's Michael Smith. “They're used to competitiveness between cities, and sometimes it gets pretty bloodthirsty. It's uncomfortable for planners who have to say yes to one city and no to another city, so they appreciate that we're playing nicely together. I think planners are happy to see that the industry can get along.”
Besides the obvious perk of cash incentives, which vary “depending on the groups’ needs,” Smith said, other benefits for planners working with the alliance range from a better-prepared destination to more seamless premeeting destination promotion. That was what Darryl Walter, chief of staff for The Wildlife Society (TWS), said he experienced this past October, when Milwaukee gave TWS 2012 Annual Conference attendees in Portland a taste of what to expect when the city hosts its 2013 meeting on Oct. 5-9. “The cities were familiar with each other, so there was a comfort level there,” Walter said. For TWS, the alliance matched the society's meeting needs in terms of not only size and facilities but its West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast meeting rotation pattern — Pittsburgh will host the 2014 TWS Annual Conference on Oct. 25-30.
The 2012 conference was the third-bestattended meeting in TWS history, and “Portland had a lot to do with [that],” Walter said. “It's important where we meet, because there are certain cities that just draw better. I am confident that all three of these cities will draw well.”
Other perks of the alliance can include a smoother transition between cities, according to VISIT Milwaukee's Brent Foerster. “The fact that our staffs talk to each other on a regular basis, and are very open with each other, we can better prepare and know what the challenges might be and what to get ready for,” he said. “This allows us to have a better preparedness, whether it's at our convention center, within the hotel community, or marketing that needs to be done.”
CVB Partnerships on a Global Scale
International cities trying to lure meetings on an international rotation pattern have also formed alliances. Houston became part of the BestCities Global Alliance in May 2012, joining Cape Town, Copenhagen, Dubai, Edinburgh, Melbourne, San Juan, Singapore, Berlin, and Vancouver. Every city in the alliance must undergo a stringent third-party audit to prove that it maintains a high level of service and meets certain qualifications, such as having more than 10,000 hotel rooms near its convention center as well as a major international airport.
One of the biggest perks for BestCities partners comes twice a year, when representatives from every city bring an association client to one of the alliance destinations for a fam trip. “This summer, I went to Singapore and I spent three days with nine international association clients,” said Jorge Franz, vice president of international group sales and tourism for the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GHCVB). “You can't buy that kind of time.” For planners, BestCities helps with everything from event research to bid proposals and on-site services. The alliance also shares data and information about its clients between the 10 member cities, making the planning process seamless as a meeting rotates between cities. “With the third-party audit, we can prove to meeting planners that they'll get the same level of service no matter what city they go to,” Franz said.
GHCVB — which has an international office dedicated solely to meetings, as well as an entire department stateside that focuses on attracting international meetings, headed up by Franz — was “very interested in upping the profile of Houston in the international markets,” he said. “I would almost say, in the international market, there was no perception of Houston. We went at it from the point of view of, how do we get from [having] very little perception to [becoming] a well-known, world-class city.” By joining BestCities, Franz said, “now we feel we can play with the big players.”
So far GHCVB has booked the World Methodist Council Conference, and Franz is confident that more wins are to come. “We bid on some big ones [this year], and there were some losses, but we got to the table,” he said, “when before we never would have.”
For more on the Three-City Alliance, visit: