Forging Deeper Connections With Destination Marketing Organizations

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

When Valarie Coyle, meetings director at Health Professions Network, starts mapping out her next event, a destination marketing organization (DMO) is always her first stop. “They have everything right there at their fingertips,” she said. “They have the dates, the research, they have all the information on the [city’s] facilities. When I give them my specs, I know I’m going to get just those hotels that I’m going to need, not every hotel under the sun, a place that won’t fit my meeting to begin with.”

But DMOs offer event organizers more than the ability to narrow down hotels more quickly. They can be your social-media guru, local speaker bureau, or on-the-ground safety net. And if you invest time in nurturing a deeper relationship with them, you’ll find that DMOs play a more significant role in the success of your meeting than you ever thought possible.

“Without question, the CVB is the destination expert when it comes to planning meetings,” said Gary C. Sherwin, CDME, chair of Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), and president and CEO of Visit Newport Beach. However, he added, the DMO’s role has “evolved dramatically in recent years. The primary function of the CVB today goes far beyond marketing. We are now destination architects, imagineers, culture cultivators, project engineers, as well as clever marketers. In many cases, the CVB is the destination’s greatest champion — the driving force in facilitating a dialogue between its community and the customer — to ensure the event is successful for both the host city and the customer’s stakeholders.”

Beyond Space and Rates

In April 2017, Dude Solutions brought its professional-development conference, Dude University, to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the first time. Its attendees — around 1,000 operations professionals — were looking for a different experience, said Nicholas Mirisis, vice president of marketing at Dude Solutions.

“They were looking to be in a hub of activity, more of an urban environment.” And besides needing more physical space, Mirisis said they needed more of a “learning laboratory” environment, where they could tap into the intellectual capital of the local community.

Out of 200 speakers at this year’s event, 50 were subject-matter experts from the Raleigh area. Mirisis enlisted the help of the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau to ensure that the range of backgrounds the speakers were culled from were relevant to the nine industries represented by his attendees. For example, North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, Ph.D., spoke about public–private partnerships, while the president and CEO of WakeMed, Donald R. Gintzig, spoke about facility design and patient care. Attendees could also take behind-the-scenes tours of 18 local facilities, including the brand-new North Carolina Heart and Vascular Hospital at UNC Rex Healthcare.

All of this was facilitated with the help of the Greater Raleigh CVB — despite the fact that the speakers and facilities are located right in Dude Solutions’ backyard. “It was kind of a match made in heaven,” said Loren Gold, executive vice president at the Greater Raleigh CVB. Dude University came to be held in the company’s hometown as a result of the CVB’s strategy to convince local businesses and organizations to “keep it home” rather than meet outside of Raleigh. Gold spotlighted how Dude Solutions used a number of Greater Raleigh’s facility assets, “taking their members off-site and doing field stud-ies” during the event, which “had outgrown the destination where they were at. At the C-level, they wanted to bring their clients to their home base to showcase the Raleigh area, and [Mirisis wanted to] drive that local experience that is unique to Raleigh.”

“I never, independently, would have been able to make all of those connections,” Miri-sis said. Dude Solutions began collaborating with the Greater Raleigh CVB a year-and-a-half out on whom to contact locally for speak-ing opportunities, tours, and partnerships. “If we wanted to, we could have filled our entire four-day program with subject-matter experts from the local community,” said Mirisis. “I don’t see a way, with all of the other moving parts and pieces that we have to plan a major citywide event, and bringing 1,000 folks to town, that we could have executed that piece of it without the CVB.”

More Value, Less Work

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions planners have about using DMOs is that they primarily serve citywide conventions,not small meetings. “I just had somebody in the city, they had 13 rooms,” said Cathy Keller, vice president of sales and services at the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau. An Omaha CVB salesperson stopped by to ensure the planner saw the hotel properties and attractions that she needed to see, as well as drove her to the airport. “They didn’t expect that, but they are coming into the city to look at us as a meeting destination,” Keller said. “The CVB is the greatest resource that a meeting planner will find that will be able to help them have a successful event in their city, because we know the city.”

There are also misconceptions about CVBs working with third parties. “They are the ones that we turn to, to help increase and add value to what our client experience is going to be all the way around,” said Leeta Cruise, senior director of sales and development at Helms-Briscoe, “from the RFP process to helping out when the client is operating their meeting.”

Cruise said that the importance of DMOs to HelmsBriscoe associates has evolved exponentially in the last few years. In the past, the relationship between third parties and DMOs could almost be seen as competitive, whereas present day the relationship is much more friendly. “We’ve seen our industry move more toward a model of collaboration,” Cruise said. “We’re building trust, working more closely, and we’re creating smarter RFPs and saving valuable time with the overall result of enrich-ing our client’s experience.”

An ongoing relationship with a DMO also means that if salespeople at hotels and venues come and go, all is not lost. “When you have a relationship that starts with a DMO, they’re invested in you over time,” said Caryl- ann Assante, CAE, executive director of the Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) and SYTA Youth Foundation. She also noted that the extra effort is key for meetings on rotation, as DMOs tend to keep her informed on what’s going on in the city and if there are changes, like road closures or new pub-lic transit, that could affect future meetings. That insider knowledge is also why Helms-Briscoe associates are encouraged to always include a DMO on RFPs. For example, a DMO can inform them of a citywide meeting happening on their requested dates, explaining why hotel rates are higher than normal. “It’s saving us time,” Cruise said, “because they can provide us invaluable information that we might have not known.”

Boost Those Numbers

Everyone agrees: Attendance is everything. Over the past few years, DMOs have sought to become planners’ go-to gurus for boost-ing their events’ head count, and with local resources and insight, their expertise can prove extremely valuable. Sometimes, planners “don’t have the bandwidth, or the people on their team with the expertise, to give them that one-on-one concierge service,” said Doris Sims, vice president of services at the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. A few years ago, the Louisville CVB began offer-ing telemarketing services, and for festivals or trade shows that are open to the public, the CVB puts up banners in advance to attract the local market. For that same category of events, they’ve also started utilizing a leisure-marketing approach to draw attendance from nearby regional markets.

“We are able to help offset those costs because we’re already promoting” for leisure travel in those markets, Sims said. “We had a really successful promotion with a festival last year, and we are working with two or three others this year to do the same.” But it’s not an idea the DMO of the past would have necessarily entertained. “Before we’d be like, ‘Well, that’s not really our world,’” Sims said. “‘We’re not here advertising for a group.’ And then I was like, ‘Well, if we’re already advertising in that market, and their audience is our potential leisure visitors, is there a way we can partner to make it a win-win for both of us?”

There is typically a cost associated with this kind of specialized marketing, but more basic services, like microsites, are often complimentary. Another potentially free asset for planners looking to bump local attendance is access to a DMO’s database of visitor information. Think about it: “They are people who have expressed an interest in Louisville, either about ordering a visitor guide or attending a show,” Sims said. Louisville’s database also indicates the interests — like music festivals, bourbon, and horses — of those who have requested information about the area. “Those interests match the demographics or the interests of the fan base the festival event is trying to attract,” Sims said, “and then we can actually do some targeted marketing from our own existing database.”

Deeper Connections

Assante, who has not brought business to Omaha yet but is considering the destination for a future SYTA conference, has already built a solid working relationship with the city’s CVB, having visited Omaha in person and met with local businesses to get a more holistic portrait of what the destination can offer. “I think that’s a key role that [DMOs] can play in the future,” Assante said. “How do we connect everything that’s happening in the city with our meeting so that we can find some new experiences or authentic connections or speakers from the local community?”

Assante added that part of what got their relationship off to a good start is opting for a series of phone calls rather than submitting a fill-in-the-blank RFP online. What made the difference, she said, “is them not saying over and over, ‘We can do that, we can do that, we’ve got that, we’ve got that.’ They took the time to have a structured conversation.”

Even if SYTA ends up not meeting in Omaha, the outcome will be a positive one. “I may never get her piece of business. That may never happen,” Keller said of Assante. Nevertheless, “she is a great resource to me. I can pick up the phone and call her at any time. She will refer other planners to me. She is a great ambassador for Omaha. Through a relationship, and actually visiting our city, is how that was established.”

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