How Destinations International Put Attendees in the Spotlight

Author: Michelle Russell       

DI Convention

Hitting the right notes at Destinations International’s (DI) 2019 Annual Convention.

When Gregg Shapiro took the stage at St. Louis’ Ballpark Village on July 23, he had the rare opportunity to combine two very different passions. The co-founder, chief creative officer, and president of travel marketing company Tempest was in town for Destinations International’s (DI) 2019 Annual Convention as a supplier partner and Foundation Board trustee. But Shapiro also has an alter ego: He’s a former professional musician, who in the ’90s played in a “kind of a metal band, like Stone Temple Pilots,” he told Convene. At Ballpark Village, he channeled that rock star persona to help debut the DI House Band, performing at the event’s evening welcome reception — along with 16 other destination professional attendees.

This was no impromptu karaoke band. It was a professionally produced performance, showcasing the serious musical talents of a group of individuals who ply a different set of skills at their day jobs.

The germ of how that band came together, Shapiro said, probably began around four years ago, when his company bought CRM software company iDSS. With that acquisition came a users conference, which, Shapiro said, he and his team wanted to reinvent. “We were hanging out with Steve Goodling, the CEO of Visit Long Beach,” Shapiro recalled, at the eTourism Summit in San Francisco, discussing ideas for the conference, “and Steve was talking about the importance of creating experiences and community and connecting with attendees.”

The conversation moved on to possible entertainment, and Shapiro mentioned that he was thinking of bringing in a band for the event’s opening night. “Steve nudged us,” he said, to go down a different road. “He said, ‘Well, didn’t you used to be in a band? Why don’t you do something that’s more inclusive and bring people in and let them play and do this together?’”

The Journey to Destinations International

Shapiro brought that idea to DI, cobbling together a “Travel Jam” band that performed in 2016 at a little club during what was then the DMAI Annual Convention in Minneapolis, on a night when no other official activities were scheduled. “The idea was, when you give everyone who wants to play a chance to get up on stage, you get to see a totally different side of them,” he said. “So here you have a few hundred people at the event that now get to see the person who is doing their big data, all of a sudden they’re a DJ, or the person that’s singing is the head of marketing at a CVB somewhere. It’s just a neat experience.”

When DI met in Montreal the following year, Shapiro again “found people that wanted to play that were either sponsors or in the industry in some way and brought them up” to the stage at a small venue, again on a night when there were no other DI events, he said. “There was no grand plan and it was just a way to have a really cool party.” It wasn’t meant to be a talent show. “It’s not about any one artist or a band, it’s just about a bunch of people that are jamming together,” he said. “And that’s where the whole ‘Travel Jam’ thing came from.”

The idea of performing as part of DI’s official entertainment “really took shape,” Shapiro said, over the past year. Don Welsh, DI president and CEO, invited Shapiro and Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics and a fellow musician, to play with the headliner entertainment at the Foundation’s Spirit of Hospitality event in Washington, D.C., in February this year. “And that,” Shapiro said, “really kind of changed everything.”

Welsh approached Shapiro and Sacks after that performance to brainstorm about how they could expand on the band concept for DI’s annual convention, as part of its entertainment lineup. Shapiro said he and Sacks were enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to open it up to make it more inclusive. “Don had this idea to take this thing,” he said, “and make it the house band, and to get people to submit YouTube videos of themselves playing — tryouts, so to speak.”

DI House Band

Destination professionals who made the final cut for Travel Jam had to commit to rehearsal time the day before the convention. ‘They were going to be on stage in front of 1,500 people,’ Shapiro said. ‘That’s not a small ask.’

Perfect Pitch

An email from DI went out to members encouraging those with musical talent who wanted to perform at the annual convention in St. Louis in July to send in a video of themselves playing one of their favorite songs. That was to ensure that they were truly serious about it. “You’ve got to make sure that people really wanted to do this, because they were going to be on stage in front of 1,500 people,” Shapiro said. “That’s not a small ask.”

While they weren’t bombarded with video submissions as Shapiro had first feared, they did receive “plenty,” he said, and he and Sacks reviewed each one. In the end, 16 performers made the cut. Next step: Deciding what each could do in the way of performing during a one-hour time slot on DI’s opening night.

“Because when you’re talking about 16 different musicians playing in a band, you’ve got to figure it out — just more than one has to play at a time. Then you have to figure out who is going to play with who? What song are they going to do? And does that song work for both them and what their talent is?”

The destination professionals chosen from the videos were drummers, singers, percussionists, and a guitarist. “We had all these different talents,” Shapiro said. “Then, just the idea of getting the set list and getting it to run while you’re substituting that many people in and out in a very tight period of time. … It took a lot of effort on the coordination side of things, and there were a lot of people that helped out on that, especially Don’s team.”

In addition to submitting a video, each musician had to commit to rehearsing in St. Louis one day before the reception. DI arranged to make a room at America’s Convention Center Complex available for the group. “We set up a little small practice area, got our drums and our gear and everything in there — and basically played from about 3 in the afternoon until about 10 at night. We had different people coming in and out,” Shapiro said, depending on when they arrived.

In addition, Shapiro convinced the staff at Ballpark Village to let them have an extended sound check the next day for those who couldn’t make it the night before.

Concerted Effort

Before arriving in St. Louis, Shapiro said that he “went way above and beyond” to craft an identity for Travel Jam, aka the DI House Band, developing a logo, getting T-shirts made, and producing an opening video — “to make it much more like a production than just the talent show. Because I think for us, it was very important that we show how talented the people in our industry really are, and that it’s not just a karaoke event or something. We even got people to dress in their rock star best.”

Destination International tattoos

A lot of prep work went into making Travel Jam look and sound like a professional production … including temporary tattoos.

Shapiro himself went so far as to wear full-sleeve tattoos with all of the event’s sponsors’ logos. “It was pretty hilarious,” he said. “But the idea was to just go all in and make this a thing — to swing for the fences. And if it would have been bad, it would have been so bad. It would’ve been an epic fail.”

Except that it wasn’t. Travel Jam played to a packed house and enthusiastic crowd. And while they may not have noticed, the band got off to a less than ideal start. Even though they had rehearsed, “we didn’t have our own sound people and our own crew and everything,” Shapiro said. “So Don called Adam and I out to announce that we were going to be starting soon. And I think the people in the sound booth thought that meant we were actually starting. So they just started playing the intro video. Everyone was in the green room goofing off. And then it was like, ‘All right, everyone, let’s go!’ We’re scrambling and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is not the way to start this.’”

And then, Shapiro said, “it just took off — it was just one performer after the next, and the next person that came up was as good or better than the first.” He noticed that people in the audience were not only jamming to the music but seemed curious about who else would appear on stage. “I saw people trying to leave because I think they had to go to dinners and appointments,” he said, but they were staying as long as they could to see who would perform next.

During the one-hour performance, the audience heard every genre from soul to R&B to rock and roll, from the ’60s to current day. “It was a lot of fun and after the whole thing was said and done and we got this really great response, everybody was back in the green room just popping Champagne,” Shapiro said. He and Welsh wasted no time before talking about next year’s band and thinking about how it to make it more of an international group. “The hardest part is going to be just how do you limit the number of people, because you can only manage so many people — 16 was tough to juggle,” he said. And Shapiro is already thinking about another challenge: “How do we keep surprising everyone?”

But when he thinks of the rewards, those concerns fade. “I don’t know how I’d put my finger on what it feels like to facilitate this and be part of this. And I know Adam would say the same thing and Don would say the same thing. There’s just something special about it. It humanizes people because you do see those vulnerabilities in people when they’re up there,” Shapiro said. “I mean, when someone who’s a veteran of the industry like Craig [Davis, president and CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH] is up there singing his heart out and playing a guitar, playing a Kiss song, it’s such a different perspective of him as a human being.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

Travel Jam Rehearsal

Watch more rehearsal and live footage on the Travel Jam YouTube page.