Tourism boards, convention and visitors bureaus, destination marketing organizations— the entities in charge of selling cities may call themselves by different names, but they all share one challenge: how to stand out from the pack to attract meetings and events business. Traditional efforts to pique the interest of event organizers have focused on numbers — how many hotel rooms are available, the square footage of exhibit halls and pillar-free ballrooms, and the schedule of arriving and departing daily nonstop flights from the airport, which is conveniently located just [insert impressive low number here] minutes from downtown.
All these figures play an important role in delivering a convenient and cost-effective experience for attendees, but they often don’t help distinguish one city from the next in the mind of the event organizer. Convene caught up with three destinations that are using different approaches to help them pop out on the map of prospective host destinations for event organizers.
Visit Seattle: Turning the Customer Advisory Board Into a New Community
Many CVBs rely on a slight variation to their own acronym for their success: CABs — customer advisory boards — serve as the cornerstone of the destination-marketing world, providing powerful insights into the perceptions of places. But Visit Seattle, said Rob Hampton, the DMO’s senior vice president, convention sales & services, was ready to break with that tradition. “We felt that customer advisory boards had served a valuable purpose,” he told Convene, “but they had run their course. We wanted to design a client-engagement program strategically focused on building a community for event professionals with Seattle in the background.”
That new program came to be the Events Innovation Forum (EIF), a two-day experience from Sept. 12–14, 2017 that Hampton said was sensitive to the busy schedules of the decision- makers from the associations and corporations who were invited to participate. Visit Seattle had been developing the idea for approximately two years before hiring Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, founder and CEO of Insight Event Strategy, for a better understanding of the perspectives of their customers, and to help bring the forum to life. “Knowing how event planners feel about the challenges they face every day and their overwhelming schedules,” Peacy said, “we needed to develop a plan that delivered extreme value, while still offering Visit Seattle the opportunity to hear from and engage with their clients.”
Unlike typical customer advisory boards designed to help destinations understand what clients think of their offering, the EIF knowledge exchange flowed both ways, empowering 16 participants with new knowledge they could use at their own meetings and events. The Seattle business community played an essential role in the program. In one session at the Boeing Customer Experience Center, participants learned about the Seattle-based aerospace company’s approach to customer engagement, and another session included a discussion with Expedia Chief Product Officer Arthur Chapin at the company’s future headquarters on how the company leverages technology and customer feedback to create better consumer experiences.
The agenda wasn’t entirely about next-generation technology and travel, however, Peacy said. Alex Carleton, creative director at Filson, a 100-year-old outdoor apparel company based in Seattle, welcomed organizers to the company’s flagship store for a session on the importance of storytelling in building a brand. That helped round out the program and give participants the opportunity, she said, to “learn from all types of companies.”
Engagement began well before participants arrived in Seattle. Approximately two months before the program, Peacy and Visit Seattle worked together to create an online platform that helped establish a community-like spirit. “When they got to Seattle, they felt like they already knew other, and after the program, they’ve continued to stay in touch,” Peacy said. “I think they really formed a bond.”
In addition to returning home with new friends, participants all received a printed packet with educational takeaways from the program to help reinforce what they had learned and apply those lessons to their own events. Looking ahead, future EIF participants may leave Seattle with even more. Peacy said that the intention is to make the program eligible for continuing education credits.
“This will definitely be a recurring program,” Hampton said. “We’re having conversations with major companies here to be part of the next edition, and we’re looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the event.”
Visit Indy: Using Design Thinking to Deliver a New Kind of Site Visit
In 2014, after more than two decades in the hospitality, tourism, and convention industries, Daren Kingi made a move that would eventually pay off for his current employer, Visit Indy: He went back to school. At the time, Kingi was a vice president of sales for Marriott, and the hotel company offered its leaders opportunities for continued learning. Based in San Francisco, Kingi opted to enroll in a course at the d.school at Stanford University. “For the past 30 years, people have been brainstorming,” Kingi told Convene.
“The course focused on doing something more productive than developing ideas. It was about designing solutions that paved the way to turning ideas into action. The whole design process is divided into three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.”
Shortly after Kingi finished the course, he accepted a new role as the senior vice president of sales at Visit Indy, and he brought his new perspective on design to the Midwest to reinvent the site visit. “Why don’t we get everyone in the room to see how we can make the experience better for event organizers?” Kingi asked. “We wanted to come up with the ultimate site inspection.”
That’s easier said than done. In most destinations, Kingi acknowledged, the hotel community and the DMO are not always on the same page. It’s an understandable challenge — after all, each brand needs business. In Indianapolis, however, Kingi found that hotels, DMCs, attraction partners, and other players involved in site visits operated with a willingness to collaborate, with the mutual understanding that business events play a big role in the city’s plans to continue to increase visitor numbers. “All of our members realize that collaboration is key,” Kingi said. “It’s a very important ingredient to winning a bid.”
That collaborative spirit enables what Kingi calls the “world-class site- visit” model, which is based on the three-phase design process he learned at Stanford. The approach sounds similar to the in-depth idea exploration that takes place at advertising agencies. “You do a storyboard,” Kingi said. “You want to know who’s involved, what they’ll be doing, how they’ll be doing it, and when they’re doing it.”
All those puzzle pieces fit together for Michael Ferreira, MHA, owner and founder of Meetings Made Easy. “I travel to all my clients’ site visits around the globe,” Ferreira told Convene. “When I first reached out to Visit Indy, I figured it would be the same experience I’m used to. I was completely wrong. When you talk to them about coming for a site visit, the questions that they’re asking are very in-depth.”
Those questions lead to unexpected results. For example, Ferreira noted that he was greeted with his exact favorite Starbucks order upon arrival at the Indianapolis International Airport. With that level of detail, Kingi is leading by example — showing how to customize an experience for participants, just as event organizers are working to personalize experiences for their own attendees.
Kingi said that each “world-class site visit” has to be unique. “This is not a cookie-cutter approach,” he said. “We have to get all our partners together to talk about the needs and objectives of the group we’re introducing to Indy.”
Another key to the initiative is to make sure that each potential client feels valued. “One thing that really stuck out to me was that the CEO and a vice president [of Visit Indy] had lunch with us,” Ferreira said. Since his client only represented 100 potential room nights on peak, he said he would never have expected such VIP treatment. “My client,” Ferreira said, “was blown away.”
Other visitors in the events industry seem to share similar reactions to the collaborative attitude from the top to the bottom in Indy. “The biggest feedback we’ve gotten,” Kingi said, “is that clients are shocked to see how unified the city is.”
NYC & Company: Collaborating With the Competition
When Caroline Kennedy served as the United States Ambassador to Japan under the Obama Administration, her diplomatic role sparked a new idea that she shared with Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company: Japan’s biggest city should unite with America’s biggest city. “She saw a chance for our two cities to do something special,” Dixon told Convene. “It began to open some doors for a conversation about how we could work together.”
Two years later, in November of last year, NYC & Company and Tokyo Metropolitan Government signed a new city-to-city partnership designed to boost tourism between the two destinations. At the heart of the relationship is the ability to swap out-of-home advertising — bus shelters, subway cars, and other city assets — to influence seasonal travel for the leisure market. Dixon said that the organization has been using a similar partner- ship model for approximately 10 years with cities including Amsterdam, London, Cape Town, Seoul, Sao Paolo, and other global hubs.
Plenty of DMOs have joined forces in the past, but those alliances are typically multi-city groups that might bid on rotating convention business. Dixon said that NYC & Company’s one-to-one approach allows for a customized tactic that appeals to international visitors.
But isn’t Dixon concerned that these partners might steal business from New York? “Collaboration is greater than competition,” Dixon said. “Everyone asks, ‘How fiercely competitive is London with New York?’ Well, it’s true that we compete with London, but we know that travelers don’t travel one time. They travel for a lifetime. We don’t view these situations through a competitive lens.”
The collaborative spirit isn’t confined to promotional efforts for leisure visitors. Dixon said that the Tokyo/New York partnership will deliver many behind-the-scenes benefits for group business, too, including the sharing of best practices for event management and security. As Tokyo prepares to host the Olympic Games in 2020, Dixon said that Toyko’s officials are interested in learning about how NYC & Company educates its members about proactively addressing security concerns since the city has been a target of terrorists in the past. “Attacks can happen anywhere and anytime,” Dixon said. “This is a topic on the minds of everyone in the tourism industry, and our city partnerships offer opportunities to work together to determine the most effective approaches to keeping visitors and residents safe.”
Safety isn’t the only aspect of the event experience that NYC & Company and Tokyo are discussing. Dixon said that the alliance aims to address another challenge for destinations and organizers: how to help attendees explore more than what’s on the event or conference program. “At the end of the day, meeting delegates are regular travelers, too,” Dixon said. “If you’re an international traveler, you tend to be more inquisitive. Part of what we’ll be talking about with Tokyo is our neighborhood and borough strategy that helps create awareness about other opportunities to explore more than [the most recognized parts of] Manhattan. As cities grow more popular and more dense, it’s important to make sure that the entire community benefits from an influx of attendees during a big event.”
Tokyo joins other cities that are striking an alliance with New York. As travel and tourism professionals in the U.S. monitor the current public conversation of walls and borders, Dixon thinks that certain partnerships may be more crucial than ever before. In the face of questions about America’s reputation as a welcoming country, NYC & Company has launched a new partnership with Toronto and reactivated the city’s partnership with Mexico City. “It’s really important to us that we make sure that those lifetime travelers recognize that the rhetoric doesn’t represent us,” Dixon said. “New York City is a global city, and we believe these partnerships put us in a position for success in the long haul.”