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Charity & Virtue Bureau: Local Volunteerism Abounds
By Suzie Amer, Successful Meetings
February 24, 2006
Originally published February 2006
In 2004, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) held its 47th annual International Rally in Lansing, MI. While in town, WBCCI members—owners of trailers or motor homes manufactured by Airstream—did more than simply network. During their 10-day stay, the caravanners prepared dinners and baked cookies at the local Ronald McDonald House, volunteered for a Habitat for Humanity project, brought fruit and drinks to the Lansing City Rescue Mission, and visited nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and senior centers. By the time the WBCCI rolled out of town, they had donated 102 units of blood, sent more than 5,000 hats and 224 blankets (knitted by members) to 10 local charities, and given 1,800 stuffed animals to the Lansing school district and local fire and police agencies. Their cash contributions to local charities exceeded $18,000.
"Everywhere we go, we purposely look for people whom we can help," says WBCCI planner Cindy Reed, who orchestrated this remarkable charitable effort. And she couldn't have done it without the help of the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau (GLCVB). "The GLCVB made all the initial contacts with the local charitable organizations to identify the groups that could work with the WBCCI," says Julie Pingston, vice president of visitor services for the Greater Lansing CVB. "When the WBCCI donated those knitted hats and mittens, for example, we had to ensure that they went to agencies that could accommodate and distribute such a donation. We then put the local organizations directly in touch with the committee planning the event here and they made final arrangements together." Because WBCCI rallies typically host a blood drive, the GLCVB "contacted the American Red Cross and explained what the WBCCI organization was all about, selected some preliminary times for the two blood drives, and then the WBCCI was able to make the final confirmation."
While the extent of WBCCI's charitable efforts may be unique, industry observers say the impetus behind them is not. "Because of all that's gone on in our world over the last four years, from 9/11 to the Asian tsunami to the aftermath of the U.S. hurricanes, we are all more sensitive to finding out how we can pitch in and help out," says Kathleen McDermott, vice president of communications for Washington D.C.-headquartered Global Events Partners, a partnership of more than 60 destination management companies both in the U.S. and abroad. "People have figured out that you don't have to join the Red Cross and move to New Orleans. You can do a lot right in your own backyard. And when meetings go into other cities, attendees see that opportunity to give back to the community where they'll be for a couple of days."
And, McDermott adds, this growing interest in philanthropy often dovetails nicely with the objectives of meetings. "The experiential is becoming something that more companies and organizations are interested in for meetings," she says. "Rather than just sitting in a room, they want to do something, and they're starting to realize that volunteering is a way to build their own team in a way that benefits others as well as themselves."
To accomplish this, meeting planners like WBCCI's Reed rely heavily on the local CVBs to help them find appropriate area charities and other groups that may be in need, as well as to do a lot of the legwork involved in arranging volunteer activities. And as more meetings and conventions—both corporate and association—seek ways to give back to their host cities, these groups are finding the assistance of the local CVB indispensable. SWEET CHARITY
"We are seeing a trend of [groups] giving something back," says Susie Townsend, director of sales and services for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. "There's so much in the news about suffering that people just want to help however they can." Townsend says groups that have visited Indianapolis have given back to the host community in a wide variety of ways. "When the Episcopal Church came to town, they had their host hotels agree to donate all the soaps and shampoos to homeless shelters," says Townsend. "This summer, the Church of the Nazarene [dispatched] 5,000 volunteers to renovate homes in urban areas and in the outskirts before the international convention started." And altruism isn't limited to religious groups. For the upcoming national convention of the Future Farmers of America (FFA), Townsend says, "We're currently working on finding a community-based project that those 54,000 high school students can do this year and for the next six years they'll be coming here." The FFA will be the largest convention that Indianapolis has ever hosted. "I'm seeing an increase [in this sort of group volunteering], and it is a huge benefit to our community."HELPING HANDS
While recent tragedies have encouraged the civic spirit among attendees of meetings and conventions, they did not create it. Well before Katrina, the New Orleans CVB compiled a list of many local, reputable charities with which groups might want to get involved. Over the years, that list became what's now called Traveler's Philanthropy, a catalog of the city's most established charities and nonprofit organizations (www.new orleansgiving.com).
"We started this program years ago in response to the volume of requests we were receiving for information about the various volunteering programs in our city," says Corinne Pass, director of convention services for the New Orleans CVB. In the beginning, the catalog included mainly traditional charitable endeavors, such as blood drives and Habitat for Humanity. But as demand evolved and broadened, so has the Traveler's Philanthropy, and the catalog now lists dozens of volunteer and donation opportunities in areas from fighting hunger and finding shelter to animal rights and support of local arts and culture. "We've helped groups accomplish a variety of good things," says Pass.
Before Katrina, Pass says, approximately 50 percent of the groups that met in New Orleans were interested in having their members volunteer locally while in town. "Microsoft came in and gave computers to all the public libraries, while the Lutheran Youth came in and sent members to repair and upgrade various playgrounds," she says. "We also had a group that built a recreation center into their convention, with foosball and pool tables, and that wanted to give them to kids' charities at the end, so we helped them find appropriate recipients." One group used half the convention center to build modular home pieces from Habitat for Humanity which they would then take into the community and assemble on site.
Local bureaus do more than simply match groups with those in need. The American Library Association, one of the first groups to commit to holding its 2006 annual meeting in the Crescent City after Katrina, is organizing a benefit concert during the meeting and is working through the CVB to book a lineup of entirely local talent. In other cases, the bureau will manage some of the logistics. "The CVB helped us organize the transportation of our attendees to and from their volunteer activities and facilitated the Lifeshare blood-donation RV at the convention site," says Kelly Hamilton, 2006 conference chair for the Texas District of Lutheran Women's Biannual Convention, which will meet in Beaumont, TX. Hamilton also says her group regularly works with the CVBs at their meeting destinations to determine what items members can bring with them to donate upon arrival. "We like to bring toothpaste, pencils, school supplies, things like that. Things the local charities might need."SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Meetings industry organizations encourage this do-good behavior at their own conventions, too. Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) gives back to the cities that host its annual meeting through a program called Helping Hands, which sends attendees to volunteer within local neighborhoods for a half-day. "PCMA started Helping Hands in the 1990s, because members were interested in getting out and doing something good for the community for a couple of hours during the meeting," explains Sarah Corradino, manager of community services for PCMA. Today, "It's one of the most popular events in our conference—it sells out every time," says Corradino. And every year, PCMA works closely with the host CVB to arrange the event.
PCMA's 2006 meeting was held in Philadelphia, and while there, some 110 members renovated the gym at the city's Nicetown Boys & Girls Club as well as the multipurpose room and kitchen at Stenton Park Recreation Center. Further, each attendee paid $75 to participate; the proceeds were donated to the two organizations. "As the local CVB, our convention services team works to find a location that's suitable for the group and to make sure the skill set of the volunteers is matched with the organization that can use the help," says Philadelphia CVB spokesperson Sarah Hines.
In the end, groups find that when they give back to the cities and communities that host them, everybody wins. "It's good for our group in that it brings good publicity and good community relations, and it's good for the community because it provides them with the funds and human resources to do what's needed," says PCMA's Corradino. The only problem, she says, "is accommodating all the attendees who are interested in participating."
SIDEBARIt Works Both Ways
CVBs not only help incoming groups get involved in the community, they also help the community get involved in meetings and conventions that come to town. Cities have developed a variety of programs that allow local residents to serve as ambassadors to out-of-towners, whether they be tourists or business travelers. "If a convention wants a meet-and-greet table at the entrance or in the hotel lobby, we're happy to set that up and staff it with volunteers," says Anne Marie Jessie, who coordinates the volunteer program at the Tacoma, WA, Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Our volunteers hand out guides and maps, provide answers to questions, give directions, and suggest local activities and attractions." The volunteer staff wears a uniform dress code to make them easily identifiable by conventioneers.
Other cities, including New York, Houston, and Toronto, take this idea one step further by pairing visitors with locals who can offer an insider's view of the city. Programs like Toronto's Tap into TO! and New York's Big Apple Greeters pair visitors with "greeters," who give unscripted tours of neighborhoods and who are often multilingual. Planners can learn about these programs through each city's CVBs and other local
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