by Ben Chapman | February 05, 2008
In the fall of 2006, Candy Adams got caught in the Web. The Defiance, OH-based trade show specialist was struggling to find a home for a high-end cocktail reception during a major electronics show, in a major convention city. Optimistic that the city's CVB website could help her find a venue for her client, she submitted an online RFP for her client, a giant computer hardware manufacturer. But the site struck out—even though Adams had given four months' lead time and had wiggle room on dates and flexibility in the number of attendees. "I waited three days, and no one got back to me," she says. "My only criteria were that I needed a high-end venue, within walking distance of the convention center."

Adams was really starting to get nervous when she finally heard from two venues. One was located about 90 miles from the convention center. The other was located nearby, but it was a one-star property that was basically falling apart. Neither space fit the criteria she had specified in the RFP. She eventually found a home for the event by making phone calls.

It was just another case of a CVB website that didn't deliver, says the veteran planner: "To get what you really need for your event, sometimes you still need to talk to a human being."

Maybe Adams is correct that when you want something done right, you have to get on the phone. Or, maybe she's not. Despite some planners' complaints about CVB websites, they're heavily relied upon and widely used. Especially when it comes to large events, or for planners who don't have networks of suppliers in the locale, bureau sites are extremely important.

It's All About The Web
"If you're planning a citywide, one of the first things you do as a planner is visit the CVB website," says Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates, a meetings technology consulting firm based in Bellingham, WA, and an in-demand speaker on meetings technology. "Bureau websites are essential and ubiquitous."

The bureaus know that planners rely on their sites, and even the smallest CVBs allocate funds to hire third-party companies to design sites, or divert resources to do it in-house. "It's an area of the meetings industry where you see more complete turnover to third parties of the websites than in other areas," says Ball. "For big meeting and convention cities like Las Vegas, spending $200,000 or $300,000 is a pretty small bet for the overall size of markets."

The size of a bureau's budget for its websites is almost directly proportional to the size of the city and the number of meetings and conventions it hosts, and the bigger-budget players revamp their sites most often. "Las Vegas seems to change every year. San Diego changes its site a lot also, as does Orlando," Ball says. "The websites that are really interesting are the ones for the really heavy-duty convention cities. Those have been refined, and they're illustrative of where the second-tier city sites will go."

Bureaus have found that websites are a particularly good tool for communicating with meeting planners. Many are separating their meeting sites from their mass tourism sites, so planners don't have to click through information targeted to other visitors. "By creating a separate meetings destination, we've created a more efficient experience for planners," says Gary Musich, vice president of convention sales for the Atlantic City CVA. "Our meeting website is targeted. It's more of a business-to-business site, with meeting-specific destination information, RFP capability, and links to suppliers."

Whether you prefer to conduct business in person or over the Internet, in the future more bureaus are going to be doing more and more business through their websites, insiders say. One primary reason is that a website, and digital communication in general, is more cost-effective, says Lee Nettles, vice president of marketing for the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast CVB in North Carolina. "Compared to direct mail, our CVB website is extremely economical," he says, which enables the bureau to maximize its spending and resources.

Sounds like a good deal for the bureaus. But how do meeting planners fare?

THREE Reasons To Love CVB Sites
Basically, planners visit CVB sites looking for three things. They come looking for destination information. They come to communicate with vendors and submit online RFPs. And they come for marketing and promotional tools. For the most part, the bureaus' websites do reasonably well at those jobs, says technology expert Ball, but you have to know how to use them.

CVB websites are probably most often used as a resource for obtaining information on destinations. "Planners come to bureaus' website looking for detailed information about meeting venues, like convention centers. They're also looking for information about the city's stock of hotel rooms," says Ball. But they also want big-picture data, he says, like information on the city's transportation system, and even more generally, a feeling for the character of the destination.

Some bureau websites are utilizing technology to provide planners with more effective virtual tours of their destinations. The Northern Kentucky CVB launched new 360-degree virtual tours on its site in December to give planners a feeling for the area. "It's a bird's-eye 360-degree view of the area, shot from a helicopter," says Tom Caradonio, president and CEO. "It really gives you a feeling for the geography." Virtual tours have become so effective that they're replacing some familiarization tours. "We used to do massive site inspections, but it's getting harder and harder to get planners to visit. They're using virtual tours to narrow their potential sites. They're more informed."

Many planners like the fast, impersonal nature of researching destinations online, at least in the preliminary phases of site selection. "CVB websites are an amazing resource for information about destinations," says John Gomes, an independent meeting planner based in West Hollywood. "Many times, it's better to go online for research, rather than talking to someone on the phone and feel like you're being trapped into something."

CVB websites are also good places for locating and negotiating with suppliers, especially for planners who are willing to submit online RFPs. Despite challenges in some situations (like Candy Adams' story), online RFP results are good, because CVBs have insider access to vendors in their markets and can distribute RFPs efficiently.

In fact, Web-enabled RFPs are among the best services that CVB websites offer planners, says Steve Hayes, executive vice president at Tampa Bay & Company. Hayes says that his bureau's electronic RFP is widely used to connect planners with 750 participating vendors. Planners can either fill out an online form, or upload a document with their event specifications. Either way, the details of the event make their way to a sales staffer, who then transmits the request to vendors, via e-mail or fax. "Then we come back to the planner with bids," he explains.

Planning 2.0
How do meeting planners feel about an electronic RFP process where there's no personal contact? It's a mixed bag, says Hayes. "On one hand, you have those planners who have been involved in the industry for years. Dealing with suppliers one-on-one is how they like to do business. They want to talk with you," he says. "There is another, newer group of planners that want to search for vendors online and communicate via e-mail."

Many CVBs report success with online RFPs, especially for meetings of 150 or fewer peak-night rooms. The Chicago CTB, for example, saw 72-percent growth in that market segment since launching an online RFP tool with a 24-hour turnaround time. The speed of turnaround is essential, says Executive Vice President Mark Theis, since many planners of those events are managing more than 100 similar meetings each year. "Time efficiency is critical. Those planners are so familiar with first- and second-tier cities, so it's all about getting quick answers," Theis says, estimating that 80 percent of those meetings are booked online with no phone calls.

But despite the bureaus' efforts to refer planners to suppliers, using the CVB websites, some event managers choose to find suppliers through other channels. For example, David Anderson, a partner at Eventive Group in Southern California, rarely goes to CVB websites for vendor referrals for the compulsory-attendance corporate events he produces. "Usually our events take place at hotels, and we'll get references from the hotel for vendors," he says. "Many of our events are on the smaller side, and going to the CVB isn't something that we need to do."

And other planners use CVB sites to locate vendors, but stop short of using online RFPs. "I look at CVB websites to discern what hotels are in the destination, and I contact them directly," says Robert Schron, president of the independent planning firm Schron Associates in New York City. "By skipping the CVB, I eliminate a step in the process."

After research and RFPs, the third way that planners effectively use CVB websites is for marketing resources for building attendance. "From a meeting planner's perspective, one of the main things to look for on a CVB websites is promotional material," says Ball. Most sites have a variety of images and maps that can often be customized to suit the demographics of the event's target audience. Some bureau sites have the capability for sending out promotional materials to attendees via e-mail, and some CVBs will go so far as to create customized attendance builders online. Both planners and suppliers appreciate that bureau sites allow for digital transmission of marketing and research material. "We're getting into a much more paperless situation," says Jack Ferguson, executive vice president at the Philadelphia CVB. "We don't ship as much paper collateral as we used to. Customers don't want to carry it around or store it."

Inching Ahead
Despite all the money and effort going into the dynamic space of CVB websites, these Internet destinations aren't undergoing a revolution, but rather an evolution, say the experts. "I don't see a lot of new technology," says Ball. "It's a lot of refinement." Nonetheless, CVB sites are improving, thanks to the bureaus' willingness to try new things.

Many CVBs are slowly adding new features to their sites, which lead to incremental improvements. For example, more bureau websites are beginning to offer live chat capability, where users can type in messages to CVB staffers and get replies instantaneously. "We wanted to offer real-time information, so we launched our live chat function," says Tracy Armstrong, director of community-wide convention marketing at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center in Rochester, NY. "While browsing around the site, planners can type in the chat box to ask questions. It doesn't happen every day; it does happen a few times a week."

And more bureaus are offering broader vendor access on their sites, with links to vendors and booking capability for ancillary activities like golf and local attractions. "We try to allow planners to do a lot of online planning for all aspects of their events," says Leonard Hoops executive vice president, sales and marketing, at the San Francisco CVB. "We have an online system for restaurant reservations, which allows planners to invite attendees to book dinner plans before they get to the city."

Other CVBs are using their sites in creative ways, too. For example, Beth Gendler, director of sales at the Alabama Gulf Coast CVB, says her bureau is now allowing members to post discounted inventory to a section called "Hot Dates and Deals." It's a good opportunity for planners looking for last-minute space. "If our industry partners have dates they're trying to fill, they list those openings on our site, at a discount," explains Gendler, adding that the listings are updated frequently. "If a planner has to find last-minute space or has flexibility for the dates of their event, it can work out really well."

And more CVBs are also successfully using their sites as neutral platforms for feedback, so that planners can provide commentary and criticism on the destination. "With our electronic feedback system, planners have a forum giving us totally honest evaluation of how things went," says Julie Warren, director of convention sales at the Bloomington/Monroe County CVB in Indiana. "We use it to help us tailor the services we provide."

CVB Site Hits and Misses
Some of the bureaus' Internet efforts deserve praise. Others, not so much. Let's parse the latest trends.

Hit: Virtual tours. More sites with 360-degree imaging and video means that planners can get a better feeling for destinations before going to visit. This creates efficiencies for everyone.

Miss: Long site intros. Too many CVBs still employ lengthy animated introductions to their sites. They're just a waste of time and bandwidth. If planners want to see videos and photos, they'll click through to find them.

Hit: Online RFPs. Planners are able to submit their requests to multiple vendors in a market by submitting RFPs through the bureaus. It's a time saver, because otherwise planners would have to submit multiple requests.

Miss: Absentee salespeople. Even though more planners are submitting their booking requests online, flesh-and-blood salespeople have to be reachable in case emergencies arise. Too many bureaus forget and under-staff their call centers.

Hit: Digital marketing materials. Paperless promotion saves hassle and postage. It's good for the environment, too. Bureaus are finding success with customized e-mail invites, event-specific micro sites, and electronic post cards.

Miss: Oversized e-mails. Cramming too many graphics and information into an e-mail can create hassles for recipients. A link to a website is a more elegant solution.

Hit: Separate CVB sites for groups. Meeting planners require different information than leisure travelers. Dedicated CVB sites for meeting planners eliminate clicks and provide critical information.

Miss: Confusing branding. Too many CVBs have branded their sites under different names than the bureaus themselves, and neglect to make it obvious when you're dealing with the official site.

4 Ways to Leverage CVB Sites
Here are four little-known tips for maximizing your Internet time with the bureaus.

Go straight to meetings. Most bureau homepages have clickable tabs that navigate directly to the meeting section of the site. That's where you want to go for salient information for groups; don't mess around in the general section of the site.

Ask for customization. Often, CVBs have resources to easily customize images and digital media to suit your needs. Ask about custom videos and a mini-site for your event.

Go back in time. Keeping up with new bureau websites can be draining, but many CVBs keep old versions of their sites online even after they've upgraded. Often the new sites have links to previous ones, if that's what you prefer. Or call and ask for the URL.

Take it with a grain of salt. Be aware that CVBs are putting their best foot forward with the images and virtual tours they're putting on their sites. It might be good to ask if there's anything they're not showing online, like major roadwork or construction.

Originally published February 01, 2008

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