by Alex Palmer | May 02, 2017
Who wouldn't be happy with an event that has rising attendance year after year, topping out at 7,000 attendees showing up at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, IA this past January? The Iowa Pork Congress, that's who. 

Why? Well, these days much of our food is mass-produced on large, factory-style farms. All that mass production equals abundance and lower prices, but the system is not without its critics. That's why the Iowa Pork Congress, which brings together farmers, experts in agriculture and economics, as well as exhibitors showing off the latest products and services in pork farming, was feeling it wasn't getting enough out of an event that draws thousands. The organization is sensitive to the need to keep public perception of its industry trending positive, so three years ago the leaders thought that they should be leveraging the event to raise awareness among the general public on the important contribution their industry makes to the world at large.

"We felt it was important to get information to people and have pork producers talk about what they do and how they do it," says Ron Birkenholz, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA), which organizes the conference. "So many people today are far removed from the farm and how their food is produced and the safety practices in place, we thought it would be valuable for people to hear from the producers."

So the organization reached out to Catch Des Moines, the convention and visitors bureau (CVB) for the greater Des Moines region, to find out if there were other groups coming to the area that they might be able to get in front of to deliver their message.

"Paulette [Lester, director of convention services for Catch Des Moines] called me and said there was an event with 1,200 attendees -- the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region 5 Festival -- coming to Des Moines, and asked if we would be interested in talking to them," says Birkenholz.

The association sent one of its producers to the conference, where the IPPA sponsored a dinner, picking up the cost of the meal in exchange for giving a brief presentation to the students and professors in attendance about the work that pork producers do. "It was a win-win situation -- they got a lot out of it and so did we," says Birkenholz. 

It was such a win-win that the group has done almost a dozen similar presentations since. And for most of them, it was Catch Des Moines that helped to identify groups outside of their own attendee base that would be open to helping them spread their message. 

This situation is indicative of the range of opportunities that CVBs and destination marketing organizations (DMOs) are able to provide planners who leverage their services. These organizations provide an array of solutions and opportunities that make them indispensable for planners -- as long as planners know what to ask. Here are five questions that planners should be sure they are asking CVBs to ensure they are landing the opportunities, savings, and success stories just as Birkenholz and his team did.

1. What Kind of Savings Can You Get My Group? 

One of the biggest advantages a CVB provides is value, saving a planner thousands of dollars through finding rebates, discounts, and other pockets of savings of which a planner would otherwise be unaware.

That's the approach taken by Explore Asheville, the CVB for Asheville, NC, which offers the "Have More Fun on Us" program as an incentive for groups to visit this North Carolina city. Depending on the meeting's size, planners may be eligible for up to $2,500 that can be used toward offerings in the city, such as local entertainment, tours, or venues.

"The program is designed to enhance a meeting in Asheville while offering a service that encourages using local businesses," explains Carli Adams, group communications and services manager for Explore Asheville. She adds that planners who source a meeting through the Asheville CVB are also eligible for additional exclusive services such as VIP amenity gifts and "attraction value cards" that offer discounts to area attractions and businesses.

"Planners end up costing the client money when they aren't working with the CVB," says Patricia F. Zollman, CMP, CMM, HMCC, senior director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe. "The client might be losing out on a rebate or discount that only the CVB would know about -- I say 'every RFP you do, copy the CVB' to see what they have to offer."

Zollman has had especially good luck working with the Monterey County CVB, with which she's partnered for more than 15 years. Value is one of the biggest benefits the organization has been able to deliver. Zollman gives the example of a recent event in which she sought to take advantage of a rebate for any group that had more than 500 attendees staying at area hotels. The only trouble: "We could not figure out exactly where all the people had stayed."

But when she asked Lauren Siring, CMP, the CVB's regional sales executive for Northern California and Mountain states, about the situation, Siring took Zollman's list of attendees and sent it to every hotel in Monterey.

"She found out where every person stayed so we were able to get credit for the rebate," says Zollman. "That's really above and beyond."

Zollman's years-long relationship with the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has helped her get value even when bringing smaller groups to this coastal California city, that they might not otherwise enjoy the deals of a larger group. For example, in a current contract with a client in which the hotel they are staying at is offering a discount, the CVB is picking up part of the cost for sleep-ing rooms. There are plenty more savings to be found -- if you know to ask for them.

2. How Can You Help Us Get Out of Our 'Conference Mentality'?

CVBs are ideal for helping groups think outside the conference center, discovering unusual venues or giving memorable twists to familiar places. That's certainly been the experience of groups that have tapped Visit Napa Valley.

"Recently, a group specifically chose the Napa Valley because they wanted to host a meeting that was not in a hotel ballroom," says Teresa Savage, vice president of sales for Visit Napa Valley. "The sales manager was able to determine their specific need, and compile a list of appropriate venues. The meeting planner ultimately selected Hall Wines and the Culinary Institute of America at Copia for their demonstration kitchens to showcase their company's food and how it paired with wine."

The Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau (LBCVB) has found ways to provide unconventional spaces even within a convention center, creating a number of "turn-key" venues at The Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. These spaces provide professional light and sound, furniture and décor, activities, and even adjustable ceiling height, tailored to the planner's needs. The latest of these, opening this spring, is The Cove on Seaside Way, a dramatic representation of the underside of a waterfront pier, complete with lighting effects, crystal chandeliers, seashore architectural features, and customized glass starfish and barnacles.

"In the past, groups had to hire and rent these lighting fixtures, but now it's permanent," says Steve Goodling, president and CEO of LBCVB. "We've extended it to the outside where we've put in more trusses and lighting." Next year, it will be activating water fountains, creating a light-water-sound show as in Las Vegas. 

"We have clients say, 'you don't have to rent this?'" adds Goodling. "Beyond the basics of helping people understand the city and what vendors can help them, we help with event planning. Planners don't want to be talked to -- they want to collaborate."  

She also points to a corporate group out of the San Francisco Bay Area that planned a Leadership Retreat in the Napa Valley. 

"From the beginning, the sales manager was extremely engaged with their needs and matched them with the Inn on Randolph, a luxury boutique bed and breakfast located in downtown Napa," she says. "The event was very successful and the venue turned out to be the perfect setting for their needs. This planner has recommended the sales manager and the Visit Napa Valley's meeting planning services to many of her team members based on this over the top experience."

On the other side of the U.S., another wine country that's been able to help groups get outside traditional spaces is New York State's Fin-ger Lakes region.

"The biggest way that we can add value is by assisting with itinerary building, making connections with vendors who offer unique ex-periences, and providing our own expertise on things that the group should consider as 'outside of the box' activities while they're here," says Brittany Gibson, tourism and marketing manager for the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

She gives the example of the SPARK! Leadership Conference held in the Finger Lakes last year. Hosted at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, they arranged for a session at the Quintus Gallery, a lakeside art gallery in the area that helped to "get attendees out of the confer-ence mentality and into a creative, artistic space" and "truly took their experience to the next level." They worked with the Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airline Executives last summer to put together an excursion for a conference that they hosted here in Watkins Glen at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel last June. "While they were here for their conference, they took a trip aboard the MV Remedy (a sightseeing tour boat) of Schooner Excursions, Inc., and also went on a guided hike at Watkins Glen State Park."

VisitDallas has found some other ways to add its own "only in Dallas" excitement to a gathering or off-site event.

"We have helped connect clients to venues that normally would not be open to the public, such as private homes, tours, special dinners with celebrity chefs, and bucket-list items with local celebrities, team owners, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders," says Visit Dallas Chief Ex-perience Officer Renee McKinney. She adds that for one group's VIP guests and board, they helped arrange a private dinner cooked at the home of one of Dallas' biggest-name celebrity chefs. "They are all looking at ways we can 'wow' their attendees."

The CVB can be an invaluable partner in a city as big as Dallas, with its wealth of event and meetings offerings. They can help identify hidden gems such as the recently opened The Highland Dallas, a Curio Collection Hotel by Hilton with more than 13,000 square feet of event space, including a 6,470-square-foot ballroom. Packed with Texas charm and steakhouse Knife, it's a great option for groups, but might have flown under the radar if not for local help from the CVB or DMO.

3. What Kind of Partnerships Can You Create?

Catch Des Moines was able to create some highly valuable partnerships for the IPPA, thanks to the fact that the organization asked. A CVB is often the hub where all the spokes of a destination -- hotels, convention centers, visiting groups, and many others -- connect, and can connect them with each other.

Asheville's Adams notes that the CVB has seen an increase in requests for service projects ideas, or requests from groups that want to be immersed in the local community in a unique way. Since Explore Asheville has connections to many such groups throughout the city, it's been able to provide this for visiting groups. 

"We recently helped a group find a service project for 200 people that would make a positive impact on the local environment," says Adams. "We also recently connected another planner to a local charity that agreed to help facilitate and collect donations that will benefit area children in need -- all on site at the conference hotel." 

The CVB has formalized these partnerships with a Go Local Card, a citywide discount pass that offers cardholders savings at more than 400 local businesses. The CVB sends more than 70 percent of card sale profits to the Asheville City Schools Foundation, a local nonprofit, and planners can get the cards from the CVB for half their usual cost. The Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) hosted its 2016 conference in the city and took advantage of the program.

"As a part of supporting the local community and benefit our attendees we sold the Go Local cards and were able to donate over $1,000 to the Asheville City Schools Foundation," says Gwynne Rukenbrod Smith, SNAG's executive director. "As a nonprofit that supports jewelry and metal artists all over the world, we felt it was important to give back and the Go Local card was a great way to support the local community."

CVBs can also assist with finding opportunities to connect a group with individuals, organizations, and resources relevant to their particular event or event goals -- a local expert in the industry, a tour of a company headquarters, and so on. In the case of Visit Napa Valley, that's been wineries with owners that share interests of visiting groups. Savage points out that the CVB recently introduced a lighting company wishing to hold an event at a winery with Jarvis Winery, whose owner started in fiberoptic lighting.

"These partnerships often result in an unforgettable experience," says Savage.

4. How Can You Take My Event to the Next Level?

Increasingly, CVBs' involvement is extending far beyond the initial planning stages of an event. While in the past, meeting planners generally sourced only their initial plans to destination marketing organizations, Savage says that recently she is seeing more groups working closely with the CVB throughout the process, helping to enhance virtually every aspect, from site selection to event execution. "We have seen an increase with planners reaching out after they have secured their hotel for help putting together their programming," she says. "The sales team frequently receives requests for non-cookie-cutter experiences, or, a memorable event that they couldn't have anywhere but the Napa Valley." She gives the examples of cooking classes at the new CIA at Copia in downtown Napa, cocktail-making classes at the Napa Valley Distillery, and kayaking on the Napa River.

For a visit to Monterey, Zollman had a small group that was eager to host an event at the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium. They were very specific about how they wanted to do the event, and the CVB helped to tailor a plan that to do just that.

"They actually found solutions to what we wanted to do and created a memorable experience," says Zollman.

This extends to logistics as well. For a group of motorcycle enthusiasts coming to Lexington, KY, the CVB, VisitLEX, worked with the local police division to arrange for electronic signs that informed drivers to be cautious of a large number of motorcyclists on the roads. 

They also helped another event take flight -- literally. "For the 101st Airborne Division Association Reunion, we successfully arranged for a flyover and parachute jump into a downtown green space during a weekly event, Thursday Night Live," describes Marci Krueger-Sidebottom, vice president of sales and services at VisitLEX. "This required coordinating logistics with the airport, police division, local authorities, as well as the planners of Thursday Night Live."

Sacramento, CA, was named "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital" in 2012, and since that time, the city's food scene has exploded -- and the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau has proven adept at helping groups incorporate this food scene in memorable and creative ways.

"With Sacramento's food scene seeing such a resurgence, we wanted to give this very pertinent group of guests a taste of our local cuisine," says Sarah Atilano, director of convention sales for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. They reserved 13th Street, just outside the Hyatt Regency and the Sacramento Convention Center, and worked with Hyatt's culinary team to host a "special, outdoor farm-to-fork dinner using local ingredients for all of the attendees." They also partnered with nonprofit Food Tank to host the first "Farm Tank Summit" in Sacramento last year that allowed guests "to get their boots dirty and tour farms, ranches, restaurants, food banks, and more," says Atilano. 

They also hosted a "Taste of Sacramento" reception during the conference where they highlighted local restaurants, which provided food samples and discussed their eateries with attendees. They also partnered with nonprofit Food Tank to host the first "Farm Tank Summit" in Sacramento last year. 

"To provide attendees with the chance to really get out and explore local food and agriculture, we organized different themed tracks (ex-amples attached) that allowed guests to get their boots dirty and tour farms, ranches, restaurants, food banks, and more," says Atiliano. "We also organized lunch stops at local farms to again, give attendees a real sense of our region."

5. How Can You Help Me Sell the Destination to Decision Makers?

For planners trying to convince a client of the benefits of a particular destination, the site visit is often the most important moment in the decision-making process -- and CVBs can do wonders to help showcase all that's available. 

For a site visit where a large group of decision makers wanted to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, Indianapolis' CVB, Visit Indy, arranged for representatives from major downtown hotel properties (Marriott, Westin, Hyatt, Omni, Crowne Plaza, and Conrad) to come aboard the group's shuttle bus as they arrived outside the hotel. Each spent two minutes with the group, hitting on key hotel highlights and sharing their favorite places in the city that group attendees would love.

"The planners made personal connections with key Indy sales managers and learned about the destination in an efficient way," says Lisa Wallace, senior communications manager for conventions and meetings at Visit Indy. "As Indy has a very compact convention package, 10 other hotels were pointed out during the driving tour."

This tour was followed with a "progressive lunch tasting experience" at three of the places noted by the hotel sales managers. With Visit Indy orchestrating hotels, restaurants, and attractions, the planners were able to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

The CVBs are also the folks who can best see into the future of a destination. Zollman describes a client hosting an event in Louisville, KY. They were concerned about the amount of space available, but the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau tipped them off about the new 612-room Omni Louisville Hotel, slated to open in 2018.

"The CVB was able to arrange everything, giving us information and do a walkthrough of the property," says Zollman.

6. How Can You Help Me Spread the Word About My Event?

Ahead of a big event and during a conference or convention, helping promote the event through email and social media, has become in-creasingly important -- and CVBs have done wonders in enhancing these offerings for groups.

For example, VisitLEX provides free publicity services for events and conferences -- from exposure via news releases and media data-bases to scheduling interviews. 

"We have successfully garnered a front-page feature in the Lexington Herald-Leader for several events, consistently booked in-studio television appearances and even secured a celebrity judge for a water-tasting event," says Krueger-Sidebottom.

They also share a Planners Tool Kit with planners that they can use to help sell the destination to attendees as well as the decision maker on the client side. This includes videos that showcase the Bluegrass region, covering topics from "Top 10 things to do and see," "How do I get there?" and "How should I experience bourbon?" 

Increasingly, that's included social media as well. 

"As the demographic of meeting attendees gets younger, the reach of social media and digital influences are become greater," says Barbi Mason, vice president of convention services for Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We're finding that more groups are looking to reach attendees on their mobile devices."

To meet this growing demand, the LBCVB has added new social media strategies to its list of services offered to meeting planners, offering dynamic content for the planner to use in promoting their conference and grabbing the interest of their attendees, including eye-catching photography, and site information. 

"In addition, we're happy to support content the group puts on their social media channels by retweeting or sharing on our own channels," says Mason.

VisitLEX started to offer electronic tools that planners can share on their social media platforms and websites to inform attendees about where to dine in Lexington and what tours they can take, whether horse farms or bour-bon distilleries (all hosted at visitlex.com).

"Attendees want to engage with social media and receive information in this format," says Krueger-Sidebottom. "We've seen success with the hashtag, #sharetheLEX, since it showcases the unique environment and offerings that meeting attendees can explore while they are in Lexington." 

There's no shortage of benefits that planners can enjoy by working closely with a local CVB or DMO -- as long as they remember to A.S.K.