A Perfect Match

We know what you're thinking: "My group's so small, we'll get lost in the shuffle." "The CVB will ignore me because I'm not bringing in much business." Or even: "They don't want us—they're looking for groups that'll rent out the convention center." Wrong, wrong, wrong. Doing an out-of-town gathering for 25? Call the CVB, say savvy small-meeting planners.

Successful Meetings talked to CVBs across the country with staffers who specialize in attracting smaller groups (read: under one roof), then quizzed small-meeting planners about what CVBs have done to win their business. What we learned may surprise you—we'll bet you didn't know, for instance, that even a behemoth bureau like the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority will gladly help out with mini-meetings requiring as few as 10 rooms on peak night. Read on to find out why small meetings and big bureaus are a match made in heaven.

1. Big Bucks

So you're not bringing 15,000 Shriners to town—so what? Chances are, your group's flashing more cash per person than those fez-clad visitors do. "Attendees at smaller meetings tend to spend more locally than convention attendees," notes Becky Oster of the Tampa Bay CVB, by way of explaining why her position (she specializes in meetings with no more than 100 rooms on peak night) was created a few years back. "The smaller groups have more flexibility in their time and do more off-site dinners and other events" than conventioneers, she explains. "And smaller meetings include more presidents and CEOs"—in other words, attendees who are more than likely to drop a few Benjamins at restaurants and other venues while they're out and about.

2. Big Business

There are lots of meetings needing only one property, observes Kristi Miller, vice president of sales and services for the Scottsdale, AZ, CVB—in fact, 95 percent of Scottsdale's meetings are one-hotel affairs. Elaine Harris, who coordinates intimate, high-level physician-and-spouse gatherings of under 100 for the Oklahoma Academy of Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery in Oklahoma City, recently visited Scottsdale on an all-expenses-paid site inspection and gushes, "The bureau is very professional and hospitable. They do a fantastic job of showing their city and everything it has to offer without being biased." Targeting smaller meetings like hers certainly pays off for Scottsdale: When Harris held her meeting there, her well-heeled attendees rewarded the desert resort destination by spending thousands of dollars on golf, haute cuisine, and Native American jewelry and art.

3. Repeat Business

Why are savvy CVBs falling over themselves trying to book that 10-person board meeting—even when the group is flying in and out on the same day? To build a relationship, explains James Lynton, convention services manager at the Sacramento CVB. You never know when that same planner might bring back an annual convention or other large gathering, he points out, so it pays to make a connection now. Does it work? "Definitely," replies Lynton. "Seventy percent of our business is the repeat customer." In Scottsdale, the "repeat factor," as Kristi Miller calls it, is even stronger. "If planners bring a board of directors meeting here, they often come back with their annual meeting," says Miller, adding that a recent survey at the bureau revealed that 79 percent of its business is generated by repeat customers. "Doing a small program first is a great way for planners to test out a destination."

4. Personal Attention

Plenty of bureaus, especially in second-tier cities, will go out of their way to help with undersized meetings, planners told us. The Albuquerque CVB, to name just one, gladly works with any planner—professional or volunteer—booking 10 peak room-nights or more, says Denise Suttle, assistant director of convention services, who adds, "If someone calls us and only needs catering referrals with no room-nights attached, we still help them get the word out to the appropriate venues." Meanwhile, at the Austin, TX, CVB, "No meeting is too small to use our services," boasts convention sales manager Shannon Cannon. Indeed, the CVB hosted Elaine Harris last year for a site inspection for a 35-attendee meeting. The bureau lavished personal attention on her, says Harris, accompanying her on an all-day visit to area golf courses and even giving her a personal tour of the city.

5. Local Expertise

Jennifer Colindres, who coordinates educational seminars ranging from 30 to 250 attendees for the Washington D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, finds CVBs to be a big help, even if she doesn't book her hotels through them. "I usually work with national salespeople from hotel chains, but they don't know the city itself," she explains. "For finding things like restaurants and transportation companies, I like to use bureaus because they really know the destination—they're great resources for getting your hands around the city."

6. Local Expertise, part ll

For your next in-town get-together, why not call your friendly neighborhood CVB? Local bureaus are often a big source of help for in-town gatherings, say small-meetings mavens. Bobbie Connolly, member services coordinator for Lincoln, NE-based Alegent NPG Health-Link, a division of the largest health-care system in her state, recently started using her local CVB for some of her in-town seminars. "The bureau here introduced me to places in the city that I didn't know existed," she reveals. "Sometimes I want something more unique than a downtown hotel, and my contact [at the bureau] gave me some excellent suggestions." Likewise, Kathleen Fish, director of programs (average attendance 150) for the Association of Management Consulting Firms, uses her hometown bureau—which happens to be NYC & Company—for free support materials such as maps for her out-of-town attendees. In her brochures she also includes the CVB's Web site, which serves as an access portal to museums, Broadway shows, and other attractions; this is especially helpful for the senior executives attending her meetings, since many hail from Europe and can therefore plan their downtime online, free of time-difference constraints.

7. Leg Work

Doris Mayer, an independent planner based in Solon, OH, organizes some 50 smaller gatherings a year, each of which requires contacting 10 to 15 hotels per city. "By ringing the CVB first, I can save hundreds of phone calls," she boasts. Planners might fear the bureau will pass on their RFP willy-nilly and thereby generate hundreds of nearly useless leads, "but if you're clear about your group's needs and instruct the CVB to only contact those properties that can deliver, they'll usually do it," notes Mayer. This 30-year hospitality veteran is such a believer in bureaus, in fact, that she's designed presentations to help CVBs win over small-meeting planners like her.

8. Leg Work, part ll

Sure, CVBs will host you for a site visit; the nicer ones will even greet you at the airport. But did you know that some will actually host your client if you're an independent planner? Doris Mayer says this service is "the best part" of using a bureau: "The CVB sets up a hotel tour so my client can pick the property. All I do is get him down there," explains Mayer, who recently had a client hosted on just such a visit by the Hartford, CT, CVB. "It saves so much time—otherwise, I'd be flying all over the place!"

9. Leg Work, part lll

Good CVBs are honest about whether they can handle your business, planners say. One small-meeting planner tells us that a Tampa Bay CVB salesperson—whom she's worked with on several get-togethers—even advised her not to bring a particular gathering to Tampa. "He said, 'We're not quite ready for your group—can you give me a year?' " she recalls. "It was the biggest favor he ever did for me."