Making Cents of it All

Convention and visitors bureaus are working with planners through difficult financial times.

With the economic slowdown, companies will be sending fewer employees to meetings—if they send any at all. Some organizations are considering whether a once no-brainer annual conference can even happen at all. But CVBs and meeting planners are working together to find solutions, or at least adjust to problems like attrition. They're looking at every cost and dealing with excessive hotel expenses (well, at least Vegas is starting to cave). It's a challenging time, to say the least. How it's met may decide whether virtual meetings become the rule as opposed to the exception.

Deal With It

If planners are going to cope, CVBs know it will take creative deals, along with an extra helping of patience. In fact, it means looking at any trick you can muster. "Events used to be all about being fresh, but you can also take a fresh approach to the cost structure," says Paul Miller, director of convention sales for the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Just because you may have to share speakers with another event to save money doesn't mean you can't work with that speaker to make sure the speech is customized to your particular theme. Speakers are feeling the crunch also, so they're more likely to work with you ... Flooring is also something that can be shared. You need to look at every aspect of your event that doesn't need to be a one-time use and there's a cost savings."

Miller also sees the CVB as becoming the tour guide for the planner to find every item necessary for the event. "You need to think more local than ever for purchases." he says. "Those banners, which may cost much more from across the country, can be kept within bounds by finding a cheaper professional within a few miles. But it's up to the CVB to have the right person to recommend."

CVBs may also be beneficial in convincing some of these same local businesses to pay to showcase their products as another program at your event. The selling of "ad time," a much more aggressive alternative to the exhibitor floor, could be a necessity.

Betty Burns, events department manager for the American Business Women's Association (ABWA), feels it's time for CVBs to get more involved not just in getting these deals but in allowing flexibility in billing minimums. "If the food and beverage minimum is $40,000 and you're at $35,000, then it's time to say it's close enough. I think the CVBs can stretch their relationships to get us more leeway. Let's get into a room together and say, 'We may have a 10 percent drop from the economy, but can we work together to take advantage of what we do have?"

Helping Get the Word Out

California's Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (LBCVB) is helping its clients keep attendance up by assisting with public relations and marketing efforts.

Take the recent AKC/Eukanuba National Championship. In order to ensure attendance didn't drop off as a result of the sputtering economy, the CVB created a doghouse decorating contest called the "Woof and Roof Challenge" in conjunction with the event. It also helped local charities raise funds and get publicity of their own.

"The contest was extremely well covered by the media. It was a hit. We also took out an ad in a lifestyle magazine promoting the show," explains Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the LBCVB. "We believe in the Nordstrom approach to service. We will help get whatever is needed to make a conference successful."

Long Beach-based The Women's Conference has grown from a small California government initiative for working professionals into a far-reaching organization. It unites more than 60 internationally acclaimed leaders with 14,000 women in one arena, plus thousands more virtually. Last year the first-annual Night at The Village debuted on the eve of the conference. Maria Shriver, first lady of California, and her staff asked the LBCVB for help with promotion to draw attendees.

"We created a list of contacts that consisted of 40,000 e-mail addresses to which we sent out information about the Night at The Village. We also created a customized website, something we do for all of our clients, and took out an ad. The first lady's office was extremely pleased with all we did to help promote the event," says Goodling.

Given the current economy, concessions are a new reality. Long Beach was competing with several major cities for a 2012 association meeting. "We just signed the contract last week. They had a lot of concessions and we were able to meet those concessions. We offer one-stop shopping. We don't make customers go to each party asking for concessions. We facilitate that as a bureau. We assist with negotiations. We represent the hotels and the community and we also represent the client and we work to make it a win-win."

The world's leading thinkers and doers will be congregating in Long Beach for the TED Conference February 3-7. After conference organizers mentioned they wanted to do a lot with lighting, the LBCVB got busy.

"As the economy started to slow down and decelerate in October, five major partners in the community pooled $1.5 million to deploy an LED lighting program. We promoted it as, 'Come see the 20,000 lights in downtown Long Beach.' A majority of these lights are going to be permanent," explains Goodling. "When the TED Conference comes in February they are doing a street party, and the lighting is already up, and that will help in defraying their costs. And other groups will be able to use the lighting as well."

Small Advantages

Pat Frew, communications director for the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees strong opportunity for planners and his own organization during the recession, because he represents a smaller location. "Obviously it's important for a planner to think about other things than the destination with the way the economy is right now," he says. "We've seen that by taking initiative and not just waiting for planners to ask for certain things, we can bring more business our way. Whether it's promotion in local media or helping to broker deals outside of the usual, this is the time for smaller areas to work harder."

ABWA's Burns says that's exactly how Covington, KY, won her 2008 convention over previously used destinations such as Las Vegas and Atlanta. "Our associations were in a growth period [for membership] and yet our conventions have been going down annually," she explains. "We had to at least consider other possible venues for our 1,000-plus group. Covington made us feel like the big fish in the small pond. We were impressed because their presentation was clearly adjusted with us in mind."

Burns believes planners need to be more demanding than ever during the initial meeting with the CVB. "In the past, you felt like CVBs sometimes valued your business so little that they'd just push you through any tour. It was almost like, 'That's all you get, and make a decision because we have someone else on the next tour in 15 minutes.' Now we're all in a crunch, and it means really brainstorming. I want the CVB to make me understand why their city at this particular time is a standout. Tell me why I should be optimistic that the city will help in the event being a hit. How are you going to work with me in case there are problems along the way?"

Frew adds that CVBs should show they understand planners don't want to cut corners just because their budget has been cut.

"Planners are afraid of being embarrassed during this time, and a CVB, even if they have to think smaller, should still be finding ways to make sure certain standards are met." Frew says the Northern Kentucky CVB offers a free day of rental at the convention center if a group isn't pleased with the event, and suggests planners try for that kind of insurance from other cities.

Burns says it's time for sister cities to partner to allow for better deals. "I'd like to see more cities get together and give a bulk rate if you agree to all of them in consecutive years," she says. "Sometimes cities are in such competition that they end up hurting each other and the planners over it." Sacramento CVB's Miller agrees—his city partners with Baltimore and Fort Worth. "The challenge is making sure your staff has a thorough knowledge of the other two cities," he says.

Reality Sets In

Despite the tradition of annual meetings, cost- cutting may mean a switch to regional meetings. Of course, this means smaller events and possibly less incentive for CVBs to get involved. But Miller acknowledges that this attitude needs to change. "We all have to win the smaller battles sometimes when times are tough," he says. "We realize that by helping with those kind of events, we may be keeping these organizations going for times when things are better and the national event can return. A CVB definitely can't afford to turn up their nose and leave planners in the lurch."

Kathryn Horton, senior director of convention events and services for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, says regardless of the future economy, there needs to be a more open dialogue between meeting planners and CVBs.

"There's no question that CVBs need to continue to try and offer more, but meeting planners can help us by being more forthcoming than ever," she says. "By giving us your top priorities, instead of just saying, 'I want to save the most money possible,' we can focus our efforts. If you already have special deals with speakers, then I need to know I shouldn't be concentrating on that."

Jerri Lane, vice president of convention sales for the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that meeting planners can expect CVBs to step it up but not work miracles. "Though our city hasn't been affected so far, we may have to prepare for some uneasy times," she says. "But that doesn't mean hotels are always going to budge on prices. Have realistic expectations, and deals have a better chance to be worked out."

No matter what deals are possible, Burns is confident that if there's one area that can be saved on it's time.

"I'd love to see the CVBs bring as many offers together as possible for one-stop shopping," she says. "When I pick out convention sites, it's easier to get all meeting rooms, sleeping rooms, food, and A/V packaged together. The last thing I want to feel is that I'm on my own in this."

Originally published Feb. 1, 2009

For more ideas, tips, and tools for better meetings and events, get Successful Meetings' weekly e-newsletter delivered to your inbox.