Northeast Leaders Take Survival Steps in the Face of Recession

The last time the meetings market turned sour, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GBCVB) made a costly mistake by pulling back its overseas marketing efforts, said Pat Moscaritolo, the bureau's president and CEO.

"We got out, and when there was a shift in the currency markets [with the weaker dollar making the U.S. a more attractive destination for meeting planners from overseas], it took us a while to build that business back," said Moscaritolo, who vowed not to repeat that error in this economic downturn. "We weren't ready when the business [shifted], so we didn't get our share of the bounce-back."

The 2002-to-2004 period was an important lesson learned, Moscaritolo said, and he indicated the GBCVB needs to stay on important international markets through the valleys as well as the peaks.

In coping with the worst economic crisis in a generation, CVBs all around the Northeast are focusing resources and reexamining priorities. Understandably, many are looking to trim non-critical items.

At the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, president Joe McGrath said his sales team will be spending less time out of the office and expenses will be trimmed. "I do think we will pull our horns in temporarily," he said.

"Due to present market conditions, we are taking a closer look at all of our travel, trade show participation, and marketing events to determine where we can cut," said Al Hutchinson, vice president of convention sales and marketing for the Virginia Beach Convention &Visitors Bureau. "Our goal is to continue to have a presence where we feel we will receive the greatest return on investment."

For Hutchinson, surviving the recession means concentrating on Virginia Beach's core markets, including SMERF. Boston, on the other hand, is continuing to work on attracting overseas groups by marketing at the IMEX industry show in Frankfurt in May, as well as by hosting familiarization trips from France and Germany, plus sending sales teams to the U.K.

Moscaritolo said the GBCVB is especially keen to drum up business during the NFL's regular season game between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers this fall in London, where it will entertain clients.

Boston also went "old school" with a two-day telephone sales blitz late last year aimed at regional meetings, said Moscaritolo, with 40 salespeople making calls to associations and corporate planners to solicit last-minute business for January to April.

Corporate meetings business has slowed in cities like Boston and Hartford, but officials said the Northeast is still holding its own thanks to its strong demographics and diverse mix of businesses. In cities like Pittsburgh, which gets relatively little regional business, the focus is on marketing to statewide, national, and international groups. Baltimore has reported a healthy dose of medical group bookings, leveraging Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Medical System.

In a way, the economic crisis has been an advantage for second-tier cities, said Pittsburgh's McGrath. "As associations look to maximize their return on investment, second-tier destinations become more attractive," he said, noting Pittsburgh has good airlift, is a central location, and offers competitive rates on hotels and event venues.

On the other hand, McGrath noted, "After 9/11, Chicago, New York, and Boston began reaching down, and our price advantage went away."

Jack Ferguson, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PCVB), said his staff has ramped up efforts to stay in touch with booked groups so that if registrations fall short or housing needs decline, the CVB can "look in our backyard and see what we can stimulate to backfill what we may lose."

The PCVB's regional marketing to make up for potential shortfalls in national and international business has meant more face-to-face marketing and outreach to nontraditional partners to find sales leads, like chambers of commerce and city governments around the Philadelphia region.

Its pitch to groups: You can now afford to meet in the city, and in tight budgetary times it's certainly cheaper to drive to Philly than to fly somewhere else. "We need to see who we can find in the short term that has the money or needs to meet," Ferguson said.

Originally published Feb. 2, 2009