Preemptive Strike: Destination Deals

On Jan. 11, some 3,000 meeting planners and convention executives descended upon New Orleans for the 2009 annual meeting of the Professional Convention Management Association. Hotels were full and, on closing night, there was a big party at the Louisiana Superdome. By all appearances, the meetings industry was strong and the American economy was in good shape.

But appearances can be deceiving, acknowledged J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Although we're up 9.6 percent this year over last in our group bookings, the question is, how much attrition will we face because of the economy? It's too early to tell, but we do expect to be affected; there's no question about that." While business so far remains strong, destinations throughout the region are aggressively launching programs and policies to attract group business.

In Columbia, SC, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center has announced a "summer savings" package that has a 25-percent discount on meeting space rentals from June to August.

In Raleigh, the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau is marketing free museums and attractions, as well as its SmartCard, a program for convention delegates.

That card grants access to deals and discounts from 150 participating restaurants, retail establishments, and golf courses.

Also, the city has started a shared-ride shuttle from Raleigh-Durham International Airport that goes downtown for half the cost of a taxi, as well as a free downtown bus that carries attendees to Raleigh restaurants and attractions. Called the circulator because it does a three-mile loop around town, the bus runs at 10- to 15-minute intervals almost all day, from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m.

In Nashville, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau is taking a different approach, with its new "We'll Sing for Meetings" promotion that includes a unique incentive: a free performance by a singer-songwriter. It also includes more standard incentives like free meeting space.

"We're focusing on what makes Nashville unique—the brand of Music City," said Kay Witt, the CVB's senior vice president of sales.

In addition to being creative, several destinations are counting on human resources to help them weather the recession.

To that end, Witt's added two salespeople to her staff in the last six months, a move echoed in New Orleans, Charlotte, and Raleigh, all of which now have bigger sales forces.

In Myrtle Beach, SC, tourism officials have recruited extra help in the form of local citizens. In a new program called "Growing with Groups," residents are being asked to generate sales leads in exchange for a two-night staycation.

"Many people in our community belong to civic organizations and national trade associations that meet regularly," said Danna Lilly, director of sales for the Myrtle Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We're asking them to bring some of that business home."

Because word-of-mouth referrals are powerful tools, they're also a large part of sales strategies in Atlanta and New Orleans, which will host the International Association of Exhibitions and Events' annual meeting this year and next year.

By the end of this month, both cities will have hosted major meetings industry events—the Professional Convention Management Association's annual meeting in New Orleans and Meeting Professionals International's MeetDifferent in Atlanta—enabling them to engage influential audiences of meeting planners.

Originally published Feb. 16, 2009