The Evolution of International Destination Branding

Insights from SMU International's Meetings Destination Roundtable

International Destination Branding opener

Once a year, some of the top thought leaders on the topic of international meetings and events convene in New York City to attend Successful Meetings' SMU International. This year, before the show started we gathered executives from 11 tourist boards, hotel companies, and DMCs, as well as meeting planners to participate in a roundtable to discuss challenges facing suppliers and meeting planners when it comes to promoting and branding destinations for international meetings.

We were joined by Jaime Schwarz, the creative director of gyro, a global branding and advertising agency, who listened to the group's challenges and offered advice on how to deal with them.

Here are some highlights from the discussion:


Successful Meetings: Let's start by talking about branding and destinations in general terms. What would be the most important value propositions that planners look for during the site selection process, when they're exploring where they're going to go? What are they hoping to see for a brand message?
Chris Lynn: Experience is above all. It's the No. 1 thing.

Cindy Hoddeson: I think experience is key, but the bottom line, everybody has a budget. Not necessarily cheap or inexpensive, but value is very important when it comes to making a decision.

Cheryl Faust: I think the image and the activities that are offered in the destination help. If it is an association, it'll help encourage attendees to pay the expense to attend, which is the biggest challenge that associations have.

Miguel Assis: Or if we can combine the value and experience. Nowadays, the term we are hearing more from clients is the "return on event," instead of the return on investment. And for that, we need, as a destination, to be able to fulfill whatever the client's goals are for that event. You might be an amazing destination for a specific event, but not so much for the other one.

So what is the destination that better brings that return? That, I think, is more and more what we have to look at, as our industry is becoming more professional. I think that our industry was very unprofessional some years ago because it was seen as just pleasure and fun.

And now people want to know, "what do I get from it?" What do I get from going to London? What do I get from going to Portugal, or Aruba, or Hong Kong? We are positioning each destination for different events and trying to evaluate, "What is the return that people can get from it?"

James LaValle: Well, it depends on what type of return. Every client is looking for a different type of return. So you have to be quick on your feet and be able to customize your value proposition. If it is a program that needs good return on financial investment, you have to identify certain opportunities for them to leverage your destination. For example, an association comes to Asia to grow their Asian membership most of the time.

So what advantages do you offer to that type of client? For corporate groups that are coming in because Hong Kong is a world financial capital, what are our advantages? What type of expert speakers are available? What type of expert education can we bring to an accounting group that's bringing a bunch of its salespeople in?

It has to be done very much on a customized, client-by-client basis.


Q: On that client-by-client basis, what are the things that the clients are asking for now, that maybe they weren't asking for five years ago? Some of you mentioned that one of the big buzzwords now is "experiential." Is that coming from the attendees? Are they demanding richer experiences than they had been in the past?
LaValle: International destinations were always expected to provide an enriched experience, compared to domestic destinations, so there's a bit of a disconnect there. We're trying to find softer ways to bring those elements to programs because it just ends up being too hard for people. What the planners want and what the executives want on corporate programs can be very different because an executive often doesn't understand some of the budget implications.

So as a destination, if you can bring budgeting expertise and what's in the destination to the planner, while bringing the experience and the educational opportunity to the executive, you're meeting both sides of the equation.

Caroline Pidroni: And I think if you look at the experience, it's also the uniqueness. It's no longer good enough to just say, for example, Switzerland is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? What can you do that you can only do in that one particular destination?

So you open the door for them to have their meeting in an exclusive venue like the Delegates Room at the United Nations. Then that sells New York to the planner because they can say to their stakeholders: "We can actually bring our meeting into the Delegates Room at the United Nations."

Natasha Syed of Rocco Forte Hotels
Natasha Syed of Rocco Forte Hotels

Natasha Syed: We're hearing the phrase more, "money can't buy experiences." So it's not just having any experience, it's something that the attendees would not be able to do if they went to that destination on their own. That's what gets attendees engaged.

Hoddeson: Natasha just used a key word, engaged. I think engagement and interactivity is more important, whether it be for an incentive program or for a meeting. I think many years ago, on incentives, people enjoyed the destination by looking out the window of a bus. Now, it's, "Am I riding a bicycle? Can I go to the market and touch the fruit and engage with the locals?"

If it's a meeting, I think people have the attention of a flea. We're looking at more creative meeting room design, different kinds of boardrooms, different kinds of furniture, I think that that's very important. People don't want to be lectured to anymore. They want to be part of the dialogue. Suppliers have to be ready to help planners find the kinds of innovative technology that can be a tool in terms of enhancing the meeting experience.

Gabriel Haigazian: And to echo what's been said, no more of the same ol', same ol'. Our incentive planners are looking for unique. They're looking for sexy. They are definitely looking for outside-the-box in terms of activities, smaller, more hands-on experiences.

We're finding that we don't really do group activities all day anymore. We're doing smaller, more interactive events, whether it be a cooking class or driving a Ferrari. Luxury is still hugely important. Oftentimes, we will suggest destinations first by the caliber of accommodations at a certain location.


Q: Are you finding that companies or associations are starting to choose a destination that reflects their organization's values and principles?
Hoddeson: We do find that. Companies have sought out Monaco because of the Prince's emphasis on sustainability and having been a leader in the U.N. in terms of sustainable commitment.

We have also found that certain events have chosen our destination because they were launching, let's say, a deluxe product and they wanted the backdrop to match that. For example, when Regent Cruises launched their new ship, they opted to hold the launch in Monaco.

So, yes, we do see that.

Caroline Pidroni, Switzerland
Caroline Pidroni, Switzerland

Pidroni: I definitely agree. It's nice to go on a factory visit to see how a particular product is created. And it also boosts attendance because if the venue has a strong presence in the industry of the meeting attendees, then there will be more interest from potential attendees outside of the destination and more locals will come as well.

Michel Couturier: Particularly in the association market. They select a destination, not because of its beauty, but because of what they can accomplish there for maybe membership growth or to address social issues. So that is very, very important for the association.


DUTY OF CARE

Haigazian: We're finding, unfortunately, that every other conversation is about safety and the perception that Europe is not safe. We had a client that we had this incredible program for London and Paris, and they chose not to go because they thought it was unsafe. The point I was making is that the older, more conservative clients, who have been in the business a long time, are feeling that they're speaking on behalf of their qualifiers, but they're out of touch with them. It's really because they don't want to go. We have recommended Morocco and the client said, "Oh, no, we don't want to go there, it's a Muslim country." The ignorance can be frustrating.

Last year, we had a program for our largest incentive client, the biggest budget, and we had this incredible program to Rio De Janeiro for November. About four, five months before, we started getting calls from them saying, "Our account executives can't sell this. A trip to Rio isn't motivating our customers to buy because of Zika."

And we said, "Let's just keep going," and we were engaging in really positive information. We were giving account executives information because they're the channel between us and the qualifier. And in the end, the client said, "We can't go there." There's only so much we can do, and four months before the program, they pulled everything out and went to India -- which has cholera. We talk about safety more and more but it's hard to change the perception of a lack of safety in certain places.

Lynn:
 I remember when Brexit was passed, which is a different kind of crisis, but everyone was terrified that tourism, meetings, and incentives would suffer because of the possible economic impact of the vote. But our mayor did an excellent job of calming things down through the use of social media. He had a very simple message: "We're open for business." It became the cornerstone of a lot of our tourism campaigns along with a 20 percent--off push. It was very successful crisis management because people stopped talking about Brexit, the story became, "When was the last time we were talking about London being affordable?"


Q: For a planner to work with something like this, what tools would you suggest? Jaime mentioned social media, but would a face-to-face fam trip have a stronger impact? Gabriel, for your client who didn't want to go to Rio, would it have helped to take him there and say, "Hey, look, it's safe"?
Haigazian: I do believe if the client can do it, a fam trip is the most powerful tool because once they see it and believe it, it'll work. But it's negotiating all that, arranging it, getting the client and us to go.

Hoddeson: But I think apart from that, presenting certain facts is important. We had an incident that didn't happen directly at our destination, but only 14 miles away in the locale where our main airport of entry is. I was flying out of Nice on the day that it had happened several hours earlier. So, I think the kinds of points that we were putting together were all these details about how many police are in Monaco: 500 officers at the police department for two square kilometers; that Interpol was founded in Monaco.

Schwarz: This is what our agency is built on: People don't make rational decisions, they make emotional decisions every time. And you can give them the facts, but the only way that they're going to actually make a decision based on the facts is by feeling those facts, themselves.

Couturier: What we see for large corporate meetings and for association meetings is that the planners want to know -- sit down, particularly with the convention centers, and talk about the security and what is being done. A face-to-face conversation with all of the stakeholders: the planner, the venue, the tourist board, the local police, if appropriate, is becoming much more common.  



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Successful Meetings.


CONSOLIDATION  

Q: What effect are the consolidations that are going on in the hospitality industry having, not only on budgets, but also on service delivery? 

Wheeler: From the standpoint of trying to work with different clients out there, I think the relationships have become a lot more transactional. Look at Marriott and Starwood -- that's a major merger. We're still trying to figure out what it means.

From the standpoint of third-party planning companies, we're trying to figure out who our NSO is and who we can go to. The NSOs are very important to us because they show the whole picture out there. So I think it's going to take time. And a lot of our clients don't necessarily know about the consolidation.

Couturier: One of the concerns is that in some destinations, you might have one hotel group that controls a vast majority of the hotels. So it might be tough to negotiate.

Schwarz: It's also very hard from a branding perspective because sometimes very different brand cultures and product types are merging. How they mix together and what survives and what doesn't is what defines success.

Haigazian: A lot of our experience with sales folks, especially at hotels, are firsthand experiences. And when a brand goes from a couple of hundred hotels to thousands, there's no way that my salesperson is really going to be able to speak honestly and candidly about most of the portfolio. Chances are that he's never seen most of it and knows nothing about it.

So it's becoming challenging. And at one point it feels like they're consolidating, but then they're adding different layers of hotel chains, like, five different brands. At a certain point, it's too many choices.


Q: Would you say these lifestyle, boutique-y brands that the major chains have launched are kind of cluttering the brand message a little bit?
Syed: I have 11 hotels, and they're basically all in Europe. So I'm very focused. I can tell you everything about every single hotel, but it's only in those specific destinations. So it's just almost opposite of one person being able to help you with everything, but how much do they know if they haven't been there?

Schwarz: I think big-box hotels start to confuse the consistency of service versus the consistency of the experience. When they start to target niche markets with a collection of brands, they are trying to compete with the experience offered by smaller, independent hotels and chains, they're doing it in a very corporate, big-box way. They're taking the initiative because they see the writing on the wall -- it's what people want. But as you take a brand further into unfamiliar territory, you need the consistency of safety, the consistency of service, and of experience that you can latch onto. They just don't want to lose the chief consistency that they get, which is lower prices for what they're building and offering customers.

Haigazian: We don't want to lose that consistency either. Especially with the room products. One of the biggest challenges we face when we do go to some of those smaller hotels, is no two rooms are alike. Inevitably, the two people who shouldn't see each other's rooms, see each other's rooms. So there is always that component of it, so you just block them from seeing each other's room and they'll be okay.

Wheeler: And don't forget, you're also dealing with the meeting planners, and what the meeting planners want is totally different than what the host organization's upper management wants and totally different from what the attendees want. The planners actually want their triple points. Then they still want to go to someplace that is off the beaten path, and the executives are worried about safety, and security, and perception. So we're always competing, even when we're dealing with our client -- we're dealing with so many different people in a company who are competing with each other. It's frustrating.

Couturier: I think there's a lot of local products that have improved tremendously, compared to maybe five, 10 years ago, or more. We're working with Dubai, and we see they offer tremendous facilities that are Arabian feeling, that can compete with any international chain.

Sawyer: But I think the consumer is just simply dictating, "I want more; I need more; I've been there, I've done that; I can afford go to Dubai on my own if I want; I can stay in any hotel I want." It's like, "how much deeper is my company going to take me, to motivate me to sell more, to produce more, to have them feel confident that I feel appreciated?"

And I think there are hotel brands, like Jumeirah that are really taking the guest on a rich cultural experience, and that's the way that travel is evolving. Every time you turn on cable television, you see Anthony Bourdain taking people deep into a destination through its cuisine. And it's not that unsafe. It's not that bad. So, why can't we go there?

So you've got brands like Jumeirah going deep into destinations to offer authentic experiences. Because at the end of the day, you've got car salesmen and financial people who talk about the travel they do through their organizations and they don't say they went to the Hilton in London, they say they went to London. It's all about creating that emotional and aspirational moment for the consumers because they're seeing it on TV.

Schwarz: That's why they don't mention the brands. They mention the experience. "The moment" is the phrase I've used more than any other last year. What is that moment and how can the hotel take it, and share it, and wrap it in a little box, and repeat it over and over again? Because that is the thing that's sold. It's the thing that's most notable. It's the thing that people talk about. And it's the thing that you're actually able to repeat.

And at that moment, once that emotional chord is touched, the air miles, the hotel points, all that goes out the window, and nobody remembers any of that because it's the moment that's memorable. And that's the sales pitch: It's the emotion. Sell up to the experience, not down to the inventory.


THE NEWS CYCLE

Q: You mentioned how Anthony Bourdain is creating a desire for authentic travel. That brings us to the topic of managing the media, particularly the U.S. news cycle. In the United States, for every hour of Anthony Bourdain on CNN, there are 23 more hours of terror and fear. What does that do to your brand, when you're trying to present it to people? 

Wheeler: We're dealing with a lot of planners over 50 years old and they're very security-minded. They don't want to go too far outside the box. And then you have the executives who feel safety and security is everything. We have a client right now who is a major global company, and they will not go to Europe. They said, "We're not going because there was terrorism in Europe, in Belgium, and in Paris." And I'm like, "Well, that's a little bit shortsighted." I think safety and security, risk mitigation, duty of care, all of those initiatives are the rational response to terrorism. But many clients respond emotionally.  

Hoddeson: I think we have to acknowledge the facts, not dismiss something that truly happened, but then perhaps, explain geographical distances or things of that sort. Because Americans aren't exactly strong in this particular area.

For example, if somebody is looking at a program in South Africa and something happened in Kenya, the distance is enormous. So I think it's very important to share certain facts or to clarify certain realities.

Wheeler: It's an educational process all the time.

Couturier: In terms of the activities for the convention bureaus and marketing organizations, when it comes to security, you have to be candid and sit down on a one-on-one basis, and talk about it: What is being done and how it's being done. But you cannot follow the news on CNN, or Fox, and change based on that. I mean, you just have to stay the course and keep going.

Schwarz: If you can, try to sell a story on that, too. A meeting planner told me a story about when he booked in Baltimore, and they happened to be there during the unrest that happened. It actually turned into a positive thing because he used the moment of the meeting to bring the group together to do a CSR activity for the city. It became such a positive experience that it ended up reversing the perception the people had, offering something that went way above and beyond what anybody was expecting.

Assis: We need to be more positive against most of the media, which is very sensationalistic.

LaValle: And we're an industry that is very vulnerable to that message.

Schwarz: This is an opportunity -- that's where branding and advertising come together perfectly. If you don't like the media that's there, create your own media. This is the perfect place for live VR. You go there. You show what's actually going on. If you've got clients who are afraid of what's going on in a destination, show them a live picture of what's going on there. It most likely will be people having a good time or just going about their lives peacefully.

Wheeler: But the media is not as relevant to the younger generations that are coming up.

Schwarz: But they don't disregard all media. They believe in social media. And you have social media campaigns and you have people who can talk on your behalf, that you can then leverage. Social media, when used properly, is not as pervasively negative as traditional media. It's more experiential. It's, "Hey, let me show you what's really going on. It's really cool."

Hoddeson: But even social media can be corrupted. People can put something out there in any different media and build their story around it. You have to do your fact-checking.

Whether it's radio, whether it's print, whether it's Internet, just because something is out there doesn't mean it's true.

Schwarz: Yes, but the core of your communication with your clients is: "I'm your friend and if I give you some information, you can believe it." Social media is the difference between, "Here's a magazine, here's an ad," versus, "I'm your friend and I just saw this, and I need you to read this." That's what social media is.


THE POWER OF STORYTELLING

Q: How do you integrate all these points -- the experience, budget, value, customization, uniqueness, engagement, and business investment -- into a clear brand identity that will have meaning to meeting planners? 

Lynn: For London, it's about storytelling. I think that's what's changed a lot. It's no longer about having a brochure. You're expected to have that, but it's the storytelling that sells the destination. You need to talk about the experiences that will make up the story of the incentive program or meeting.

We've created toolkits that include videos and image libraries to help them do that. It's really about having turnkey solutions that the client can customize to their own needs.

Hoddeson: Everybody has a great hotel. But what makes it really unique or special? What is the history of this property? How does it tie into the story of the destination? I think that those are things that are of greater importance today.


Q: Specifically for the planners: Do you feel that you have to be brand advocates and do a little storytelling yourself, to sell the destination to your upper management and to your attendees?
Faust: Yes, because basically, each time we start a new RFP process, it's all about understanding the culture and goals of that particular meeting. We spend 50 percent of our travel time learning about destinations and cultures, so we're able to speed up the process and quickly come up with a short list of certain cities or countries that are the best fit.

Shawn Sawyer:  The booking windows are so much tighter nowadays that you don't get the opportunity to really dive in as much as you would like to sell the authenticity of your destination and what it means to create an experience there.

But most planners don't have the time. They're like, "This event is happening in 30 days. I just need a budget. I just need some pictures. Just get it to me very, very quickly."

And so we do it, but if we were able to have more time to be more creative, to dive in with a client a little bit more, they'd suddenly realize just what the destination is all about, which could then turn into that emotional attachment to the destination that would create a greater return on objective. But that can only happen when you get enough time to fully tell the story of the destination.


FINDING THE RIGHT MEDIUM


Doug Wheeler: One of the challenges that we're having is that we have a lot of younger people coming into our industry. I met with a client this morning down in the Financial District. I had never met her before, and she basically looked at me and she said, "Tell me stories about your business, where you've been successful, and where you've had challenges."

The younger generation is having trouble telling the story because they haven't experienced it yet. So that's a challenge that we're having just from an operations standpoint.

Jaime Schwarz: But they're also consuming media way differently than the last generation.

Wheeler: Yes, I have a lot of twentysomethings on my team and they like communicating with our clients electronically. But we still have a lot of clients who are Baby Boomers, who want to be communicating face-to-face, or by telephone. And they do want to hear our story, but the medium is sometimes a stumbling block for our younger staff.

Schwarz: When you have longer lead times, you can use that extra time for the creativity that you're all talking about, and you actually get a longer process to work with them and figure that out. But when you have a tight turnaround, branding is the perfect opportunity to help tell that story. But it requires the right social media and other electronic tools. The goal is to give them a virtual reality (VR) experience that helps them to create some of the journey themselves. Then you fill in the blanks.


Q: The goal of the exercise is to get to the RFP stage, and that's where the process starts to become less about creativity and more about numbers. How does that change the equation?
Assis: Nowadays, when we have any RFP coming into the office, we do a qualification. And if you are competing with five or six, the chances of getting the business is less than 12 percent. It's a lot of time wasted.

Schwarz: It's about educating meeting planners on how to do the RFP process correctly, so that they only do a certain number. It's too easy right now with digital and everything else to just throw them out. They need to know that when they do that, they'll lose a lot of great suppliers, because the slim chances of success don't make it worth their while to respond. Establishing that empathy can go a long way to creating more efficiencies.

Haigazian: That's a good point. You have to be careful because our clients have no idea what it takes to put together a proposal. So if we start talking about 12 destinations, they go, "okay, give us 12 destination proposals." So we, as meeting planners, need to do a better job for our suppliers of keeping the number of options to a minimum. For example, we've been working with an association and what we've chosen to do is have conference calls with all the key people. We started with a list of 20 destinations and we agreed that by the end of the call, we would dwindle it down to three or four, and those are the ones that we're going to do one-pagers on.

Syed: I think it's also crucial to have good relationships with your global hotel salespeople because if your client can't decide between Asia and Europe, then you're stuck looking at 20 destinations. Reaching out to your hotel partners just before you start the RFP process can help eliminate possibilities based on the event's timeframe. A good national sales office (NSO) can tell you things that will help you eliminate destinations. Such as Brussels is booked in the last week of April, or it rains heavily in Edinburgh in August.


THE POWER OF STORYTELLING

Q: How do you integrate all these points -- the experience, budget, value, customization, uniqueness, engagement, and business investment -- into a clear brand identity that will have meaning to meeting planners? 

Chris FJ Lynn, London
Chris FJ Lynn, London

Lynn: For London, it's about storytelling. I think that's what's changed a lot. It's no longer about having a brochure. You're expected to have that, but it's the storytelling that sells the destination. You need to talk about the experiences that will make up the story of the incentive program or meeting.

We've created toolkits that include videos and image libraries to help them do that. It's really about having turnkey solutions that the client can customize to their own needs.

Hoddeson: Everybody has a great hotel. But what makes it really unique or special? What is the history of this property? How does it tie into the story of the destination? I think that those are things that are of greater importance today.


Q: Specifically for the planners: Do you feel that you have to be brand advocates and do a little storytelling yourself, to sell the destination to your upper management and to your attendees?
Faust: Yes, because basically, each time we start a new RFP process, it's all about understanding the culture and goals of that particular meeting. We spend 50 percent of our travel time learning about destinations and cultures, so we're able to speed up the process and quickly come up with a short list of certain cities or countries that are the best fit.

Shawn M. Sawyer, Cacique
Shawn M. Sawyer, Cacique

Shawn Sawyer:  The booking windows are so much tighter nowadays that you don't get the opportunity to really dive in as much as you would like to sell the authenticity of your destination and what it means to create an experience there.

But most planners don't have the time. They're like, "This event is happening in 30 days. I just need a budget. I just need some pictures. Just get it to me very, very quickly."

And so we do it, but if we were able to have more time to be more creative, to dive in with a client a little bit more, they'd suddenly realize just what the destination is all about, which could then turn into that emotional attachment to the destination that would create a greater return on objective. But that can only happen when you get enough time to fully tell the story of the destination.


FINDING THE RIGHT MEDIUM


Doug Wheeler,
Summit Performance Group
Doug Wheeler, Summit Performance Group

Doug Wheeler: One of the challenges that we're having is that we have a lot of younger people coming into our industry. I met with a client this morning down in the Financial District. I had never met her before, and she basically looked at me and she said, "Tell me stories about your business, where you've been successful, and where you've had challenges."

The younger generation is having trouble telling the story because they haven't experienced it yet. So that's a challenge that we're having just from an operations standpoint.

Jaime Schwarz: But they're also consuming media way differently than the last generation.

Wheeler: Yes, I have a lot of twentysomethings on my team and they like communicating with our clients electronically. But we still have a lot of clients who are Baby Boomers, who want to be communicating face-to-face, or by telephone. And they do want to hear our story, but the medium is sometimes a stumbling block for our younger staff.

Schwarz: When you have longer lead times, you can use that extra time for the creativity that you're all talking about, and you actually get a longer process to work with them and figure that out. But when you have a tight turnaround, branding is the perfect opportunity to help tell that story. But it requires the right social media and other electronic tools. The goal is to give them a virtual reality (VR) experience that helps them to create some of the journey themselves. Then you fill in the blanks.


Q: The goal of the exercise is to get to the RFP stage, and that's where the process starts to become less about creativity and more about numbers. How does that change the equation?
Assis: Nowadays, when we have any RFP coming into the office, we do a qualification. And if you are competing with five or six, the chances of getting the business is less than 12 percent. It's a lot of time wasted.

Schwarz: It's about educating meeting planners on how to do the RFP process correctly, so that they only do a certain number. It's too easy right now with digital and everything else to just throw them out. They need to know that when they do that, they'll lose a lot of great suppliers, because the slim chances of success don't make it worth their while to respond. Establishing that empathy can go a long way to creating more efficiencies.

Haigazian: That's a good point. You have to be careful because our clients have no idea what it takes to put together a proposal. So if we start talking about 12 destinations, they go, "okay, give us 12 destination proposals." So we, as meeting planners, need to do a better job for our suppliers of keeping the number of options to a minimum. For example, we've been working with an association and what we've chosen to do is have conference calls with all the key people. We started with a list of 20 destinations and we agreed that by the end of the call, we would dwindle it down to three or four, and those are the ones that we're going to do one-pagers on.

Syed: I think it's also crucial to have good relationships with your global hotel salespeople because if your client can't decide between Asia and Europe, then you're stuck looking at 20 destinations. Reaching out to your hotel partners just before you start the RFP process can help eliminate possibilities based on the event's timeframe. A good national sales office (NSO) can tell you things that will help you eliminate destinations. Such as Brussels is booked in the last week of April, or it rains heavily in Edinburgh in August.


CONSOLIDATION  

Q: What effect are the consolidations that are going on in the hospitality industry having, not only on budgets, but also on service delivery? 

Wheeler: From the standpoint of trying to work with different clients out there, I think the relationships have become a lot more transactional. Look at Marriott and Starwood -- that's a major merger. We're still trying to figure out what it means.

From the standpoint of third-party planning companies, we're trying to figure out who our NSO is and who we can go to. The NSOs are very important to us because they show the whole picture out there. So I think it's going to take time. And a lot of our clients don't necessarily know about the consolidation.

Michel Couturier, MCI
Michel Couturier, MCI

Couturier: One of the concerns is that in some destinations, you might have one hotel group that controls a vast majority of the hotels. So it might be tough to negotiate.

Schwarz: It's also very hard from a branding perspective because sometimes very different brand cultures and product types are merging. How they mix together and what survives and what doesn't is what defines success.

Haigazian: A lot of our experience with sales folks, especially at hotels, are firsthand experiences. And when a brand goes from a couple of hundred hotels to thousands, there's no way that my salesperson is really going to be able to speak honestly and candidly about most of the portfolio. Chances are that he's never seen most of it and knows nothing about it.

So it's becoming challenging. And at one point it feels like they're consolidating, but then they're adding different layers of hotel chains, like, five different brands. At a certain point, it's too many choices.


Q: Would you say these lifestyle, boutique-y brands that the major chains have launched are kind of cluttering the brand message a little bit?
Syed: I have 11 hotels, and they're basically all in Europe. So I'm very focused. I can tell you everything about every single hotel, but it's only in those specific destinations. So it's just almost opposite of one person being able to help you with everything, but how much do they know if they haven't been there?

Schwarz: I think big-box hotels start to confuse the consistency of service versus the consistency of the experience. When they start to target niche markets with a collection of brands, they are trying to compete with the experience offered by smaller, independent hotels and chains, they're doing it in a very corporate, big-box way. They're taking the initiative because they see the writing on the wall -- it's what people want. But as you take a brand further into unfamiliar territory, you need the consistency of safety, the consistency of service, and of experience that you can latch onto. They just don't want to lose the chief consistency that they get, which is lower prices for what they're building and offering customers.

Haigazian: We don't want to lose that consistency either. Especially with the room products. One of the biggest challenges we face when we do go to some of those smaller hotels, is no two rooms are alike. Inevitably, the two people who shouldn't see each other's rooms, see each other's rooms. So there is always that component of it, so you just block them from seeing each other's room and they'll be okay.

Wheeler: And don't forget, you're also dealing with the meeting planners, and what the meeting planners want is totally different than what the host organization's upper management wants and totally different from what the attendees want. The planners actually want their triple points. Then they still want to go to someplace that is off the beaten path, and the executives are worried about safety, and security, and perception. So we're always competing, even when we're dealing with our client -- we're dealing with so many different people in a company who are competing with each other. It's frustrating.

Couturier: I think there's a lot of local products that have improved tremendously, compared to maybe five, 10 years ago, or more. We're working with Dubai, and we see they offer tremendous facilities that are Arabian feeling, that can compete with any international chain.

Sawyer: But I think the consumer is just simply dictating, "I want more; I need more; I've been there, I've done that; I can afford go to Dubai on my own if I want; I can stay in any hotel I want." It's like, "how much deeper is my company going to take me, to motivate me to sell more, to produce more, to have them feel confident that I feel appreciated?"

And I think there are hotel brands, like Jumeirah that are really taking the guest on a rich cultural experience, and that's the way that travel is evolving. Every time you turn on cable television, you see Anthony Bourdain taking people deep into a destination through its cuisine. And it's not that unsafe. It's not that bad. So, why can't we go there?

So you've got brands like Jumeirah going deep into destinations to offer authentic experiences. Because at the end of the day, you've got car salesmen and financial people who talk about the travel they do through their organizations and they don't say they went to the Hilton in London, they say they went to London. It's all about creating that emotional and aspirational moment for the consumers because they're seeing it on TV.

Schwarz: That's why they don't mention the brands. They mention the experience. "The moment" is the phrase I've used more than any other last year. What is that moment and how can the hotel take it, and share it, and wrap it in a little box, and repeat it over and over again? Because that is the thing that's sold. It's the thing that's most notable. It's the thing that people talk about. And it's the thing that you're actually able to repeat.

And at that moment, once that emotional chord is touched, the air miles, the hotel points, all that goes out the window, and nobody remembers any of that because it's the moment that's memorable. And that's the sales pitch: It's the emotion. Sell up to the experience, not down to the inventory.


THE NEWS CYCLE

Q: You mentioned how Anthony Bourdain is creating a desire for authentic travel. That brings us to the topic of managing the media, particularly the U.S. news cycle. In the United States, for every hour of Anthony Bourdain on CNN, there are 23 more hours of terror and fear. What does that do to your brand, when you're trying to present it to people? 

Wheeler: We're dealing with a lot of planners over 50 years old and they're very security-minded. They don't want to go too far outside the box. And then you have the executives who feel safety and security is everything. We have a client right now who is a major global company, and they will not go to Europe. They said, "We're not going because there was terrorism in Europe, in Belgium, and in Paris." And I'm like, "Well, that's a little bit shortsighted." I think safety and security, risk mitigation, duty of care, all of those initiatives are the rational response to terrorism. But many clients respond emotionally.  

Hoddeson: I think we have to acknowledge the facts, not dismiss something that truly happened, but then perhaps, explain geographical distances or things of that sort. Because Americans aren't exactly strong in this particular area.

For example, if somebody is looking at a program in South Africa and something happened in Kenya, the distance is enormous. So I think it's very important to share certain facts or to clarify certain realities.

Wheeler: It's an educational process all the time.

Couturier: In terms of the activities for the convention bureaus and marketing organizations, when it comes to security, you have to be candid and sit down on a one-on-one basis, and talk about it: What is being done and how it's being done. But you cannot follow the news on CNN, or Fox, and change based on that. I mean, you just have to stay the course and keep going.

Schwarz: If you can, try to sell a story on that, too. A meeting planner told me a story about when he booked in Baltimore, and they happened to be there during the unrest that happened. It actually turned into a positive thing because he used the moment of the meeting to bring the group together to do a CSR activity for the city. It became such a positive experience that it ended up reversing the perception the people had, offering something that went way above and beyond what anybody was expecting.

Assis: We need to be more positive against most of the media, which is very sensationalistic.

Hong Kong Tourism Board's
James LaValle
Hong Kong Tourism Board's James LaValle

LaValle: And we're an industry that is very vulnerable to that message.

Schwarz: This is an opportunity -- that's where branding and advertising come together perfectly. If you don't like the media that's there, create your own media. This is the perfect place for live VR. You go there. You show what's actually going on. If you've got clients who are afraid of what's going on in a destination, show them a live picture of what's going on there. It most likely will be people having a good time or just going about their lives peacefully.

Wheeler: But the media is not as relevant to the younger generations that are coming up.

Schwarz: But they don't disregard all media. They believe in social media. And you have social media campaigns and you have people who can talk on your behalf, that you can then leverage. Social media, when used properly, is not as pervasively negative as traditional media. It's more experiential. It's, "Hey, let me show you what's really going on. It's really cool."

Hoddeson: But even social media can be corrupted. People can put something out there in any different media and build their story around it. You have to do your fact-checking.

Whether it's radio, whether it's print, whether it's Internet, just because something is out there doesn't mean it's true.

Schwarz: Yes, but the core of your communication with your clients is: "I'm your friend and if I give you some information, you can believe it." Social media is the difference between, "Here's a magazine, here's an ad," versus, "I'm your friend and I just saw this, and I need you to read this." That's what social media is.


DUTY OF CARE

Haigazian: We're finding, unfortunately, that every other conversation is about safety and the perception that Europe is not safe. We had a client that we had this incredible program for London and Paris, and they chose not to go because they thought it was unsafe. The point I was making is that the older, more conservative clients, who have been in the business a long time, are feeling that they're speaking on behalf of their qualifiers, but they're out of touch with them. It's really because they don't want to go. We have recommended Morocco and the client said, "Oh, no, we don't want to go there, it's a Muslim country." The ignorance can be frustrating.

Last year, we had a program for our largest incentive client, the biggest budget, and we had this incredible program to Rio De Janeiro for November. About four, five months before, we started getting calls from them saying, "Our account executives can't sell this. A trip to Rio isn't motivating our customers to buy because of Zika."

And we said, "Let's just keep going," and we were engaging in really positive information. We were giving account executives information because they're the channel between us and the qualifier. And in the end, the client said, "We can't go there." There's only so much we can do, and four months before the program, they pulled everything out and went to India -- which has cholera. We talk about safety more and more but it's hard to change the perception of a lack of safety in certain places.

Lynn:
 I remember when Brexit was passed, which is a different kind of crisis, but everyone was terrified that tourism, meetings, and incentives would suffer because of the possible economic impact of the vote. But our mayor did an excellent job of calming things down through the use of social media. He had a very simple message: "We're open for business." It became the cornerstone of a lot of our tourism campaigns along with a 20 percent--off push. It was very successful crisis management because people stopped talking about Brexit, the story became, "When was the last time we were talking about London being affordable?"


Q: For a planner to work with something like this, what tools would you suggest? Jaime mentioned social media, but would a face-to-face fam trip have a stronger impact? Gabriel, for your client who didn't want to go to Rio, would it have helped to take him there and say, "Hey, look, it's safe"?
Haigazian: I do believe if the client can do it, a fam trip is the most powerful tool because once they see it and believe it, it'll work. But it's negotiating all that, arranging it, getting the client and us to go.

Hoddeson: But I think apart from that, presenting certain facts is important. We had an incident that didn't happen directly at our destination, but only 14 miles away in the locale where our main airport of entry is. I was flying out of Nice on the day that it had happened several hours earlier. So, I think the kinds of points that we were putting together were all these details about how many police are in Monaco: 500 officers at the police department for two square kilometers; that Interpol was founded in Monaco.

Schwarz: This is what our agency is built on: People don't make rational decisions, they make emotional decisions every time. And you can give them the facts, but the only way that they're going to actually make a decision based on the facts is by feeling those facts, themselves.

Couturier: What we see for large corporate meetings and for association meetings is that the planners want to know -- sit down, particularly with the convention centers, and talk about the security and what is being done. A face-to-face conversation with all of the stakeholders: the planner, the venue, the tourist board, the local police, if appropriate, is becoming much more common.  



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Successful Meetings.