Here to Save the Day

As citywides go, one of the most daunting and closely watched of 2006 was the American Library Association's (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans, held June 22-28. Because this was the first significant meeting to be held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there were more balls in the air than usual for ALA's director of conference services, Deidre Ross. How did she manage? With a lot of help from the local convention and visitors bureau.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet
In fact, Ross says, "I could not have done the meeting without them. They were so wonderful, especially Donna Karl--this woman is worth her weight in gold." Karl, a former convention planner herself who served as director of the American Academy of Pediatrics' convention and meeting services division for 18 years, now works as vice president of client relations for the New Orleans Metropolitan CVB (NOMCVB). CVB personnel can save the day for any meeting, not just those with unusual circumstances, and they are an asset not relied on often enough.

Planners often use CVBs for general inquiries about restaurants, or square footage, or perhaps to send out RFPs if the planner isn't too worried about receiving myriad responses, some inappropriate for the group. But many planners, even those who organize citywides for large associations, don't realize the full extent of what CVBs can do.

"They can help you even with off-the-wall things," says Ross. "If you need an Ethiopian restaurant within walking distance of the convention center, you call the bureau and they help you. It seems like nothing is too strange for them."

Indeed, CVBs have heard it all: "[One] interesting request was from a group who wanted to go to a haunted house in March," says Jordy Tollett, consultant to (and former president and CEO of) the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "After a lot of research, we located a year-round haunted house, and the clients had a great time."

More Powerful than a Locomotive
Beyond research and information, CVBs can help when things have the potential to get truly hairy. For a meeting last month, Ross explains, "There was another group in house right before us. It was a fairly large group and it caused great pressure on the [room inventory in the] city. We were concerned that people might not check out [of their hotel rooms] and that we would be walked. The bureau talked to all of the hotels to find out what their contingency plans were."

In New Orleans, the CVB also helped Ross deal with nervous attendees, many of whom were misinformed about the risks of visiting the area. "We received many questions from ALA's attendees," says NOMCVB's Karl. "Some of the questions to us might have seemed silly--only because we know otherwise--and other questions were very reasonable. Deidre forwarded every question to the CVB, even if it was only one person who was asking. It was our theory that if one person was asking, then there were others also wondering the same thing. We felt it best to address each question and post the response on [the ALA meeting's] website so everyone could read and understand."

Karl says attendee questions ranged from "What happens if the levees break while we are in town?" to "Is seafood safe to eat?" to "I heard that the air quality is bad. If I have asthma, should I come to New Orleans?"

"Whenever possible, we had city officials and/or experts in the area of concern address the issue so that the responses weren't all from the CVB," explains Karl.

But the trouble didn't stop there. As the conference approached, word got out that the National Guard had arrived in New Orleans. Ross feared the worst. "I thought: 'Slit my wrists, no one's coming,' " says Ross.

"This was a media nightmare," agrees Karl, "because it appeared that the National Guard was called in to New Orleans because the crime was out of control. Of course, this scared every one of ALA's attendees and exhibitors. This was the furthest thing from the truth. The National Guard was requested three months prior to the ALA meeting because New Orleans anticipated the need for protecting the recovering neighborhoods. Our PR department immediately put together a statement and we posted it on ALA's website. Basically, we gave Deidre and the ALA team the tools they needed to explain the situation and why the National Guard was arriving in New Orleans. Surprisingly, it calmed the situation down quickly."

Able to Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound
If the National Guard is not crashing your convention, expect CVBs to be able to help with airline information and cost, negotiating additional meeting rooms, getting a handle on local events, and quieting troublesome suppliers. "We work with [CVBs] if we get aggravation from their partners--it can crop up quite a bit," says Ross.

"We can provide special value-added benefits and enhancements," explains Sonia Baldissera, Tourism Vancouver's manager of meeting and convention sales for the midwest United States. "One benefit is attendance building the year prior. . . If a planner books through a hotel, [the hotel] wouldn't be able to do that." Baldissera also helps put planners in touch with the local media community and other organizations to promote the group and its event.

"Coming through the CVB gives planners one point of contact that allows us to put together a comprehensive package that's not just dates and hotel rates. . . It's so convenient for a planner to work with one person so they can focus on the nuts and bolts of the meeting. It allows for a much more streamlined and efficient process," says Baldissera, though she admits that if a planner has had a negative experience with a CVB, it can be difficult to overcome. "There is a convention and visitors bureau in every city, but they are operated and organized differently, so they offer different services. If a planner has a bad experience somewhere, that, unfortunately, taints it for every bureau."

But, says Ross, "If you've got a good bureau, they are truly your partner." g