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The changing roles of CVBs.

As the economic importance of business travel and tourism has continued to rise in cities around the United States, so has the visibility of the industry's primary marketing agent in most communities--the local convention and visitors bureau. For better or worse, gone forever are the days when CVBs can contently go about the business of selling their destinations to the world while remaining relatively isolated from the shifting political and economic winds blowing through their cities.

Once largely an island unto themselves in their communities' big pictures, CVBs and the economic impact they represent are receiving unprecedented attention by local leaders. CVB officials are discovering that such attention has brought with it a change in responsibilities during recent years, however, as chief executive officers who were traditionally hired to sell are becoming increasingly engrossed in political and community relations activities.

"If this was a perfect world, bureaus should and would continue to do what they were designed to do, and that is sell their destinations to the tourism and meetings market," says Richard Newman, president and chief executive officer of the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus (IACVB), Champaign, Illinois. "But in the political realities of society in the 1990s, bureaus have become more proactive in community affairs, often taking a leading role in helping alleviate some of the pressing social issues. Sometimes this comes by default, but communities are looking to bureaus as a community leader," says Newman, whose own association has become more politically active by co-sponsoring special economic development conferences on tourism for the last three years with the National Association of State Economic Development Agencies, Washington, D.C.

"The change is dramatic from what it used to be," says David Heinl, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau, North Carolina. "You must be someone who is politically astute, because this is a political position now," says Heinl, who was the 1982-1983 IACVB president and has been active with CVBs since 1970.

Most CVBs have had little choice but to assume a higher profile. In an age of enhanced multicultural sensitivity and demand for politically correct behavior, CVBs have become painfully aware that today's association convention decision maker considers much more than a community's exhibit space and hotel room block.

CVBs are finding, for example, that local and state lawmakers' mishandling of sensitive social issues can evoke the ire of many groups who frequently take their anger out on affected destinations by canceling conventions.

"I don't mind bureaus being held accountable for things they can control, like convention sales, but it's hard to hold a bureau accountable for a state legislature passing something like an abortion law that some people don't like," says Newman of the growing trend of CVBs bearing the brunt of a community's perceived social ills. "Groups shouldn't take it out on the bureau by not coming to its city. They should be voicing their objections to the state legislature," says Newman.

To protect themselves and the numerous businesses they represent, CVBs have developed a variety of strategies to cope with controversy in their communities. Since they usually receive some public funding, however, CVBs must act in a cautious and often complicated fashion.

By assuming a more active community role--often out of necessity--many CVBs have discovered that they can use their experience, visibility, and resources to the benefit of themselves and their communities in a variety of significant ways.

The new roles CVBs play today are, indeed, affecting society in a number of tangible ways. Their experiences in successfully dealing with adversity hold valuable lessons for association executives seeking to enhance public awareness or establish more fruitful community and government relations.

PHOENIX: CAMPAIGNING FOR KING

Perhaps no single issue has more poignantly illustrated how events have dictated changing roles for CVBs in recent years than the Martin Luther King holiday situation in Arizona. A lingering and embarrassing mess that began in 1986 when the Arizona House of Representatives failed by one vote to pass a law creating a King state holiday, the issue finally was resolved when voters in the November 1992 election passed legislation to create a King-Civil Rights Day to be observed on the third Monday in January.

In the meantime, CVBs throughout Arizona were forced to deal with a firestorm of protest from groups angered that the state was not officially honoring the revered civil rights leader. Many of the groups took action that was aimed directly at the state's all-important tourism and convention industry.

The Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates that 152 groups canceled events in the Phoenix area because of the controversy, resulting in $160 million in lost convention business that negatively affected some 4,000 jobs. Lost sales and occupancy taxes alone exceeded $12 million, and the bureau stresses that these figures represent only group business already booked and not individual tourists, shorter-term corporate meetings, or the 1993 Super Bowl (which the National Football League took away from Phoenix to protest the holiday situation) and its estimated $150 million economic impact.

To further add to the distressful situation, a 1990 attempt to create the holiday was defeated by less than 1 percent of the vote, largely because of confusion created by having two separate propositions to establish a King holiday on the ballot. In fact, the bureau estimated that 65 percent of Arizona voters actually believed they voted in favor of the holiday in 1990, but their split votes on the two propositions caused both of them to fail.

With so much at stake, the Phoenix bureau felt it had to move swiftly after the 1990 defeat. Bureau President David Radcliffe explains that the Phoenix hospitality industry formed a committee the day after the 1990 election defeat to determine how to best approach another ballot measure for the holiday in 1992.

"We viewed the successful passage of the holiday as a central issue in the long-term success of our industry, so we became involved in a political campaign," says Radcliffe, who asserts that the state situation was particularly frustrating to Phoenix, since it was one of the first cities in the nation to honor King with a paid holiday back in 1984.

The committee determined that the first areas addressed should be voter research and research on the effects of the controversy on the hospitality industry. From the committee, a larger coalition was formed--Hospitality Employees For Arizona's Future. HEAF actually became a subgroup of a communitywide umbrella organization called Victory Together, created to secure passage of the holiday. Radcliffe, representing the hospitality industry, sat on Victory Together's steering committee.

Radcliffe says it was decided that HEAF would concentrate on mobilizing its own industry, while other segments of Victory Together would target areas of generally soft support, such as the seniors communities.

"It became obvious to us at that time that if we could educate our hospitality employees and get them registered to vote, we could have a positive impact on the outcome," says Radcliffe of the estimated 250,000 people who are employed in some fashion by the hospitality industry in the Phoenix area.

HEAF developed a three-prong approach to its industry: Educate employees, register them to vote, and make sure they get to the polls on election day. HEAF decided to run a grass-roots, one-on-one campaign rather than a public debate with heavy advertising and media exposure. Radcliffe explains that past experiences along with HEAF's voter research indicated that public debates of the issue actually gave their opponents added exposure and created more confusion, often turning soft support against them in the process.

HEAF printed some 100,000 brochures and posters on the issue. The group also produced and distributed 1,000 tapes for viewing at various group functions and places of employment. It worked with the area hotels to display the posters, and it reached out to other businesses negatively impacted by the situation such as taxi companies.

The organization also secured 50,000 voter registration forms and registered more than 20,000 new voters in the hospitality industry. Radcliffe feels that number is especially significant, given the 1990 holiday passage was defeated by fewer than 10,000 votes.

HEAF actually waited until the month of October to launch a massive industry education program that included the collateral materials, speeches, and personal conversations that covered what it meant to each industry employee and why this was an important issue concerning the principles of civil rights.

On election day, HEAF established shuttles to the polls to ensure that every employee who needed a ride could get one. Voters passed the proposal November 3 by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

"Reason prevailed," says Radcliffe. "It was a long and painful process, but we felt gratified with the result."

"No, I never did |think I would get involved in a political issue of this nature~," says Radcliffe when asked how the Phoenix bureau's role has changed in the community. "My position, to a degree, has always been wrought with politics, but they have been internal within the industry and not this external. I think the communities we represent are looking to us to play roles that are more than what they have traditionally looked upon us to do."

However painful and time-consuming the effort, Radcliffe asserts that the bureau and the entire community has benefitted from the collective activities involved in passing the law.

"We were able to pull members of the business community together that were far removed from the issue to build business coalitions," says Radcliffe. "These coalitions, I think, will stay in place to continue to work on community relations issues. The whole civil rights issue has forced our community to take an introspective look. Our first goal was to win the election, but what has come from it has been a community agenda that should have a positive, long-term impact."

PORTLAND: CONVEYING ECONOMIC IMPACT

Another CVB that had a lot at stake last November was the Portland Oregon Visitors Association (POVA). Because of liberal procedures that make it generally easy to place issues on state ballots, a conservative fundamentalist group was able to propose a measure to amend the Oregon constitution in a way that would have had a negative effect on gay rights.

Ballot Measure Nine, sponsored by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, would have forced the state to declare homosexuality abnormal and perverse behavior and required public schools to counsel students to avoid such a lifestyle. The fallout from this controversial proposal was immediate, and again much of it was aimed at the hospitality industry.

"As this state started to get national attention, we started getting contacted by groups who had booked conventions here or were considering Portland, and they told us that if this measure passed, they would not come here," says Jim Bocci, POVA public relations manager.

POVA eventually received some 1,800 letters from out of state urging the bureau to do something about the ballot measure and warning it of the consequences of its passage. According to Bocci, threatened cancellations of conventions already booked in Portland reached $20.6 million.

Reluctant to become embroiled in the political hotbed created by the issue, Bocci asserts that POVA still influenced the issue early on by compiling and effectively communicating the economic impact figures. The bureau also found that the media attention was helping it build a more forceful image of the organization and the importance of the industry it represents.

"Because we were the only ones attaching a dollar figure to the issue, we were receiving a lot of attention initially," says Bocci, who adds that the Oregon governor's office also used the POVA figures to campaign against the measure. "We stacked the letters and had the media come in and photograph them. When you have 1,800 letters, it is a very powerful visual. By having facts and figures that were enticing to the media, we were able to build our public image," says Bocci, who adds that the Oregon Citizens Alliance was a formidable foe because it ran a well-organized campaign that played on the emotions of citizens uncomfortable with the gay community.

Despite the bureau's reluctance as a publicly funded institution to become more involved in such a political and socially sensitive issue, Bocci asserts that there finally came a time when POVA knew it had to take an active, public stand against the measure.

"We finally took a stand when our board decided that the issue was affecting the mission of POVA," says Bocci. "Once the board decided this, we felt we could become more vocal on the issue and still remain somewhat apolitical." He adds that POVA conducted a town meeting of sorts for its membership in which representatives of both sides of the issue made presentations as part of the decision process to take a stand.

POVA then developed a policy statement on the issue, called a press conference, and continued to hammer away during frequent public appearances at the issue of civil rights and what the meetings and tourism industry--as Oregon's number three industry--means to the state's citizens in terms of tax revenues and jobs. POVA officials also became active members of the No On Nine committee formed by various civic groups to defeat the measure.

Once the measure was defeated in a fairly close vote, POVA communicated directly with the 1,800 letter writers. Sending a personal letter and copy of a colorful book highlighting Portland's natural beauty, POVA explained how easy it is for measures to be placed on Oregon ballots and what the bureau did to help defeat the measure and ensure that Oregon welcomed all visitors.

"It was a very good way to cut back on the strong rhetoric that was thrown out in relation to the ballot measure," says Bocci. "We received some very nice letters back. They were impressed that we took the extra step."

Similar to Phoenix, POVA found that this crisis situation actually turned out to pay positive dividends.

"The number one thing we learned was how to work with the community to get things done," says Bocci. "A nice benefit that came from this was building nontraditional relationships with other community groups that helped us politically and in image building. We were able to build clout with groups that would not normally look at the association as a player."

MIAMI: BATTLING A BOYCOTT

In early summer of 1990, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) became immersed in a night-marish situation that continues to haunt Miami's convention industry today. Through a complex series of events--including an appearance at a Miami Beach convention by African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, statements Mandela made in support of Fidel Castro and other controversial world leaders, and a perceived snub of Mandela by Miami city leaders--the bureau found itself the target of a convention boycott organized by several influential groups. Among them: the local chapter of the National Bar Association, composed mostly of African Americans.

Before they would agree to lift the boycott, the groups insisted that a list of demands be met. Much to the Miami bureau's dismay, many of the demands were very political in nature and as such were technically beyond the influence of the Miami hospitality industry. Bureau officials felt they had no control over demands such as reform of certain U.S. immigration laws and changing the metropolitan government system to ensure a higher minority representation.

According to Mayco Villafana, GMCVB director of communications, the bureau diligently worked behind the scenes from June to December 1990 to end the boycott by bringing together the various parties that could resolve some of the demands. He asserts they met with little success.

"We were told that we were not the solution but part of the problem," says Villafana of the Miami hospitality industry's efforts. When announcing the boycott, organizers did indeed cite "rampant discrimination" throughout the Miami hospitality industry as one of the demands that must be addressed and remedied.

Failing to serve as a mediator among groups involved in the boycott situation, Villafana says GMCVB officials decided it would concentrate its efforts on dispelling the notion that the city's tourism community was discriminatory. Through research of existing government statistics and surveys of the largest Miami hotels, GMCVB determined that the percentage of non-Hispanic black employees in the local visitor industry was around 25 percent--higher than their percentage in the general population.

"But we did look at the management ranks in the industry and decided that, yes, that needed attention," says Villafana of the percentage of non-Hispanic blacks in industry management positions. Working with the Miami-based Florida International University, GMCVB discovered that the university's highly regarded School of Hospitality & Management enrollment was less than 5 percent African American. Through industry fund-raising efforts that have netted $150,000 to date, GMCVB has developed a comprehensive two-year scholarship package at Florida International for African American students who already have earned a two-year college degree.

The package includes a mentor program, a job at a local hotel while in school, and employment in the Miami tourism community if all program requirements are met upon graduation. GMCVB asks that students make a moral commitment to work two years locally in return. To date, more than 30 students have enrolled in the program and its first graduate now works at the Fontainbleau Hilton Resort & Spa in a management position.

GMCVB also formed the Visitor Industry Human Resource Development Council, a nonprofit corporation charged with developing long-range programs aimed at increasing the economic participation of African Americans in the Miami hospitality industry. To date, the council has held training seminars for African American vendors on how to participate in the industry, developed a joint venture with the Dade County Public School system for waiter and waitress training, developed "Adopt A School" programs with local hotels, and implemented a hospitality careers awareness program in local high schools.

"We moved rather quickly to address the issues we felt we could have some influence over," says Villafana of the numerous programs that GMCVB initiated in less than one year. "They |the new programs~ are a positive step forward, but 1,000 more steps need to be taken. We can't answer to the political machinery; it's just impossible," says Villafana of the ongoing boycott that has cost Miami around $15 million in convention business thus far.

Despite the ongoing boycott, Villafana says that GMCVB's efforts have helped ease the tension and prompted hope of a real solution to the root problems. In a statement expressing their willingness to open more meaningful dialogue with Miami's business leaders, the Boycott Miami Committee stated, "Business leaders have finally moved from making promises to taking concrete first steps ... toward inclusion of blacks in the mainstream of Greater Miami's tourism-driven economy." According to GMCVB, the majority of the initiatives and programs cited by the committee were those created by the bureau and its Visitor Industry Council.

"As more minorities gain political clout in American cities and demand a fair share of the economic pie, CVBs must be prepared to deal with new issues that never before affected their operations," says Merrett Stierheim, GMCVB's president and chief executive officer. "CVBs must face the fact that along with a good hotel product, quality service, attractions and security, a city must have a progressive record of dealing with issues that are as diverse as race relations, economic opportunities and the environment."

As Miami continued to struggle with the broad issue of race relations in a very culturally diverse city, great adversity struck once more last fall. Hurricane Andrew's wide path of destruction and intense publicity gave the nation the impression that it was anything but business as usual in Miami despite the fact that a good deal of the area's tourism infrastructure went relatively unscathed.

In the storm's wake, GMCVB quickly put its housing bureau department into action helping the community and serving convention groups that found themselves uninformed of their event status or possibly displaced by the wave of relief workers and suddenly homeless people. The housing bureau also became a hotel hotline by matching room availability with homeless people who desperately needed places to stay.

Simultaneously, GMCVB undertook an active public education program as to why the region needed to get back to normal and area hotels needed to return to business as usual as soon as possible.

"We felt strongly that it was an economic issue for us, especially since 270,000 of Miami's work force are directly or indirectly involved in this industry," says Villafana, who asserts that the bureau was able to minimize event cancellations through its efforts. "We needed to get our infrastructure back together as soon as possible, get our homeless employees put up in area hotels, and educate the public on why our businesses needed to open up again. We were not trying to ignore the pain but trying to prevent greater pain by having people employed by our industry who had lost their homes also lose their jobs."

Additionally, Villafana says GMCVB played an active role in matching up local charities with concerned groups meeting in Miami that wanted to make financial or other contributions to the relief effort.

"It's all part of being responsive to your community," says Villafana.

ATLANTIC CITY: RELATING TO A DIVERSE COMMUNITY

When your organization represents an industry that employs almost two thirds of a city's work force, you have a substantial community relations responsibility. Such is the case with New Jersey's Greater Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Employing approximately 47,000 people in a community with roughly 50 percent of its population composed of various minority groups, Atlantic City's gaming and hotel industry has taken its shots in the past from certain community groups that have felt left out of the economic bonanza legalized gambling and major conventions have brought to the seaside city.

According to Steve Richer, bureau president, the entire industry has taken a leading role in bringing the entire community closer together.

"We found that the industry and the community have tremendous common ground just by talking to them," says Richer. "If you look at the top three concerns |of each party~, they are very similar--safety, good schools (so industry has educated employees), and more thing to do for both visitors and residents."

To foster more meaningful communication and understanding among all segments of the community, Richer says the bureau and local chamber of commerce have teamed up to create several highly successful programs. They have put on a series of hospitality industry seminars and town meetings designed to teach the community more about how the industry works and encourage input from the community.

"The industry is their neighbor, and they need to understand it," says Richer. "When you're a single parent living in an apartment overshadowed by a casino, you're not going to go up to the casino chief executive officer and tell him what you think. There has to be forums where these people feel welcome and invited to come and speak their minds," adds Richer, who also works closely with the National Conference of Christians & Jews to establish fruitful interaction between the industry and the community.

The CVB also helped establish Atlantic City Tomorrow, a three-year-old leadership program involving mostly minorities that teaches its participants how different sectors of local business and government work. With the bureau in charge of the economic development and tourism portion of the curriculum, Atlantic City Tomorrow already boasts several success stories. Richer says that three current city council members are program graduates.

To help ensure that all members of the Atlantic City community truly feel a part of the tourism community, Richer says that the CVB recently developed a whole series of advertisements featuring various ethnic groups as tourists. The ads also were placed in mainstream publications, not just minority-focused media.

"We think that's been helpful to get the community to see that we're sincere," says Richer of the ads. "We've tried to involve the whole community to show that they're not only staff but customers, and their friends and family are welcome in Atlantic City. There's a subtle difference between 'I work here' and 'I'm welcome here,'" adds Richer, who asserts that Atlantic City's hospitality industry management mix reflects diversity.

Richer feels that the hospitality industry's proactive community relations programs have noticeably benefitted the industry.

"There's been less beating up on the industry than there used to be, but it's still a constant education process," says Richer, who feels that solid relations with government and community leaders recently have been instrumental in Atlantic City's receipt of the infrastructure projects and marketing budgets required to keep the local hospitality industry healthy.

As for CVBs and their higher community profiles, Richer feels the match is permanent.

"CVBs, being advocates for one of the leading linchpins in local economies, have to bring with them all the elements that make a community work for visitors," says Richer. "A community has to understand what you do. If you don't have good relations with the mayor, you're dead. Effective CVBs can't exist in a vacuum."

Activism Again

Two other recent examples underscore convention and visitors bureaus' reasons for getting involved in social and political issues.

In Victoria, British Columbia, the city's vote to continue to discharge untreated sewage into the Strait of Jan de Fuca was impetus enough for the Washington Society of Association Executives, Edmonds, to pull its scheduled 1995 summer convention from the Empress Hotel there. The impact: Some 150 members will not visit Victoria for three days in July 1995.

In Denver, Colorado's highly publicized amendment banning protection of the status of gay and bisexual people prompted at least four associations to cancel plans to bring meetings to the city. The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has reported a loss already of approximately $6.4 million as a result. But activism begets activism. The Denver bureau is launching a no-nonsense advertising campaign to proclaim that its "black eye" isn't deserved, and a coalition is fighting to negate the controversial amendment.

Jeff Waddle is a free-lance writer and executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Hotel-Motel Association.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:convention and visitors bureau
Author:Waddle, Jeff
Publication:Association Management
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:4358
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