The convention center, the CVB, and your big event.
Teamwork. It's a key aspect of any successful association convention or trade show. So why have association executives discovered that forming a strong team - the staffs of the association, convention and visitors bureau, convention center, and hotels working together to execute an effective event - can be a complex, confusing, and frustrating challenge in some destinations?
Differing objectives and varied and fluctuating funding sources, power struggles, and competition for recognition among the staffs of convention centers and CVBs can lead to a lack of communication and even some hard feelings between those entities. Yet they are the organizations an association must rely upon heavily in conducting its event. A lack of cooperation can leave association executives stuck in the middle wondering who is responsible for what and how in the world they are ever going to pull off a successful event.
"The biggest issue is that there's so much inconsistency in the relationship between the bureau and the city's management of the convention center facility," says Ray Hall, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Electronics Representatives Association, which conducts numerous trade shows throughout the United States. "It varies so much among cities, and it leaves the poor user in a quandary as to what questions to ask of whom. It becomes a minefield, so a lot of people just avoid bureau and center management. They book, they run the meeting, and they avoid all of the services that could be offered them," says Hall. Those services include assistance with destination promotion and coordination of transportation, housing, and on-site registration. Choosing not to work closely with bureau and center management "makes you depend on your staff more, so you end up micromanaging your convention when you really shouldn't have to."
For convention centers and CVBs, the core of the challenge of close cooperation is a set of parallel yet different goals. "While the bureau is judged by [hotel] room nights, the center, in most cases, must be financially viable in its own right," says Donald Engler, director of marketing for the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, New Orleans. Often, that means a convention center must glean revenues from several sources, including local events and consumer trade shows that don't generate as many room nights as an association convention, but which the center may find more lucrative. Still, according to Engler and others, the best destination marketing results from a unified effort.
Says Beth White, director of marketing at the Salt Place Convention Center, in Salt Lake City, Utah, "I have often been asked why, as a convention center marketing director, I am attending industry trade shows and meetings - the usual question being 'Doesn't the convention bureau sell your center?' My response is that we both sell Salt Lake as a team. I don't have any other competition once [groups] choose our city, and quite often what they expect from the convention center is a pivotal part of the deal."
Discovering common ground
Engler currently serves as president of the Association of Convention Marketing Executives (ACME), a national organization comprising more than 150 sales executives from both convention centers and bureaus. It was created in the late 1980s to facilitate better destination-marketing partnerships. Engler explains that ACME seeks to identify key issues and operations that all bureaus and centers can agree upon. Determining that common ground in the convention industry, says Engler, will make their customers' jobs easier because they will not be forced to relearn the relationship between the bureau and convention center in each destination in which they hold events.
"When the two organizations are working together, the customer comes into town and blends into the partnership, where the package is laid out and coordinated with all parties involved," says Engler. "The customer can assess everything they need and wrap up all details right then and there if they want. On the other hand, they could be working with the bureau to establish dates and facility space only to have the center's staff say, 'You're holding what dates and what space?'"
At larger facilities, where simultaneous events frequently occur, and where larger sales staffs are at work, the need for coordination and communication is even greater. In New Orleans, bureau and center officials meet monthly to discuss important issues, while the entire sales staffs from the two organizations have a formal meeting quarterly. "It's not nirvana; we have our difficult times, usually relating to move-in/move-out dates, date protection for annual events, and meeting rooms," says Engler. But the periodic meetings - along with the practices of sharing e-mail messages and providing both entities with immediate, electronic access to the center's books so that updates and requests can be communicated more efficiently - are improving the organizations' ability to work in partnership.
Achieving a comfort level
"When you think in terms of how far out meeting planners book these days, one of the things they need to feel comfortable with is if the city can pull together the resources to accommodate their event," says Carroll Armstrong, director of marketing at the San Diego Convention Center and founding president of ACME. "That's a big deal because a lot of entities have to come together, and it's the bureau and the center that are usually controlling those entities," says Armstrong, who worked in sales positions at the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., bureaus before switching to marketing convention centers.
"If they aren't working well together, it usually is obvious at some point," says Armstrong. "The center will say one thing and the bureau will say another, and the association executive scratches his or her head and asks who's right. When you get confusion at that level, then the meeting planners must ask themselves if they can trust these organizations later on when it really matters. Planners can do all of the planning up to the event, but when the group actually comes to the city, they literally turn their fate over to those entities in the city."
Armstrong, like Engler, believes that the center and bureau staffs must make a concerted effort to communicate and educate each other on the fine points of how they operate and why. In doing so, he asserts, both parties do a better job of informing clients and helping them make better decisions concerning their events.
"The worst thing is when a client makes a decision based on incomplete or inaccurate information," says Armstrong, adding that an informed client enjoys fewer surprises in the planning process. "There's a major payoff for a meeting planner who has an event with no surprises. You've got a team you built and cultivated over the years, and when the doors finally open you will have a team that will do what you want them to do because you've dealt with them fairly, you've earned their respect, and they'll want to do things for you and make you look good," says Armstrong.
Spotting the problems
"When they don't work together well, you sure can spot it," says Dennis Dix, CAE, president and chief executive officer of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, Alexandria, Virginia. Dix says that the institute at one time considered moving its huge trade show from the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville for at least one year, but when it investigated one possible new host city further, the relationship between the bureau and center made institute leaders think twice.
"The bureau in that other city was very tied into the downtown convention center, but we were interested in using a large, privately owned center close to the airport," says Dix. "We quickly found out the bureau didn't seem to have a close relationship with that center, which we thought could be a problem, since our show is so dependent on hotel rooms, transportation accommodations, and other aspects of a citywide event."
Another major factor in the decision, says Dix, was the excellent relationship between the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center. Despite the potentially troublesome situation of having a state-run center and a city-operated bureau, Dix asserts that Louisville has an outstanding team whose cooperation is key in helping the institute's citywide event go smoothly. "They seem to work hand in hand and provide good support efforts," says Dix. "They say, 'You pick this up; I'll pick that up.'"
The reason for that good relationship: They work hard at it, says Harold Workman, president and chief executive officer of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center. The vice presidents of sales for both organizations talk at least twice a week. Once a month, the entire sales staffs have a formal meeting to discuss specific business booked and prospects. Also, Workman says that he and the bureau president, Ron Scott, have a "constant dialogue" about larger issues, such as groups they want to book and what it will take to get them to do so.
"Our goal is to make sure we don't make the association executive do double work - do the same thing with two different organizations," says Workman. The bureau handles the hotels and other citywide issues, while the center fields questions pertaining specifically to the facility. "It causes a little tit-for-tat relationship at times because the city can't make the booking decisions for the facility, but that's why we're very careful to have a good relationship and communicate so closely," he adds.
Another way Workman ensures that the two organizations remain in harmony is by personally serving on the bureau's board of directors.
"I think [serving on the bureau board] is an excellent way to understand the problems of both organizations," says Workman. "Ron Scott or someone from his office attends each one of our board meetings and has done so for a number of years, so the bureau understands our goals."
Says Karen Williams, senior vice president of the Louisville bureau, "Our clients know we have a good working relationship with the facility because the first time they mention space, we tell them we're going to call the facility staff to inquire about it, and we mention a specific staff person's name. Our first call now is to the facility, and if we cannot secure the space, we will not send out the bid package," which goes out under one cover, not two separate covers, from the bureau and center.
"We're trying to enhance the entire package for the client and prevent clients from having to deal with separate parties, not take away the jobs of the facility's sales staff," she says. "The main reason we've worked on this team building is to help the client."
Letting computers help
Another city whose bureau and convention center work hard at building an effective team is Charlotte, North Carolina. According to Brian Monroe, director of sales for the New Charlotte Convention Center, which opened earlier this year, the sales staffs of the bureau and convention center meet weekly and the sales directors from the major hotels sit in on the meeting every two weeks. Monroe says that the bureau and center even share the same computer software to enhance communication and keep close track of bookings and sales leads. "We're the new kids on the block, so we have tried to look at what other cities were doing and learn from their mistakes," says Monroe, who adds that the Charlotte center receives a portion of the city's hotel room tax to market the facility, something many other centers around the United States do not enjoy.
"In most cases, [our customers] have two people they can call - one each from the bureau and the convention center - and they have that team handling their account from the beginning," says Monroe, who emphasizes that planners still can deal with only one person from either organization if they so choose.
Despite the close working relationship in Charlotte, Jeanne Swenson, director of marketing and communications for the center, says the goals of the hotels, bureau, and center can present a challenge.
"At times there are disagreements over certain dates, and we may even go back to the planners and ask them if they can consider alternate dates," says Swenson. "At times, the hotels don't want to submit room blocks because they have a good piece of in-house business, for example, so there must be a coordinated effort among all entities; the lines of responsibility need to be well-defined among the organizations."
Adds Bob McCormick, vice president of convention sales at Charlotte's CVB, "The booking guidelines for the new facility were jointly developed by convention center and CVB management and work well. The idea is to have a process in place to make the best decisions for the hotels and the facility. This requires some flexibility ... effective communication is the key."
An aspect of coordination among a convention center, a CVB, and hotels that can be sticky is hotel rebates. During negotiations, a large association may ask that a portion of the hotel rate be rebated to pay for costs related to the event - usually the space rental fees at the convention center. "If you're not working closely together, hotels can quote their best rate and then find out there's been a rebate request, and so they've got to take some of their best rate and give it back to the customer," says Monroe. He says that, in Charlotte, the center and bureau address the issue of rebates up front and work with the hotels to calculate costs everyone can agree upon. "We try to figure the total cost with inflation factored in before the hotels quote a rate they can't live with," says Monroe, who adds that the bureau often acts as a bank of sorts in coordinating the hotel rebate funds with the client.
Ray Hall feels that the entire issue of negotiations for association conventions needs to be scrutinized to make sure that the ultimate customer - the attendee - is best served.
"Negotiate solutions, not positions," says Hall, who feels that some facilities and destinations attempt to offer the least amount of services initially instead of offering them up front and explaining how they can help the event. "The client is culpable here, as well, because they come in and try to get everything free, and they're doing it for the wrong reasons," says Hall, who feels that planners run the risk of losing control of events if they are concentrating on obtaining freebies. "They shouldn't be asking for a free dinner, but doing things for reasons that benefit the attendee, not reasons that make it easier on the staff or benefit the city most." When the bureau, the center, and the association have a cooperative relationship, "they are concentrating on determining how they can work together to make this event work better for attendees and not duplicate efforts."
Ultimately, it's in the best interest of all concerned to cooperate. Says San Diego's Armstrong, "If association executives start seeing us and themselves as an integral part of the team, then the negotiations will go more fairly. They need to make sure these buildings stay viable, and the only way they can do that is as a team. They can't do their events on the street if these buildings fold up."
RELATED ARTICLE: HIGHLIGHTS
* In forging partnerships, parallel yet different goals form the core of the challenge.
* Many convention center and CVBs are finding ways to coordinate their efforts - so that clients like you are better served.
* The association executive plays a role in the partnership, too. When all parties find ways to work together, the meeting participant gets a better convention.
RELATED ARTICLE: Welcome to the Revolution
"Coming together is a beginning, Keeping together is progress, Working together is success."
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Create the most user-friendly facility in the global convention business driven by an active team composed of the benefactors who profit most from the use of the facility.
Along with Lewis Dawley, general manager of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority (PCCA), I accepted what most would define as an impossible mission. How do you unite the convention center authority staff, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the unions, retail vendors, city council members, and the hotel and transportation communities? The impossible challenge of uniting a major convention city became a reality in the form of a promotional training program called TEam Philadelphia.
To promote substantive change in your city, you must usher in a revolution. OUr revolution took place in Philadelphia during a five-week period in which every segment of the convention and hospitality industry united as a team with the goal of bringing business to the city. More than 600 attendees heard from industry professionals from every segment - show organizers, corporate trade event specialists, bureau personnel, association leadership, union leaders, exposition producers, and other. The key question addressed in these educational sessions was, "What does the customer want and need in a destination?"
Team Philadelphia began an exciting quest toward not only winning business for the city but delivering world-class service to the customer at every turn. Interdependence has begun to win out over individual goals and desires, over turf battles and ego empires.
Five anchor points, or values, served as a framework during the nine months of planning for the opening of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
1. Do not get people thinking alike - get them thinking together.
2. Reward cooperation not competition.
3. Occupancy causes jobs for all groups.
4. Find a way to work smart, have fun, and generate dollars.
5. Help other people get what they want.... Serve others.
Education and training was the key to achieving our goal. We targeted literally all individuals who in any way have contact with customers of the facility. We also differentiated PCCA from other facilities by teaching all Team Philadelphia members about how they support one another to cause business to come to Philadelphia. We also stressed the ways that PCCA is different from its competitors.
Teaching diverse groups and individuals to unite around a common goal is something Philadelphia and other cities are gaining plenty of experience with, not unlike an association's efforts to steer its membership in one general direction. In the case of Team Philadelphia, it took respect for the differences, clarity on goals, organization around teams, and creating opportunities for networking. Sound familiar?
Jack McEntee is chief executive officer, I & D Group, Inc., Stone Mountain, Georgia, a global event-marketing organization offering labor, management, and marketing services to Fortune 1000 corporations.
Jeff Waddle is associate executive director of the American Institute of Plant Engineers, Cincinnati, and a freelance writer.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article; convention and visitors' bureau|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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