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Three keys to booking a citywide convention.

Look beyond the numbers to make sure YOUR meeting fits THEIR city.

There used to be only two sides to booking a citywide meeting. The buyer saw things this way: "I'll fly into town, and they'll chauffeur me around. I'll stay in a suite, dine well, inspect some hotels, load up on slick brochures, check out the convention hall, collect some business cards, and, because I'm the buyer, get some long-overdue respect. I'll make certain that I leave with some good factual information about properties, transportation, and meeting facilities, and I'll remember a name or two that will help me."

The seller's version went: "We'll have an action-packed schedule for this buyer. We'll be organized, we'll show respect, we'll be genuine. We'll hit the big hotels, and our convention bureau staff will march around on all that unforgiving concrete once more. (They'll even smile while they're doing it.) Facts will be our trademark. We'll have pamphlets on everything from restaurants to transportation. We'll do lunch, we'll give a little gift, and we'll all limo to the airport. No competitor will even come close--no way."

In those days, both buyer and seller worked from the same paradigm. Buyers accurately counted spaces and determined how well a city's hospitality industry measured up to their expectations. Sellers provided basic answers to basic questions. Meeting planners made recommendations to their chief executive officers, boards of directors, and executive committees. Citywide conventions went as well as could be expected.

So what's wrong with the old two-dimensional buyer paradigm? Or for that matter, what is the problem with the time immemorial seller's paradigm of sell-sell-sell, smile-smile-smile? The answer is simple. Numbers and contacts alone don't work any more. A new wave of convention site buyers has discovered that there are three dimensions to selecting a site. If all three are not fully understood by both parties, and especially buyers, the result is chaos: uproar for individuals and organizations involved in the complex work of citywide convention planning and recriminations from the suppliers, even to the point of legal action.

Philosophical considerations in selecting a site now take precedence: How does the proposed city's quality of life and political climate agree with the philosophy of the association planning the meeting? The strategy for approaching this dimension has three aspects: The first requires development, approval, and careful distribution of the association's site selection criteria. The second adds new fact-finding techniques that go beyond collecting statistical information. The third includes a forceful education program for the association's key leaders and instruction of local hospitality industry leaders involved in bidding for a meeting.

History repeats--and then some

Remember the Equal Rights Amendment boycotts of convention cities in the 1970s and early 1980s? At that time, many buyers refused to consider non-ERA states for their conventions. Meeting planners who had signed contracts withdrew entire bookings. Politically liberal cities that offered exceptional convention facilities were summarily eliminated from the bidding process. No wonder industry professionals were angry.

If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times: "None of you required that our state pass the ERA during your initial site inspection. We booked your meetings based upon the information you gave us at the time. Haven't you heard that booking is a two-way street? Your boycott actions have been totally unfair. You've cost us millions with your unprofessional conduct."

Some buyers told me, "Hospitality industry officials only want to book business. They remain oblivious to the world around them and they spend most of their time worrying about their competition and avoiding the discomfort that goes with business risk-taking. They live for the sale and don't care about our problems. They don't believe that being politically astute has anything to do with their work. Many look upon us as one-time-only customers, so they'll do or say anything to get us to book."

For buyers as well as sellers--including convention bureaus, hotel companies, and convention hall management companies--the ERA boycotts represented a turning point. ASAE and other organizations that provide guidance to buyers and sellers began offering workshops on buyer-seller responsibilities during the booking process. Training rooms were packed for seminars about negotiations and contracting. Contract language received a face lift, thereby providing better protection for each side. Attorneys specializing in hospitality industry lawsuits won new name recognition. All told, communication between suppliers and buyers became more direct and more open.

When I was new to meeting planning, one old sage told me "the rule": What you don't say to the supplier will always work to your advantage. An example is the well-known but unwritten labor union practice of supporting any job action or picket line, even if the action is not sanctioned by the parent union. For an international union to pull out of a citywide convention commitment, or even a small meeting, because of a public labor dispute was par for the course. Convention and visitors bureau executives and hotel general managers knew the rule and never sued a labor union for invoking it. Another unwritten guideline was that buyers would book more sleeping rooms than they could ever use. The purported reason for this practice was that they had to "protect their organizations."

For sellers, producing a product meant extolling the virtues of their facilities and services, and that was all. CVB representatives were never hired to act as generalists who knew the political dynamics of their communities. That was the mayor's job. A one-size-fits-all sales and information program was supposed to work for the entire spectrum of meetings clients. Differences among buyer organizations didn't matter, and selling didn't require any political sensitivity.

At that time, it was assumed that if a buyer organization decided to be arbitrary about business dealings, the seller would not follow with a lawsuit. Buying organizations believed that adverse publicity would damage any hospitality business that brought a lawsuit against an association.

This assumption is no longer true. In recent times, groups including Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Business Professionals of America, Columbus, Ohio, and The American Society of Cell Biology, Bethesda, Maryland, have all faced legal action because of allegedly arbitrary booking behavior.

The adversarial buyer-seller relationship that prevailed 20 years ago may be back. The symptoms are there: One side feels like it has been contractually blindsided, while the other fulfills a political agenda without any thought to its business obligations.

Relationships will worsen if buyers continue to book meetings based only on numerical information and sellers continue to bring in business by using standardized marketing formulas. Unless there are some changes, associations and the hospitality industry will wind up saying, "We've made this bed, so I guess we'll have to lie in it ... together."

Victims of this kind of fallout include Miami and Phoenix, Arizona. The first endured a locally initiated convention boycott by an articulate minority group. The second experienced major losses from a state legislative action that rejected the Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday. |See ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, February, 1993.~ Associations canceled bookings in each city, and the CVBs went on the defensive.

These incidents highlight associations' need for detailed site selection standards that address all issues, including political views, that affect the choice of city.

For example, an association may discover that its convention has been booked into a community that is rife with racial strife and where the local newspaper prints daily stories about warring factions. In this case, it quickly becomes obvious that the old two-dimensional paradigm doesn't help. Minority members of the association can be expected to call for a convention pullout or at least an in-depth investigation of the problem.

Use three key strategies to help match your association with a city.

Key 1: Develop site selection standards

The first strategy is to work with your board of directors to develop and approve a detailed list of site selection standards. This 10- or 15-page document has two main sections. The first describes your organization's policies about site selection, including related political issues. The second indicates your specific needs for logistical support. If it is crafted properly, the document can be used as a request for a bid proposal.

The process of preparing and approving the document serves to involve your entire association and helps develop support for the plan. By participating in developing these standards, your board shares responsibility for site selection. In the future, site selection problems can be addressed as policy issues rather than be blamed on the meeting planner and association management.

Include in your document all your organizational policies on equal opportunity employment, nondiscrimination, recognition of organized labor, picketing, support for people with disabilities, attendee safety, attendee security, and other factors of importance to the association and its members.

State each policy succinctly, along with any consequences for failing to comply. For example, one organization used this wording on the topic of picketing:

"Ongoing protest actions by labor unions taking the form of public notice, demonstrations, or picketing of commercial establishments have been a barrier to our citywide bookings. We require a good-faith effort from a convention bureau to help us determine the status of labor relations among the service providers we list. Regarding unanticipated picketing of establishments ultimately selected for our use, we require the insertion of contractual provisions which address our intent to remove business in support of officially sanctioned job actions. Our contract language is designed to protect us against any financial loss resulting from our inability to utilize a picketed property. We do not honor picket lines that have not been sanctioned by a central labor council or international union."

Here's another:

"Physically challenged: All convention facilities utilized by our association must be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Special attention is given by us to emergency egrees from all convention facilities, including hotels. Any facility committed to us by a convention bureau not in compliance with the aforementioned standards will not be considered for booking.

And here's one more example of a statement that clarifies policy:

"Nondiscrimination: Our organization opposes discrimination against anyone based upon race, gender, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, age, physical disability, or economic status. We seek accurate information regarding the status of matters like ethnic harmony and equitable treatment of the citizenry in each community planning to host our convention."

Each standard is designed to place the burden of supplying information on the bidder. Local marketers are obliged to show off their city's best face. However, representatives of the hospitality industry will honestly answer questions on important issues if they are asked.

If something does go wrong, such as the local boycott action cited earlier, the association is in a position to put the burden for solving the problem on the community. Either the community representative didn't tell you about the problem, or it is a recent development that surprised everybody. If an issue does arise out of the blue, the association executive or planner is in a good position to support local people as they address the problem.

Formal site selection standards also help solve the problem of officers who push for a particular site without regard to its suitability. For example, in one large national association, a candidate for the presidency promised a state's leaders that he would place the national convention in their area, creating publicity for the region and saving that group travel funds. As a result of the promise, the region's representatives became his unofficial campaign committee.

Once elected, the association president made good on his promise. However, no city in the targeted region had enough quality hotel rooms for the group and the "seller's market" occasioned by the site selection led to excess charges and quality problems. Logistically, the meeting was a nightmare. At the end of the convention, staff and volunteers looked like they hadn't slept for weeks (they hadn't). Delegate complaints were unparalleled. The only happy party was the city, which boasted its highest hotel occupancy rate in years.

Well-written criteria call for a city initially to commit from 15 percent to 20 percent more rooms than needed for the meeting. After site inspection and negotiations, the association and the city can agree on the final number of rooms, with some overage for unexpected guests.

Formal standards do not allow any individual in the association to make a commitment to a future site. Elected leaders and board members cannot act as representatives for a local chamber of commerce or CVB and affect the selection process.

Key 2: Research the location

You can't count on the convention and visitors bureau to supply all the information you need. That's why I look for number crunchers and gurus. You get numerical data from crunchers. Intelligence about the community comes from gurus. In rare cases, I run into individuals who are both; they're exceptions.

You can't find gurus in the Yellow Pages. You find them in positions of responsibility. Discuss how your meeting fits the community dynamics with senior people at the local convention bureau, an assistant police chief, a human rights official at city hall, general contracting company representatives, the president of the local hotel association, and the central labor council vice president, to name only a few possibilities.

The cheapest of all intelligence vehicles is a short-term subscription to a local newspaper, or even two, sent directly to your home or office. You can order the newspaper by telephone and read it before you even set foot into the community. Another option is the newsletter of the local labor council; I once requested such a publication and received it free of charge. These publications will spell out local problems in great detail and at little cost to you. Potential buyers have an obligation to pick up news local people take for granted or don't want to talk about. Conversely, a sharp CVB representative once subscribed to the in-house monthly tabloid of one of my clients. He ended up knowing more about the organization than the meeting planner.

The site selection standards document drives most of a buyer's questions during the research phase. What's the crime picture? How is the community progressing in the human and civil rights area? Is there any word on when the city will tear down the beat-up freeway off ramp to the convention center and rebuild it? How is city hall getting along with organized labor? How about the officially designated companies at the convention hall? Are there rumors of any big changes (such as the retirement of the convention bureau chief, who is the only person who really knows the local politics)? What about those building projects that could dramatically affect traffic and noise?

Any internal reports from your findings need only be circulated to a few key leaders so as not to alarm or cause overreaction to temporary situations. Your report's high-risk items, such as "extraordinary security required in the downtown area," are a cry for plans to beef up security and get cooperation from local police. Before you book, share your observations, plans, and requirements with the local people. This action will clear the air and ensure cooperation after booking. Ideally, express every requirement and every agreement in writing.

Key 3: Educate your members

Direct your reports, presentations, updates, and coffee hour conversations toward ongoing education of the players in your organization and, later, of local officials in the meeting city. Repeat the standards and any waivers often enough, and eventually the message becomes well understood by all.

You may need to overcome apprehensions on the part of your members. Some examples: Yes, six out of the nine city council members have supported civil rights and human rights for gays. Controversy remains, but the community is debating issues in a civilized way. No, the crime report is misleading; a few incidents do not make a crime wave, and they took place some distance from the convention site. Yes, there was a hotel worker strike, but it was against only one property that was taken over by a foreign corporation. There has been labor-management harmony in the community for the last 10 years. Yes, the bureau chief is moving on, but she has left a sophisticated staff that knows what's happening. As to wheelchair access, 20 out of the 22 hotels are accessible, and we'll have to live with the other two. The mayor won a purple heart in Vietnam and the city is a leader in accommodating people with disabilities.

Small, unrelated incidents can create an oversized amount of apprehension. By educating and reassuring your members and staff, you can allay fears before they start.

Keys one, two, and three work together. The chief executive or meeting planner knows the issues. He or she coaches local people and learns who the "right" people are and how to get answers. The buyer plans an offense and assembles or otherwise orchestrates a team that includes a board of directors, local leaders, and suppliers. The goal is an executive as educator and coach, armed with approved standards, creating an open dialogue with association leaders and representatives at the meeting site--and without the baggage of outdated paradigms. The antagonism of those boycott days is overcome by buyers and sellers working together to deal with every possible eventuality.

When sellers believe that buyers are professionals, their self-interest mellows as partnership and team spirit develops. Success breeds success. These three keys create a process to deal with and address the complex forces inherent in today's site selection work.

Arleigh Greenblat is president of Second Executive, Inc., a Washington, D.C., management consulting firm that specializes in total quality management systems. Greenblat was general manager of the Democratic National Convention in 1988 and managed 20 citywide conventions for the National Education Association, Washington, D.C. Write to ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT for a copy of Greenblat's suggested convention site selection standards.
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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Author:Greenblat, Arleigh
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:2968
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