CVBs Create Connections

By: Jeff Waddle

Convention and visitors bureaus are helping associations create customized meeting experiences for members online, from room registrations to closing-night get-togethers.

Many elements go into successfully selling your association's conferences and tradeshows to members, exhibitors, and other partners. You've crafted a relevant and appealing program, provided ample opportunities for colleagues to interact, and found meaningful ways for industry suppliers to showcase their products and services.

But the host city is vital, too: The destination can be a deciding factor for many members who likely have lots of enticing continuing-education options but limited time and money to take advantage of them. Destination marketing is especially important for meetings in the Midwest: Though the region has dozens of magnificent cities, most don't enjoy the recognition of more famous tourist hotspots like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New York, New Orleans, or Orlando.

So, how do you get members and other stakeholders excited about meeting in the Midwest? Associations have increasingly turned to their convention and visitors bureau partners, which offer a wide array of innovative destination marketing tools, including some that were just recently introduced. Gone are the days when a stack of visitors' guide brochures constituted "marketing assistance" from CVBs.

A Micro View

One of the newest marketing tools many Midwest CVBs offer is the microsite, a website built to market the city to a specific association event. Hosted either on the CVB's or association's website, microsites are essentially a design shell with existing content on the host city that can be customized with group-specific logos and event information. The custom approach offers several advantages over previous destination marketing methods.

"In the past we simply provided a link to the city's main site, where there is just so much information to navigate," says Leslie Murray, associate director, conferences and meetings, for NAFSA: Association for International Educators, which used a microsite for its annual conference last June in Kansas City. "So what we try to do [with a microsite] is to create a smaller version of the city's own site that is tailored to our attendees and has information on just what's happening during the week we are there."

Murray explains that with a microsite, NAFSA can carefully control what their members see about the city, particularly hotel information. "If you go directly to Kansas City's main site, information about all [its] hotels is there," she says. "But since we have our own housing block, we pulled hotel information off our microsite." She adds that NAFSA's main conference website, which was linked to its microsite, offered housing information and took hotel reservations and conference registrations.

"We also had a local member blog on the microsite about what to do in the city, like day trips and barbeque, and people could add their own comments and ideas. We found that pretty useful, and even people who had nothing to do with NAFSA were visiting the site and commenting," says Murray.

While Murray says the destination isn't the most critical decision point for NAFSA members, she believes the microsite was very successful in educating its large international member base about Kansas City. "We've met previously in pretty high-profile, first-tier cities, but with Kansas City being a second-tier city, it helped give specifically our international attendees a lot of useful information about the city," she says, adding that NAFSA's 2010 conference saw near-record attendance of more than 7,200 participants from 130 countries.

Murray says that while NAFSA dabbled in microsites at two previous conferences hosted by first-tier cities on both the East and West Coasts, Kansas City's was the most successful, with about 41,000 page views. "This was the first city we've come across that had experience doing [microsites]," she says. "Their staff worked closely with us and gave us lots of ideas. It was seamless."

Alan Carr, director of communications for the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, says it has built more than 15 microsites since it began offering them to clients in late 2009, with the majority created this year. He adds that KCCVA also has had success offering custom emails (another new KCCVA marketing tool) that associations can use to promote Kansas City to prospective conference attendees.

"SGMP [Society of Government Meeting Professionals] and the KCCVA worked together on many aspects of promoting the conference," says Mark A. Harvey, GCMP, conference and meetings manager for SGMP, of the society's annual meeting, which was held in Kansas City last May. Harvey explains that SGMP staff worked with KCCVA to create four distinct, custom email campaigns to promote the city and drive attendance.

"The CVA would write content and send to us for approval, where we had the chance to perform minor surgery if necessary," says Harvey. "[The emails] created a first impression that brought the prospective attendee into the conference well before they actually arrived in the city. Positive branding of the event was likely a contributing factor to the success, and the e-marketing that KCCVA supplied was a big part of that."

A microsite was among various marketing tools used by AMT—The Association for Manufacturing Technology to promote its International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago last September. But the tradeshow, which attracted more than 92,000 participants over six days, used some additional promotional ideas with the help of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau (CCTB), which has introduced several new tools to help convention groups market the city.

Diyana Hrzic, AMT's website manager, says AMT and CCTB partnered to produce approximately 50 online videos promoting Chicago and explaining various aspects of the IMTS show to participants. "We have been using video for a long time, but it was always professionally done and very expensive," says Hrzic. "This is the first time that we've done YouTube-style videos. We didn't want them to be perfect. The goal was to be fun and informative and spread the word about the show."

Hrzic says AMT used all its own equipment and staff served as camera operators, directors, production crew, and even on-camera talent. She used a video camera for the first time, and AMT Vice President of Exhibitions & Communications Peter Eelman served as host along with Megan Gaus, CCTB's director of integrated marketing. CCTB staff helped arrange the onsite filming at various venues. AMT also utilized stock video from CCTB, which recently produced new video for client promotions that features all four seasons in Chicago (including aerial footage) as well as tours of McCormick Place.

The 60-to-90-second videos covered don't-miss aspects of the tradeshow, navigating McCormick Place and the region's airports, ground transportation, airline discounts, entertainment options, and features on specific restaurants and hotels, all with an IMTS-focused message.

"We didn't have big expectations for this, but it couldn't have turned out better," says Hrzic, who is still counting the thousands of views her videos have received on various social media outlets and on AMT's website, where she reports that each video had hundreds of views. "Harvey Morris [CCTB's director of digital marketing and social media] was a great help with tips and tricks on how to best post videos on YouTube and Facebook so that they get more attention, and to be consistent in tags so all our videos will be related," says Hrzic. The videos were shot in two full days onsite in Chicago, and AMT began posting the videos as they were finished, beginning in April and running through IMTS.

Serving Small Associations

The IMTS event obviously is on the extreme end of tradeshows, but there are plenty of innovative marketing options available to smaller groups, according to Kara Carmichael, assistant manager, marketing at CCTB.

"We don't do the [marketing] campaigns for them, but we're there to enhance the experience and help them get people excited about coming to Chicago," says Carmichael, who works with more than 120 groups meeting in Chicago each year. "Some of the smaller shows don't have the resources to have their own event websites, so they may want to choose our microsite builder to be their entire show site. They can add as many customized elements as they want, but they don't have to research and create content on Chicago themselves."

Carmichael says smaller groups in particular are using CCTB's HTML email campaigns to stretch their marketing resources. The emails feature images and copy promoting Chicago that can be easily customized to promote a specific conference or tradeshow. "While they will still need somebody to finalize and customize the coding, the emails are mostly all built out for them, so for those groups that don't have the resources to create their own look and feel for email marketing campaigns, it's a valuable resource for them," she says.

Another CCTB marketing tool, introduced in late spring, is MyChicagoTrip, which allows convention participants to build a customized travel itinerary by answering six basic questions about their unique travel circumstances. Along with providing travel recommendations and tips, MyChicagoTrip generates printable itineraries and gives users the option to secure theater and restaurant reservations or request help with bookings.

"Many groups are linking this to their microsite or main conference site, and once the show is over we can provide meeting planners with a report of the profile data so they can better understand their attendees' travel preferences and habits," says Carmichael, who adds that CCTB also offers webinars on social media, search engine optimization, and other subjects relating to meetings promotion.

Mandy Davis-Aitken, assistant director, annual meeting, of the American Society of Clinical Oncology says her association plans to utilize MyChicagoTrip for its 2011 conference in Chicago. MyChicagoTrip was introduced too close to ASCO's 2010 conference in Chicago last June to promote to its members. But ASCO did use new CCTB video footage and a microsite for the first time, as well as the bureau's complimentary database-building service for a traditional, mail-based postcard promotional campaign. CCTB provides access to business-to-business databases using keywords to power the search.

"ASCO utilized a list of likely attendees, in this case oncology professionals, within the tri-state area provided by the CCTB," says Davis-Aitken. "We executed a postcard mailing to these targets six weeks out from our annual meeting, mailing to over 3,000 potential attendees." Davis-Aitken says that it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of this particular mailing versus ASCO's other marketing efforts, but the association did enjoy a record 26,600 professional attendees in 2010.

ASCO also worked with CCTB to immediately update its microsite in anticipation of the 2011 conference that also will take place in Chicago. "They updated the Choose Chicago site for us immediately after the conference so attendees going on to find out about next year got current information," she says, adding that it was useful to use the microsite to deliver information as ASCO's main 2011 conference site was being built. "The CVB is there to help and has tools and resources at their disposal," Davis-Aitken says. "Don't hesitate to ask them for help and tools, so that the association can use their resources in other areas."

"We see the need to serve as their marketing agency when groups need assistance," says Chris Gahl, director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, which began offering microsite assistance early this year. ICVA also produces a weekly "Doing Indy" podcast that can be embedded in websites or email campaigns promoting the city as a conference destination.

With a full-time staffer producing the "Doing Indy" segments, Gahl says the podcasts can be customized to include messages for specific groups. "We're also devoting more resources to attending association conferences the year before they meet in Indianapolis as a way to help them promote the city and their next conference. We want them to come to Indy as much as the association does," he says.

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and editor of ASAE's Meetings & Expositions section e-newsletter. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Customizing Family Activities

Recent research shows that business travelers often extend work-related trips and bring family along—a trend so prevalent that terms such as "blended travel" have been coined to describe it.

"We have seen a huge upswing in people combining a business trip with their family vacation," says Denice Waldhuetter, vice president of Professional Events & Consulting, a Milwaukee-based meetings and event management firm that creates guest programs and other tour options for associations conducting conferences nationwide. "Associations want their tour options well in advance—more so now than three or more years ago—so that they can start to entice attendees with the location, activities, and tours offered long before the formal registration goes out. If a [guest] gets excited about a convention location and the activities offered, the commitment to the convention takes place well in advance of registration."

Waldhuetter says that she tries to create diverse options for attendees' guests, such as brewery tours and visits to the Harley-Davidson manufacturing plant during conferences in Milwaukee, and she finds that tours with an interactive component appeal to attendees the most.

In addition to adult tours, Waldhuetter says children-only tours are a way for parents to have an afternoon getaway.  "The youth tours are chaperoned by certified caregivers, and we time them in conjunction with adult tours, so parents are with their children until they depart on the tour," Waldhuetter says. "Also, the adult tours finish early so children are returned directly to their parents upon return. It's all about customizing tour offerings to suit the group."