Site Selection With Board Oversight

By: Karla Taylor

If your board has final say on where you'll hold your next convention, these five steps can take the struggle out of site selection.

Four years later, Tracy Petrillo, CAE, still vividly remembers the tense meeting where board leaders squared off over which city should host a future annual conference for the League of California Cities (LCC). The board president represented one bidding city. Three other board members came from a competitor. Resolving the standoff required extra meetings of board and staff, much member debate, and rebidding with CVBs and hotels before—finally—the board chose San Diego over Los Angeles.

Though draining in the short term, the confrontation had a positive long-term outcome, says Petrillo, LCC's director of education and conferences. Top board and staff executives agreed the decision had taken too much time and created too much aggravation. They assigned the conference staff to devise a new process that would result in unbiased comparisons, a practical and appealing meeting site, and a lot less board angst.

Working with a board that has final say on meeting sites can be a major headache. Board members may represent competing parts of the state, country, or world. They may have favorite properties, whether because of historic ties or their own platinum-level status. In their defense, they may not always receive the thorough information the staff should provide to ensure valid comparisons and data-driven decisions.

Although the best solutions to these problems will vary from association to association, the following five steps can help you make your board's site selection easier and more effective.

1. Define Success for Your Organization

Using resources such as surveys and meeting histories, gather the facts your board needs to understand the main determinants of successful site selection for your specific association. For example, should the top priority be an economical location within a 300-mile drive of the bulk of your members? Or do you draw best at resorts in elite locations with top amenities?

In addition to addressing questions like these, Petrillo believes that whenever you talk to your board about site selection, you should stress three principles:

  • Venues should meet the needs of your membership as a whole, not a privileged few. For LCC, this means airport-friendly locations where attendees can minimize travel costs and time away from work.
  • Financial considerations should be paramount. The association needs to feel confident that the chosen location will hurt neither attendance nor the association's bottom line.
  • Facts should trump guesswork and opinions. The staff must provide due diligence—and plenty of it.

2. Develop Site-Selection Policies and Procedures

When Doug Kleine, CAE, was executive director of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR), he and the organization's leaders created a 12-point criteria list for site selection that covers everything from preferred dates and space needs to social- and economic-justice considerations. When problematic properties came up for discussion, he found it helpful to "always refer back to policy." (To see ACR's criteria, visit ASAE's Models and Samples Collection and view the "Tradeshows and Exhibits Tools and Resources" list.)

Having such specific, clear criteria can help all volunteer groups, whether they're the board, a chapter, or a committee, says Kleine, who is now president of the Professional Association Services consulting firm. The criteria also provide a transparent process and a convincing answer to the question members and vendors invariably ask: "Why did we decide to go there?"

3. Prevent Problems With Thorough Site Comparisons

To cut down on confusion—and avoid retracing your steps—it pays to put extra effort into creating apples-to-apples comparisons among properties, says Candis Yeager, CMP, meetings and events director for CRG, Inc., a Florida-based association management company. If she cites room rates, taxes, or even the price of a cup of coffee for one venue, she lists the same charges for all.

In addition to tried-and-true spreadsheets, new resources are emerging all the time to help meeting planners find and compare relevant information. Yeager uses a free online planning tool called CVent Supplier Network. The tool searches a venue database, provides customizable RFP forms, and allows side-by-side comparisons of venue responses. (See Yeager has discovered that close attention to detail one year can inspire such confidence in boards and committees that they often want only highlights in subsequent years and will stay out of the site-selection weeds.

4. Tread Carefully in Presenting Venues to Your Board

Yeager generally avoids asking destination representatives to make a formal pitch to her boards. To save time and trouble, she focuses on the top three to five properties she's researched and provides the relevant comparison spreadsheets (with links to visuals and maps) to pertinent boards and committees. They then discuss details by phone.

Petrillo avoids bringing her site-selection task force on site visits. "The wining and dining has nothing to do with the actuality of putting on a meeting," she says.

But there can be exceptions to this rule. Once Yeager took relevant board and committee members on a site tour because there was a question about whether the venue they preferred could accommodate their meeting. She felt that they had to experience the site to understand what pictures and floor plans didn't fully convey.

"They needed to walk the space to see just how spread out the facility was," she says. "In the end they told me, 'Your team was right.'"

Kleine, too, occasionally finds it useful to step outside his usual rules. At times he has asked certain venues to, for example, provide dessert for a board meeting or even let the board preview a spot by planning a board meeting there in advance of the convention. Used wisely, these techniques can be reassuring in cases of a second-tier destination that may be less familiar to volunteers.

5. Recognize That Board Involvement Has Its Advantages

At previous associations, Greg Rinck made destination decisions with little board input. But now he is director of meetings and events at the Global Cold Chain Alliance, where the board is deeply involved in choosing destinations.

"I prefer board participation," he says. "It integrates all parties, both board and staff, and increases buy-in." The association's 2011 convention site, New Orleans, was the hometown of the board chair, who got personally involved in every step of the planning. "Some people might hear that and balk," he says. "But the involvement didn't get in the way. In fact, it was our most successful convention ever."

Deep involvement "doesn't have to be difficult at all when the relationship is based on mutual trust and complete transparency," Rinck says. "Just be open, honest, and upfront."

If you've done your best to head off a less-than-ideal site and failed, "you can still usually make it work," says Yeager. "If you've voiced your concerns, and they've heard you and still want to do it their way, you can't say, 'I won't do it.'"

And what if the site does not work out well? The decision makers will hear about problems from attendees or exhibitors. You can add the site to your don't-go-back-there list. And then you can all move on.

"Even though you're acting in an advisory capacity, just remember," says Yeager, "this is the members' industry and their meeting, not yours."

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

LCC's Steps to Better Site Selection

After a 2008 board standoff over two possible convention cities, the League of California Cities changed its site-selection process to make it less political without undercutting the board's influence. Director of Education and Conferences Tracy Petrillo, CAE, lists the steps the LCC now follows.

  1. Set a timeline for conference bidding and decisions. Notify all CVBs, hotels, and vendors of the selection process and timeline to maintain an open, transparent process.
  2. Establish a site-selection committee of about 20 percent of the board. Make sure the committee members do not have the ability to bid on the business in other situations.
  3. Create a standard RFP and hold all bidders accountable for meeting deadlines and providing apples-to-apples responses to the RFP questions.
  4. Instruct staff and board members to avoid conflicts of interest by refusing all direct contact with the involved CVBs and hotels during the open-bidding process.
  5. Make sure site visits are conducted only by staff and only as needed.
  6. Once bidding closes, have staff prepare a report for the site-selection committee's review.
  7. Ask the committee to select a chair to present a recommendation to the full board. The recommendation may include summarized data from every bidding location.
  8. At the committee's discretion, consider allowing the top two locations to make a pitch to the committee or full board. The three- to five-minute pitch may be in person, by phone, or by video conference.
  9. Have the board vote to approve the location.
  10. Assign staff to handle contracts and report any ongoing issues to the board regarding further negotiations, new construction, hotel availability, and so forth.

A footnote: Although San Diego was the chosen city after the 2008 LCC board standoff, under the new site-selection process, rival Los Angeles was picked to be the 2014 destination. So, Petrillo notes, "it ended as a win-win for both San Diego and Los Angeles." —K.T.

Karla Taylor

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.