It’s 2013 and the meeting planning partner community has grown up. Although each segment provides a different service and promotes a different product, all have come to realize that their internal goals will only be reached if the overarching goal is achieved: fulfilling the client’s needs. Happily, the industry has become sophisticated enough to know the best way to reach a common objective is through collaboration, not competition. Convention and visitors bureaus, national hotel sales offices and third parties now see themselves as meeting planner partners, not the “suppliers” of earlier days. Marco Bloemendaal, senior vice president, convention sales and services at Visit Seattle, says ,“All planning partners should focus on serving the customer, the end user. Remember that the customer is king. Every question should be framed in the context of what’s best for the customer? Then everything else – achieving room night, visitor and revenue goals – falls into place.”,“All planning partners should focus on serving the customer, the end user. Remember that the customer is king. Every question should be framed in the context of what’s best for the customer? Then everything else – achieving room night, visitor and revenue goals – falls into place.”
Twenty years ago the landscape and focus of the CVBs, NSOs and 3rd party planner community was very different from today. CVBs and NSOs were lead driven and 3rd party companies were in about the same stage of maturity as the National Zoo’s new panda cub.
As a rule, the performance of CVB sales experts and NSO account managers was evaluated by the number of leads they produced, rather than the value of the business that actually resulted; they were often territorial competitors, closely guarding client information in an effort to be first to issue and “get the credit” for a lead. As prevalent as 3rd party planners are today, you may be surprised to know that HelmsBriscoe was not founded until 1992, ConferenceDirect came on the scene in 1998, and HPN Global was born in 2002. The first 3rd party planning company was Experient, founded as Conferon in 1970, basically offering hotel selection and negotiation assistance to meeting planners and viewed as a competitor by CVBs and NSOs who didn’t want yet another potential lead channel thrown into the mix.
What does each partner bring to the site selection table? It’s important to have a clear understanding of the unique role that each plays in the process, whether for a citywide or a single hotel meeting.
- The CVB sells the destination, but that doesn’t mean indiscriminately offering up every hotel and attraction. Instead it is their responsibility to fully understand what the meeting planner requires in terms of space, budget, venues, local flavor and amenities, and then create the package that best fits the bill.
- The NSO sells a brand within potentially competing destinations, and must prepare their proposals to realistically meet the needs of the group. The NSO’s relationship with the meeting planner is continual because they have hotel product in a myriad of destinations; in fact in several chains the GSO – Global Sales Office – has replaced the NSO .
- Third parties represent the client and provide various aspects of meeting management. They are increasing their clout by expanding internationally and forming partnerships with other types of providers such as technology and management companies.
Lancey Cowan, senior director, meeting operations at The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), feels each of the planning partners was essential in helping her three person staff produce the 2013 convention in Seattle that attracted over 12,000 attendees. “Each partner brings different expertise to the table,” she explains. “I used the CVB and the NSOs for negotiations and the 3rd party more for groundwork and logistics. Specifically, the CVB was responsible for getting the initial convention package together. They sent out the request for proposal (RFP) and represented the convention center. The hotel NSOs were great for problem solving on the property level, putting together multi-year contracts, and providing me with insights about their hotels in Seattle. 2013 was my first year using a 3rd party, and I pulled them in only nine months out, so they handled some aspects of groundwork and convention management , but without signing authority.” Lancey has strong long term relationships with her CVBs and NSOs, and she keeps them in the loop simultaneously, sending leads to both at the same time. She never sensed a feeling of competition or toe-stepping among the partners, which she attributes to laying out what she expected from each at the beginning, making their responsibilities clear, and maintaining control throughout.
Similarly, Janice LeGarde, senior director, Global Accounts at HelmsBriscoe, and a 3rd party partner, sees a clear delineation of responsibilities between the CVBs and NSOs she works with when wearing her meeting planner hat. “I rely primarily on my CVB rep for the destination information, distributing the RFP, collecting hotel responses, CVB housing, convention center bids, and presenting the complete city bid. The CVB also sets up my site inspections and make the city presentations to my conference committees. I could not do my job without my CVB reps. I use my national hotel sales people to help me with the individual hotel needs; that may include negotiations on space, rates and attrition.” “I rely primarily on my CVB rep for the destination information, distributing the RFP, collecting hotel responses, CVB housing, convention center bids, and presenting the complete city bid. The CVB also sets up my site inspections and make the city presentations to my conference committees. I could not do my job without my CVB reps. I use my national hotel sales people to help me with the individual hotel needs; that may include negotiations on space, rates and attrition.”
So it seems that meeting planners are happy with the results of collaborative interaction among their planning partners, but how do the partners feel behind the scenes? Marco at Visit Seattle experiences frustration at times about a meeting lead being sourced through three or four channels, not from the “lead credit” aspect, but because of the duplication of effort. The more enlightened CVBs and NSOs understand that exchanging information benefits everyone and results in better customer service. The possessiveness that defined the CVB/NSO relationship in the past is eroding, partly because a great deal of formerly “secret” customer data is now readily available online. Instead of the early strained relationship between them, CVBs now recognize 3rd parties as an extension of the meeting planner’s staff and treat them as customers themselves. Recognizing the influence and buying power that 3rd parties wield, many CVBs roll out the red carpet on familiarization trips designed specifically for HelmsBriscoe or ConferenceDirect account managers, eager to provide education about their destinations.
Asked if he feels a sense of collaboration or competition with other planner partners, Chuck Hilpl, account director, group sales, North America for Starwood Hotels, responded, “Absolutely a sense of collaboration. I find that I book more business when I work together rather than against the CVB and 3rd parties. Working with them often gives me an advantage over going it alone because we all come to the table with particular knowledge about the organization, decision makers and the decision making process. “Absolutely a sense of collaboration. I find that I book more business when I work together rather than against the CVB and 3rd parties. Working with them often gives me an advantage over going it alone because we all come to the table with particular knowledge about the organization, decision makers and the decision making process. Pooling this knowledge helps me better prepare my proposals to meet the needs and objectives of the group and ultimately win the business.” Yes, there can be an overlap in lead distribution, with Chuck’s hotels receiving inquiries from him, the CVB and the 3rd party, but “in most cases, no matter how the RFP gets to my hotel sales contacts, they typically will circle back to me for additional insight into the account and assistance in closing the piece of business.”
Regardless of how willing to work in concert CVBs, NSOs and 3rd party planners may be, the truth is it’s the meeting planner’s responsibility to set the parameters and exercise control. Marco, Janice and Chuck emphatically agree that communication, transparency and openness from the beginning are essential; problems and in-fighting occur when the partners are blindsided with after-the-fact information. Since you are driving the bus, what can you do to make the trip harmonious?
- Always be upfront about the fact that you are working with a 3rd party, and explain the extent or limits of their role and authority.
- Make your expectations clear, and let all the partners know where they fit into the process.
- Be transparent; all partners should have the same information.
- Stay informed about each partner’s activities on your behalf.
- Keep the lines of communication open.
Remember that everyone is working toward the same goal – the success of your meeting.