Jeff Willett, Director of Conferences for Quest International Users Group, offers a unique perspective from years in the hospitality industry in a myriad of roles, and Destination Marketing Association International’s (DMAI’s) Terri Roberts takes copious notes!
My interview with Jeff was so interesting; as he shed light on some really complicated aspects of meeting planning that often go unnoticed. “It takes a village,” and Jeff relies on relationships first and foremost. He has found the primary relationship with his CVB ambassador essential to success in any destination. Here’s a look at Jeff’s CVB “intel,” (collected from both sides of the fence as hotelier and planner) and here’s hoping you will find ways to incorporate the valued resources of a CVB into your planning must haves.
First, can you tell me a little about yourself and your planning background?
JEFF: I started in this industry during my college years at the University of Kentucky, when I worked the “front line” at a Hyatt hotel. I was with Hyatt Hotels for 13 years in various positions both front and back of the house and the last 4 years in hotel sales. I then “went to the other side,” meaning I started working for a company that produced live and teleconferenced seminars across the United States, Canada and Mexico working with renowned business authors and celebrity speakers.
I currently work for an association of Oracle customers (a customer group of Oracle product users) as their director of conferences…going on 13 years. We represent approximately 45,000 Oracle customers world-wide in planning and executing events concentrated on networking and education in helping customers make the most of their Oracle software investments.
I am part of a team of 18 staffers who currently produce product-focused events and also an annual conference. We “collaborate” on our annual conference with two other Oracle user groups, one managed by Meeting Expectations (out of Atlanta, Georgia) and the other managed by Smith Bucklin (out of Chicago). Along with a colleague, I lead the team in our logistical efforts of initiating, planning and the execution of all of our events/conferences.
How did you first become aware of the services CVBs provided?
JEFF: While working with Hyatt in Sales, I initially became familiar with the local bureau and the services they offered. Over time my familiarity grew….but even early-on I knew the tremendous value of partnering with a convention & visitors bureau in the full execution of an event.
TERRI: How long have you been working with Visit Denver? And how did the relationship begin?
JEFF: I’ve been working with Visit Denver, long before it became Visit Denver. Our conferences with Quest were annual to Denver since JD Edwards was headquartered in the Denver Tech Center area. My first experience with Denver was in 2000 (my first conference) and I/we couldn’t have executed the event without the assistance of the bureau.
Our conferences were held annually in June, through 2004 when the Oracle takeover occurred.
The CVB was a tremendous help during this time, as we had contracted out with hotels for four years with no anticipation of the merger/takeover. The commitments to the city and hotels were done prior to my arrival, but I had to “get us out of those commitments.” The CVB certainly understood our predicament and aided me in setting up meetings with all of our hotel partners to renegotiate those commitments, so, as a not-for-profit organization, we could remain solvent and continue our work supporting customers of JD Edwards …and now PeopleSoft, which made us even more important to that community since they all were under the Oracle flag as customers.
We would not be around today without the guidance, support and partnership of Visit Denver. I made a commitment to the city that we would be back at some point, and in 2008 we brought the annual conference back with our partner user groups and to-date it is the most successful conference (attendance-wise) we’ve held. We are also now planning, with the help of Visit Denver, our 2012 annual conference back in Denver.
I was involved with Visit Denver and the Colorado Convention Center for customer input on the expansion of the center. I even was on hand for the ground breaking of the expansion.
I was asked to serve on the Visit Denver customer advisory board (CAB) and served for three years. It was a growing experience for me working with my peers….and a win/win for both the planners/peers who participated, but also Visit Denver in getting our feedback on crucial issues concerning the industry overall, but especially on the city and its convention business.
What do you most value about your relationship with Visit Denver/other CVBs in general?
JEFF: That’s a tough one…there’s a lot to value. From “selling” a city to our boards and community as a location for an event, the research and statistical information made available via a CVB for airlift, ground transportation, hotel partnering, convention center, other venue offerings, the slew of bureau members to help in the full execution of events, etc…, etc.
Seriously, in my opinion, the assistance of putting us in front of their member partners and developing and nurturing those relationships and acting, without bias, on our behalf as a representative of the city is of tremendous value to us!
How would you describe the relationship? What would you compare it to?
JEFF: They are like “Ambassadors of Good Will:” initiating and fostering relationships, providing sound/accurate answers, offering alternatives, problem/conflict resolving, peace keeping, bringing parties together for the ultimate win/win.
Which specific services do you rely on?
JEFF: The statistical information and overall knowledge on the city; from airlift, to hotels and their availability, to other venues, to restaurants, to identifying 3rd party support vendors local to the area. A lot of CVBs offer support staffing, and they act as an extension of my staff…doing the research and putting me in touch with the right people and making the right connections.
What do you think is unique about the value CVBs provide compared to other planning partners you might use?
JEFF: They are the “knowledge arm” of a city/community with regard to all aspects of conventions & tourism. They offer the most current information and have everything needed and available at the get-go.
What is most compelling to you about Denver as a meeting destination?
JEFF: The extremely intelligent planning and development in the city of Denver that has taken place over the past 10-15 years makes it one of the most convenient, well planned, cities for conferences and events. The hotel, convention center and entertainment availability within walking distance in the immediate downtown area is amazing, along with, lower downtown development with top restaurants, the 14th Street thoroughfare, the city’s focus on athletics, and the 16th Street corridor. There’s so much that is offered, all within a walking radius. And the ease of working with Visit Denver, a team that showcases the city and represents the city with passion, all combine to make this city unique and inviting to conference and event planners.
Why do you choose not to go it alone on the internet when planning a meeting?
JEFF: Personal relationships are everything! No one knows a city better than their CVB, and I’ve been to the internet so many times with a need for information and can’t find it or it’s wrong or outdated. I can’t afford the time put to research, without being able to trust the information is correct or current.
How do CVBs make your job easier?
JEFF: They get me good, dependable answers, in quick fashion about their city as a destination and act as my extended staff/team in helping to execute quality, successful events.
If you didn’t use a CVB, how would you replace their services?
JEFF: It would be extremely difficult to replace their services….I actually doubt you could, we couldn’t! It would be costly, as well as time consuming for an organization to get the information needed to make informed decisions, make the connections and conduct negotiations. I couldn’t imagine not having the services of a CVB. I really don’t want to. I would have to increase my staff and overhead to replace the value we receive. Again, it would be difficult, if not impossible.
What would you like other corporate planners, who may be unfamiliar with using a CVB, to know?
JEFF: You get tremendous access to all sorts of information and resources in an unbiased fashion, and they often times act as an extension to your team, with no cost for the amazing service/information. I’ve made a lot of friendships over the years with friends in CVBs that I hold dear!