FROM THE LARGEST national conventions to the smallest one-room training seminars, hosting meetings is big business in the Dallas/Fort Worth area-well over a billion dollars big. Nearly $100 million of this healthy sum will be pumped into Dallas’ economy by just 35 conventions and trade shows scheduled for the Dallas Convention Center this year. And hundreds of smaller confabs will send Big D’s total take soaring-as well as heighten its reputation as one of the nation’s top convention and conference cities.
Arlington will earn a healthy $30 million from conventions and meetings. Irving, Farmer’s Branch and Grand Prairie will continue to cash in on both their meeting facilities and their convenient proximity to Dallas, Fort Worth and D/FW International Airport. Even little Grapevine will rake in “millions and millions” this year from the 185,000 people expected to attend 180 scheduled conferences and conventions at or near D/FW airport. “And that doesn’t even include the small meetings that will require less than 100 sleeping rooms,” says Robert Phillips, executive director of the Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau.
All the meeting halls, banquet rooms, convention centers and major hotels from Dallas westward to the Mid-Cities, the airport and Fort Worth pull in roughly a million and a half conventioneers and conferees annually, each of them dropping anywhere from $400 to well over $500 per trip on rooms, meals, drinks, taxis, entertainment and even a few Dallas Cowboys pennants, “I Love J.R.” buttons and Kennedy assassination souvenirs. Some of these expenditures will benefit the local economies directly, and other portions of the convention dollars will filter down in the form of beneficial tax revenues.
So it’s hardly a surprise that cities, major hotels, airlines, convention facilities, chambers of commerce- any organizations with a fair-sized stake in the potential profits-compete hard on a local, regional, national and even international basis for every opportunity to cash in on conventions. Money is money, whether it is spent putting on a national convention for the Grand Old Party or a local gathering of the Grand Old Order of Pickle Packers.
What may be surprising, however, is how conventions and meetings are now solicited. Delegations of mayors, chamber of commerce leaders and influential businessmen still hop from city to city, hoping to win the hearts and dollars of corporate kingpins, trade association leaders and political convention site-selection committees. But the new darlings of those who woo conventions and conferences are the men and women who labor behind the scenes to get the events organized: the meeting planners.
“We do not arbitrarily contact boards of directors,” says Charles Bass, director of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We work with the professional meeting planners of corporations and trade associations and find out from them what we must do to make a bid for their convention or meeting.”
“Meeting planners are our clients- the ones we want to wine and dine,” Grapevine’s Phillips says. “We want them to see what we have to offer.”
Meeting planners have become ! such popular lobbying targets that practically everyone who benefits from the $20.4 billion meetings industry is hustling them: convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), major hotels, major airlines-even foreign governments (such as Jamaica and the Netherlands). The new technique for getting planners to notice you is the free “familiarization” visit: You invite groups of meeting planners in for freebie weekends of looking around your town, your resort area, your hotel or your airline. These “fam visits” have become so commonplace that debates are raging in the meeting-planning industry over the ethics of accepting free trips to destinations that you cannot use as meeting sites.
Until recently, says Ray McFarland, assistant director of the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau, a typical way for CVBs to find business was to send local delegations to big conventions or trade shows outside of town, such as in Austin, Washington, D.C., or New York. “You would put on a two- or three-hour reception in a hospitality suite and invite companies’ meeting planners in for some food, drinks and soft sell.” But the main shortcoming of such a technique, according to Charlotte Guest, an information writer for the News and Information Service at North Texas State University, is that “it is the shotgun approach rather than the rifle approach to public relations.” In other words, you have little control over who shows up to take advantage of your free goodies.
“The trend now among the larger convention and visitors bureaus,” McFarland continues, “is to handpick a number of meeting planners, say 10 to 20 and their spouses, and fly them to your town. That way, you can control who attends, and you can limit your efforts to going after the conventions and meetings that you have a good chance of getting. You’ll see a lot of cities budgeting funds to bring planners in for a free weekend. A lot of hotels are doing this, too. And most of the major airlines are helping us.”
One example of this new marketing technique was unveiled last spring: the first annual Meeting Planners Golf Classic, staged by the Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau, American Airlines, Corporate Meetings & Incentives Magazine, the D/FW Airport Hilton and the Amfac Hotel. The tournament’s golf scores weren’t splashed across any sports pages, but the hosts carded some very important brownie points with whom they felt were the right people. More than 300 meeting planners from across the nation asked to play in the tournament. Forty were selected and flown in, along with their spouses, for a weekend of driving, chipping, putting, slicing-and being squired around. Those who made the tournament cut, Phillips concedes, were not picked for their golfing skills but because they represented companies or organizations that hold meetings or conventions of the sizes that Grapevine could accommodate.
The meeting planners were housed in Grapevine’s two hotels, and the tournament required play on all three of Grapevine’s courses. While the divots flew, the duffers’ wives were taken on tours of Dallas and Fort Worth-to promote Grapevine’s proximity to both cities, of course. And the weekend included free Resistol cowboy hats, bandanas, barbecue and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” lessons at the Austin Ranch, which just happens to be a meeting facility that’s able to handle 1,000 people indoors or 1,500 outdoors.
MEETING PLANNERS typically are more accessible than top executives, and much of their job is knowing who has the best facilities for the various meeting needs of a corporation or association, although they very seldom make the final decisions on where a meeting or convention or trade show will be held. “But a meeting planner does have some say so as to where they will go,” Grapevine’s Phillips says. “The board of directors or the site selection committee will listen closely to what the guy has to say.”
Adds Bass: “Companies that have a lot of meetings usually have fullblown meeting departments.” Some big corporations have separate meeting planners or separate meeting-planning departments within each of their major divisions. And many smaller companies, associations and non-profit organizations, unable to foot the cost of planning staffs, have begun turning to the services of independent meeting planners rather than leaving the arrangements-making task as just another part-time chore for an administrative assistant. About one out of 20 members of Meeting Planners International are independents, and their number is growing, according to a recent study. “There is a ton of them,” Bass agrees, “and the cream rises to the top. But 95 percent of the time, we work with professional planners who are full-time employees of the organizations they represent.”
Once a marriage has been arranged between a meeting and a municipality, the work has barely begun. Staff members of the CVB or hotel begin working closely with meeting planners, supplying them with lists or directories of local facilities, entertainment and convention service contractors. The CVB or hotel convention specialists also start going over checklists with the planners to be sure that the event comes off smoothly. The process of making arrangements may go on for many months-two years, for instance, in the case of the 1986 National Association of Home Builders convention, which will be held in Dallas. Or the work may span just a few days, especially when a panic-stricken meeting arranger suddenly realizes that he has forgotten to set up a regional awards banquet.
In any case, Bass says, “If you’ve got all the bases covered, you can’t miss. But anything can happen.”
“If Murphy’s Law ever takes effect anywhere, it’s in the meeting business,” Grapevine’s Phillips says. “No matter how many hours a meeting planner puts into his plans, something can go wrong or get overlooked.”
Among the disasters that can strike: A hotel’s banquet manager may resign suddenly and leave no one who knows how to coordinate the serving of tomorrow’s grand meal; just hours before his speech, the keynote speaker may be jailed on tax evasion charges; or the CEO and his wife, who is deathly afraid of heights, may be booked into the last available room-a nice suite on the top floor overlooking both the city and the hotel’s dizzingly tall atrium.
When such troubles arise, many meeting planners say, convention and visitors bureaus frequently turn out to be their best friends. They usually know who else or what else can be found on short notice. The first CVB was organized in Detroit in 1896. Today, many CVBs, such as the one in Dallas, are a division of the local chamber of commerce. Some, such as the one in Grapevine, receive much of their funding from city hotel-room taxes. And others, such as the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau, are departments of city government.
CVBs typically cannot recommend specific hotels, restaurants or suppliers of convention services. The meeting planners must make the choices and put on the events themselves, says George Smith, the Dallas bureau’s director of convention services. But CVBs are able to give valuable, money-saving assistance. Besides getting planners and local service contractors together, CVB staffers can help make hotel arrangements. And the bureaus usually provide a variety of free services, such as small armies of clerk-typists to handle the convention registrations, Smith says. At the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, he explains, “We go over last-minute details and changes with the meeting planners. And then, when the convention kicks off, we have representatives at the convention every day, checking with the meeting planners to see if they need anything. They look to us to see that everything stays on track. We’re kind of a cushion as well as a sounding board for meeting planners. And we can handle any size group that comes along.”
But getting a corporation or association to spend its convention bucks in your city is only half the campaign, Bass says: “You want them to come back, too.” So Dallas’ CVB works especially hard at landing repeat business. “And we’re doing pretty good,” he reports. “We’re getting about a 65 percent rate of return in six years.”
In the minds of Bass and other Met-roplex CVB leaders, the rise of professional meeting planners has been one of the best things to happen to the process of soliciting conventions, trade shows and conferences. For one thing, meetings have become more specialized and focused. “For instance,” Bass says, “at meetings of the American Medical Association, all the various specialists used to meet in separate rooms. Now they have their own conventions.”
Bass, who has watched the meeting industry grow and change for 26 years, contends that “the professionalism of meeting planners has taken away a lot of the problems” that used to crop up in the process of getting meetings and conventions off the ground.
Deborah Loyd, a convention services representative for the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees. “There’s a very big difference between full-time meeting planners and those who do it just as part of their job,” she says. “The professionals know what to do, and the others just call up and ask, ’What do I need to do?’ A lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is to put on a meeting.”
Perhaps the worst meeting planning Bass has witnessed occurred a few years ago at a trade association’s convention in St. Louis. Bass had gone there to “pitch” Dallas as the site of the group’s next gathering. But he might as well have been selling snow-shoes to steeplejacks. Someone in the crowd voiced the motion that “old Joe, who’s about to retire after 35 years in the business,” deserved the highest recognition, so the next convention really ought to be held in his honor-and in his hometown. While Bass looked on, amazed, the members whooped, “We’re going!” and voted in favor, site unseen. Recalls Bass, “I turned to their president and said, ’You can’t even fit into that town.’ And he shook his head and said, Tell me about it.’”
Arlington’s Ray McFarland got even less of a chance to sell his city’s facilities to one association not long ago. Assured that Arlington was one of four finalists for the group’s next convention, McFarland led a delegation to El Paso to make a formal bid. When McFarland and company landed, however, they learned that the event had just been awarded to a city that was not even seeking it. While they were en route to El Paso, a powerful member of the association had suddenly decided that it would be nice to have the convention in his town, and the “good old boys” who controlled the group had given in to his request. “They didn’t even know if the hotels would have enough rooms for them or if the dates would be available at the meeting site,” McFarland says. “They just decided to go.”
Gail Barron, a communication specialist for the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau, recalls what happened when one executive who was trying to be his own meeting planner called for help in getting a seminar off the ground. “I asked him how many people he was expecting, and he told me: Oh, between 300 and 10,000.’ How are you supposed to book meeting space and hotel rooms for something like that?”
Although the Dallas/Fort Worth area’s convention facilities and hotels sometimes find themselves competing with each other for a particular meeting, they also try to pursue different market niches. “We go after the, groups that book 800 hotel rooms or more,” says the Dallas bureau’s George Smith. “Groups that book less than 800 rooms are left to the sales departments at the different hotels.”
Despite Grapevine’s low profile on Metroplex maps, its “Resort to Grapevine” advertising campaign is making a big splash in magazines aimed at professional meeting planners. Robert Phillips says the city’s CVB is now lobbying hard for “everything from local corporation meetings and even a few international meetings. We can go after groups with up to 3,000 people. The keys for us are the Amfac Hotel and the D/FW Airport Hilton and Executive Conference Center. The Amfac, for instance, is the second largest hotel in the state, with 1,450 sleeping rooms and 130,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space.”
Grapevine sometimes has an image problem among the very meeting planners and corporate executives it seeks to impress. But when Phillips is asked where Grapevine is, he has learned to reply with both a quick geography lesson and a five-minute sales pitch. “About 80 percent of the people who ask me that question have been to Grapevine and don’t even know it,” he says. “I ask them if they’ve flown into D/FW airport and gotten off the plane. And if they say yes, I tell them: You’ve been to Grapevine. Sixty percent of the airport is inside our city limits.’”
Meanwhile, Arlington has doubled the budget of its CVB for fiscal 1984-85 and will open its new $10 million convention center this year. “People tend to overlook us because we are sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth, but Arlington has been very successful at capturing some-of the smaller conventions and many regional and district meetings,” Ms. Barren says. “We are especially going after the association meetings market full-force. The whole idea is to get more bodies into the hotel rooms here.”
Bodies of a different sort helped Bass bring Dallas another lucrative convention not long ago. A site-selection team from a national funeral directors’ association was searching for just the right spot to hold the group’s 1984 convention. Bass drove them all over town, showing them sights and sites but deliberately avoiding going near the Dallas Convention Center until late in the afternoon. When their curiosity about the Convention Center had reached its peak, Bass made the turn into the long entranceway, drove them past the front doors-and stopped right next to the old cemetery that sits in the Convention Center’s shadow.
“Aw, Charlie, how much did it cost you to do this?” one of the morticians asked, clearly delighted as he gestured toward tombstones that date back to Civil War days.
Answered Bass, grinning: “A hell of a lot. And the worst part is, I’ve got to have it all back by tomorrow.”
The funeral directors’ meeting planners took a bit longer than that to choose their convention site and return to Dallas. But when they did, they booked a few thousand of their friends into town. And by all accounts, it was truly a dead affair-but only when it absolutely, positively had to be. The morticians came to town with lots of cash, Bass says, and they must have believed you can’t take any of it with you-because they left it all right here.