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Hooking Up: Co-Marketing Destinations

By Ginny Phillips (from the February 2008 issue of Convene)

Pitching a multi-city rotation route
By co-marketing their destinations, second-tier cities are stretching their dollars and their reach in what one CVB exec calls “one big dating game.”

In the bureau community, an unlikely movement is putting the "healthy" in healthy competition: More and more second-tier cities are forming partnerships to co-sell their destinations.

The most recent alliance was formed this past fall, when Sacramento joined Baltimore and Fort Worth in a partnership designed to sell all three cities and to sweeten the pot for planners who agree to a multi-city rotation. More than a loose agreement, the arrangement includes three shared salespeople, paid for by the partnership, who will pitch all three destinations within their regional markets.

Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association President & CEO Tom Noonan summed up the first conversation he had that started the ball rolling with Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau President David DuBois.

"We didn't have anybody focusing on the Northeastern pharmaceutical market," Noonan said. "I was talking to David, and he said he'd like one [rep], too. And we said, 'What if we hire one who works for both of us? And what if we have a Midwest rep for both of us?' That started it."

The three cities have taken an increasingly popular idea to a new level with their shared marketing personnel. But the notion of cities partnering has taken flight from coast to coast ever since Portland (Ore.), Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee joined forces in 2003. During the lean years after Sept. 11, the possibility of co-marketing surfaced independently and spontaneously during private dinner conversations and bureau brainstorming sessions. Some cities acted quickly on the idea and others dismissed it. Some mulled it over, watching other partnerships so they could gauge the results. But in the last two years, the multi-bureau partnership paradigm has gotten legs.

These arrangements seem to fly in the face of traditional business sense: Salespeople from one city are singing the praises of other cities. Cities share contact information and client lists, referring clients to each other and recommending other destinations. They co-market destinations at trade shows, creating more impressive booths and more dynamic events. Selling their cities simultaneously, they argue, gives each city a better chance to shine.

Here's the deal: In an increasingly competitive market, with planners and bureaus trying to stretch every dollar, these partnerships can expand reach without expanding the budget. For mid-range cities, combining marketing forces gives them a fighting chance to compete with the first-tier cities.

"Destinations our size are always trying to reach the cities in front of us, and we're never going to have their budgets," said Krista Flanagan, Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president of sales and marketing. "We're always looking for ways to move up."

Perfect Partnerships
Not just any random array of cities can make a partnership work. First and foremost, cities need to be noncompetitive. That usually means partners come from different regions. "Since association meetings meet regionally, I never compete against Fort Worth or Sacramento in the same year," Baltimore's Noonan said. "So it made sense to partner rather than 'compete.'"

But other than different regions, partners need to stack up an impressive list of similarities. They tend to have comparable convention products and amenities. They're after the same clients. When Portland, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee joined together, they knew from the beginning that they wanted to target conventions of 2,700 to 5,000 people. Pittsburgh and Portland both feature green convention centers and focus on green cross-selling. Baltimore, Fort Worth, and Sacramento, on the other hand, all target corporate pharmaceutical meetings.

Together, cities can exert a stronger pull than they can individually.

"The overarching reason it works for us is all three cities share the same customer base, and we really do get to extend our reach to traditional customers," said Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for VisitPittsburgh. "The cities get opportunities to bid for pieces of business that we may not have known about."

The Perks
For cities, the benefits fall into two distinct categories - boosting your budget and reaching more potential clients.

"The key is how the three cities can leverage their marketing dollar but also expand their selling efforts," said Keith Backsen, Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president and director of convention sales. Spokane, Madison, and Hartford announced their partnership in fall 2007.

In part, that can play into trade show events.

Diana Ponton, San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president, recalled how the San Jose/Virginia Beach partnership was sparked five years ago during a conversation at a PCMA event dinner with Al Hutchinson, vice president of convention sales for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We were talking about how to reach clients," she said. "On opening night [at industry events] you're trying to compete with say, Marriott, and we started talking about how we could compete with that. And you can't. But you can compete if you come together. If both of you have $3,000, you can do much more with $6,000."

After Portland, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee combined budgets and creative energy to jointly market their destinations at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Annual Meeting & Exposition, the cities saw triple the number of leads generated than they'd seen at their individual events.

"When we looked at our client base, we saw a lot of similar groups," said Mike Smith, vice president of sales for Travel Portland (formerly the Portland Oregon Visitors Association). "We were looking to attract clients to our cities - and we knew we had common clients - but what none of us had were huge budgets."

Along with creating compelling events, cities generate leads on a more personal level. Many of the partners, like the Portland / Pittsburgh / Milwaukee model, share not only client names, but information on what each needed to do to get the group for previous meetings.

Partnerships also allow cities to expand their sales teams without hiring a single person. Even without sharing designated salespeople, bureaus combine personnel, with each staff promoting all the destinations in the partnership. If someone isn't meeting in Portland because the association is scheduled to be on the East Coast in a certain year, the Portland staff will suggest Pittsburgh.

"You get 50 people selling your destination instead of 10 or 20," said Fort Worth's DuBois. "And for the salespeople, it's just asking one or two more questions."

Virginia Beach and San Jose have worked together for three years and recently booked the 4,000-room National Association of Air Medical Service convention for both cities. Those kinds of bookings bring a clear-cut financial payoff, but cities also find a less concrete advantage, which Hutchinson refers to as "intellectual capital."

"You can share best practices with each other and prevent certain pitfalls," he said. "There may be an association that San Jose had been courting, and it's a good fit for Virginia Beach, but no one from our staff was working on it. Or vice versa. The association has built a great relationship with one partner, and now they can have that same kind of relationship with the East Coast partner. We're sharing knowledge and success by working with each other."

"The learning from each other is incredible," Smith said, "particularly for those of us in the director's chair. I can call any of these people and say, 'Here's what I'm going through, have you experienced anything of this nature?' Staffs are always passing information back and forth."

And there's the general excitement sparked by trying a new approach … particularly one that works.

"One of the hidden benefits is that board members are very excited to be involved," said Steve Hammond, president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. "They see us trying to do something new and different to grow business, and it's definitely not the same old thing."

Planner Pay-offs
Many of the partnerships offer financial incentives for associations booking with two or more cities. So money can be a strong plus for going with a partnership. Ease is the other major incentive. "You don't have to deal with three sales people in three cities," Noonan says of the shared-sales scenario. "You have one person who knows your meeting backward and forward, one sales rep for all three cities who's knowledgeable about all those cities."

But even without shared sales reps, the process is streamlined for planners. At one event, planners can learn about several cities. And salespeople from one destination have a working knowledge of the other cities, so contrasts and comparisons are well informed.

"Time management is key now," Backsen said. "If [planners] can come to one destination and learn about two similar cities, we can save them time. We say there's a similar look and feel to the cities, and if they had a great meeting in Spokane, they'll like meeting with one of our partners."
Then there's the trust factor. If planners have a relationship with one bureau and that bureau highly recommends another city, in essence the bureau is putting its own relationship with the client on the line.

"It certainly gives them more information," Smith said. "And they can trust that information. If I've worked with a client and we have a good relationship, I will do nothing to harm that relationship. So that client has an idea I strongly believe they will be happy somewhere if I recommend it."

How It Works
The partnerships take various forms. Baltimore/Sacramento/Fort Worth has the most formal business arrangement with their shared salespeople. The Portland/ Pittsburgh/Milwaukee collaboration works as a referral system with planners still needing to do their due diligence on each destination. San Jose and Virginia Beach co-market, but they offer no financial incentives. Madison, Hartford, and Spokane, at the beginning of the process, are exploring what incentives to offer. The bureaus have established a shared Web site to lead to each individual CVB's Web site. Each partnership has evolved and is still evolving, deciding what works best in a particular market and with particular organizational structures. Portland's partnership was originally event-driven, based on low budgets for trade shows. It was later expanded to include more shared tasks.

"Ours is an all-volunteer thing," said Portland's Smith. "It was originally about getting bigger groups to come to our events at ASAE. If I did something alone, I would get five or six planners, but together we can do events that attract 80 to 100 people. Then we developed a marketing plan about what we wanted to have happen. We got into lead sharing and training staff to share each other's cities."

The marketing works in two directions - each city can pitch partner cities to planners, plus give the other cities a heads-up about the potential client.

"You obviously have a responsibility to your own city first, but once that's secured, you can ask where they're going when they're on the East Coast," Smith said. "And let Pittsburgh know this client's looking. It's like a big dating service."

The original idea had been to target citywide meetings that would rotate between all three cities. That's only a portion of the business the partnership generates though, so working out incentives has been more complex than expected. If two of the three cities get a convention, obviously those two cities put together the incentives and reap the reward. For non-citywide conventions, hotels opt into the program if they're interested, understanding the bureau sells a convention on the city, then each hotel must sell planners on their properties.

With their unique approach of shared sales people, Baltimore, Fort Worth, and Sacramento will hit all three regions with their three-pronged marketing. "Three salespeople will see more potential clients than if we each hired one," Noonan said. "We'll cover the East and West and Midwest, with each salesperson talking about all three cities."

Sharing resources can extend beyond sales staff. Fort Worth recently started considering an internal housing department. Baltimore already had a department in place with Passkey capabilities and call-ins. So DuBois transferred his housing information to Baltimore, so now representatives answering the phone on the East Coast will take calls for the Texas destination.

"We have a call center, and we have plenty of operators to handle the workload," Noonan said. "There's no need for David to hire operators and staff and do the infrastructure when we have it in place, and it makes it more affordable here."

Choosing Partners
The same words came up time after time when bureau leaders are asked why they've chosen their partners: friendship, shared philosophy, long-term goals, trust. Without a shared work ethic, similar philosophy, and solid connection, the partnership could be more of a hassle than help.

"We've heard other cities are looking for the right partners," said Spokane's Backsen. "Whether it works depends on how the cities are implementing it. We learned from Portland that you really need to trust who you're working with. You share your booking calendar, your strengths and weaknesses, and that's a relationship where you need that foundation of trust."

Originally the Portland/Pittsburgh/Milwaukee partnership had a fourth city involved, and the fourth city was eventually dropped from the arrangement.

"It's difficult in that it takes a lot of time and effort," Davis said. "It's more of a commitment than your own job. All partners have to work together and have to work equally, because if one isn't working, the whole thing doesn't work. This has taken four years of development, and it's still only as good as its weakest link. It works because we genuinely like and trust one another."

Personalities come into play as well.

"The No. 1 reason why it works is the teamwork is great," said Ponton of San Jose and Virginia Beach's partnership. We have similar styles and philosophies. It's seamless."

And, of course, everyone accepts that each salesperson, each CEO, is pushing for his or her own destination first and foremost.

"Occasionally we will compete, and then it's gloves off," Davis said.

Results
Only the Portland/Pittsburgh/Milwaukee partnership has been running long enough to see real booking results. Currently seven citywides have booked at least two of the three cities. A few have confirmed one city and are still looking at the others. Although the idea was to aim for a three-city rotation, two out of the three is much more common, with numbers spread out evenly amongst the cities.

"So many things have to line up for us to get a meeting, much less two other cities to get it," Davis said. "But it'll come back around again one of these days. There's always the chance it'll come back."

By that reasoning, the networking and relationships count towards future possibilities. Between them, the three cities have bid on 195,000 room nights as a result of the partnership.

In the early month of the partnerships, progress comes in the form of more leads, more calls, more referrals. The shared salesperson for the Baltimore/Fort Worth partnership has been on board for six months, so numbers haven't accumulated yet. They anticipate seeing results in the next six months. "We will move forward looking at 2009 and 2010. This isn't a short-term trial. We believe it's a long-term commitment," DuBois said.

So Where's It Headed?
The sheer efficiency of these partnerships has generated industry buzz. They cost little in terms of money - though plenty in terms of effort - and the chance that they may pay off continues to lure new cities.

"As bureaus try to find ways to spend their marketing dollars more intelligently, these kinds of partnerships make a lot of sense," Hammond said. "It allows us to have face-to-face sales representation in parts of the country where we couldn't afford to be if we had to solely pick up the cost. Take that a step further: The client has a good relationship with the sales people at three different destinations. Planners are no different than CVBs in that you want to run your business as efficiently and affordably as you can."

Bureaus are eager to mine the potential of new relationships at a time when the Internet reaches far … but has certain limits.

"Business in general is becoming a lot more technological," said Flanagan, "but our business is still a relationship business. For our size city especially, that's very important. All three of our bureaus really develop personalized service; we look at how these other two bureaus have trusts with groups so we can capitalize on that. They do the same with us."

"Each of us is looking at way to get more bang for the buck as convention and visitors bureaus change," Backsen said. "How can we find unique ways to market?"

A strong seller's market won't always last. Conversations among the early sets of partners started when business wasn't so strong, and a buffer against those tougher times might seem prescient in coming years.

"We started talking about this when both of our budgets were hurting," Ponton said. "Right now, business is good: Hotels are busier, more taxes or other funding is coming in. But we all know sooner or later business is not going to be as good. And then people will look for creative ways to build their budget."

The future - and the market - seems ripe for more exploration of where partnering can lead. Budget concerns aren't going to diminish and the push towards efficiency for both planners and bureaus makes co-marketing compelling. But the options won't be endless.

"The reason why this works is our cities are so similar," Davis said. "You have to find those cities that are the same and that aren't competitors - there are only so many cities out there where this would work. Those are finite."

EVOLUTION OF COLLABORATION

As new as the idea of partnering cities might seem, they've had plenty of models to follow.

"The hotel community has done this for years with their national sales organizations, building brand loyalty so groups go from one Hilton to the next," said Keith Backsen, Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president and director of convention sales.

Large meetings-focused properties like Gaylord Hotels exemplify that brand loyalty as it relates to rotating meetings. And corporate ties can bind destinations in other ways: The Disney connection fostered a relationship between Anaheim and Orlando.

"The idea of similar cities in different regions collaborating is a hot trend right now. It's not necessarily a totally new idea, as trends like this are cyclical," said Kristen Clemens, vice president of marketing and communications for Destination Marketing Association International.

"However, the destination marketing organization (DMO) industry continually embraces the concept of partnership in other forms, particularly regionally. Despite the fact that DMOs compete, they are incredibly open to partnerships."

Even the idea of cross-country collaborations isn't unexplored. A decade ago, Steve Hammond worked with the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which had a productive program collaborating with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. (The program no longer exists.) He and the vice president of sales at Fort Lauderdale recognized the cities had similar amenities and hotel components.

Now president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, Hammond has revisited the plan he experimented with in Long Beach. "It was very much like the partnership that we have today, trying to target groups that rotated around the country," he said.

Fast forward to 2003, when Pittsburgh, Portland, and Milwaukee formed an official partnership. They've served as a model and as an information source - cities around the country have watched the results of the partnership and have tapped the bureaus for feedback on the ins and outs of making such a relationship work.

The possibilities continue multiplying. Raleigh, St. Paul, Providence, and Baton Rouge have created a collaborative they're calling the Capital Connection. The state capitals have undertaken one joint mail-out already and their collective teams met in January to map out marketing plans for 2008-09.

IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD

Regional partnerships have flourished long before coast-to-coast collaborations became en vogue. From Little Rock and North Little Rock, to the northern Ohio collaboration Cleveland Plus, to statewide marketing efforts across the country, regional efforts have often lent themselves to partnerships.

When he was named president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, Philip Jones contemplated the competition between Dallas and Fort Worth, 40 miles apart. He felt the two areas had been missing something: each other. "I came to Dallas with a fresh set of eyes, and it seemed like a given that a collaboration could offer an incredible advantage," he said.

So the two bureaus joined forces in 2005, aiming for business together and offering the combined assets of the two cities. At the first trade show where they jointly sponsored an event, the cities doubled their number of leads.

"Attendees don't really care what the particular bounds of a city are," Jones said. "They just want to experience the best a destination has to offer."

Now that partnership has expanded. Irving joined the two cities, followed by Grapevine. At a recent industry trade show, the cities from across the state partnered for a Texas aisle.

"We had us all represented," Jones said, "and it makes as much sense to work together as a state as it does to work together as a region. It makes it so much easier for the client because they get one-stop shopping."

Together they are a strong draw. North Texas - Dallas, Fort Worth, Irving, and Grapevine - bid for the 2011 Superbowl and won.

THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL

Philip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau was profiled in Convene's May 2007 issue. Here is an excerpt from that story as it relates to his regional partnership initiative with Fort Worth:

Jones is a big proponent of partnership and he reached out to Fort Worth about doing a joint marketing campaign soon after joining the Dallas CVB. "At the very first trade show that we launched our 'Visit Dallas Fort Worth' effort, there was so much buzz around our booth that you would have thought the Berlin Wall had just fallen. We tripled our booth traffic, thus tripling our leads."

The fact that Jones came to the area with a fresh perspective helped him create the idea. "I asked, 'Why aren't we working together?' Our competitor was not Fort Worth but cities like San Diego, Orlando, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Atlanta." The partnership has been such a huge success that not only are more resources being invested but Irving, Grapevine, and DFW International Airport have joined as well. This collaborative sales and marketing program is designed to expand reach in the national and international markets and includes advertising, cooperative media trips, trade show efforts, and a new Web site, www.dallasfortworthtravel.com.

Contributing Editor Ginny Phillips is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Ala.

Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. © 2008. www.pcma.org.

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