The Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau has completed three research reports this year, has implemented a fourth done last year, and is part way through an accreditation effortall aimed at improving how well it performs its mission.
The slew of research initiatives, the most in any year in the bureaus history, will help it hone its efforts to attract convention and visitor business here, says Harry Sladich, its president and CEO.
We just have more on the line, Sladich says of the rapid succession of studies. Those factors include filling the two-year-old, 177,000-square-foot Group Health Exhibit Hall, which Sladich says is both an exciting and a daunting task, and competing against bigger players for bigger meetings that now can be held here thanks to the added facility.
In the history of the CVB, 37 years, weve never played on the national stage, and were there, Sladich says.
To be sure, Sladich has one eye on the troubled U.S. economy and the stock markets recent upheaval as the CVB plans its activities for next year. He says, This year so far, Ive been told gas prices are going to cripple us, and the cost of goods is insane. If you look at the data this year, were exactly where we were last year (in hotel occupancy), but room revenue is up. Thanks to rising room rates, Spokane Valley hotels have taken in $13 million more in revenue with virtually the same occupancy, and that pattern holds true throughout the Spokane area, Sladich says.
While the current economic crisis will play a role in future business, it will affect the visitor industry much differently than the terrorist attacks of 2001, which right afterward left a fear of flying that was absolutely unbelievable, he says.
In one of the research efforts this year, 11 meeting planners from nine states and the District of Columbia came to Spokane to serve as members of a new CVB customer advisory board. Some of the meeting planners came from the Chicago area, which has a huge concentration of national associations.
These people are used to things happening in a certain way. We need to get good at that right away, Sladich says.
Before the meeting planners came, many said they wouldnt consider Spokane as a meeting place for a national-level gathering because they saw it as a regional hub, he says.
Once they got here, their perceptions changed, and they said, Oh, my gosh. You could host a national meeting, he says.
The meeting planners saw that convention delegates easily could walk between their hotels, convention venues, and other destinations in the downtown area and wouldnt have to rent cars to get around, Sladich says. He says the planners could see that a block in Spokane is 283 feet long, far shorter than blocks in many other cities, such as Chicago, where a block is 1,000 feet long.
Also, Sladich says, We had some assumptions of what they were reading, but those assumptions were wrong. In the publications the CVB thought the meeting planners were reading, it can cost as much as $6,000 to buy a single full-page ad, which would make a sustained advertising campaign too costly for the CVB. Also, a campaign of the size the CVB could afford to mount likely would be futile against the heavy advertising done by such well-heeled tourism cities as Chicago, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, he says.
The CVB asked the planners whether they would prefer to see such ads from Spokane or receive a customized package, sent to them in their offices, of incentives to hold meetings here and assistance to help their meetings succeed here, Sladich says. Such incentives could include an offer to pay for an opening banquet; to provide an attendance-building tool, such as an Internet message to delegates; or send a CVB staff member to the groups annual convention the year before it would meet in Spokane to talk up Spokane as a destination.
They all said, hands down, they would respond to a package more than an ad, Sladich says.
The meeting planners visit came after two earlier research reports this year. One study, by Trends Analysis & Projections LLC, of Overland Park, Kan., looked at how well the CVB is doing in reaching its goals for future bookings through 2013.
Were above or were right where we should be, Sladich says.
That report also looked at how many delegates certain meetings bring, room counts for group meetings, and Spokanes size, attractiveness, and amenities compared with those qualities in competing communities, Sladich says. The report gave the CVB a way to show its hotel members where convention and meetings bookings in coming years are weak, and where they might need to provide incentives to secure business.
No. 1, it told us what we should be shooting for, Sladich says. No. 2, it gave us a communication tool to our members so were maximizing our yield.
The other report, by RUF Strategic Solutions, of Olathe, Kan., told the CVB where in the U.S. that people who make inquiries about visiting Spokane are clustered and provided the same information about those who come here. It also said that 40 percent of visitors here are 45 to 64 years old, and 84 percent of them are married, well-educated, and have above-average incomes. Other than coming to Spokane, theyre most likely to go to Hawaii and Florida, and they prefer luxury accommodations, spend more, stay longer than the average traveler, and enjoy water activities and golf.
In its accreditation effort, the CVB is endeavoring to adopt so-called best practices to become certified and accredited by Destination Marketing Association International, which Sladich says fewer than 100 of the nations thousands and thousands of CVBs have done.
In a staff education effort, Sladich and fellow staff members Jeanna Hofmeister, Polly Phelan, and Keith Backsen have enrolled in Purdue Universitys certified destination marketing executive program, in which, Sladich says, theyll learn the very best in hospitality and tourism marketing.
Classes in the roughly two-year curriculum are held once a quarter at different locations, and Sladich says the school is good about scheduling the sessions in cities the CVB wants to visit to attend the convention of a group it would like to attract.
Of the accreditation and staff education efforts, Sladich says, Im a lot more confident standing in front of the people in the community who fund us if I can say, Ive done everything I possibly can do to make sure were headed in the right direction.
Last year, the CVB and Spokane Public Facilities District, which owns and operates the Spokane Convention Center, INB Performing Arts Center, Group Health Exhibit Hall, and Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, began working to overcome issues, including mistrust between the staffs of the two agencies, identified in a report done by the Radcliffe Co., of Spokane. Sladich says all of the recommendations in the report have been implemented.
I tell my staff, We come to work every day, and we work hard. Wouldnt you really rather be going down the right road? Sladich says. Ive told our staff, Our results are our shield. If we produce results, we can protect ourselves from a lot of things, such as budget cuts and criticism.
Going into 2009, he says, Im very, very comfortable that were right where we need to be.
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