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Halfway There

Attracting companies and people to your event or destination in a down economy means working harder than ever to prove your value and garner positive attention.

By Richard Sine

The Internet provides a remarkable opportunity to give prospects a tantalizing hint of what is to come and organizations are using that to build communities that can be steered to meetings, generating a significant growth in attendance.

The down global economy in conjunction with a meeting industry hit hard by misperceptions coincides with a technological boom time—that’s a good thing, but it does complicate marketing matters for the uninitiated.

With meeting planners under greater pressure than ever to prove the business case for meetings, their counterparts need to help make the business case for events, according to meetings consultant Allison Saget. That means marketers have to work harder than ever to prove their value to prospective clients—they have to understand their clients’ needs, desires and fears and position their event or destination to fulfill those needs.

For example, CVBs or DMCs trying to attract a meeting should highlight relevant businesses located in their cities and describe them in a write-up, including revenues and number of employees, then work to make local industry executives available to meeting attendees. Alternately, destination marketers can work with major companies in their towns to encourage them to hold conferences locally.

Saget’s book, The Event Marketing Handbook, argues that meeting planners must expand their skills beyond logistics and planning to understand how meetings can make a bigger impact on the bottom line. The recession proved her point.

Marketers must work harder to prove that a live meeting can have a greater sales impact than a conference call, virtual meeting or other alternatives.

"You have to emphasize the strengths of face-to-face meetings," said Corbin Ball, a technology consultant based in Bellingham, Wash. "Brainstorming, networking, relationship-building, these are all things that are done best face-to-face."

In this economy, meeting your prospects halfway means reaching out to them aggressively in ways that won’t bust your (shrinking) budget.

Fear and uncertainty have led to a drastic change of mindset on the part of meeting planners and attendees alike. Failure to perform won’t just lead to a poor performance rating—it could lead to a pink slip. And appealing to the fearful requires going back to marketing basics and ensuring that your focus be on the benefits to the prospective client, rather than the features of what you’re selling.

"You need to find out what your prospects want," said Bonnie Wallsh, chief strategist of Bonnie Wallsh Associates. Speaking as a planner, she recommends that marketers ask her as many questions as possible. "I want to know how you are going to fulfill my meeting objectives. What’s in it for me, and how are you going to make me look good? Because everyone’s a little afraid for his or her job."

Focusing on benefits requires traditional marketing skills such as asking detailed questions about prospect needs. As elemental as this practice may seem, it’s come under threat thanks to the dominance of e-mail. Phone conversations make it much easier to learn more about your prospect’s needs and opens up more opportunities for upselling, Saget says.

In today’s environment, benefits-based marketing also requires an empathetic perspective. In January, Hyundai made a PR splash when it promised that if customers bought new Hyundais and lost their jobs within a year, they could give the cars back. (Specifically, Hyundai said it would allow the customer to return the vehicle and walk away from most or all of the loan obligations.)

Marketers in other industries can take a cue from Hyundai, says Liping Cai, director of the Tourism and Hospitality Research Center at Purdue University. Like car buyers, organizations are wary of making large, long-term commitments. To help heal this fear, marketers in the meeting industry could offer similar innovative or helpful options to their clients. For example, a hotel or resort could market itself to planners with the promise to not impose a cancellation penalty should a group go bankrupt, Cai suggests.

"When you make a long-term contract, you have to put yourself in [the client’s] shoes," he said. "This gives people trust and confidence in you."

There are many potential variations on this approach that will make a venue more attractive to planners. For example, if a planner fails to fill the room block, perhaps attrition fees and penalties could be waived in exchange for a firm agreement to book future meetings at the hotel. The planner isn’t penalized and the hotel establishes future business.

Of course, while you’re trying to reach out to prospects, they are reaching out to you, mostly online. And while all the new platforms may be baffling and sometimes appear gimmicky, they reflect a transformation in the way sales and marketing works. In essence, the customer is now in control.

"The Web allows people to do research in a different way," said David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules in Marketing and PR and, most recently, World Wide Rave. "People [no longer go] to their mailboxes or even e-mail inboxes [to learn about products]. They go to search engines. Smart organizations create something really valuable and interesting that people share through social media, which then results in high search engine rankings and high pass-along value for their content."

A great example of such "value creation" is the "The Best Job in the World" campaign by Tourism Queensland in Australia (www.islandreefjob.com). At the tourism board’s invitation, more than 30,000 people applied for a "job" living on the Great Barrier Reef for six months and blogging about the experience—at a salary of about US$100,000. Promoted not by expensive advertising but by public relations and social networking, the campaign resulted in 1,100 TV placements in the U.S. within two days of launch and a million Web site hits in two days, according to the PR firm that handled it. That’s on top of countless videos and blog posts.

"The impact of these global efforts…was to cut through the increasingly cluttered travel market and capture both consumer and media attention," said Shana Pereira, regional director of the Americas for Tourism Queensland International.

Achieving this level of viral success requires not only creativity, but also a willingness to give up control of your marketing and messaging.

"It’s an extremely difficult thing for marketers to get their head around," Scott said.

Not everyone can get away with something like "The Best Job in the World" campaign. But with the Internet almost universally used by prospects, the onus is on marketers to use it to assertively prove value and even create community in ways that drive more real people to their events or destinations.

Through traditional "outbound" methods such as advertising and direct mail, marketers push messages out to customers in large numbers, hoping to catch a few in the net. "Inbound" marketing methods such as search engine optimization (SEO), blogging and social media capture people who have already ventured out onto the Web searching for something like your product. And it’s increasingly vital to catch prospects on the Web, because they are making decisions well before you have the chance to speak to them personally.

"People are now much more able to get information about different vendors, products and industries themselves without interacting with your company directly," notes online marketing firm HubSpot. "By the time they reach you, they are much farther along in the sales process, but you know much less about them."

With that in mind, Cris Canning, CMP, is pushing hard to ensure that her property, the Venues at NTC Promenade in San Diego, gets a prominent showcase online.

"The goal is to get as much real estate on the Internet as you can, so that when someone wants to find you, you can be found," Canning said. "Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to get on the Internet without spending a small fortune. You don’t need a fancy webmaster or even expensive SEO services."

With the help of a high school intern, Canning has established a presence for the Venues at NTC Promenade on Facebook, Digg, Slideshare, Flickr and elsewhere. A big part of the goal is to make it easy for prospects to learn as much as possible about NTC Promenade online.

The next frontier for Canning is to convince customers to put testimonials on review sites. Reviews look to be increasingly important to the success of venues and destinations. While TripAdvisor is most popular among tourists, several user-review sites specific to meeting planners have arisen recently, notes Ball. These sites include MeetingUniverse.com and Meetingsintel.com. Canning is especially intrigued by Google Reviews, because locations with more reviews seem to rank higher in Google Maps searches.

"'Word of mouse’ is still the most valuable form of marketing," Canning said. "You may not remember the last commercial you saw, but you do remember the last recommendation you heard. When I am looking for a service, I’ll depend on a recommendation from someone I know first. But the second most important factor is a positive review from someone who used that service."

Ball notes that more meeting organizers are asking speakers to provide online previews by posting blog entries, creating videos or submitting to interviews that are converted into podcasts. This content is then being used to help market events via the Internet.

And meeting planners are leveraging the online following of their speakers to boost attendance as well. Scott, the marketing guru, has 11,000 followers on Twitter. Some event organizers have allowed him to broadcast a special discount code to his Twitter followers for events at which he is slated to speak. The tactic attracts people to the events who may have never learned about them otherwise.

With the economy in dire straits and business travel being slashed, the onus is on marketers to prove the value of their event or destination. The good news is that marketers have more ways than ever to make their case, and can attract business relatively cheaply using online tools and creative thinking. One+

RICHARD SINE is a freelance business writer.

Play Nice With Your Competition
Cooperative moves like this may seem counterintuitive when companies are losing business and hanging on to what they have for dear life. It is all too tempting to retaliate for lost business through threats or lawsuits, or to compete by eating the other guy’s lunch, but experts say lawsuits and vicious competition are poisonous in an industry based on reputation, word of mouth and long-term relationships.

Meetings consultant Allison Saget recalls that when the downturn spurred by Sept. 11, 2001, hit the industry, people responded by returning deposits and working together to make up for lost business.

"[The situation now] is being treated with vengeance and nastiness instead of coming together and working it out," she said.

Instead, professional partnering and mutual protection should be expanded to enhance existing marketing opportunities and create new avenues for messaging. For example, at the first sign that an event might be cancelled, Saget suggests that all players involved sit down and negotiate issues such as pricing. Another example, involving attrition charges: Since it is in the mutual interest of planner and hotel to fill up rooms, meeting consultant Bonnie Wallsh recently worked with a hotel to create a sweepstakes in which winners would receive a complementary five-night stay at the hotel. The catch? The drawing was open only to attendees who registered early and chose to stay at the hotel.

Consider constructive partnering—for example, hoteliers can work with a nearby restaurant so that a meal discount accompanies a hotel stay. Even competitors should be looking to work together to attract business, says Liping Cai, director of the Tourism and Hospitality Research Center at Purdue University’s hospitality school. Hotels should work together in their marketing endeavors to land large events.

"This is the worst time to compete in the industry," Cai said. "You may win an event, but lose goodwill with your [peers]."

Instead of stealing business from competitors, look to expand by acquiring new business in areas of the economy that have been less affected by the downturn, Cai suggests. They do exist. Groups still booking conferences include medical professionals, collection agencies, government agencies and green businesses.