In Boston, event planners hear cities pitch venues
Lisa Boyd has been treated like royalty since she arrived in Boston last weekend. She received a free pair of skinny jeans, a complimentary massage, breakfast in bed, and numerous other free meals.
Why does the New Jersey resident rate this reception? Her decisions can mean millions of dollars in business for hotels, restaurants, retailers, and local economies.
Boyd is an event planner for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and one of 2,000 members of her profession in Boston for the annual meeting of the Professional Convention Management Association — the people who decide which cities get lucrative conventions and conferences. They are being courted by hospitality representatives from around the country who have descended on the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, hoping to get a slice of the $280 billion in direct spending the industry pumps into the US economy each year.
The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau put on a cooking demonstration: French onion soup, coq au vin, and apple tart, complete with a Julia Child impersonator.
The Toronto Convention & Visitors Association constructed an elaborate Imaginarium lounge, decked out with curvy white couches, a bar, and Katy Perry on the stereo, where planners were invited to paint pottery and create Lego jewelry.
Tourisme Montreal hosted a spa day on Newbury Street with facials, massages, pedicures, and manicures.
“Baltimore is no longer just competing with Washington, Baltimore is competing with Brussels,” said Rich Harrill, director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Travel & Tourism Industry Center at the University of South Carolina. “The competition is global and requires investment.”
As host of the most important meeting in the industry, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is in a unique position. It has to compete with other cities selling themselves on its home turf, but has the distinct advantage of being able to show off Boston first-hand to major corporations and associations, such as Microsoft Corp. and the Consumer Bankers Association.
“I describe it as a marketing home game,” said James Rooney, executive director of the state convention authority.
Competition for meetings is growing as more cities around the world, including Boston, build and expand their convention centers, even as the number of events remains flat, and some are replaced by video connections over the Internet.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority recently filed legislation for a $1 billion expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center that would expand the facility by 60 percent. The South Boston exhibition center, which opened in 2004, vaulted Boston from a second-tier convention city to the top 10 in terms of the number of large events held here, and convention officials are determined to break into the top five.
Regardless of its need to drum up more meetings, Boston has taken a typically restrained approach in selling itself to meeting planners this week — no spa treatments or jeans giveaways or Julia Child impersonators. Instead, tourism officials took groups on Duck Tours to scout hotel locations, led visits to the city’s two convention centers, and threw a party at Fenway Park featuring lobster rolls, Boston cream pie cupcakes, and local beer.
In separate addresses to convention-goers, Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Martin Walsh emphasized the city as a place ripe with innovation industries.
Conventions don’t just benefit a city’s hotels and restaurants; they also bring in executives and researchers who may see the city as a good place to open an office or establish partnerships. And as each destination vies to outshine the other, they are continually upping their game.
“People have to break through the clutter,” said Deborah Sexton, chief executive of the Professional Convention Management Association.
The Canadian contingent knows they have to get creative to entice American companies across the border, where they have to deal with customs and exchange rates and other out-of-country hassles.
“We have to find different ways of doing things that our American counterparts don’t do,” said Jacqueline Benear of the Greater Vancouver Visitors and Convention Bureau, which hired Boston-based fitness, nutrition, and sleep experts to offer consultations for planners during the conference.
Jim Donovan, a planner with Rotary International, visited the Vancouver booth at the Hynes to sign up for a health evaluation. At last year’s Vancouver exhibit in Orlando, he pedaled a bike that powered a blender to make himself a blueberry smoothie. The relationship the Vancouver tourism organization has built with Donovan over his two decades in the business has paid off; he recently steered a former employer to the British Columbia capital, and it is holding an event there this year.
Being wooed is “one of the perks of the job,” Donovan said, as a group of women from the Vancouver tourism bureau stopped to shake his hand.
In addition to the Newbury Street spa day, Tourisme Montreal delivered breakfast in bed to planners’ hotel rooms on the last day of the Boston conference. There’s nothing like seeing people first thing in the morning, sometimes before their hair is combed, to create a connection, said media relations manager Jeremie Gabourg.
“We found a way to get close to them,” he said, “without being creepy about it.”