By Vickie Mitchell
If Aesop had turned meetings into animals and insects, the citywide convention would be the elephant; the board retreat the ant.
The elephant, like the convention of 5,000 people, would grab more attention than the tiny ant, of course. But as anyone who has watched an ant would tell you, the insect, like a small meeting, is small but mighty.
The “ants” of the meeting world are beginning to get more attention from convention and visitors bureaus in second-tier and smaller cities as CVBs revamp their sales divisions and dedicate staff to small meetings. The small meeting specialists have various titles including express meetings manager and executive meetings manager.
Targeting meetings based on size can prevent the small meeting from being overlooked and build small meetings into a segment with a large impact, CVB leaders say.
“It was hard the way we previously deployed our staff to pay the right amount of attention to small meetings,” said John Leinen, vice president of convention and tourism sales for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority in Nevada. “They kind of got lost with the other meetings. We also wanted to make sure we are proactively going after that size market.”
The move makes it clear that CVBs aren’t just about citywides, said Jason Outman, director of sales for the Columbia, S.C., Metropolitan CVB.
“Sometimes CVBs get a bad rap. People say we only focus on large groups. We focus on smaller groups because we realize that the small meeting makes as much impact as the larger group.”
Economic downturn inspired change
Most of the CVBs in this story established their small meeting sales forces within the last few years. In some cases, the economic downturn helped fuel the change in the sales department.
“When things got a little tough, the smaller meeting meant more,” said Steve Crist, associate vice president group and meetings for the Palm Beach County CVB in Florida.
His bureau used local hotels as its model when it reorganized its sales force four years ago. Most hotels in the Palm Beach area have 200 rooms or fewer and dedicate a sales manager to small meetings.
Bureaus also began to realize that although small meetings are easy to overlook, they add up to big and reliable business for a destination.
“There are a lot of smaller meetings out there,” said Crist. “They are the bread and butter and a lot come and go without you even knowing it.”
CVBs take different approaches
CVBs have designed their small meetings sales forces in different ways. Definitions for a small meeting also vary.
In Palm Beach County, for example, an executive meeting manager works with meetings of 50 rooms and under on peak night. At the Reno-Sparks CVB, a small meetings manager works with meetings of 125 and under on peak. Columbia, S.C. has set the bar lower, defining a small meeting as one that uses 50 total rooms or less.
The Austin, Texas, CVB, which defines small meetings as 10 to 200 rooms, six months ago added its third small meetings account manager, according to Steve Genovesi, senior vice president of sales.
Austin’s sales team is divided by geographical region; each small meetings manager works with a sales manager who books larger meetings in the same region. The small and large meeting sales managers often team up to serve clients and to makes sales calls.
In Louisville, Ky., the CVB began focusing on small meetings in 2000, assigning one staffer to work part time on meetings of 200 room nights on peak. Today, the CVB has two sales staff who work full time on small meetings. Each works in partnership with sales managers who handle large meetings based on market segment.
“This allows our national sales manager to have a partner in the office,” said Angi Van Berg, director of convention development.
At the time Louisville started its program, booking small meetings was more order taking than selling. As the bureau began to actively pursue small meetings, it saw the market’s untapped potential.
‘We realized that if we started prospecting and mining for small meetings we would capture a lot more business,” said Van Berg.