They say there’s no such thing as free money. Well, “they” don’t know about meeting incentives. Many CVBs offer meeting incentive programs, programs designed to benefit both the meeting and the destination where it’s held.
Incentives help CVBs attract new clients that may not otherwise have booked a destination or can help retain meetings that may have otherwise moved away. And, of course, incentives help planners offset the cost of their events.
Not every CVB offers an incentive program, but many do. And “every CVB has a different twist to theirs,” said Dianna Pierce, vice president of sales for Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Oftentimes, planners don’t know these programs exist; but if they know to ask, there are additional ways planners can make the most of meeting incentives.
Start With the CVB
To qualify for incentives, nearly every CVB requires meetings to originate through the CVB, so that’s where planners should start.
“The big caveat for us is that we have to help start the process,” Pierce said. “It’s imperative for any buyer to reach out and go through us. If it’s already sourced, we can’t help as much.”
Visit Lake Charles in Lake Charles, Louisiana, advertises its program and does its best to spread the word, but “at the end of the day, it’s up to the organizer to find out about these programs,” said senior sales manager Taylor Beard Stanley.
And the best way to find out is to ask.
“It never hurts to ask,” said Mark White, Visit Salt Lake senior vice president, sales and services. “No one is going to be offended if the planners ask.”
Visit Lake Charles launched its incentive program in 2019, and “we were definitely seeing some good traction with the program,” Stanley said.
The CVB offers a base incentive of $3 per room night up to a maximum of $5,000. The incentive is paid directly to the association or organization after the event occurs and after the number of rooms picked up are verified by the contracted hotel. Visit Lake Charles sends a check within 30 days. Planners can count on those funds to cover a coffee break or to add something special to the program, “whatever they want to do,” Stanley said.
Explore Asheville has been offering its “Have More Fun on Us” program for several years. Corporations and associations gathering in Asheville, North Carolina, will find a tiered incentive schedule that ranges from $1,000 for meetings with 100-199 total contracted rooms up to $5,000 for 1,000-plus rooms.
To be eligible, all requests-for-proposals (RFPs) must be sourced and distributed by Explore Asheville to hotels that fit the meeting’s needs.
Explore Asheville also requires planners to spend the incentive locally. Planners can use it however they want — for transportation, printing, entertainment or activities or to offset their final hotel bill — “but we do require that the dollars be spent locally,” Pierce said.
The arrangement is a win-win for planners and for CVB partners.
“It helps the group save dollars and defray costs, and it keeps tourism dollars in the local community,” she said.
In Utah, Visit Salt Lake sets aside a budget line item for meeting incentives but considers incentives on a per-event basis, as opposed to having a set menu. The model typically favors larger meetings that book during slow times and that peak over a weekend, White said.
“We try to take a customized approach per group,” he said.
Maximizing Meeting Incentives
Though most CVB incentive programs have specific criteria, there are ways planners can maximize their benefits. Many CVBs offer higher incentives during high-need times, like slow seasons or certain days of the week. Visit Lake Charles’ base incentive of $3 per room night jumps to $5 during “need times,” which are Sunday through Thursday, January 1 through March 15, and again October 15 through December 31. No room nights can be used on Friday or Saturday to receive the additional $2 per room.
“As a resort destination, our summers are really packed, so if they can take advantage of those off-peak times, there’s an added benefit,” Stanley said.
Explore Asheville’s incentive eligibility is based on new RFPs for room nights Sunday through Thursday for meetings held April through December, as well as new RFPs for room nights any day of the week for meetings held January through March.
“We are a leisure destination, so we are heavily trafficked on weekends,” Pierce said. “So the better time for us is Sunday through Thursday.”
Asheville’s incentive program is for new business only, but if an organizer signs a three-year contract, Explore Asheville will provide the incentive for all three years.
Visit Lake Charles allows organizations to submit one application for up to three different meetings, and the CVB also offers the incentive to any meeting, not just new business.
“You can have a meeting here every year, and the incentive would still be an option for you,” Stanley said, “because, in our mind, the economic impact of an organization doesn’t go away after the first year.”
Increasing Incentives During COVID
During the COVID-19 crisis, many CVBs boosted their incentive offerings to help attract business and to help the struggling meetings industry.
Explore Asheville doubled its incentive amounts and added another room-night tier, effective July 1, 2020, though the changes were already in the works before the pandemic, Pierce said. By adding another midlevel tier for midsize meetings, it helped “spread the love.”
“It wasn’t COVID-driven per se, but it put us in a position to help out during a terrible time,” she said.
Explore Asheville also created an additional incentive tied to a virtual FAM tour the CVB offered. People who watched the webinar had an opportunity to earn an additional percentage increase if Explore Asheville received their RFP by February 28, something the CVB may offer again throughout the year, Pierce said.
Utah launched the Meet in Utah campaign, funded by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development through the Utah Office of Tourism. The statewide initiative aimed to assist the meeting industry’s recovery in destinations with convention centers, including Ogden, St. George and Salt Lake City.
Visit Salt Lake received $1.2 million under the program, and “we decided the best way to spend that would not be an ad campaign,” White said. “We asked, ‘What can we do to most directly impact the organizations?’ The best way to impact them is to incent[ivize] them.”
Using those funds, Visit Salt Lake paid $40 per room night to meetings that contracted events by December 30, 2020, to be held in 2021. So an event that contracted for 100 room nights received $4,000, which “goes a long way to help put on a meeting,” White said.
Those funds enabled Visit Salt Lake to book 30 events into the latter half of 2021 that will generate nearly 28,000 room nights, meetings “that we would not have booked otherwise,” he said.
State officials have floated the possibility of a second round of grant money this year, but that has not yet been decided.
“It was a benefit for us, and it was a benefit for those organizations, but the drawback is those funds are gone,” White said.