As a meeting planner, Roslyn Parker spends a lot of time traveling. Doing so has honed her ability to size up meeting sites.
“I spend a lot of time in hotels, traveling for business, and the moment I walk into a hotel, I’m smelling, I’m looking, my radar goes up,” said the owner of Affinity Partners.
For Parker and other meeting planners, a site visit — a fact-finding trip to a city or meeting property designed to determine whether it is a fit for a meeting or convention — is about a lot more than “seeing” the sights.
Site visits are multisensory experiences, the chance to make an informed decision based on what a planner sees, hears, tastes, touches and even smells.
Even sophisticated websites, with their 360-degree views of meeting rooms and videos, are no substitute for visiting a place.
“You can look at a map all day but still not know there are train tracks running right next the hotel or that it is in a bad neighborhood,” said Sarah Kerr, an executive assistant with United Technologies Corp.
Websites also don’t make for personal relationships. Meeting planners say that site visits allow them to build relationships and partnerships with destination representatives, from convention bureau sales staff to hotel management. CVBs often arrange and host site visits for qualified meeting planners.
“It is my job to be the eyes and ears for my clients. I have the specialized knowledge and the local relationships,” said Parker. “When you spend time with the people who live and work there, you learn about all the little treasures.”
Here is a look at four smaller cities that welcome meeting planners for site visits.
Lake Charles, La.
The Lake Charles CVB quit doing familiarization trips for groups of meeting planners several years ago, opting to focus on individual visits.
The results have been positive, according to Tico Soto, who was with the bureau for 13 years, most recently as sales director, before leaving in August to join the New Orleans CVB as director of tourism.
“We stay away from FAMs,” he said. “We like that individual personal attention. When you have a FAM you get wrapped up in different personalities and it takes the focus away from the actual site visit. Every person is looking for something different. We find we get better ROI with individual site visits.”
As an example, of the 47 individual site visits the Lake Charles CVB hosted last year, “I would say at least 35 of them booked something here,” said Soto.
The CVB carefully prescreens meeting planners for site visits, ensuring that planners have a request for proposals and other indicators of meeting business.
Lake Charles has set aside funds to pay for meeting planner visits. The funding includes travel expenses. “From the time they get here to the time they leave we ‘sponsor’ their site visit,” said Soto.
Site visit itineraries developed by the bureau include local flavor like Cajun meals, king cake decorating sessions or Cajun dance lessons. Visits are often planned around one of the area’s 75 annual festivals, which provides a natural segue to local culture.
And the bureau doesn’t stick hard and fast to the itinerary. “We might have spontaneous stops on the site visit as well,” said Soto. “We really try to get them to feel comfortable with the relationship and the environment.”