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Managing Meetings: Volunteers

Convention bureaus and meeting planners often use volunteers to help with events: staffing registration tables, stuffing welcome bags, greeting attendees at the door. But planners can rely on volunteers for a whole host of services, as long as they keep a few things in mind.

How They Help

Pinehurst, North Carolina, has 10 regular volunteers who staff the CVB’s visitors center, said Beverly Stewart, director of sales for the convention and visitors bureau of Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area of North Carolina. But the CVB has a pool of hundreds of community members who they rally to help staff larger events. Volunteers manned the welcome tent at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open Championships at Pinehurst Resort and assembled about 3,000 welcome packets for the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship and the U.S. Kids Golf Teen World Championship. Volunteers acted as local contacts for each of 11 Southern teams during the 2015 World Series of Dixie Girls Softball tournament in July.

The Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau in Massachusetts has had a hospitality program since 1996. The program now has about 30 volunteers, known as ambassadors, that range in age from 30 to 90, said CVB president Mary Kay Wydra. Ambassadors make and hang welcome signs in downtown, man welcome tables, staff the visitors booth in the convention center and even provide turn-down service for VIPs and key speakers.

Although the CVBs in Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana, and Victoria, Texas, don’t have formal volunteer programs in place, they do have good connections with local residents and businesspeople on whom they can call. Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette often uses volunteers as step-on guides or to lead tours of attractions around town.

After eight years with Experience Columbus in Ohio, Anthony Cordo, the new director of Explore Victoria Texas, is beginning to build the CVB’s volunteer program, starting with the several hundred volunteers who staff events such as and barbecue festivals. Cordo also plans to build a database that will allow the CVB to send out a monthly notice of upcoming events and where volunteers can log in and register for events of their choice.

“We’ll be at the point in the next year or so that if a conference comes to town, we’ll have that pool they can tap into,” he said.

Pros (Not Professionals)

The most obvious bonus of using volunteers to staff conferences and events is having access to free labor. But besides fitting the budget, volunteers bring with them a host of less obvious benefits.

Volunteers are residents and community members who know the area and can recommend restaurants, suggest attractions and even give directions. And because they’re volunteering to be there, they’re enthusiastic and excited, not only about the event but also about their hometowns.

“They’re usually familiar with the area and are excited to welcome people from out of town and tell them about our community,” said Ashley Gregory, group tours and meetings manager for Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette.

Springfield gets quite a bit of SMERF business, and planners for fraternal or social groups are usually volunteers that also have full-time day jobs. Tapping into the city’s hospitality program means not having to figure out who will make signs or stuff bags, Wydra said, adding that it is “hard to put a dollar value on it; it’s priceless.”

Another thing to remember is the benefit to the community, not just to the planners. Cities benefit when residents get involved not only in sports events and the convention industry as a whole, but also in the entire tourism industry and the economy, Cordo said.