The military reunion market is growing larger than ever. Popular military destinations like Columbus, Georgia, adjacent to the Fort Benning army base, have seen a dramatic increase in veteran-based meetings just within the past year. We spoke with several travel industry experts to get some inside tips on planning meetings for this unique audience.
Contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau
After military reunion planners choose their destination, one of the first things they should do is call the local tourist office, typically known as a convention and visitors bureau. Convention and visitors bureaus act as one-stop-shop resources for locating all the best local services, helping planners find venues, hotels, photographers, transportation services and more. According to Pam Sherfesee, vice president of sales at the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, “getting good guidance from the beginning is key,” especially when a planner has never been to the city before.
In addition to providing this invaluable information, convention and visitors bureaus often help planners negotiate with local hotels and meeting venues during the request-for-proposal process.
“If we have a reunion planner, we’re the boots on the ground,” said Peter Bowden, president of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We try to handle as much as possible through email and over the phone so they don’t have to come down several times for site inspections.”
Budget and Accessibility
In some cases, the person planning a military reunion may be a volunteer without much planning experience, so it can be easy to overlook crucial details like accessibility and budget when throwing together a schedule of activities for the group. Since many attendees of military reunions are retired and live on a fixed income, planners should carefully consider which hotels and attractions best suit their budget limitations.
“We work with local motorcoach companies to get the lowest cost for groups,” said Bowden. “Local museums are typically very cheap, with packages that include lunches and other amenities.”
To find the best rates a host destination can offer, it’s best to begin planning the reunion at least a year in advance and provide some flexibility with the dates. Accessibility is also important to consider.
“During the planning process, reunion planners need to learn which hotels, venues and attractions are handicapped-accessible and how much walking is required,” said Erin Goldmeier, media relations manager at Visit Norfolk.
For many military reunion groups, feeling welcome and comfortable is more important than any of the attractions or events. The convention and visitors bureau can often help set up a welcome reception so that veterans feel at home the moment they step off the bus. Planners should also find out what kinds of services the hotel provides, such as a hospitality room or lounge where attendees can gather. While groups may want to get out and explore the local attractions, they often enjoy just being together at the hotel, so it is important for the hotel to create a comfortable social environment.
“They like the hotel to have all their needs so that the people who don’t want to go on the tours and just want to hang out with their buddies can do that,” said Bowden.
Complimentary breakfast is another common request. According to Sherfesee, many groups even include breakfast in their requests for proposals.
Many military groups enjoy visiting military-themed destinations such as the MacArthur Memorial and Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk or the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, but it always depends on the group. Sometimes, veterans are traveling with spouses and other family members, who might prefer a wider range of activities and attractions, so most groups opt for locations with a variety of entertainment options. In Colorado Springs, groups might enjoy a tour of the Air Force Academy or the National Museum of World War II Aviation, followed by lunch in Old Colorado City and an excursion through the stunning Garden of the Gods National Landmark. Likewise, a schedule in Norfolk could alternate between touring the naval base and visiting the MacArthur Center, a 1-million-square-foot shopping mall in downtown.
The time of year is another factor to consider when selecting destinations, since certain events or festivals may serve as the key selling point for a group. For example, the Virginia International Tattoo, which celebrates military bands and drill teams at the world’s largest naval base, draws over 1,500 visitors to Norfolk each spring.
Most people who travel want to experience what is unique to the city or region, and military reunion groups are no different. One of the best ways for planners to give their groups an unforgettable experience is to find activities and attractions that represent the area. In Colorado Springs, groups can take a guided tour of the Olympic Training Center, one of three official Olympic training sites in the United States. Sometimes planners can even arrange for attendees to have lunch with one of the athletes.
At the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, military guests can leave their mark on one of the paver stones lining Heritage Walk, which is dedicated to all veteran service members. Anyone can buy a paver along the stone walkway and have his or her name or unit’s name engraved on it.
“The CVB bought an entire section, so anytime a group works with us, we donate or contribute a paver in place for that particular outfit as a way of thanking them for their service,” said Bowden. “We hope we created a new memory for them and encourage them to come back and show their family.”