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Putting outreach within reach

Courtesy Southeast Tourism Society

There’s little that David Bradley, director of convention sales for the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, won’t do to aid meeting planners who want to add an element of community service to their meeting.

Just ask the Philadelphia chapter of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), which did several service projects for a Valley Forge senior center last year.

PCMA treated the center’s elderly clients to a game of Family Feud, and Bradley, wisecracks at the ready, served as emcee. A PCMA-sponsored holiday party at the center a couple of months later would have been less jolly without Bradley as Santa. He has a fur-trimmed red suit on standby for such occasions. Santa Dave also had his “elves,” the CVB’s staff, wrap gifts for the seniors; the gifts were donated by PCMA members.

“Dave is the go-to guy when you really need help,” said Erica Keagy, chapter administrator for the Philadelphia chapter of PCMA. “Having the Valley Forge bureau behind us in the effort definitely helped.”

CVBs step up to assist

Community outreach has been an element of meetings and conventions for many years, particularly in the religious and association sectors. About 10 percent of Valley Forge’s meeting clients want to do some sort of community service, Bradley estimates.

And as more meetings and conventions have added outreach components, more CVBs are stepping up to assist.

In some cases, like Bradley’s, the CVB’s involvement is hands on. In others, CVBs serve as community resources, connecting meeting groups with local organizations that could use their help.

Uptick in outreach
In recent years, there has been an uptick in community service tied to meetings, perhaps spurred by Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

Crystal Johnson has been with the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB for 18 years, the last 14 as director of sales. “I don’t remember community service projects [being a part of meetings] before Katrina. Now, more than ever, I have seen groups that want to go in and help out in the community.”

The Southeast Tourism Society (STS), a tourism marketing alliance with 900 members in 12 states, started offering a community service project in 2007 when it moved its conference to the Mississippi Gulf Coast so that members could see the damage Katrina wreaked, provide some hands-on assistance and give the area an economic boost by having a meeting there.

Since then, a community service project has been offered at each of STS’s twice-yearly conferences. From 15 to 50 of the 250 to 300 STS members who attend participate in projects, according to Neville Bhada, STS vice president of communications.

The process for choosing a worthy project begins six months out, when STS sits down with representatives from the CVB for the city in which it will next meet.

“We go in with an open mind,” said Bhada. STS realizes that CVB reps will know how to best put volunteers’ time and talents to work, Bhada said.

Projects have varied, but all impact tourism. The Asheville CVB arranged for STS to clean up part of a riverbank, and volunteers spent half a day hauling out refuse. In Little Rock, Ark., the bureau suggested that STS help the Clinton presidential library catalog donated books. In Lake Charles, La., the bureau arranged for volunteers to cut back vegetation and clear trails in a wildlife refuge.