Courtesy York CVB
When it comes to handling hotel room bookings for larger meetings and sports groups, more convention and visitors bureaus in smaller cities are offering online housing bureaus.
Adding the service — used by meetings that require multiple hotels — is one way smaller cities can stay competitive and meet the demands of clients who have used online housing in other cities, CVB representatives say.
“I do think it is increasing in demand as planners become more aware of the service and the benefits of the service,” said Carrie Chavez, convention services coordinator with the Springfield, Mo., CVB.
“And CVBs are looking at it more than before and considering how do we provide the service? This is one of those things that will allow us to be more competitive.”
An online housing bureau streamlines management of convention housing. Instead of working with staffs at several hotels in a city, the planners work with their contact at the CVB.
A link to the housing bureau is provided for each group’s website. The housing information found at the link is tailored to each specific group, based on the hotels where it has room blocks. Attendees visit the site to peruse the hotels available, choose their rooms and make their reservations. The site is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can return to the site to make changes if needed.
Planners can easily get reports on room pickup and monitor their group’s housing.
“They have the ability to track who is attending and to drive attendees into the block of rooms to avoid attrition,” said Samantha Jones, director of client services for Meetingmax, which launched its online housing product about eight years ago.
“The main thing it has done for our clients is save them time,” said Dan O’Neill, vice president of strategy and sales for the Bloomington, Minn., CVB.
Supplier sees increase in interest
Even as budgets have tightened, CVBs have added online housing.
“Interestingly, in the economic downturn, we have seen an increase in interest in our system,” said Jones. “When it comes down to it, in an economic downturn these smaller cities want to take a step forward and incorporate value-added technology to make their city more appealing.”
About 30 CVBs are among Meetingmax’s clients; they represent about 80 percent of its online housing business, according to Jones. Contracts with half a dozen CVBs are in negotiation, she said.
Other well-known online housing systems are Passkey, GroupRes and HousingWeb.
The Tacoma CVB recently signed on with Meetingmax. Two of its clients, both education groups, are already using the system.
“They are previous clients, but this really helps bring them back because it makes it so much easier for the meeting planner,” said Shauna Lunde, director of sales.
Meetingmax appeals to smaller CVBs for several reasons. For one, it has no minimum-room-night requirements.
Also, because it is a Web-based system, smaller hotels that aren’t part of a chain can use the system, another advantage for a smaller market. And like other online housing systems, it allows the bureaus or the meeting groups to do marketing.
Opens marketing avenues
For example, groups can sell banner space on the reservation form or use the space to promote some aspect of their event. A CVB can hook its marketing system into Meetingmax’s so that marketing materials are sent to attendees as they make their housing reservations for a conference or convention.
Destination Bloomington sends its visitors guide and other city information to meeting attendees when they make their reservations through the online housing system.
So far, five of Destination Bloomington’s clients, all sports groups, have used its online housing system. O’Neill sees interest in the system spreading to traditional meetings and conventions as well.
“We just had a piece of business that we were bidding on that needed to use three hotels for a regional sales conference and part of our bid included using the online housing bureau,” he said.
CVBs handle the cost of online housing bureaus in a variety of ways. In some cases, a charge is included in the room rate or a commission is charged; in other cases, the bureau opts to pay fees and offer online housing as a service.
In a few cases, CVBs have created their own online system and have absorbed the costs they incur for developing the system and staffing it.
Springfield, Mo., developed its own Web-based online housing system in house about three years ago. Five groups have used the system this year, most of them sports competitions.
Although Springfield had researched other systems, it opted to create its own to save money.
“Nearly all of them have a charge for room nights reserved, negotiated rates or a commission,” said Chavez.
In addition to the technical support offered by the online housing bureau supplier, CVBs also have staff on hand to help meeting planners and attendees who are using the online housing bureau.
For example, a CVB staff person can describe the location of a hotel to a meeting attendee or supply more details about the amenities it offers.
Requirements to use systems vary
Requirements for use of an online housing bureau vary. Some, like Bloomington, have minimums. “We require use of multiple hotels and peak room nights of 250 or more,” said O’Neill. Others require only that a planner have room blocks in two or more properties.
The York, Pa., CVB saw a benefit in using an online housing system for the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors National Convention, which met in the city for the first time this year.
“We booked over 1,100 room nights in 10 hotels during the seven-day event,” said Christina Smith, membership and visitor services manager. “I do think it is a benefit to the event planner.
Researching hotels can be a daunting task, especially for a one-man or two-man band.”
And as more meeting planners see the advantages the systems bring, the more they will demand them of the destinations that seek their business.
“It is hard to take a good thing away,” said Chavez “Once they have had it and experienced the benefits of using it, it is difficult to take it away from them and keep them from wanting it.”