Roy Benear, senior vice president of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, compares the advent of social media to the arrival of cable television years ago.
“Once there were three channels,” he said. Now, he pointed out, viewers are faced with hundreds of television programming choices.
Social media and the new lines of communications it opens are much the same. “It is a cultural shift for us,” said Benear.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn have become popular tools for getting leisure and business travelers interested in and informed about various cities and towns.
And, as the CVBs that work to market destinations have become more familiar with social media, they are exploring how it can also be used to increase their meeting business and to serve their meeting clients.
The social media explosion has some small CVB staffs grappling with how to best invest their funds and their time.
“A lot of people are probably struggling with that — new media versus old media,” said Ashley White, communications manager for the Beaumont, Texas, CVB. “We have to learn where to start cutting, converting money spent on old media to new media.”
In Beaumont’s case, social media seems to be taking the lead because of its low cost and effectiveness. “We are using social media outlets for anything and everything we are doing,” White said.
Here are a few examples of ways CVBs are using social media to attract and serve their meeting clienteles.
Austin, Texas, CVB
Last year, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) took a social media campaign designed for a convention client on a test drive. The results of the trial run during the Biomedical Engineering Society’s (BMES’s) annual meeting convinced the CVB that it should add social media to its list of convention services.
As a model, the CVB used a social media campaign it had developed to promote the city to 200 clients at the annual American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) convention last year.That effort clearly showed the power of social media.
Tweets sent to Austin’s 200 ASAE clients went to more than 45,000 Twitter accounts because of retweets. Based on those impressive numbers, “we decided to apply the same model to BMES,” said Benear.
Before the BMES conference, the ACVB and Sparkloft Media, its social media agency, built a following among BMES members and suppliers by posting Facebook updates and tweets about the conference.
When the conference began, the online communication accelerated as a Sparkloft staffer uploaded content, videos and photos from the conference.
A customized map of Austin also was created for BMES Facebook followers to help attendees find shopping, entertainment and restaurants.
Photos and videos were posted to the society’s Flickr and YouTube accounts.
Postconference statistics provided convincing evidence of social media’s ability to engage an audience beyond the convention center’s confines.
As a result of the ACVB and Sparkloft’s social media management, followers of BMES on Twitter increased by 461 percent; 76 tweets reached 6,500 attendees, suppliers and others; retweets of tweets with the conference’s hashtag reached 45,282 Twitter accounts, and the number of people who liked BMES on Facebook increased by 218 percent.
The BMES Facebook page was viewed more than 1,000 times during the conference, and 12 YouTube videos were viewed more than 1,400 times.
Through social media, “we were opening up avenues and channels for attendees to express themselves,” said Benear. “When we gave back the stats to our client, we could say that you clearly went outside your 3,000 attendees to people with similar interests.”
“The reaction from our members has been great, and it really helped the meeting,” said Doug Beizer, BMES communications manager.
“Attendees said social media made the entire meeting more engaging and easier to navigate. In a postmeeting survey, the vast majority of attendees said they want more social media next year,” Beizer said.
Since BMES, the Austin CVB has offered social media services to two other convention clients, and it is looking at a way to offer different levels of service for different-size meetings.
“We may put it in a package — sort of a tall, grande or venti,” said Benear. “It is an element that could be offered to just about every group. We will look at bigger groups first, but the basic elements and principles can be applied across the board.”
There is no charge for the service, and the CVB is absorbing the costs internally. Because social media is evolving so quickly, Benear said, “I’d rather just keep it as a value option for key customers.”
And as Benear points out, new forms of social media will likely create new opportunities. “This is something that is not going to go away. And Lord knows where it will be a year from now. We might be talking about a whole new thing by then,” he said.
Dublin, Ohio, CVB
In Dublin, Ohio, a suburb 15 minutes northwest of Columbus, social media is part of a multifaceted Bring Your Event Home campaign launched by the Dublin CVB last year.
“For us, social media is another leg to our marketing plan,” said Allison Potter, SMERF sales and marketing manager. “We are trying to do new things to market Dublin, and social media is one of the newest and, of course, is very affordable.”
Research that showed the enthusiasm Dubliners have for their community convinced the CVB it should use its citizens as a resource for meeting business.
A 2009 National Citizen Survey showed that Dublin residents rated the community higher as a place to live than people from 306 other communities.
“What better way to fill the city than to call upon all these people who already love it and can sell it to their decision makers,” Potter said.
During 2010, the CVB encouraged locals to send in leads for events of all types, from family reunions and weddings to religious meeting and sports events. It offered incentives for qualified leads, such as chances to win dinners at a local restaurant and a weekend getaway.
The CVB used multiple routes to get the word out about the promotion: through local blogs, ads in Dublin publications and booths at area festivals. It also used its Twitter and Facebook accounts and the CVB blog to spread the word.
The campaign had a budget of $1,000. It secured 417 room nights for area hotels and generated 68 leads, including several conferences and events that the CVB will continue to pursue.
Based on its results, the bureau will continue the campaign this year with a budget that will be even smaller, given the foundation of Facebook friends and Twitter followers that last year’s campaign established.
Potter said no one aspect of social media seemed to dominate the campaign. The bureau used blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
“I do think that with Twitter, you get responses back more immediately, but those responses did not develop into qualified leads,” she said. “But it did get the word out about the program.”
This year, the CVB’s blog will post success stories about reunions and other business booked through the Bring Your Event Home campaign.
Potter and the CVB continue to build a following through social media.
“The good thing about social media is that when you meet someone in person or if I give a presentation, I can say, ‘Follow me on Twitter,’ and it is like continuing the conversation we had started.”
Beaumont, Texas, CVB
Like in Dublin, the Beaumont, Texas, CVB will use social media to find new meeting business.
Through its e-newsletter and blog, the bureau will soon launch a Book It in Beaumont campaign.
“We’ll make the official announcement in the newsletter and then link to our blog, where they can learn more about it,” said White, communications manager.
The campaign will run for 10 days, and those who send in qualified leads will be in the running for Visa gift cards.
The bureau also uses social media to promote public aspects of citywide events, like a recent Texas Harley Owners Group (HOG) rally that brought 3,000 Harley owners to town. “We used Facebook and Twitter to promote the parade and other public events,” White said. “If you look at our Facebook [page], stuff about the HOG rally got more conversation than the everyday stuff. For a city of our size, it helps us to stay top-of-mind with people.”
Social media is also useful in showing people the many tasks the CVB undertakes. “When our sales team goes out of town on sales missions, they take pictures on their cell phone of what they are doing, and we post it,” said White. “It lets people see that we are not just about leisure travel.”
Kent County and Greater Dover CVB
Ironically, the Kent County and Greater Dover, Del., CVB discovered the power of social media when it sponsored a seminar on marketing through social media.
The bureau promoted author Mindie Burgoyne’s three-hour seminar on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. The 55 openings for the course were quickly filled.
Because of the popularity of the course, the CVB arranged for Burgoyne to offer another more advanced seminar on the same topic. This time, Burgoyne promoted the seminar on her Facebook pages as well.
“We leveraged both of us — the speaker and the CVB — to draw in the registrations,” said Kimberly Bailey-Thomas, director of sales for meetings, reunions and group tours. Casting a broader social media net resulted in a larger response, and the CVB ended up with 20 people on its wait list.
The experience underscored a point Bailey-Thomas has heard others in the meeting industry make: “Leverage your speaker — let their followers know where they are going to be next,” she said.
Using social media had other advantages. The bureau was able to follow up with attendees through Facebook, reminding them to complete seminar surveys and to keep those on the wait list posted on openings.