Nearly every large city and county has its own convention bureau (CVB) just as every city and state has its own economic development agency. While usually not specifically a government agency, these groups work closely with their governments to achieve a destination’s goals. There’s so much similarity in the form and functions of these agencies that the state of New Jersey once housed a convention bureau under its economic development department and called it the business tourism department.
(The two surprisingly have different histories. The first CVB was organized at the turn of the 20th century in the north for the city of Detroit, whereas the first economic development agency was formally organized sometime before the great depression of the 1930s to bring businesses to struggling southern states.)
Despite different histories, convention planners can learn a lot from the much better funded site selection processes companies use to locate their new facilities.
Amazon has whittled its list down from over 225 cities to a manageable top twenty in its quest to find a new second headquarters. If you want to improve your convention site selection process, here’s a few suggestions gleaned from Amazon’s search process.
- Use data.
o In its RFP, Amazon lays out the history of what its headquarters did for the city of Seattle in numbers, even showing annual hotel nights consumed by “visiting Amazonians and guests.” From there, it gives the data it needs for its building sites and then asks cities to respond to eight “KEY PREFERENCES AND DECISION DRIVERS.” Convention planners would do well to have a similar insistence on objective criteria used to determine the best location for their event and take corrective action if it’s missing. (See the six factors we used in determining our convention city rankings for 2018.) In Amazon’s case, you can bet that winning bids used a lot of available data to support their answers, so much so that professional site selectors have taken to betting on who the winner will be. It’s almost possible to predict, except that Amazon has not revealed the weight it’s giving to each factor for its second headquarters, so when crunching the numbers, we just don’t know. Does Pittsburgh’s access to tech talent from its major universities make up for its lack of direct flights to some major cities – one of the factors that kept Pittsburgh from entering our top 25 convention cities list?
- Base your site selection decision on the city’s MSA, not the city itself
o Another interesting twist in Amazon’s RFP is that it’s asking responding destinations to use numbers for its MSA. When convention planners do the same, a destination like Providence, RI looks a lot more attractive for larger groups as the downtown may not be able to handle thousands of room nights, but that changes when you consider its MSA. This is one of the six factors that put Providence in our “best 25” list for 2018 for mid-sized conventions.
- Strut your stuff
o While most site selection is conducted in secrecy, Amazon has been very public about the process from its initial press releases to its micro website where bidders could find its RFP. The internet is great for generating not just media coverage but enthusiasm from all stakeholders. Convention planners could build similar enthusiasm not just among their host cities bidding on the event, but potential attendees who are following along.
- Go back to school.
o Cities with strong university and tech talent dominate Amazon’s list. Like our list of the 12 top cities for innovation, Amazon included Austin, Boston, Denver and Raleigh, NC.
- Call in the pros
o While Amazon is using its own in-house staff of data scientists and site selection professionals, most organizations, especially nonprofit associations, do not have that luxury. Fortunately, there is a growing industry of consultants in the meetings industry. Traditional site selection companies like HelmsBrisoce have a bevy of consultants with experience and know-how and a newer firm called Groups360 combines their consultants’ experience with their own software that helps planners use data to make the best location decision. Convention and visitors bureaus of the major US cities have staff who are always trying to uncover more business for their destination and and many have years of expertise at qualifying groups to determine whether their destination is a fit or not. “Everyone’s trying to find a quick solution but it comes down to qualifying the business,” said Carla Bascope-Hebble a Destination Sales Manager with Visit Alexandria. “Qualifying and probing is the key to understanding the needs of our clients.”
- Reward innovation
o Let the cities come up with something themselves. Amazon states in its RFP that this is “…an opportunity to present any additional items and intangible considerations with respect to your state/province and community that Amazon should include in its analysis.”
Every year in the convention industry, there are dozens if not hundreds and thousands, of Amazon type contests. Convention planners would do well to see what they can learn from this.