Editor’s note: 11/12/2018 – It’s official! Amazon selected New York and the DC suburb of Arlington, VA from its initial list of 225 cities for their “HQ2.” Some say they had no choice all along as in the end, it was only the large metros that have the sheer number of tech-employable millennials the company needs. I still think there is much to learn from Amazon’s process!

Jeff Bezos was said to be very involved alongside his team of site selectors in the search for the right destination for Amazon’s second headquarters which he dubbed HQ2. Image credit: Marina Linchevska / Shutterstock.com

If you want to improve your convention site selection process, here’s a few suggestions gleaned from Amazon’s search process.

  1. Use data.
    o In its RFP, Amazon laid 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 gave the data it needed for its building sites and then asked 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 selector took to using probabilities to bet on who the winner would be. Amazon never revealed the weight it would give to each factor for its second headquarters, so all along, no one knew and for much of the year, it seemed like a horse race. Would 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?
  2. Base your site selection decision on the city’s MSA, not the city itself
    o Another interesting twist in Amazon’s RFP was that it asked 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.
  3. Strut your stuff
    o While most site selection is conducted in secrecy, Amazon was 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.
  4. Go back to school.
    Cities with strong university and tech talent dominated Amazon’s list. Like our list of the top 21 cities for innovation, Amazon included Austin, Boston, Denver and Raleigh, NC.
  5. Call in the pros
    o While Amazon used 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 have a bevy of consultants with experience and know-how and convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) of the major US cities are upping their game.

    “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, an inside the DC beltway suburb. “Qualifying and probing is the key to understanding the needs of our client.”
    Just like Amazon called on the economic development agency in every city and county on its list, planners can use CVBs. 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.

  6. Reward innovation

    o Let the cities come up with something themselves. Amazon stated 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.”

Amazon succeeds at so many things, from books to retail to cloud computing to groceries. Why not see what can be gleaned from their city site selection process? Photo credit: SeaRick1 / Shutterstock.com