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Ask the Experts at Convention and Visitors Bureaus

By Cheryl Reid-Simons

We all have our areas of expertise—a specialty for which colleagues and peers look to you for guidance. For some it may be nonprofi t fundraisers, for others 5K runs or incentive planning. And you probably have that one vendor on speed dial who can answer your questions about lighting, logistics or technology. Well, for the city in which you’re planning your convention, retreat or trade show, the experts you should fi rst add to your contacts list are the representatives of the local convention and visitors bureau (CVB). The organization’s superpower is its in-depth knowledge of its own communities. The staff can help with everything from marketing your event and venue selection to helping attendees locate a quick cup of coff ee. And, unlike other experts you may turn to, their invaluable advice and assistance won’t cost you a dime. 

“We are able to cut through a lot of the clutter and ultimately save event planners a lot of time and money,” says Kauilani Robinson, public relations manager for Visit Seattle. That’s why developing a good relationship with CVBs should be a top priority for any planner. “We’re here to do almost anything to make a planner’s experience a positive one,” explains Amy Cabe, director of convention and visitor services for Visit Spokane


Before you sign on the dotted line—for a venue or vendors—reach out to the CVB first. Even if you have a date and venue in mind, the local CVB might just know something that will save you time, money and headaches.

“We’re always great at knowing new venues in the city or the seasonality of a venue,” says Michael Drake, director of sales, meetings and conventions for Canada and international markets for Tourism Vancouver. By seasonality, Drake is referring to other events that will be happening near your venue during the same time as your program. This can help you avoid the unhappy, and very real, fate of the event planner, recalls Drake, who happened to book a hotel right by the starting line of a 40,0000-person marathon. 

CVBs can also let you know if your planned dates coincide with a citywide convention that you may want to avoid, or conversely, with a music festival that you’d like to use to promote your own meeting.


When you reach out to the CVB, be sure to provide as much information about your group and its goals and interests as possible. With that insight, they can help roll out the red carpet and make sure the city’s hospitality community is prepared.

“We’re always trying to keep our finger on the pulse and advise the community,” says Cabe. It’s especially important in smaller and medium-size cities, where nightlife might not typically stretch into the next morning. In Spokane, for example, the CVB can recommend that restaurants schedule extra staff or stay open later than usual if an event is in town that will have evening sessions and attendees looking for a late-night nosh. Conversely, Cabe says, “We’ve also had some groups in town of a good size, but they don’t leave the venue for their meals. I want our merchants to know that, too, so they aren’t expecting these big crowds. It kind of goes both ways.”


Today’s CVBs can also help market your event with much more than a colorful brochure or static website. After all, marketing its cities to visitors is its whole purpose, so hyping your event to potential attendees is a natural fit.

That hype can range from high-tech to high camp. Visit Seattle offers microsites with specially selected content aimed at your attendees. “It showcases what they want to do in Seattle, whether it’s voluntourism or day trips to wineries or breweries; basically, ‘here’s all the amazing things you can do in Seattle and why you should think about making time for this event,’ ” says Robinson. “Ideally, we develop this microsite with the planner, so it’s ready when registration opens up or even before.” CVBs will also use social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, to get attendees excited and answer questions they may have.

On the other end of the spectrum, Terry Kopp, director of sales for the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau, once donned a full-size potato costume at a Wally Byam Airstream Club convention to entice guests to come to the following year’s event in Boise. The takeaway is that, within the bounds of reason and the law, there’s not much a CVB won’t do to help your potential attendees get excited for your event. 


Beyond marketing, Vancouver’s CVB will even help with the logistic details of getting your guests to town. With roughly two-thirds of its convention guests coming from the U.S. or overseas, the bureau makes it its business to help delegates get in and out of the country as easy as possible. “These days, with all the different challenges with visas and passports and security, we can really help navigate [the travel logistics],” Drake says. “We know who needs what and can make that whole process easier.”

Sometimes they can even help with something as seemingly simple as the logistics of grabbing a quick bite to eat. When a large group at the Boise Centre scheduled a lunch break with guests left to their own devices, the CVB stationed hosts outside the venue with walking maps and information about various restaurants. Not only did it help delegates navigate the city, but it also helped disperse the group throughout the neighborhood, so wait times at restaurants were better managed.


Once an event is underway, CVBs are experts at highlighting its city’s unique offerings. The chance to explore, or at least sample, another city is a big draw for most guests.

“We’re there to help meeting attendees engage with the things Portland is known for,” says Marcus Hibdon, director of communication and public relations for Travel Portland.

Travel Portland has helped facilitate a private cooking class and dining experience with celebrity chef Gregory Gourdet and even an Edison lamp–making class with a local lamp maker and designer at ADX, a 24,000-squarefoot facility that includes classrooms, maker spaces and a custom fabrication shop.  “We can help curate an authentic Portland experience,” Hibdon says.

Spokane’s Cabe helped map out a “gimmick rally” for a convention of Porsche owners last summer. The route took drivers through rolling wheat fields into mining towns, to a biker bar and even an old bordello, each stop giving guests a feel for a different part of Spokane’s culture and history. “They just had a ball,” she says.

Even if you are holding an event in a relatively small town with limited venues, a CVB can help find places you didn’t know existed and activities you never imagined. Casey Knopik, PR/marketing specialist with Oregon’s Mount Hood Territory, has helped planners get in touch with landowners to host everything from concerts to obstacle course– style footraces. He can even set your guests up for alpaca yoga. What is alpaca yoga, you ask? “It’s a farm that does seasonal yoga, and you’re out there in the field with the alpacas,” he explains. Of course.

As Tourism Vancouver’s Drake says, “Not all CVBs are equal.” Like the cities they represent, each has its own programs and capabilities. But whether you’re planning a four-day professional convention in Seattle, a science fiction gathering in Spokane or a mud run in Mount Hood, the local CVB should be one of your first contacts.

“We are an interesting group all across the country and the world,” Boise’s Kopp says. “We don’t own any product, but we represent everything a city is about. We don’t have a hotel room or own an attraction, but we know our cities really well, and we can save you so much time and heartache by pointing you in the right direction or giving you contacts to call for whatever you need.”

Cabe says most CVB professionals love requests from planners looking for something new to do while in town. “Our jobs give us carte blanche to go be explorers in our community,” she says. A great CVB is like a top-notch city concierge who can tell you exactly where you need to go for anything you need. “It’s paramount that we know where the good chocolate is,” adds Cabe.