The state of the meetings and events industry and where it’s at in terms of recovery evokes a similar response as the age-old question kids repeatedly ask of their weary parents at too many points along the road-trip journey: Are we there yet?

No. Sadly, we’re not there yet. 

According to Simpleview’s Insights Hub, as of July 5, 2021, there are 341,000 fewer room nights on the books compared to the same time in 2020 and 16.5 million fewer room nights booked compared to 2019; these numbers are aggregated data from the Simpleview CRM for more than 200 destination management organizations (DMOs) in the U.S. Those in the industry agree that recovery will be an ongoing, multi-year effort. 

Terri Roberts“As planners begin to return to doing in-person site inspections, the environment is going to be extremely competitive,” said Terri Roberts, program manager at 2Synergize, a Simpleview consulting company. “When you have someone face-to-face, that’s the time to make a distinction between yourself and other destinations under consideration.”

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Roberts said DMOs would be wise to emulate some of the most respected industry leaders as they navigate the current meetings and events terrain.

Margie SittonBecause Margie Sitton is one such leader, we asked her a few questions and to provide some tips for other DMOs and share how the sales team at the San Diego Tourism Authority is navigating the situation. Sitton is senior vice president of sales and services at the San Diego Tourism Authority and is approaching 50 years in the travel industry.

What are some of today’s (or tomorrow’s) realities that you wish weren’t realities?

Covid is not going away quickly. Staffing is a huge problem as furloughed or laid-off staff find other jobs and don’t want to return to this industry. Hotels are open 24/7, and many associates have made life adjustments to have a better work/life balance. Hotels, restaurants and amenities are open but not entirely, so the full experience of San Diego is not possible.

Many of our sales teams are working with a limited team and are either 1) rusty or 2) new to the industry or to San Diego. After more than six years of training, we must start again to bring our hospitality community back to same high level of expertise on how to do the best sites and sell the San Diego brand.

What do North American meeting and conference planners want from their hotel and convention center partners right now?

They want flexibility with cancellations, health and safety protocols to be in place, and they want discounts. They especially want flexibility! At least for meetings through 2022. The planners need to understand that contracts require a risk on both parties’ part. Negotiation is not a confrontation, it’s a conversation. Both sides need to think differently and come to terms that support both sides. Little adjustments can make a big difference.  Everyone should bring new ideas to the negotiating table such as rather than having block reviews at the standard 30-60-90-day time frame, maybe they should be adjusted to 21, 45, etc. What works for both parties.

How has the San Diego Tourism Authority shifted its messaging or approach in recent months?

Our biggest message is that we are finally open for meetings in California! And with all of our great outdoor venues, attractions, gardens, parks, and beaches, we are a safe gathering destination. Many of our hotels  (in fact – most!) have wonderful outdoor spaces on property … perfectly safe. We also mention that we have the highest vaccination rate in all of California!  Meeting in San Diego is SAFE! And the entire destination continues to exceed safety guidelines.

Sitton’s 6 Tips to Ensure Your Site Inspection Process is in Tip-top Shape

Sitton said the destinations that will do well in the meetings recovery are those that address the new customer concerns, work together to accept new technologies, are both flexible and nimble, and embrace change. Here are six pieces of advice:

1. Change the thought process. DMOs need to own the site inspection experience from beginning to end.

I think many DMO’s don’t realize that they can “own” the site inspection process and can collaborate (and even direct, if necessary) how their hotel partners conduct a site visit. We make sure the customer sees what they want to see and don’t see what isn’t important to them. Many hotel sales managers have perfected their “routine” site and almost take the customer around by rote. We blow that up and make sure that we together customize the site for the customer to ensure it is the best use  of their time and that we address their meeting needs. Our goal is to ensure the planner has just the right hotel selected before they leave San Diego.

2. Set a high standard for hotels and venues, and give them tools to help them meet it. Also, develop ways to recognize those who have.

We have addressed this as a mutual goal that  both we and our hotel  partners have. And, we have developed a training program to give the hotels more thoughtful ways to organize their sites. We initially talked about the “10 stupid things we do to mess up a site inspection” and then evolved that to refer to our customer encounter as a site “experience” and then created a list of “10 things we can do to make the site experience more meaningful and successful.” Small little things that make a big difference. How to make introductions of other team members, meeting the customer as the porte catcher, making sure the valet knows they are arriving and addresses them by name (we arrive in SDTA cars to give them a clue!) and don’t ask if they are “checking in!!” We want the sales manager to take in a quiet place in the lobby to review how the site will play out and what they will see. Not to mention asking if any of their requirements have been updated. Most importantly – be prepared!

To celebrate the teamwork we do acknowledge a salesperson and sales team “each” of the quarter and the year. These awards are highlighted in our monthly newsletters and on our website. And if we don’t feel anyone has met the criteria, we don’t give out a recognition so as not to diminish their value.

3. Know the customer and tailor the visit to their needs.

Our team does a great job of understanding the planners’ needs, and we relay that information to the hotels. The site manager is the client’s main point of contact the entire time they are in San  Diego. When we conduct a site, our site manager meets the planner from the time they arrive until they leave us. It’s amazing how much more the customer will share in the car over the course of a few days. More “inside” information of how the decision will be made and often more personal information that can make a difference.  When appropriate, this added info is sent ahead to the hotels so that they can make their own time with the customer more meaningful. It’s amazing what additional insight into the program the customer will share with the site team!

4. Hotels within a destination need to present a united, cohesive, collaborative environment. 

San Diego Meeting Certified sealWe believe this is critical for a destination. Through the San Diego Meeting Certified program, we address understanding the San Diego brand and how to speak about it in one voice and one vision. The goal is to have a united message of what San Diego offers to both the attendees and the planners. We challenge the salespeople to not only know their hotel but their entire region and the entire destination. Especially in terms of the inspiration San Diego can provide to an attendee through our “beach city” vibe. 

More importantly, we do not tolerate negative comments about competing hotels or sales people. We encourage the salespeople to speak positively about each other and our destination. We have nothing to apologize for, especially that random cloud in the sky. We even challenge them not to talk about our weather, which is generally  good. Talk about something more meaningful, please!

This does not go unnoticed. Many planners comment about our collaborative spirit, which adds to their confidence of what our destination can provide to their success!

5. Serve as the bridge between planners and hotels.

We are the bridge. We navigate the best possible experience the planner can have when visiting our destination. We have high expectations of ourselves and our hotels — both the sales managers and the general managers. We suggest (strongly) that the GMs are given a specific to discuss with the customer when they meet with them.  Don’t peacock and tell them what a success the hotel has become since they arrived. Talk about something that is a concern of the planner and address their needs. Our team is able to guide the conversation and experience to help strengthen that relationship with our customer and hotel partners.

6. Virtual site visits are complicated, take a lot of time, and are becoming absolutely necessary. 

We knew that we needed to not only do successful virtual sites, but to take those certain elements that makes San  Diego sites so special and translate them to virtual. Through much preparation and collaboration, we conducted virtual sites visits along with our hotel partners that were either live or prerecorded and edited, specifically tailored to the client’s needs. We want our hotels to conduct successful sites whether we are with them or not  To support them when they are on their own, we put together four “Tips and Tricks” video tutorials for virtual sites for our hotels.  Although we are back to in-person sites, we have a library of “how tos” if we even need to go back to virtual.

As the meetings and events recovery takes shape, as it ebbs and flows through COVID-19’s waves and variants, one thing is certain — tenacity, optimism, and a focused site inspection process are crucial elements for successful destinations.

​​"I was speaking to a planner this week about the site inspection process and they articulated so clearly where the rubber meets the road,” said Roberts. “They said,  'When I'm in a destination for a site, it's because I know it works on paper. Now I'm there, it's up to you to make it come alive!' Clearly, the site inspection is the defining moment in the decision-making process. We advise all our DMO clients to lead the way in the destination site experience."