Over the last few years, the meetings industry has endured its fair share of migraines, from the economic collapse and slashed tourism funding to public misperceptions and GSA's meeting debacles. The media and others have relentlessly harped on what's gone wrong.
But behind the shadows, a different story has taken shape. And this one is—get this—positive.
When we asked Kitty M. Ratcliffe, president and CEO of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, about 2012, she said, "By far, this has been the best year for St. Louis for conventions in a decade."
Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis, had this to say: "After two years of strong recovery in hotel occupancy, we are seeing strong growth in rates."
Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, says 2013 is already shaping up to be "a solid year with steady growth in all markets, including business, leisure and group travel."
And Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, noted the city "has been battling with San Francisco over the last two years in having the top growth in the country. Both markets are exceptional in setting records with visitation and meetings."
Record-breaking numbers? Strong growth rates? The best time for conventions in a decade? Are we talking about the same industry here?
Further proof that positivity is in the air: Cities are not only experiencing healthy occupancy at current facilities, but developing massive new ones. In the next few years, Nashville will debut the 1.2 million-square-foot Music City Center; Miami will unveil a new art museum, science center and modernized convention center; San Antonio will pump $325 million into updating the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center; and Cleveland will open its new medical mart. All these cities have successfully convinced their communities to invest in the tourism and meetings market, an accomplishment that reveals tremendous strength during difficult times.
Fueling much of this growth is a burgeoning international presence. In June alone, international travelers spent $13.8 billion in the U.S., a year-to-date change of 11% over 2011, and visitation from abroad is projected to grow 50% over the next 10 years.
Not surprisingly, many cities are working hard to ensure their slice of the global pie, including Las Vegas, which is aiming to increase international visitation from 16%-30% over the next decade; Houston, which joined the BestCities Global Alliance this year; and Puerto Rico, which recently installed its first sales representative in Europe. In marketing both overseas and domestically, CVBs are thinking with more boldness and vision than ever before. Primarily, we saw three trends taking shape: strategic investments and programs to grow business; technological innovations; and partnerships and alliances with other DMOs, government officials and industry organizations. All three approaches have led to tremendous success.
When Chicago recently combined its Convention & Tourism Bureau with the Office of Tourism and Culture to become Choose Chicago, for instance, it saved $2 million in administrative costs, funds now being reinvested into marketing campaigns. Outsidethe- box tech initiatives range from Pinterest pages (Columbus, Ohio, Los Angeles and Los Cabos in Mexico) to digital way-finding systems (San Jose, Calif., and Cleveland) to 3D modeling and videos (Austin, Texas and Baltimore). And two powerful three-city partnerships—between Portland, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, and Atlanta, New Orleans and Nashville — have led to more robust numbers in all six destinations.
To be sure, the industry hasn't weathered the last of the storms. Yet through thick and thin, positivity endures. And that optimism —though rightfully cautious—is exactly what Smart Meetings found when interviewing dozens of CVB CEOs who eloquently put their organizations' accomplishments and goals in perspective.