|By Suzanne Marta, The Dallas Morning News|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 26, 2004 - When Phillip Jones was asked how convention bookings were going this year, his report was less than glowing.
"They suck," the chief of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau told a recent gathering of hotel industry officials.
Convention bookings are on pace to be about 10 percent better than last year.
But with three months left in the fiscal year, the bureau has reached only 35 percent of its goal for hotel bookings related to conventions.
For the last three fiscal years, the bureau hasn't met its sales goals, which are set by the city's marketing arm.
Mr. Jones wants to know what's wrong.
He has reassessed staff members, shifted positions, ordered more cold calls to potential clients and targeted niche markets and untapped locales.
He's also turned the bureau into a glass house of sorts, inviting major hotel operators to evaluate its sales process.
"Things have to be done differently, and we need efforts from all the players to come up with the most efficient and best model out there," said Steve Vissotzky, general manager of the 1,122-room Hyatt Regency Dallas.
The top-to-bottom inspection is the bureau's first in more than 16 years.
And it couldn't come at a more critical point.
Trade show attendance nationally fell as much as 10 percent in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Dallas' ability to attract major conventions was also hurt by a lengthy construction project to expand the convention center.
And more customers are heading to entertainment-friendly places such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.
An oversupply of convention centers, coupled with an economy that's recovering in fits and starts, has meant that organizations can afford to put off decisions.
A group that may have signed deals for a convention 10 years away is now limiting its focus to five years, Mr. Jones said.
"You have to work twice as hard for the bookings you get because everyone is trying to book them," he said.
Bureau officials say the city has the right assets but needs a new way of doing business.
Last month, the bureau launched a marketing campaign that focuses on the city's new arts and entertainment offerings with the slogan, "Dallas. Live Large. Think Big."
But the marketing effort needs a revitalized convention sales program, said Tom Garcia, managing director for the Adolphus, a 429-room boutique hotel downtown.
The sales effort "isn't getting the results anyone wants," he said.
Opening the books for such an in-depth review of business is rare among large cities.
Hoteliers hailed it as a bold but necessary move.
"We've never had much access to this information before, so it's hard to stand on the sidelines and speculate what's going wrong," said Tom Faust, vice president of sales and marketing for the 1,620-room Wyndham Anatole.
Industry members are still analyzing bureau processes, but some changes have already been put into place.
Mr. Jones has been reviewing recent years.
"We want to make sure our figures are accurate, consistent and defendable," he said. "In the past, some numbers were seriously inflated."
The bureau also brought in corporate trainers to assess staff members' skills and practices.
Early analysis revealed sales members have spent too much time on getting initial interest from groups, but not closing deals.
"Tentative bookings are nice," Mr. Jones said, "but they're not how you pay the bills."
And the staff wasn't uncovering enough new business.
A new policy requires each sales member to make 25 cold calls to potential clients each week.
Some sales positions have been dedicated to going after previously overlooked niche markets, such as ethnic and gay-and-lesbian affinity groups.
The bureau has shifted a sales position to New York to handle accounts there. It already has similar postings in Washington and Chicago.
And some sales members will dig deeper to find customers in major West Coast markets, which were seldom tapped before.
"There are meetings out there looking for new places to rotate to and we need to get those before Phoenix and Denver do," Mr. Jones said.
Both of those cities have launched expansion projects that will compete with Dallas in the next decade.
The bureau also plans to outsource services it can't perform efficiently, such as convention housing booking.
It's also looking for new revenue from corporate partnerships to bolster income for new tourism-driven events such as the Dallas CityArts Celebration held in May.
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