Hotel Online  Special Report

The Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau: 
Grassroots Marketing Marks New Direction
By Sandi Cain, Orange County Business Journal Staff
August 2006

The Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau has a mission: to be the cheerleader that encourages people to visit Orange County for business or pleasure. They’re a meeting and convention planner’s right arm. and these days that arm needs to be as creative as possible to convince potential attendees to come to an event. “If (planners) don’t have good attendance and warm and fuzzy feelings about the destination, they won’t come back,” said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. 

With more than half of Anaheim’s convention business wrapped up with associations that choose destinations years in advance, it’s increasingly important that the bureau helps planners generate good attendance. Plus, 88% of meeting planners say choosing the right location is the most important element of their work.

In response, Anaheim has started marketing directly to potential convention delegates, touting the benefits of coming to Anaheim. Called “delegate attendance building,” the program includes a series of leisure-oriented ads that the bureau places in an association’s own trade journal to entice would-be attendees to register.

“It’s been our best ad spend,” Ahlers said. “The ads are leisure messages telling (readers) how much they’ll enjoy Orange County,” he said.

In addition, staff with the visitor and convention bureau work with associations to create a customized Web presence that focuses on providing the information most important to potential convention attendees. 

“It’s grassroots marketing,” said Elaine Cali, vice president of communications for the Anaheim convention bureau. “Some may want to include restaurant information or information on what to do before or after the convention.”

One of the first groups to use the program was the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. “It’s been effective,” said Randy Bauler, corporate relations and exhibits director for the association. “Our attendance was up 15% over the last time we were in Anaheim,” he said. The convention brought about 11,500 people to town.

The Anaheim bureau is encouraged enough by the program that it no longer is separating its convention marketing dollars from tourism marketing dollars.“We put all our ad money into the marketing budget and then decide how we want to use it,” Ahlers said. In essence, that means the bureau is treating everyone like a leisure visitor. 

That may raise some eyebrows among traditional bureaus, but there’s logic in the move. More than half of all meeting planners include golf, team-building activities, spouse programs, theme parks, spas, historic buildings and restaurants with group facilities during their events, according to the 2006 Meetings Market Trends Survey by Meetings Media. And more conventioneers today add vacation time to the business trip or bring their families along.

One-third of business travelers think about taking their kids on a trip, while 61% say they’re willing to take their kids out of school for a vacation, according to the Business Travel Monitor by Orlando marketing firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell. 

So why not consider them leisure travelers?

The jury is still out on long-term results from Anaheim’s new direction.

Keeping a particular eye on the fallout are some destination marketing companies, which typically work hand in hand with convention and visitor bureaus. A bureau books convention business, while destination marketing companies help arrange tours, gala events and other details for conventions. “Destination marketing companies can’t land the business, but they can work with the (bureau) committee to make it happen,” said Madelyn Marusa of PRA Destination Management Inc., which has offices across the U.S., including in OC.

Delegate marketing programs could impact the efforts of companies like hers, said Barbara Sloate, president of Whirlaround Destination Management in Costa Mesa, a division of Corporate Diversions in Newport Beach.  “As long as meeting planners aren’t doing away with tours and other programs from (destination marketing companies), delegate marketing would be beneficial,” she said. 

Sloate, a member of several OC visitor bureaus, said the danger is that planners may tell attendees to make their own tour arrangements, based on what they learn on the customized Web sites. But Sloate said there also could be a side benefit to the program: “If they increase attendance, that means more money for the association that they might spend on a bigger banquet or party,” she said.

Ahlers said the return on investment is one big reason why delegate marketing makes sense.  “(Groups) make a big percentage of their budget on the trade show element of the meeting and they can’t afford to lose that,” he said.  Improved attendance generates more trade show traffic and improves that return on investment, Ahlers said.

The Anaheim bureau also is charged with helping promote the entire county. Delegate marketing may not bear instant rewards in that respect.

“What Anaheim does for conventions primarily helps Anaheim,” said Doug Traub, president and chief executive of the Huntington Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau. Traub said the Anaheim bureau also helps cities like Huntington Beach in generating day-tripper regional traffic. But he said meetings attendees might come back on a leisure trip if they first bring their families along to conventions.

Been There, Done That

A challenge for destination cities is that they must constantly reinvent themselves in the face of stiff competition for group business. Some 76% of travelers want their next trip to be to somewhere they haven’t been before, according to Yesawich, Pepperdine. “There’s a been-there-done-that mentality,” said partner Peter Yesawich at a spring tourism conference in Anaheim.

California ranks No. 1 on that traveler wish-list.

The Anaheim Resort District is 5 years old, but the city is fortunate that there’s more development to maintain interest. The Platinum Triangle, the long-awaited GardenWalk that is under construction and more hotels add to the attraction.

“A year from now you’ll be able to eat at six restaurants at GardenWalk,” said Mayor Curt Pringle at a recent destination outlook breakfast.

In addition, the new NBA developmental league basketball team—the Anaheim Arsenal—that will play at the Anaheim Arena will add to the city’s reputation as a sports center. The USA Volleyball Team also relocated to Anaheim this year from Colorado Springs. 

Unique Opportunities 

Anaheim has an opportunity to showcase both the city and county through some unique events that are scheduled through mid-2007.

The city will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. There are plans for a float in the Rose Parade and an Anaheim Walk of Fame. Monthly activities are planned that may draw interest from visitors. The headquarters for the celebration, dubbed “Anaheim 150,” is next door to the Anaheim White House restaurant. It opened earlier this month.

“We learned something from Disney,” said Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle. “We designed our anniversary to run 1.5 years.”

Anaheim will be the flag bearer for all of Orange County when it hosts International PowWow in April.  The convention is the largest gathering of travel trade buyers and media staged by Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association. About 5,000 attendees from 70 countries are expected to attend, including 1,250 representatives of groups who buy travel for tour operators.

The Travel Industry Association recently announced a “Discover America” partnership to launch next month. The program’s goal is to meet with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to underscore the importance of selling America to international visitors in the face of the falling market share from those visitors.

“Anaheim will be at the forefront of Discover America Partnership in 2007,” said Roger Dow, the association’s chief executive. “This is a benchmark PowWow.”

Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.

Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA

Also See: Disneyland Helped Cultivate Anaheim Convention Activity; Supported First Visitor and Convention Bureau in 1961 / Sandi Cain / August 2005
Anaheim Considers Business Improvement District to Fund Convention Center Growth / Sandi Cain / January 2005

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