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Friday, Sep 22, 2023

Selling San Diego

Selling San Diego as a convention destination isn’t as simple as it seems.

Yes, the city’s known for sparkling weather, an airport close to Downtown, a waterfront convention center that will almost double in size when construction is completed, lots of hotels, and its destination feel.

Still, sales managers in the local tourism market say that turning the initial sales leads into signed intents to bring a convention to San Diego is far more complicated , and continues to evolve.

Making San Diego stand out from other popular convention cities , Chicago, Orlando and New York, to name a few , also requires relationship building, a data-base of information on the various groups and associations, and Internet-swift service.

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Across the country, conventions, expositions, meetings and incentive travel generates $80 billion in annual spending, according to the Professional Convention Management Association.

Locally, the conventions and incentive business generated an estimated $1.7 billion last year, according to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The city’s reputation is stellar, according to Jack Zimmer, executive director of Irving, Texas-based International Association of Assembly Managers, Inc., a professional organization for managers of convention centers and similar venues.

“When you talk about cities to go to, San Diego’s in the handful that are, ‘Yeah, it’s a no-brainer,'” Zimmer said.

“When you put together a great location, good housing, and the other fun amenities, such as weather and things of that nature, San Diego has a complete package,” he said.

One factor that impresses him is ConVis and the city-funded San Diego Convention Center’s merged sales teams, which took place in 1996.

For the local market, conventions can be larger in scale, requiring meetings or exhibit space in the Convention Center and multiple hotels for the attendants. Or they can be smaller property projects that would take place in a single hotel.

Each type requires its own brand of marketing.

For instance, those who sell citywide conventions focus on a “small universe” of organizations that hold the large-scale conventions, said Christine Shimasaki, vice president of citywide sales for the ConVis-Convention Center department.

Her executives make direct sales efforts, developing relationships with the decision-makers and compiling knowledge on organizations that could come to San Diego.

Where did the group last meet? Where are they meeting this year? How many hotel rooms do they need, and how many hotels would that require? How often do they rotate to the West Coast? When’s their next available year? They’re all questions on which the sales staff needs to be primed, she said.

Also: How much exhibit or meeting space do they need? Also important: Who chooses the future site?

They compile the information through data bases, and looking at other convention center’s schedules.

To develop in-person relationships, ConVis has offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., where many of the large organizations are headquartered. There are four sales managers in Washington, two in Chicago, and support staff in both.

The ConVis/Convention Center sales team also invites the meeting planners or decision makers to San Diego, or holds events for them in their hometown so they can better acquaint themselves with the organization.

To understand what they would need if they came to San Diego, the sales executives sometimes visit the organizations’ conventions in other cities, she said. They also join or develop contacts at almost every kind of association.

For the ConVis/Convention Center sales team that sells smaller meetings or conventions that will take place at one hotel, generating leads is the goal, said John Reyes, vice president for single property sales. Ten national sales managers either make direct sales calls or respond to group planners’ requests for more information, he said.

The sales leads, which are distributed to the 99 ConVis member hotels, say that a certain organization is interested in holding a meeting in San Diego, with additional specifications of when, rates, and what kind of meeting space and hotel room count they would need. The hotels respond directly to the client.

San Diego’s approach to selling itself as a convention destination is colored by its own tourism qualities , from climate to infrastructure such as hotel rooms and entertainment, but most important is San Diego’s attentive approach to its third-largest industry, Reyes said.

The city’s hospitality organizations have to project a “we get it” take on tourism and being professional and easy to work with, he said.

“It’s constantly sending that message out, and reinforcing that message to new customers and customers who have worked with us before,” Reyes explained.

The concept of “time poverty” also plays a role, he said. “Everybody’s doing more work and having more responsibility and are much more accountable. So, when you sell a product, a destination or hotel, you have to really let that customer know that you understand what their wants or needs are.”

For the sales teams and the hotels themselves, their business is evolving. There is the expansion of convention centers across the country, the influx of technology and more individually felt trends, such as an increase in quicker turnaround meeting bookings or a marketing department becoming more proactive rather than reactive.

For convention sales that involve the Convention Center, space is a major currency, Shimasaki said.

As most people are aware, San Diego’s among the cities who are expanding their centers. Currently, the country’s large convention centers are in Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta and Las Vegas, Zimmer said.

Coupled with the fact that conventions are typically sold years in advance, regular expanding meeting centers mean that the convention sales teams have to sell something that has yet to be built or even started, Shimasaki said. To do that, they are creating videos and different presentations, she said.

Also, if building is delayed as it was in San Diego, crisis communications techniques come into play, she said.

Technology is speeding up the sales process, Reyes said. “You have a shorter window to convince that customer that what they need to be here.”

Another effect of technology is that meeting planners and others who decide where future conventions will take place can take to the ‘Net to both solicit sites, he said.

Because of the ‘Net, meeting planners can have an image of the site before they actually see are standing there, said Harold Queisser, director of marketing for the San Diego Marriott & Marina.

However, planners still make an in-person visit to check out the city, Queisser said.

For sales staffs, it means that quick and thorough response is required, said Tohnia Miller, director of sales and marketing for L’Auberge Del Mar.

The 120-room resort takes smaller-end meetings that book from 10 to 110 hotel rooms, Miller said.

The hotels have national sales teams that develop clients and work with the city’s tourism organizations to bring conventions and meetings to San Diego.

The meetings that they bring directly to their hotels are scheduled between the citywide convention business they share with other hotels, said Queisser, whose hotel has 1,200 rooms.

Miller said that her hotel’s convention market is changing. The booking time tends to be two-six months in advance, she said, but recently, her short-term business , with a 14-day advance , has grown, she said.

Queisser echoed Miller’s comment, noting that small turnaround bookings are often for high-tech or biotech companies.

It can be a meeting in which executives talk about a company’s merger, an opportunity to react to volatility in the market, or a time to lay out plans, Miller said.

Also, she said, incentive meetings on her property have increased. Miller attributes it to the positive economy.

Miller also said that for her department, a major change has been developing a more proactive approach, rather than solely following leads generated by ConVis and the Convention Center.

Her target markets are San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles, with northern California as a secondary market.

As of late though, Miller’s sales executives have had to develop analyst skills, prospecting possible clients that are new or emerging companies.

Truly selling the San Diego experience is tough, because it’s intangible, Reyes said.

“I can’t take San Diego and physically put it into a box and go to your office and make a sales call and say, ‘Here’s San Diego,'” he said.

After the contracts are signed, and the group has arrived, then comes what is often the biggest sales opportunity of all, Reyes said.

When a group of any size comes to town, it’s an opportunity for the hotel and the city to create an experience that will bring the organization, company, or a meeting planner’s other clients back, he said.

“When you go to a meeting, when you go to a hotel or when you go to a destination, it really depends on that impression and that relations that you develop while you’re there and whether you leave with a positive feeling about that destination.”


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