Inside the DMO-Convention Center Relationship

When it comes to hosting in a new city, meeting planners are on a mission to execute a successful event with minimal stress

Inside the DMO-Convention Center Relationship

Fortunately, they can count on two resources to get them there: the city’s DMO/CVB, which acts as an expert on the entire city, and the local convention center, which specializes in marketing that venue.

It’s an ideal setup—if the relationship between the DMO and convention center is a healthy one.

At best, the two entities operate like a well-oiled machine, pooling their expertise into one neat and convenient client package and bringing an event to fruition seamlessly.

And the benefit is mutual; booking the planner’s business brings economic impact to the city and the convention center. Everybody wins. At worst, the DMO and convention center act as two competing forces, focusing on their own individual objectives rather than a common goal.

The result? A confused client who doesn’t understand the chain of responsibilities between the two groups, and who lacks confidence in the teams’ ability to engineer an effective and memorable event. The event may come together in the end, headaches and all, but the city shouldn’t count on that planner coming back again for the same disjointed treatment.

What’s the source of the great divide?

While DMOs and convention centers are effectively en route to the same goals—providing excellent customer service to clients and winning business for the city—their road maps differ.

The DMO is its city’s biggest cheerleader. The marketing teams are connoisseurs of everything that makes the city tick—from hotels and accommodations to suit every visitor to the best restaurants and can’t-miss attractions. They promote the destination as a whole, with the aim of bringing in more people and encouraging them to spend more money. The economic benefit then becomes an investment in the city, which, in turn, drives jobs and development.

On the other side, convention centers are charged with advertising the convention center itself. The sales teams know the facility inside and out and spend their days waxing poetic on the merits of the center’s location, size and compatibility, catering and technological services, and more. Ultimately, the team’s goal is to book business within its own walls and, as a result, aid the city in booking hotel room nights and capitalizing on the visitor spending that follows.

Although both teams have the city’s best interest in mind, their competing visions for what business is best—compiled with different funding models and budgets, varying concerns over profitability and stiff competition for recognition—can encourage each side to protect its own needs foremost. Given this, the relationship between a DMO and a convention center is certainly at risk of being contentious and ineffective. But it doesn’t have to be.

The two forces are most powerful when they call on each other’s strengths. With the convention center’s team available to promote their venue’s every perk, the DMO has an unbeatable asset to use as a selling point for clinching visitation to the city.

Meanwhile, the convention center can take advantage of the DMO’s wealth of city knowledge (lodging, attractions, walkability) to bolster its argument for why their city is the best choice when trying to close business at the center. When proposing and producing event business, if DMOs and convention centers can work to understand each other’s needs, establish clear roles and expectations, communicate openly and respectfully, and trust the process, they can meet in the middle and arrive at a sweet spot that yields two great results: a happy client and a healthy city.

Here, from the Southeast to the West Coast, we chat with three cities that have created powerful working relationships between the DMO/CVB and convention center. Grab a pen and take note of these best practices.

Communication Speaks Volumes

Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops

Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops is proud of the relationship his team has fostered with their counterparts at the Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium.

The setup here is unique, as the Visit Indy team is based inside the convention center. Hoops explains the constant interaction, whether planned or happenstance, this office structure affords creates a natural synergy between his team and the team at the helm of Barney Levengood, executive director of the capital improvement board for the convention center.

But the two don’t rely on physical run-ins to facilitate their interactions; they make it a point to plan them. In the past, Hoops says the two entities used to meet only when there was a problem to address. But for the past six years, Hoops, Levengood and their respective teams have met every other week like clockwork. To avoid “turf wars,” in Hoops’ words, they alternate offices and vary the topics of discussion.

What’s more, they’ve conditioned themselves to jot down notes between meetings so they capture everything they want to discuss at the next. Still, they communicate semi-daily via email or phone to proactively address issues or concerns rather than putting them off for discussion at a later meeting.

“You often don’t meet enough when things are going well; it’s more so when things are going bad,” says Hoops.

Because their meetings aren’t relegated to times of crisis, Hoops’ and Levengood’s teams are able to share their success stories and debrief on best practices. No one enters the meeting on the defensive, and everyone is allotted proper time to discuss his or her own needs and concerns.

“We go out of our way to complement one another, not just fix problems,” Hoops says. “If you’re not fortunate enough to have the same setup as us, figure out how to get your goals better aligned.”

Levengood echoes communication as an essential ingredient to a healthy relationship between a city’s DMO and convention center, adding, “It takes honesty, patience and a spirit of cooperation.”

Collaboration Bridges Gaps

Eric Blanc, director of sales, marketing and convention services at Tampa Convention Center in Florida, can’t stress enough how important it is to present a united front between the convention center and DMO when attracting business to a city.

That means, for his team and those on the other side at Visit Tampa Bay, collaboration is everything; picturesque beaches and palm trees can only do so much.

“The relationship should be a partnership, not one where one person is subservient to the other in either direction,” says Blanc.

So, what’s the formula for that partnership? Although Visit Tampa Bay and the convention center are separate organizations, they work together under a contractual relationship. Blanc’s team is responsible for marketing and soliciting immediate business up to 18 months out, while Visit Tampa Bay handles business 18 months out and beyond.

Each team is then responsible for assisting the other with the sales process in any way they can. For the conventions team, that means being an expert on the building, and for the DMO team, that means being an expert on the city’s collective offerings. The detailed service and professional recommendations the teams are able to offer the client close the deal.

“It’s like a team sport,” says Blanc of this model’s efficiency. “We’re all either going to be successful or not together.

At the end of the day, no one will care whose fault it is if we lose a piece of business; all that matters is that we lost it.”

Alex Kaptzan, vice president of sales and services at Visit Tampa Bay, agrees. “Both of our teams are trying to accomplish the same goal, but sometimes we’re tasked with getting there via a divergent path,” he says. “We challenge each other in somewhat of a ‘checks-and-balances’ situation that maximizes opportunities, economic impact and, most importantly, delivers a compelling package to our mutual customers.”

Customer Service Shines

San Francisco Travel is committed to booking business for the local Moscone Center. That means Lysa Lewin, senior vice president of convention sales for the DMO, works closely with the Moscone Center’s sales team.

While San Francisco Travel is charged with the larger mission of promoting the city as a compelling destination, the team has aligned its goals with those of Moscone Center. Working to net great business at Moscone Center is an integral part of the DMO’s larger promotional effort.

With common ground connecting them, Lewin’s team and the sales team under Moscone Center Vice President and General Manager Bob Sauter seem to have built a foundation for success. But they also recognize one essential element in winning and executing business: providing impeccable customer service. It’s especially important considering that 70 percent of their business is repeat business, according to Lewin.

A deft communication strategy, which involves keeping one another apprised of every client interaction, being available to aid one another in sales efforts, and ensuring that each side has the support they need, keeps the teams focused.

“We’re both singing to the same sheet of music,” says Lewin. “As long as we are all set on staying on top of service levels and understanding the importance of the customer, there’s no issue that we can’t overcome.”

The teams have also aligned on technology in an effort to simplify the customer experience. The San Francisco Travel team is currently working to adopt the same software used by the Moscone Center team.

While Lewin recognizes there will be a learning curve and challenges associated with the new software, her team is committed to providing a united front for clients.

“We’ve got it down to a pretty lovely science,” she says. When asked about what keeps the two teams chugging along seamlessly, Sauter jokes that they have an incestuous relationship. “For us, it's simple,” he says. “It's about partnering toward a common goal … from inquiry to rebooking, regardless of the issue, we work together seamlessly as a city toward exceeding customers' expectations.”

Strong relationships between DMOs/CVBs and convention centers are the backbone of cities that successfully earn meetings business.

When both teams are valued for their expertise and entrusted with it, and when needs from both sides are understood and factored into the business strategy, everyone wins. Clients are encouraged to choose the city time and time again, and visitor dollars become an engine for its economic development.

With goals that are similar but often plot different paths, it’s easy for DMOs and convention centers to find themselves at odds. But thanks to best practices shared by cities who have overcome the typical pitfalls and found mutual ground, it’s clear that meeting eye to eye isn’t just possible; it’s simpler than it seems.

Indianapolis, Tampa and San Francisco have illuminated three common tools that healthy teams leverage for success: communication, collaboration and a focus on customer service.