By Herb Sparrow
When the Rapid City, S.D., Convention and Visitors Bureau wanted to expand its presence in the student group travel market, it did something different to find that market’s decision-makers.
“We had been working with operators, but that was not working,” said Michelle Thomson, tourism sales director for the CVB. “You need to get to teachers and students.”
So, the CVB partnered with the Crazy Horse Memorial and got a booth at the annual National School Boards Association convention.
“That was completely different for us,” said Thomson. “We received more and better leads from groups interested in coming to the area. We are going to look at some regional shows.”
The Louisville, Ky., Convention and Visitors Bureau also is seeking more student groups, especially bands.
“We have seen a growth in the student market, and we have made it a point to go after those groups,” said Dineen Bradley, vice president of tourism development for the CVB. “We are going to some unconventional shows like Midwest band clinics. We are going straight to the end customers. It’s not so much operators but the band leaders who come up with the ideas for places to go for these groups.”
Beyond traditional way
Convention and visitors bureaus are always on the lookout for groups, and with the changing face of group travel, many are looking beyond the traditional methods of finding them.
“We are working on identifying niche groups with specialty interests,” said Sonya Nash, travel trade marketing manager for the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau in northern Indiana’s Amish country. “When I talk to a tour operator or group leader, I am identifying who they are targeting.”
Nash said that a tour the CVB started a few years ago of area flower gardens that have been planted in quilt patterns led to the discovery that there is a quilt travel industry, with tour operators who specialize in tours for people interested in quilting.
“We are seeing a lot of interest from fabric stores,” she said. “That is totally new to us. They have a built-in audience, and they don’t normally have buses or plan trips, so it also helps operators.”
Although Nash said she still uses the traditional methods of finding groups, such as attending trade shows, “we are going out of the box, trying to do things out of the traditional way. We are focusing on getting to the end user. It started last year, and we have had some success.”
That includes Internet searches and social media such as Facebook. “A lot of tour operators and group leaders are on those social media sites,” Nash said. “We are following what they are posting, where they are going. We are identifying travel patterns and watching the comments they are making.”
Mary Szymkowiak, communications and group tour specialist for the Dublin, Ohio, Convention and Visitors Bureau, said social media also is a big help to her.
“We can cross-promote our e-travel club and social media things,” she said. “We have sample itineraries on our Web and insider tips on our blogs. It’s a great way to get our message out there and remind people of the other things there are to do here. It’s virtually free tools. The only big investments are in time and manpower.”
Thomson said most of Rapid City’s group business is still standard groups, but she is starting to see some requests from special-interest groups.
“It doesn’t seem to be huge yet, but there is a trend,” she said. “I would think it is going to grow. At this point, they are just coming across the doorway, or we are meeting them at shows where maybe there is a group leader who has a special group or a tour operator who works with different types of groups.”
Thomson said that at the Travel Alliance Partners TAP Dance 2011 in Louisville in June, she talked with an operator who wants to do more adventure tours and with several operators who want to do grandparent-grandchild tours.
“Operators see this trend,” she said.
Two large annual events — the Sturgis motorcycle rally and one of the world’s largest volksmarches, or organized walks, at the Crazy Horse Memorial — help build awareness of Rapid City and the Black Hills among potential special-interest niches.
“This area is very popular for motorcyclists,” said Thomson. “They know the area because of Sturgis; they really like to ride the area.”
Thomson said she has thrown some ideas out for volksmarch enthusiasts but hasn’t had any hits yet.
“However, the more you are willing to come up with those creative ideas for operators, the more they think of you,” she said. “Now, even more than ever, requires creative, unique products and people you can sell that product to.”
The Jack Nicklaus-designed Memorial Golf Course, home to the PGA’s annual Memorial Day-weekend Memorial Golf Tournament, provides instant recognition for Dublin with golf groups.
“We are known as a most prestigious golf address,” said Szymkowiak. “People know us for the Memorial. While the public can’t play there, the door is open to us to let people know we are a great golf destination.
“We have a very successful golf package. There are 12 courses in the package, and we have a lot of golfers who come back and play different courses.”
Szymkowiak said the Ohio city near Columbus also has played on its name to create Irish-style experiences for groups.
“With a name like Dublin, people expect Irishness,” she said. “We started marketing those hands-on experiences to all different kinds of groups. As far as leisure groups, we are seeing more reunions, associations and smaller groups.
“We are trying to target more families that are coming to town for other things. Maybe people are having a wedding, and people are coming in from out of town and want something to do the second day.
“Maybe they are coming to the zoo or COSI, and we try to give them a little Irish attitude while they are here.”
Szymkowiak also holds quarterly networking meetings with local hotel sales staffs. “We bring them to one of our locations where we can host groups, and bring in one of our experiences and let them see. It educates them so they can use it when trying to secure groups.”
Bradley said Louisville still relies heavily on trade shows, the traditional, tried-and-true method of generating group leads, but the bureau also tracks local group business.
“We get the hotels to give us their groups, and we sometimes pick up a lead from that and find a group we haven’t reached out to before. We also get tracking from attractions,” she said.
“They usually don’t know if folks have spent the night or not; it may be day trips. It helps us get to those groups. We call every group we find out has come to Louisville — ‘Did you have a good time, have an issue, anything we can help you with?’ Sometimes we turn those day trips into overnights.”
Sarah Hamlin, vice president of tourism for the Greater Birmingham, Ala., Convention and Visitors Bureau, said although trade shows are still a primary means of getting initial leads on groups, her bureau has begun an aggressive radio marketing campaign to attract family reunion planners.
“The reunion market is huge for our destination,” she said. “In years past, the reunion planner lived here in the city or county, and wanted to host their family here.
“We are finding [that] a lot of planners outside of Alabama who don’t have relatives here are coming to Birmingham to host reunions. We are running radio spots, and they are hearing about us through that, and online as well.
“We are doing a more grassroots approach to finding those reunion planners.”
Hamlin said Birmingham also is seeing a large increase in the student market, both performance and educational groups. “We are looking at different ways to position our attractions and amenities to operators who work exclusively with that market,” she said.
Denise Olsen, group tour sales director for the Eagan, Minn., Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she makes most of her group contacts through networking and attending tour operator conferences such as the American Bus Association Marketplace, BankTravel and the TAP Dance.
“That’s where I first come in contact with them,” she said. “I then narrow it down to those that have been or plan to come to the Twin Cities market, and I do quarterly updates to them.”
Hamlin agreed that no matter how you locate a group, follow-up is the key to making sales.
“Follow-up is the most important thing,” she said. It is so important to make contact throughout the year.
“We have a wonderful database, and trace those files and make contacts with individuals we have met at, say, BankTravel to gauge their interest.”