Second-Tier Cities

The Evolution of Customer Advisory Boards

If it seems like planners and DMOs have a closer relationship these days, one of the reasons is the evolving role of customer advisory boards — which second-tier cities and other destinations increasingly are using to change the way they do business.

In 2016, a meeting planner’s relationship with a DMO is closer and more mutually beneficial than ever. In many cases, the catalyst for that is the customer advisory board (CAB), which is made up of meeting planners that DMOs can consult for everything from references to opinions on a convention-center renovation. For time-strapped planners, it can sound like one more thing overcrowding their calendar, but the benefits can more than make up for the time commitment.

fabian“The fulfillment that comes from knowing that your ideas — often in combination with others — will actually be acted upon for the betterment of both the city and its meeting business” is why Nelson Fabian, founder and president of the Center for Priority Based Budgeting (CPBB) Institute — who serves on eight CABs as well as the DMAI Meeting Professionals Advisory Board — finds the time investment worth it. “I obtain a much deeper understanding of meeting trends — and even the sociopolitical trends that shape the meetings business — that, in turn, inform my meeting-planning work.”

For second-tier destinations, the relationships made within a CAB’s confines can be particularly important. “I think that these advisory boards give second-tier destinations another competitive advantage,” said Christine “Shimo” Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, managing director of DMAI’s and Event shimoImpact Calculator programs. “Because what they’ll gain with a customer advisory board is not just their opinion, they gain what their customers’ experiences have been in other places. Sharing, talking about what those experiences are, elevates the destination’s view of what they want to aspire to, what they need to get to, if they’re not there already. It puts the marketplace into context for them.”


The basics haven’t really changed: CABs typically meet for about two days every six months to one year, and range from 10 members to more than twice that size. Often, members serve for a specific length of time to rotate in new members and mix up the variety.

What has changed is how DMOs use their CABs. “Ten years ago, there was much more of a focus on dates, rates, and space,” said David Kliman, CMM, president of The Kliman Group, who has both launched and moderated CABs for a long list of DMOs, from the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority to the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That focus is still there, but layered on top of it is, how can … a DMO partner with you as a client to make stronger, more effective decisions for your organization, for your clients?” CABs have become particularly important, Kliman said, as DMOs increasingly are asked to serve as “a conduit to the local intellectual capital in their destination.”

kilmanKliman offers a hypothetical example: The Providence Warwick CVB connects a planner for a major clothing retailer to the Rhode Island School of Design to put together a workshop on fashion trends. “That’s where the magic of an advisory board happens,” Kliman said. “Each destination has to know what its DNA is all about, and then has to be able to tell that story effectively and translate that to its customers. Those conversations get massaged and get discussed at an advisory board meeting. They get tested. They get reinvented. That’s where [advisory boards] really are different from what was happening a dozen years ago.”

As a result, CAB members have the potential to play a more significant role than ever in shaping a destination, from its branding to how it handles a specific crisis. Take Visit Salt Lake, which decided to overhaul its advertising campaign for the meetings market on the spot during a CAB meeting in 2007. “It wasn’t pleasant,” said President and CEO Scott Beck. “Literally, we scrapped three entire creative concepts — not just the colors and the pictures, but the entire content and messaging behind them. We heard a lot of comments like, ‘This is great, but take your name off and every city can claim this.’”

Right there in the meeting, the DMO and its 14-person CAB — made up of mostly senior-level meeting planners from multiple industries — came up with a entirely new direction for its ad campaign. “What we heard from them, loud and clear, was you have two ways to go: Address a really serious problem your destination has and focus all your energy on it, or talk about what’s relevant,” Beck said. For Visit Salt Lake, that meant changing a campaign that felt more consumer-focused than meetings-focused, and highlighting the destination’s specific strengths — including solid airlift and a newly expanded convention center with enough square footage to compete with first-tier cities.

beckBeck had only joined Visit Salt Lake two years prior, in 2005. “I feel absolutely like the luckiest CEO in the country early on in my tenure,” he said, “to have that interaction with this board of, again, very seasoned professionals who are very willing to give their feedback and, I think, come from a very positive place [and] a place of big commitment to who they are, what they do, and how they look at destinations.”

Fast-forward to this past summer, when Visit Salt Lake was busy preparing its host-city messaging for ASAE’s 2016 Annual Meeting, and again used its CAB to refocus its advertising and media strategy, this time to help change the destination’s out-of-date perception. “We’ve heard this idea that Salt Lake is dry, white, and Mormon. Or [that] ‘the number-one problem Salt Lake has [is that it’s] a second-tier city … with nothing to do,’” Beck said. “[The CAB], again, encouraged us with the idea [that] we should tackle it head on. They said, ‘You can’t advertise and market your way out of this, but you can be fun and make fun of yourselves in a way that maybe can break down this stereotype.’”

Using that as a starting point, Visit Salt Lake created a campaign called “There’s Nothing to Do in Salt Lake,” complete with a website -— — that Beck says serves as an attendance-building tool for planners; one of the most popular requests the bureau has seen come from its CAB is to act as an event’s marketing partner. “I think a lot of second-tier cities are being asked to do this,” Beck said. “Instead of having the meeting planner for the [hypothetical] Emergency Room Nurses Association be the one who comes up with the marketing plan and how to talk about Salt Lake to her group to encourage attendance — partner with the bureau, partner with the DMO, and have them step in as the marketing partner and use those resources in a very strategic way to really focus on what the message is to drive attendance.”


ratcliffeA CAB can also fill a more urgent, short-term need. In November 2014, just after a St. Louis County grand jury announced it would not be issuing an indictment in the police-shooting death of Michael Brown, Explore St. Louis convened a special meeting of its CAB. After taking CAB members on a driving tour of Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where Brown was killed, Explore St. Louis asked them to share their perceptions of the greater destination in light of the recent events.

“It was a very raw conversation to have,” said Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis. “There was quite a bit of difference of opinion post-tour than what had existed prior to their arrival, and there were a lot of different perspectives on the issue that everyone brought with them. In many cases, the influence of the media on how they felt about the issue was discounted after they saw it for themselves.”

The meeting prompted Explore St. Louis to hold two additional focus groups — one with association CEOs, another with meeting planners who weren’t all that familiar with St. Louis — to gauge opinions beyond the CAB’s scope. “The results from that were different,” Ratcliffe said, “because we were talking with groups that we didn’t necessarily already have a relationship with. It was helpful to have all perspectives.”

Those insights helped Ratcliffe coach her team on how to talk about the issue when it came up with clients — including that it wasn’t necessarily something to avoid. Per the CAB’s recommendation, Explore St. Louis posted an FAQ on its website, and several CAB members agreed to tape video testimonials that were posted to the DMO’s YouTube channel. “As you will probably remember, the national media just kept showing things on fire, confrontations in the street. Many people didn’t have any understanding of where that was actually taking place,” said Ratcliffe, who noted that no groups canceled their meetings as a result of the protests. “We were able to provide those tools to those customers to … very quickly calm their concerns.”


CABs are also playing a larger role in helping to get the ball rolling on challenging projects, such as a publicly funded convention-center expansion or a new headquarters hotel. Be-cause CAB members are often a destination’s best customers, they can sway opinions in a way that other partners or stakeholders can’t. “The hardest part was it was nigh on impossible to effect change in your destination coming off of informal, undocumented conversations,” Beck said of the days before Visit Salt Lake had an official CAB.

roberts“Critical” is how Christine Roberts, vice president of convention sales and services at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (GFLCVB), describes her CAB’s role in helping drum up local support for a convention-center expansion and a headquarters hotel. Fort Lauderdale’s battle has been particularly challenging, with efforts to build an adjacent headquarters hotel stalling multiple times since the convention center opened 28 years ago. Broward County commissioners are still narrowing down developers for the $550-million project — which would include a hotel, convention center-expansion, intermodal transportation center, marina with transient dock space, new streetscape, and new green spaces, all to open in 2020 if approved — and Roberts says GFLCVB’s four-year-old CAB has gone so far as to sit down with them to lobby for it. “That’s the hardest thing, sometimes, is to get somebody to green-light a project,” Roberts said. “Having the voice of the customer gives people an interest, a business need to move forward.”

Tammy Blount, president and CEO of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, says her CAB has also been instrumental in advocating for the $60-million renovation of the Monterey Conference Center that is currently underway. “They’ve been really helpful in articulating to our local community and our elected officials, who don’t necessarily read Convene magazine or understand the competitive landscape,” Blount said.

Because the 40-year-old facility is owned by the city of Monterey, pushing a big renovation project isn’t easy. The CAB has been there every step of the way. “They’ve looked at designs, they’ve said, ‘Yes, I would love to bring a meeting to this building,’ or said, ‘You know, I’m not sure about this environment or this color,’” Blount said. “They’ve weighed in on everything … they’ve shown up at council meetings from time to time, looked at things between meetings, … and been a tremendous ally.”

Indeed, the realization it was missing such an ally is what prompted the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau — with more than $1 billion in new infrastructure in the pipeline, and a changing tourism landscape — to form its first CAB just last year. “We just felt like this was the time to bring in professionals,” said Cleo Battle, executive vice president of the Louisville CVB, “and have them help be a guide as to how to position ourselves.”

battleBesides branding, Louisville’s 15-member CAB — which will hold its second meeting next month — also consults on how the destination can best handle the issues that are top of mind for planners, such as room-block management, technology, safety and security, and attracting younger attendees. At the last CAB meeting, members brought up Airbnb and concealed weapons, among other issues. “There was so much of an exchange about ideas as much as there was ‘let’s talk about Louisville,’” Battle said. “We can go back to this meeting [with our local stakeholders and elected leaders] and say, ‘Let me tell you what our customer advisory board said about technology.’”


The time commitment for a CAB member can add up — membership often requires meeting planners to spend two or more days in the host city every six to eight months — but according to participants, the benefits can be well worth the investment. “The big aha moment for new advisory board members is when they realize what they’re getting out of it are the peer-to-peer relationships [with] their fellow planners that help them either advance their careers or find unique solutions to their problems,” Kliman said, adding that planners also often end up deepening their relationship with the DMO itself.

blount“It’s a one-on-one think tank with their colleagues,” said Blount, who notes that CAB meetings often double as fam trips. “They’re getting to know the destination better and learning about options they didn’t know they had…. They’re building relationships with us, with suppliers, with the community. We all benefit from that, and the planner certainly does, because when they’re planning a meeting here, they know who to call.”

That’s been the experience of CPBB’s Fabian. “DMOs can help me in ways I never imagined,” he said. “The more innovative DMOs … are now working with meeting planners to unlock the rich intellectual capital that exists in their communities, making it available to meetings.”


Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) formed its Meeting Professionals Advisory Board in 2013, and has held three meetings since then in an effort to better understand what challenges the DMO industry faces. DMAI’s Christine “Shimo” Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, calls the group “an advisory board for the industry. We brought together what I consider some of the brightest minds in the meetings industry.” Currently, the board has 16 members, including senior-level meeting professionals from a range of industries, from Microsoft to the American Bar Association. A handful of senior sales executives from DMOs were also invited to participate, along with DMAI’s senior executives.

“I think some of the biggest takeaways so far — and we see this as an ongoing evolution — is we need to really address the changing needs that planners have of a [DMO serving as a] partner, and what does that mean to our sales professionals,” Shimasaki said. “In other words, our customers are changing, so we can’t really continue to work the same way.”

Topics addressed have included how DMO sales professionals can more effectively serve meeting professionals by, for example, identifying destination assets that draw better attendance. “It’s not good enough to change at one destination,” Shimasaki said. “We have to make it change across the industry, across destinations, in order for CVBs to always be at the forefront of helping [find] solutions for meeting professionals.”

DMAI’s advisory board has influenced a number of recent initiatives from DMAI as well as from the broader industry, including The Event Room Demand Study, which revealed that one in three group rooms nights is booked outside of the block, and DestinationNEXT, which is design to provide DMOs with practical actions and strategies for success in a changing marketplace. The board has also advised on an in-the-works training curriculum for DMO sales professionals that DMAI hopes to launch in 2016 or 2017.

“[DestinationNEXT] is a perfect example of how our advisory board lends its expertise to really help frame next practices and best practices,” Shimasaki said. “Because customers like the ones we have on our advisory board have witnessed a lot of different destinations, and saw what worked and what didn’t work in terms of their services.”

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.