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Counting heads

Across the country each year, convention and visitors bureaus pour millions of dollars into promoting group travel to their destinations. Group sales managers attend numerous conferences and trade shows, advertise in travel publications and contact group leaders and tour operators directly to drive traffic to their cities.

With all of this investment, how do CVBs measure success? It’s more difficult than you may think. Tourism officials say that tracking group travel business is one of the most difficult parts of their jobs.

“In all the years I’ve been in this business, tracking the business is the hardest thing that there is,” said Norris Flowers, executive director of the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For [CVBs] all across the country, that’s one of the hardest questions, and there’s no magic bullet out there.”

Although gathering information about groups that have come to town sometimes proves difficult, today’s economic environment and tight bureau budgets make it more important than ever to be able to show a return on investments made in the group tourism market. As a result, some CVBs have come up with new and creative ways to capture group data.

Here’s a look at how four destinations measure their group tour business.

Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
With a perennially popular historic site — the Gettysburg National Battlefield — as its lead attraction, Gettysburg attracts a steady flow of group visitors. Flowers estimates that the city welcomes some 15,000 motorcoaches a year; during the student travel season in late spring, it’s not uncommon for 100 buses to pull through the town square each day.

But that high volume doesn’t mean it’s easy for the CVB to know who has come and from where.

“The challenge is gathering information,” Flowers said. “The reluctance is from the lodging properties — they’re afraid that the information will leak out. They want to make sure that you’re not selling against their property.”

That difficulty is one shared by CVBs everywhere. Hotels are the only companies that have hard data about how many room nights they sell to tour groups, and room nights are the metric that destination marketers use to determine their success. Many hotel managers are leery about sharing this information with their local CVBs, fearing it might somehow undermine their competitive edge.

In lieu of data from hotels, the Gettysburg CVB turns to its popular attractions for information.
“One of the advantages we have here in Gettysburg is that a couple of major attractions do a tremendous amount of business,” Flowers said. “Those attractions are more likely to give us that info than the hotels are.”

The Gettysburg Foundation, which operates the visitors center at the national battlefield, keeps detailed information on group visits and shares that information with the CVB. Because the battlefield and visitors center are on nearly every Gettysburg group tour itinerary, these figures help the CVB get a fairly accurate estimate of the group traffic.

Flowers said his staff also stays in constant contact with tour operators and that some of the major tour companies bringing high volumes of business to town do a good job of reporting their numbers to the bureau. The organization also markets directly to group leaders and believes that they bring in a lot of visitors.

“We give out sample itineraries to give group leaders ideas,” Flowers said. “We’re pretty confident that the majority of our business comes from those group leaders, even if they use a tour operator to set up the trip.”

San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau
Iconic historical sites, a rich cultural reputation and a very strong brand have helped the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau maintain high leisure visitation for decades. Like some other destinations popular with individual and family travelers, the CVB went through a period of putting little effort into the group market.

Now, it is ramping up its promotions in the group tour industry again and encouraging group leaders and tour operators to take advantage of CVB services as a way of tracking their business.

“We find that we have some clients who have been doing the same tour here for many years, so we’re able to assist them with new things to do in the city,” said Dorah Putney, the bureau’s director of tourism. “We’re able to provide them with new info for planning their itineraries.

“We’ll also send out the leads to various hotels of their choice, gather the rates or info for them, and have it sent directly to the group leader or tour operator. If the booking is coming through the bureau, we can track those room nights.”

For groups that don’t avail themselves of the CVB’s service, Putney’s staff must rely on information supplied by local hoteliers or attractions or the tour operators’ front offices. So far, reactions are mixed, with some hotel properties supplying helpful data about group overnights and others withholding it as proprietary information.

Putney is trying to increase her partners’ participation by helping them realize how important the tracking information is to keeping the bureau’s programs running.

“It’s very important for us to continue tracking this info,” she said. “As budgets get tighter, we’re going to have to make tough decisions about where we spend our marketing dollars. We’re going to have to invest in places where we’re seeing room nights.”

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau
Personal relationships make the difference for Lisa Catron, national sales manager at the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. Whether  making connections with tour operators and group leaders at trade shows or convincing local partners to share information, the personal touch helps Catron keep tabs on the success of her marketing efforts.

“A lot of times, the vendors just have to trust you as an individual,” she said. “We have to convince them that we’re not going to take their information away. Some work with you, and some don’t.”

Catron and the Memphis CVB staff make personal connections with travel buyers through their recurring presences at industry conventions and trade shows. In the past few years, Memphis has hosted meetings for the Tennessee Motorcoach Association, the Student and Youth Travel Association and Travel South USA.

The bureau also regularly attends Travel Alliance Partners’ TAP Dance and niche market conferences, including BankTravel and the Going On Faith travel conference.

“I have a pretty good relationship at a lot of associations and conventions I go to,” Catron said. “A lot of tour operators recognize a person, and they’ll pick up the phone and tell us they’re bringing a group. That’s how we keep track of who’s coming.

“I get church groups that call me daily, even on the weekends. We have some bankers that aren’t even members of BankTravel that call me. And a lot of times schoolteachers will call me individually instead of going through a tour operator.”

All of the marketing and tracking efforts help the CVB estimate the economic impact of groups that come to town. Catron’s research has shown that group tour visitors contribute an average of $177 per day per person to the local economy, a statistic that puts “return on investment” into real-world perspective. For each day that a coach with 40 passengers spends in Memphis, the city’s tourism community will see more than $7,000 in revenue.

Amish Country of Northern Indiana
The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which markets its destination as the Amish Country of Northern Indiana, is very active in the group travel market. That gives the destination a lot of exposure but can also make it challenging to track the success of each investment.

“There are so many touch points,” said Sonya Nash, the CVB’s travel trade marketing manager. “We have a monthly newsletter, an e-newsletter, co-op advertising, a direct-mail program, sales missions and trade shows. Some people may be touched by all of these points — so how do you say if one person came in from a trade show or a co-op ad?”

Nash stays on top of the data by recording every interaction she has with potential visitors in a database: Each time a contact receives an e-mail from the CVB or meets with a representative at a tourism conference, Nash makes a note of it on their database entry. So when groups visit the area, she can look back and see which interactions may have encouraged the visit.

Getting group info from hotels is a challenge for this CVB as well — Nash said that properties run by national brands simply refuse to share their data — so the bureau gets data from some of the companies that are popular group tour stops.

“When partners participate in a co-op program, I require them to fill out a monthly report and send me their bookings,” Nash said. “We’ve tied it into the partnership and put it into a signed agreement. We give them a template form electronically and on paper — we’ll take it in whatever form we can get it in.”

Nash also uses technology to monitor which tour operators are selling trips to her region. She has set up an automated Google word search that sends her an e-mail every morning reporting sites that use keywords related to her destination. She monitors tour operators’ Facebook pages to see when Amish Country is mentioned in itineraries they post.

It may seem like a lot of effort, but in today’s budget environment, tracking return on investment can mean the difference between keeping a job and losing it.

“We’re under quiet a bit of pressure,” Nash said. “You have to make budget decisions: If you’re spending money on the group market, what’s your ROI? We have a lot of different staff people in different markets, and everyone wants their program to go on.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.