A Publication of WTVP

The Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau brings business tourism to the city.

The bell rings, and Bobbi Robison finds herself face to face with her first date. The romance is timed: she will get precisely six minutes to determine their compatibility. When the bell rings again, she’ll have two minutes to scurry to another one-on-one with the next potential mate. There’s no time for nerves, she explains with a smile, and no time to waste.

Racking up suitors is all in a day’s work for Robison, a seasoned matchmaker, or more technically, senior convention sales manager at the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (PACVB). She’s a speed-dating veteran, averaging some 25 timed meetings per large conference like this one, a recent Collinson Media gathering in Florida. Quick on her feet, Robison has a knack for finding planners interested in hosting events in Peoria—and coaxing them to take the leap.

“It really is like speed dating!” she exclaims, laughing at the comparison. And there are obvious similarities: meeting lots of new people through one-on-one sessions; the nervousness of the unknown; the adrenaline rush of finding something in common with a stranger. Known in tourism circles as reverse trade shows, these conventions are alternative industry shows with a focus on pre-set meetings. Like the name suggests, a reversal of the traditional tradeshow format places the providers (meeting and convention planners) behind exhibit booths while the suppliers (CVBs, hotels and conference centers) walk the floor. About 90 percent of the shows the PACVB attends each year are now conducted this way, explains Robison.

“Strict tradeshows, or booth shows without scheduled appointments, are a dying breed,” she says. “It’s hard to track your ROI.” The reverse tradeshow, on the other hand, optimizes time with buyers, with little or no waiting between sessions. Both parties benefit from the increased one-on-one time, and suppliers can better track the return on tradeshow expenses through client contacts made, booth traffic, prospects or leads on new business.

Resident Tourism Experts
Robison’s targeted audience—meeting, convention and event planners—is just one of the niche-based markets targeted by the PACVB in its mission to promote the Peoria area as a destination and contribute to the region’s economic growth. The organization’s sales team, which includes Robison and four other sales reps who divide their work by market, also attends conferences to attract the group tour and motor coach industry, as well as sports event planners.

As the area’s resident hospitality guru and expert on all things tourism, the PACVB follows the national CVB nonprofit model, funded in part by sales tax revenue on area hotel rooms. It’s also a membership-based destination marketing organization, promoting local businesses and services through a variety of mediums, all in an effort to sell Peoria. Attending trade shows is the easiest way to meet the most meeting planners from outside the area as possible, explains Cory Hatfield, director of sales. “What we want to do… is bring people’s money from outside the area to spend it in the community.

“The economic impact of 1,000 people coming to a community is substantial,” he adds, “so getting [even] one booking from these shows is great.” He cites how a three-day conference for 1,000 people can equate to 3,000 hotel rooms booked and 9,000 meals prepared in the city. “It really escalates quickly—how much money is generated from a conference. People… think of tourism as Disneyland and the ocean, but it’s the business tourism that’s really [impactful]. There’s a reason why there’s 4,500 hotel rooms in the area.”

Reconnaissance First
Finding the right fit for Peoria is far from the love-at-first-sight approach. Each courtship begins with a fair share of reconnaissance—a profile match-up of sorts, explains Hatfield. But there’s really nothing romantic about the intensity of the chase.

Prior to each conference, Hatfield and his team create a profile for Peoria, including available dates, community amenities, facility features, total number and types of hotel rooms, available restaurants, meeting spaces, city demographics, parking, nightlife options and other minutiae designed to sway even the most “bridezilla” of event planners. Before a show, providers can peruse the suppliers’ profiles, while suppliers check out the providers. If there is mutual interest, “dates” are arranged by the conference organizers.

That’s when the real research begins, Hatfield explains, as the PACVB team reviews the profiles of who they’re about to meet in an effort to eliminate any element of surprise. “We study those [planners]… and check our database to see who has had contact with them,” he says. The process involves comparing available and desired dates, confirming the availability of specific hotel and restaurant requests, and matching meeting space to capacity needs in a jigsaw puzzle-like mission of matchmaking.

“If there are specific ties to the community—whether it’s CAT or [a fraternity] at Bradley—we try to become knowledgeable about that,” explains Hatfield, “so we can carry on our six-minute conversation about why they should choose Peoria.” This methodical process informs each face-to-face encounter, helping to make the best use out of such a short meeting.

“You don’t want there to be that awkward silence, like ‘Okay, so what do you do? What’s your meeting [about]?’” says Robison.

“We [already] have that information,” Hatfield adds, “so we’re not going to waste their time saying [something like] ‘Oh, so you have a fall meeting? Tell me about that.’ We’ll say, ‘Okay, look, we saw you had this meeting in Indy, and this meeting in St. Louis—and this is why you should choose Peoria.’”

Standing Out From the Crowd
And yet, despite arriving to reverse tradeshows completely prepared, another challenge soon arises. After meeting dozens of new people offering comparable spiels on why their city is the best, the faces start to blur for buyers, Hatfield explains. “We have to figure out a way to stand out.”

Hatfield, for one, has a reputation for being memorable. Prior to joining the PACVB this spring, he spent five years as sports and sales director at the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he employed a unique, attention-getting strategy at trade shows. Donning a crazy, orange-and-blue wig and Illini hat, he’d pose with pom-poms, shouting “Game face!” in photos with potential buyers. Having known him in the field for years, Robison says Peoria will benefit greatly from Hatfield’s ability to create a lasting impression. But it’s far more than just a laugh, he suggests.

“It’s an investment on our part to go to these shows, and we need to be responsible with the money we’re spending,” he notes. “So, we have to capture as much of a memory as we can, and then our follow-ups after the event need to tie into what we’re doing.”

For the most part, Peoria is an easy sell. Robison offers the pitch—an easily accessible, central location with an airport and interstate connections; the largest convention center in downstate Illinois; a beautiful riverfront, riverboat and downtown eateries; a unique museum block; regional wineries… “We always say the hardest thing is to actually get people here, and once they’re here, they’re like, ‘I never knew!’… I really think Peoria does a good job of having things to offer outside of just conference space and hotels.”

The PACVB’s tactic in drawing planners involves selling what makes the region different. For instance, many communities have a fall or harvest festival, Hatfield says, but it’s the camaraderie behind the Morton Pumpkin Festival or the buzz surrounding IGNITE Peoria that entices. “How many communities have an indoor art festival at that scale?” he offers.

But the most striking selling point, says Robison, is the city’s customer service: “a big-city feel with small-town charm.”

“The customer service you get from working with the front-desk staffs, housekeeping, everything you’ll encounter when you get here is always just spot-on,” Hatfield declares. “We can tell everyone how great the community is, but it’s… the hotels and their staff [that] really show how great the community is.” Paired with price, that makes Peoria an appealing option over cities like Chicago. “Peoria has one of everything that Chicago has… which is really all you need,” explains Robison. “[And] you can get the same thing in Peoria that you can in Chicago for a lower rate.”

Hatfield offers a recent example. A planner considering the Peoria Civic Center’s 110,000-square-foot space for a volleyball tournament was sold on the parking prices alone: $6 or $7 per day in Peoria, versus the $40-plus daily rate at some venues in Chicago—an enormous consideration for planners attempting to maximize turnout.

“There’s a lot of ways that, no, we’re not Chicago,” Hatfield admits. “And we know that we’re not Chicago. But there are ways that [bigger cities] are going to nickel and dime you to death. That’s never going to happen here.”

“It’s still that Midwestern hospitality,” he adds. “[For] a 1,000-person conference here, we roll out the red—no, gold—carpet. In Chicago, it’s just another day.”

Measuring Success
Gauging results from reverse tradeshows and conventions is not easy, due to the trickle effect of economic impact. Securing an event at the Peoria Civic Center, for instance, not only means business for area hotels, but also for a cascade of others. “Just think of everything that’s done inside the hotel that touches the community,” Hatfield muses, from food distributors to cleaning products purchased, to increased security staff for weekend events, to catering… “The best part,” he adds, “is that it’s people from outside the community spending money inside the community.”

And for business travelers, the ante is upped. “If they have a per diem or charge card, they’re not going to eat [something cheap]; they’re going to eat at a place like Jim’s [Steakhouse],” he says. “They’re going to find a place of quality.” That kind of business is great for Peoria, he suggests, making a huge economic impact on the city and its surrounding communities.

In its pursuit of attracting more business tourism to the region, the PACVB is busy with a new marketing campaign: “Bring Meetings Home.” Targeting the region’s working professionals, the organization is urging individuals who belong to various boards or associations to suggest hosting those meetings and conferences in Peoria. “We want to show how much value hosting that conference in Peoria can bring to the community… through tax dollars… to improve their children’s schools, police, fire, roads, public safety… with money generated through tourism,” Hatfield explains. “If anyone is interested in bringing a meeting ‘home,’ we’d love to discuss all the services [the PACVB] can provide.”

“The more people we bring into the area, the more businesses get business, [and] the more jobs it creates,” says Robison. “So it’s about quality of life—not just tourism.”

And so, with their game faces on, Robison and Hatfield take it one date at a time, luring them in on Peoria’s good looks and charm, and hooking them for the long haul upon arrival. iBi