A 2-day truce in battle for tourists

Trade associations trade tips on how to treat visitors

April 10, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

For 363 days of the year, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association is out to prove it's better than the competition.

But for the past two days here, the association and 37 others from across the country have set aside their competitive natures and shared ideas, information and tips as part of the first-ever organized meeting for the visitor-service industry.

"On a day-to-day basis, we all want to be better than the next bureau, or the next city," said Dan M. Lincoln, vice president of tourism and communications with the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Association. "But for two days, everyone lays down their guns. All competition is gone. They're all fighting the same battle together. They're helping each other get better at what they do."

The Baltimore association organized the two-day event, which started Sunday, to expand visitor-service programs at convention and visitors bureaus across the country.

Among the goals for the round-table conference at the Admiral Fell Inn were setting national standards for customer service, voluntarism and project development.

"It's almost like a support group," Lincoln said. "They've been creating programs and solving issues in a bubble when you don't have to do it in a bubble."

The meeting, which was sanctioned by the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, is expected to become a regular feature of its conferences. That organization, founded in 1914, represents members from 489 convention and visitor bureaus in 30 countries.

"We're 100 percent behind this," said Jill Calabria, membership director for the international association, who attended the meeting. "You get to learn right from your colleagues. They're exchanging information, ideas and solutions."

Visitor services marked the final missing piece in the variety of offerings available through the international association's meetings, Lincoln said. While at his previous job in Cincinnati, Lincoln was part of the push in 1990 for separate discussion groups for tourism.

The international association, which initially focused on conventions, embraced the tourism meetings after about two years, he said.

"For a lot of these people, it's the first chance they've had to meet with their counterparts," he said. "Some of them have been doing their jobs for 20 years in a vacuum."

Topics ranged from new ways to raise money to teaching local residents to be ambassadors for tourism to the delicate topic of telling longtime volunteers that their services are no longer needed.

Visitor services traditionally are not viewed as sales, Lincoln said. Yet good customer services involve getting people to do more, spend more, stay longer and maybe even come back, he said.

Donna Cepullio, visitor-center administrator for the Centre County Convention and Visitors Bureau in State College, Pa., was making the most of her time in Baltimore:

"I'm catching a lot of good tips about bringing your taxi drivers and front-line staff of your hotels and restaurants in to help."

Mary Jo Robey, vice president of visitor services for the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Convention and Visitors Bureau, was happy to have the chance to compare notes with nearly 50 of her counterparts.

Typically, convention and visitor associations focus on marketing their destinations and pay less attention to the departments that deal with tourists once they arrive, she said.

"These people do exactly what we do," Robey said. "It's nice to see visitor services as more than an afterthought."

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