No doubt you are among the 64 million Americans who used the Internet last year in some travel-related transaction, either to book an airline ticket, accommodations or rental car, or to research a vacation destination. Most every tourist destination in the world, no matter how small or remote, has some sort of Web site where potential visitors can find basic travel information.
The San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis) recognized the incredible potential of the Internet when it was still in its infancy. In 1995, ConVis entered the cutting-edge world of cyberspace as one of the first convention and visitor bureaus nationally to develop a Web site, www.sandiego.org, and offer e-mail communication to customers. Since the site's launch nearly a decade ago, it has welcomed more than 12 million visits by Internet users around the globe. Currently, some 350,000 visitors enter the site each month.
Our utilization of computer technology to generate business didn't stop there, however. It became increasingly clear that we could also use technology to sell San Diego to the national meetings and conventions market. Our goal was to reach the harried, time-starved planner with the tools to organize a "hassle-free" meeting in San Diego -- thus giving us a definite edge over all the other meeting destinations with whom we compete for lucrative convention business.
Our first step was to determine the precise needs of a typical planner in the entire meeting planning process -- from site selection to event promotion to the physical production of the meeting and ancillary events. To help us in this effort, we organized a customer advisory board, comprised of some of the nation's top association executives.
They gave us their feedback and as a result, iLeads and iService were born. Both are revolutionary, one-of-a-kind software programs that instantly and effortlessly allow the client (meeting planner) to orchestrate each detail in the meeting planning process, from start to finish, with the click of a mouse.
Here's how it works. The first obstacle a meeting planner has to face when choosing a meeting or convention site is finding a hotel that can accommodate all the needs of the group within their budget parameters (i.e., number of hotel rooms available within the meeting dates; availability and size of meeting rooms and exhibit space; availability of special event venues, if required; etc.).
The iLead program provides an interactive connection between meeting planners, hotels and ConVis. Data on all of San Diego's 119 conference and convention hotels are kept in online databases that allows us to generate a list of hotels and facilities matching the specific needs of an inquiring meeting planner. Once the planner logs on and generates a lead, hotels offer proposals via a secure, Web-enabled extranet, which also allows planners to take virtual tours of the hotel properties they are considering.
This system streamlines the lead process and allows meeting planners more immediate and timely responses than they ever received with the "old" system, which involved making direct phone calls to hotels inquiring about rates, availability, etc., resulting in a seemingly endless bout of "phone tag."
Once the planner decides upon the meeting property, our newest online tool, iService, kicks in to help with all the details involved in planning the meeting. Once the planner actually books the meeting, they can then fill out a profile of the event and its potential needs. The profile is analyzed by the iService software that generates service-provider profiles and returns the customized information to the planner via e-mail.
Planners can choose to receive a response from iService immediately or at a later date and, because it is an automated service, the constraints of time zones and office hours no longer mean that busy meeting planners have to wait for vital information. In fact, a planner can fill out his or her profile in the middle of the night and start receiving e-mail quotes from service providers immediately.
Of course, there is always a staff member available at ConVis to give the planner the personal attention they require. We follow the traditional convention and visitors bureau model in that regard -- single point of contact and one person to answer your questions and respond to you quickly throughout the event-planning process.
In addition to these two exciting software programs, our Web site offers the planner a host of other potential aids accessible at the click of a mouse. These include an Attendance Promotion Toolkit and a delegate-only Web site, www.SeeYouInSanDiego.com. This site provides information for meeting attendees, including San Diego maps and directions, transportation information, a local business directory and guides to nightlife, dining and golf. Meeting planners can link their group's Web site directly to the ConVis site, as well as e-mail the link to their convention attendees.
As you might imagine, the response we have received from meeting planners across the nation to this one-of-a-kind planning software has been phenomenal. Above all, planners report that the time and energy they save is worth its weight in gold, which is music to our ears. In the highly competitive arena of attracting the lucrative meetings and convention market, any tool that allows us to stand out above the crowd is key in attracting more business to San Diego.
It is a simple fact: The more meetings business we bring to our region, the more our economy prospers. One convention group will use a myriad of local services, from audio/visual companies to transportation services, caterers, florists, photographers, musicians, printers, exhibit designers and more -- all the while pumping revenue into our local economy. The visitor industry, which includes convention and meetings business, is the region's third largest industry.
ConVis recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. While our predecessors never dreamed of having such incredible technological tools to entice convention and meeting planners to our destination, they would have been proud to see our present-day ConVis make history with its vision and dedication to setting the standards for the convention and visitors bureaus of tomorrow.
Reinders is president and CEO of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.