Destination TC: Convention and business groups a big focus for TC Tourism
Traverse City is a known major destination for tourists, but what about business groups? In recent years, more meeting planners and associations have been looking at Traverse City for their annual meetings, conferences, trade shows, seminars or events. Local hotels and resorts like the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, the Park Place Hotel, the Great Wolf Lodge, Shanty Creek Resort, Hotel Indigo, Cambria Hotel & Suites and West Bay Beach have ample meeting spaces available.
In 2018, the Resort and the Park Place invested in improving their meeting facilities, with the former renovating its 19,000-square-foot Governor’s Hall and the latter building a brand-new conference center.
While Traverse City Tourism centers its marketing on tourist audiences, the organization has also played a major role in building northern Michigan’s profile as a destination for business groups. To learn more about this process, the TCBN sat down with three of the core members of the Traverse City Tourism team: Tori Piersante, vice president of sales; Jennifer Case, director of marketing and creative; and Jenny Jenness, media and PR manager.
How does TC Tourism market Traverse City to business groups?
Piersante: The first thing is the marketing and branding that is done to all of our key markets, demographically. That includes tourists, as well as all of those people who are meeting planners within our target regions. It’s difficult to choose Traverse City as a destination for a meeting if you’re not aware of it, so creating awareness is certainly the first thing. Our marketing department does most of the heavy lifting on that.
Next is the group sales department, which looks at those specific types of groups to come here. The relationships we have with various associations give us opportunities to bring meeting planners together with vendors, like the convention and visitors bureau, or hotels. One association in Michigan would be the Michigan Society of Association Executives (MSAE). Also, Michigan Meeting Planners International and the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. These are the types of associations we belong to that put us together with meeting planners, so that we can have direct contact with them.
Case: We also do print advertisements in specific meeting publications or business publications, a lot in southeastern Michigan and the Chicago area. We also do some specific strategic digital buying for that market. Last year, we did a Facebook and LinkedIn campaign to meet specific meeting planners. So we’re really drilling down to meeting planners that might have an interest in having a meeting event here.
Jenness: Currently, with our website as well, we’re able to serve up content dependent on what your search history has been. So, if someone is interested in pursuing Traverse City as a business destination, if they’ve clicked on our ‘meetings’ tab in the past, then down the road on their social media and by visiting our website, they’ll be served content that suits that. We’re advertising to people who are already interested.
Have groups grown as a focus in recent years, or have they always been a focus?
Case: They’ve always been a focus. We definitely have monies allocated toward the meeting group. It’s a very specific group, so we can hone in digitally and print-wise to that market.
Piersante: Another thing we discovered is that a lot of our business comes from the state association market. And that consists of – as an example – the Michigan Townships Association, or counties, or tax accountants or whatever. There are a lot of associations within the state of Michigan and they are mostly located in the Lansing area. We actually have a dedicated person who has a remote office in that area, who has access to those planners on a daily basis, whether through sales calls or through events and functions she can attend easily. That has given us a big boost in the past few years.
Jenness: Another important focus is sustainable tourism. Something that’s really appealing with business travel is that those are often visitors who are coming during the work week. During the week is when we have a lot of our availability during those summer months, which is also when people want to be in Traverse City anyway. So these business groups really give us an opportunity to hone in on spaces where tourism hasn’t necessarily taken off.
How does word of mouth play into this? You hear anecdotes about people who come with groups and love the area and then want to come to the area with their families. Is there a reverse version of that scenario, where people come here with their families and then say ‘Oh, this would be a great place for a meeting or conference’?
Case: We’re segueing this year to put more emphasis on [marketing to both sides]. So, ‘If you come here as a consumer, think about us as a meeting destination,’ or vice versa. That way, we’re hitting all angles. If they’re already thinking of us for one area, why not for the other area? It doesn’t always translate, but it’s worth a try.
Piersante: In Chicago, we would often talk to meeting planners who would go on and on about what a great vacation they had here. Then we would ask them, ‘Have you thought about Traverse City for a meeting?’ And they would really just stop and go, ‘Oh, you know, I really haven’t considered it.’ I think the opportunity to present those situations is what we’ve found we need to do and there are some great ways to accomplish that.
What would that look like?
Piersante: Anything that gets the meeting planner talking about what their meeting needs would be is good. If they would normally be going to Las Vegas or Palm Springs in February, then we’re not necessary going to be ideal for that particular meeting, but they may have other meetings that they can take a look at us for. Really, it’s an opportunity to get those planners talking about what their needs are, so we can let them know about what we have. A lot of times, meeting planners are very surprised about the facilities we have in this area, especially if they are used to looking at us specifically as a vacation destination. They don’t know about the meeting facilities we have available here.
What are some of the core selling points if you are pitching Traverse City to a meeting planner or business group?
Piersante: We emphasize that the destination as a whole provides a really unique experience for people. Meeting here is not like meeting in downtown Indianapolis or Detroit. There is nothing wrong with those destinations, but I think we have an opportunity here to provide a very unique experience — not only with our facilities, but also because of the amenities of the destination. That’s where the work with the convention and visitors bureau and the hotels is really important, because they know their facilities really well and we know the destination.
Say a group wants to do a team building session. We have so many team building amenities. They can get together and take a bike ride to The Filling Station, and then there’s kayaks, and they can all go down the river for a little bit and try a couple different brews along the way. Or it could be a short little wine education and wine tour for them. There are so many opportunities that we have here and they are very different than in other areas of the state. It really helps to bring all those things together to paint the picture for the meeting planner.
Everything coalesces into the broader mission of selling the area.
Piersante: Absolutely. The wineries. The food. Craft beer. Distilleries. The dunes. The outdoor recreation. All those things are opportunities for meeting planners to get their groups together. We’ve actually had groups that have altered their schedules, to say, ‘Okay, instead of meeting all day, we’re going to take three of our days and just do mornings, so that our people can get out with one another and do something.’ They recognize that Traverse City offers opportunities for their people to get together and build that camaraderie, which is usually very important to their mission.
What cities are our biggest competitors for attracting these business groups?
Piersante: Most Michigan associations will try to get to various regions of the state, so many will do a rotation that includes Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Kalamazoo or us. Outside of the state, though, we really have run the gamut in terms of national resort destinations [we compete with]. Door County and The Dells in Wisconsin, for instance. Those areas are big for the Chicago folks, so we compete against them a lot. We’ve competed against Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Stowe, Vermont; Park City, Utah; the Nemacolin Woodlands [Resort] in Pennsylvania. It really has run the range, in terms of who we would compete against on a national level, for a national group.
What are some of the bigger groups that have started coming here recently?
Piersante: United Methodist Church has started to come to Traverse City and that’s about 2,500 people. This is the type of group that uses a headquarter hotel and then uses 10-12 additional hotels throughout the area. We consider those groups to be ‘city-wides.’ That’s a group that is now coming annually and I think they’re in their third year. Another group — and a great event that we have coming in — is going to be Ironman [Triathlon], which will be another city-wide event for our hotels. Michigan Townships Association now considers Traverse City to be part of their rotation, so they’re coming at least every few years. These are large groups.
How do needs fluctuate for groups, beyond just how many people they have? What are some of the other considerations that go into pitching the area?
Piersante: It really depends on the kind of things they believe their attendees will be looking for. Most meeting planners have an idea like, ‘Well, our people like to be in a resort setting where there’s golf and spa on site,’ or, ‘Our group likes to be in a downtown situation where they can walk out of their hotel and have lots shopping and restaurant and night life options available to them.’ Those are the kinds of things planners bring to us and say, ‘This is what appeals to our audience.’
How does the process of booking hotels work? How do you decide when to refer a specific group to a specific hotel?
Piersante: A lot of meeting planners will do some homework and come to us with a few ideas of the places they would like to check out. Basically, we just ask a lot of questions, in terms of trying to help them find the spot that would be most ideal for their audience. It’s a lot of conversation. Obviously, you have the logistics to consider. Is the meeting space big enough? Do you have enough rooms? But beyond that, it really is, ‘Well, what do your people like?’ We ask a lot of questions to help, but the meeting planners and groups ultimately are the ones who choose.
A lot of times, meeting planners will ask us to contact several hotels, and we encourage groups to do that. The hotels have different amenities and price points and such, so it’s really advantageous for meeting planners to explore multiple options.
Is there any consistency with how large groups are that you target for Traverse City?
Piersante: Typically, and not just in Traverse City but everywhere, the term ‘group’ is considered to mean any group or booking that is 10 or more hotel rooms. So, there’s a lot of variation. Say we are approaching a client about their annual meeting, and that’s 600 rooms per night. They might say, ‘Well, maybe not our annual meeting, but we have these other events throughout the year.’ We get to learn about different things as we get to know the meeting planners. And we don’t say no to anybody, at any time. We want to make sure that we are seeking a place for groups that want to come here, no matter how big or small they are.