Charles Gray had just six minutes to explain to a meeting planner from the state of Washington why Kent County might be the perfect venue for an annual career fair of the National Association of Women MBAs.
He touted the usual — no sales tax, prime mid-Atlantic location, and area sightseeing opportunities.
But, if wasn’t able to convince her, Gray, director of sales for Kent County Tourism, still had 35 other six-minute meetings scheduled at Connect Marketplace, one of the nation’s premier matching events for vendors and suppliers.
While attendance at events like Connect Marketplace is a great opportunity for Delaware tourism and conference center bookings, area sales directors say they rely on a range of platforms to drive business, including social media, print advertising, and glad handing at area events and chamber groups; some even creating a market niche specific to Delaware.
But plunking down $1,000 for the serial interview experience offered by Connect Marketplace — where attendees can sign up for workshops, learn about new trends and network with industry professionals — can result in multiple bookings by the time they head home.
This model works,” said Gray, who has attended three such conventions. “This is still a relationship business and people want to know, ‘Who am I dealing with, can I trust you?’ and the only way you can do that is by getting to know each other.”
Even if it’s just six minutes.
According to Stephanie Davis Smith, editor in chief of the Marketplace Connect trade publications, the conference is an annual education and appointment-only trade show, highlighted by hyper-focused interviews that connect planners, suppliers and experts. Meetings are based on a series of questions and an algorithm that plugs in the needs of the planner and the offerings of the sales directors representing venues from across the nation.
Smith said six people attended the Pittsburgh conference from Delaware — four from specialty and association organizations and two representing sports venues.
“A majority of the appointments were mutual requests,” said Gray, whose been to three connect meetings to generate business and draw attention to Kent County.
He said his strategy includes connecting with leaders of local and regional associations and organizations, but Marketplace Connect has proven to be worth the expense by giving Delaware suppliers like Gray access to nearly 40 meeting planners eager to hear a sales pitch that includes a low accommodation tax, drivability, and access to two airports.
“One of the things I always sell our pat on is the no sales tax,” said Gray. “When I say that to the meeting planner says that’s good for shopping. Don’t associate it with meeting planning site for food and beverage — could have a $5,000 bill,” said Gray. “It’s an automatic savings.”
Studebakers and going green
Dover Downs Hotel & Casino remains the largest venue for meetings and conventions. Last year it was home to a multi-million dollar piece of business — the Studebaker Drivers Club International Meet.
The event stands as one of Dover Downs’ top five, according to Gordon Basht, senior director and marketing manager at the hotel. Patrons from all 50 states, New Zealand and South America descended on the venue, driving their cars, or shipping them to the event through the Port of Wilmington.
Dover Downs offers more than 40,000 square feet of versatile meeting space — the largest hotel and conference center in Delaware, said Bosht. He said his team works hard to secure big and small business, attending local, regional and national conferences to meet prospects. Some proposals, like the Studebaker event, take years to secure.
“I spent three years developing the lead for the Studebaker event,” said Basht. “And they said it was one of their best shows.
It takes a constant proactive effort like that – to be in the back of their minds,” said Basht, who has worked in the hotel industry for years. “It’s a lot of dealing with relationship building.”
Basht said he works closely with the tech and public relations team to ensure they’re making use of social media and offering an up-to-date website. As a one-stop-shop, he said they promote the Dover Downs in-house restaurants, entertainment and convention facilities.
He’s also fond of the “speed dating” model of Marketplace Connect, which has reshaped the industry by cutting time and expense.
“There’s nothing worse that waiting on trade room floor and putting your hook up there and waiting for someone to bite,” he said.
What they’re biting on lately is green, according to Basht.
Dover Downs is certified under the Delaware Green Lodging program, a joint initiative by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Delaware Hotel & Lodging Association. As the first casino to be certified as a green property and requests for proposals have found some meeting planners showing deference to green certified businesses.
“Buying locally, recycling stations, low-watt bulbs — it all matters,” said Basht.
Another incentive: shuttles
While Dover Downs Hotel & Casino postures itself as a one-stop-shop venue, the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau (GWCVB) has created its own niche value strategy.
“We offer a transportation incentive to shuttle between hotels,” said Sarah Willoughby, director of the GWCVB.
Willoughby said the bureau spent considerable money on print advertising, but when it failed to generate business, they put the dollars toward a shuttle promotion.
Contingent on a minimum booking of 100 rooms at participating member hotels, the GWCVB contracts with Delaware Express to offer shuttle services between locations.
“What we have found is transportation incentives helps the groups that come in. You want everyone under one roof, to walk to and from hotel and restaurant,” she said.
The only game in town
Sometimes being the only sizeable venue in town ensures that you’re always busy. Barbara Brewer is the director of sales and marketing at Atlantic Sands Hotel & Conference Center, the only conference center in the Rehoboth area. Brewer said positive referrals are critical to maintaining and growing business.
She said her team is active in area chambers and works hard to keep social media platforms active and updated.
The facility is already booked back to back for meetings, conferences and weddings through the fall. Brewer said non-corporate associations and groups are an integral part of her business, particularly in the off-season.
“Many religious groups come and do retreats but they have very tight budgets so they need to come in the off-season,” she said. “Whether it’s couples counseling or a group, it’s peaceful and engaging in the fall and the rates are better then.”
And then there’s an overarching mindset regarding regular hotel guests, according to Brewer.
“We try to teach every guest as potential business customer.”
Leveraging the best of Delaware
That’s the long-term value in packing choice tourist attractions — from Hagley to brewpubs — to breathe color into a regular event.
Julie Miro Wenger and Jerry DuPhily are partners at Event Allies, an event planning, consultation and management business that’s behind some of the most recognized events in Delaware, including the Downtown Newark Food and Brew Fest and the Wilmington Grand Prix, one of USA Cycling’s premier events.
Last month, they were the organizational force behind the annual meeting and regional policy forum of the Council of State Governments/East Regional Conference.
Held at the Chase Center on the Riverfront and the adjacent Westin Hotel, the conference included tourist excursions and events for spouses of attendees. Wenger and DuPhily arranged all that, as well as the security detail and transportation for the conference and related events. Dinners at the Hagley Museum and World Café Live at the Queen capped brewery and culinary tours. There was even a sail on the Kalmar Nyckel.
“We definitely sold our state and our city really well,” said Wenger, of the convention. “We really wanted to show a robust social program as well as a business program. We had to look at what would make and attendee not just pay for the trip but what would really make them want to spend time here.”
So many moving parts and more than 600 attendees meant that the Event Allies team began nearly 18 months ago, creating a technically en point schedule and a transportation dot-to-dot for attendees and their families. More than 180 volunteers helped pull it off, acting as runners, greeters, and docents.
“It’s definitely stressful but people that choose to do this kind of stuff live on the adrenaline,” said Wenger. “It’s hugely gratifying to pull something like this off.”