Wednesday, May 14

MC&IT offers opportunities for destinations of all sizes

(Originally published in TOURISM)

The Canadian Tourism Commission’s Dan Melesurgo is the executive director of meetings, conventions and incentive travel sales in the US. TOURISM reached him in Washington to find out how Canadian destinations might take advantage of the in‑market opportunities which are generated through his program, and he notes that the most fundamental task Canada faces in the MC&IT sector is the need to create greater awareness of the country as a meetings destination.

“That always comes up as one of our biggest challenges," he says. "It is something the new brand is certainly addressing, but there is still a perception that Canada is cold and boring, that we are so similar to the US, and that Canada lacks the exotic appeal to make a destination attractive. There is no shortage of positive impressions about us, but these are not at the forefront of our planners’ minds. We are addressing this through all of our national partnerships, effectively bringing out who we are and what we can offer from a meetings perspective.”

Melesurgo notes that one of our strengths is the quality of facilities and services found in Canada. “I know a lot of people and destinations will say that, but I think this is really where we have a competitive advantage. Our research confirms this, and it is something we can definitely pride ourselves on.”

He goes on to set the record straight on Canada’s value for the money in the US: “Even if the dollar is pretty much on par, hotel rates have not increased as they have in the US, so there is still a value attached to meeting in Canada, and this doesn’t even take into account the tax rebate program for foreign meetings and conventions, which is still in place. Another important consideration is the need to drive home the message that attendance tends to be very high (and record‑breaking in many cases) when an organization does choose to hold a meeting in Canada.”

Melesurgo paints an attractive portrait of Canada as a country where there is “a proximity of our large cosmopolitan urban centres to nature and the great outdoors. Vancouver is just one example. If they meet in Vancouver, Stanley Park is at their doorsteps and they are only an hour and a half away from one of the world’s best winter destinations”.

“In the US market, it’s all about awareness, unless you are dealing with an incentive group wanting to be cutting edge and going to a destination no‑one has heard of, thereby earning bragging rights (a small board meeting at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort for example, or around polar bears in Churchill, which are a small but lucrative part of our business.”

But there being only one Vancouver, one Montréal and one Toronto in Canada, Melesurgo believes other lesser‑known destinations have much to gain by understanding where their competitive advantages lie. “If we are talking about Winnipeg, Regina or some of the smaller destinations, you are not going to get the large city‑wide events because you don’t have the required infrastructure in many cases. However, regional or association meetings, or sporting events if you have the sporting facilities, may represent a market you should focus on. It is really important for any destination to take stock of what it can offer; and really match that with segments of the market which make sense for them. You can’t be all things to all people.”

There are the big three or four cities that get a lot of attention in Canada, he goes on, “and we are very mindful of that. Our main goal is getting people to think of the entire country of Canada as a quality alternative to US and other international destinations. We strongly believe that getting somebody to book a meeting in Vancouver or Montreal, initially, is a very positive development because if they enjoy a positive experience, then perhaps we can steer them toward one of our second‑ and third‑tier cities.”

"These smaller cities may not be suited for a 10,000 delegate event, but a place like Halifax could certainly host a smaller committee, board or corporate meeting," he continues. "For this to happen there has to be an investment on the destination’s part.

"Halifax would indeed be a good example," Melesurgo points out. "The city has committed to supporting an organization called the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives (CESSE) which held its annual meeting in Halifax this past summer. It was a record‑breaking meeting in terms of attendance and participating Canadian partners, and there was a logical tie‑in. It was identified that a good number of their member societies might be interested in meeting in Halifax, partly because of the local connection with education, engineering and the scientific communities. So, if there is a strong industry in certain destinations, trying to align yourself with organizations which complement that makes sense.”

Interestingly enough, Saskatoon was a partner with Melesurgo’s group to attend the annual meeting in Halifax. “They saw an opportunity, which they seized. Hopefully, they have done their follow up to see if they can attract business to their destination. It is a definitely a two‑way street in terms of the educational process a destination can undertake to help educate the in‑market sellers on their product and what they have to offer."

“We have to have these conversations and the relationships have to be nurtured between the CTC and the destination, in much the same way these conversations would take place between the destination and the client. And there has to be a commitment to the market, which can be very hard to keep. Our national strategic partnerships with PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association), ASAE (American Society of Association Executives), the Center for Association Leadership, MPI (Meeting Professional International), FICP (Financial Insurance Conference Planners) and Experient are all long‑term relationships. We don’t go into a partnership unless we really see long‑term potential and it must be aligned with our strategy, because you have to be able to build it year after year. If you are in and out of a market, and in and out of a relationship, there will be very little equity, and you will be wasting your financial resources in the end.”

Melesurgo likes to use his own personal experience as an example. “When I first started in this position, I’d never been to Winnipeg. I knew where it was located, but I didn’t know much about the city. I was invited to spend three days in Winnipeg, and my hosts really tried to educate me about the personality of the city and the facilities it has to offer. We talked about our logical connections with our in‑market directors, so they have tried to build their relationship with our mid‑west office and the people based out of Chicago because that was one of the main markets they had identified."

“So the more knowledge we have about these destinations, the better we can influence our clients when we meet with them," he continues. "We can say: ‘hey… did you ever think about taking this out to Moncton, Halifax or Regina, because they have facilities that will meet your needs, and there are some logical tie‑ins with some local industries that fit with your interests.’”

The key is to be realistic, Melesurgo advises. “There are many factors at play; things like air lift and costs will affect whether Québec City or Banff is the right place for a client to hold its meeting. It also depends on the market: Québec City and Banff may be more attractive incentive destinations than Toronto, because of the nature of the destinations and the nature of what clients are looking for when they plan the incentives. On the other hand, Toronto is a large cosmopolitan city which is suited to handling city‑wides or larger type meetings because of the available infrastructure.”

With the Olympics coming up, Melesurgo’s team is planning renewed vigour on the sports tourism front: “We see a wealth of opportunities within the Canadian sports federations community. We are looking at strengthening those relationships so that we can form partnerships and go after some of these sports groups together. The 2010 Games will create great awareness for Canada, therefore we plan to identify the top 50 non‑Olympic organizers and really target them in hopes of bringing their events to Canada. Our eyes are wide open.”
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