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April 11, 2013

CONVENE -- The New DMO: An Interview with DMAI’s Michael Gehrisch


By Barbara Palmer

The world that meeting planners are working in is changing, said Michael Gehrisch, president and CEO of the 3,500-member DMAI, and DMOs are changing, too. “We’re really committed, from a DMO standpoint, to help shape services that we provide to meeting planners so that they are planner-focused, and relevant for today’s meetings,” he said. The DMO channel should be one of the first two or three things that people think about when they think about planning meetings — “It’s all about ease for the planner,” he said.

Making things easy for the planner requires not just hard work on the part of DMOs, but new ways of thinking and working. Convene talked to Gehrisch about how DMOs are making that transition. 

What are the major challenges that face DMOs in 2013 and beyond? 

There are really four things I would talk about here. The first one is an ongoing one: securing investment and funding. Domestically, Tourism Improvement Districts (TID) have become a really effective way to raise additional dedicated tourism dollars for the community. There are more than 100 TIDs that dedicate 100 percent of the funding for the tourism product within those destinations. 

The second thing is, in the era of transparency where all the information is available at your fingertips, being able to accurately report the net benefit of meetings and tourism to the community. 

Number three gets more into branding — being able to differentiate your destination from a growing number of destinations that have DMOs. What is your brand promise? What is your distinctive brand among your competitive set, whether it’s natural attractions, transportation modes into your destination, historic sights, special events, whatever that brand is really able to differentiate in a very specific way. 

The last thing is really engaging all the marketing content and managing all those people that are part of the community, from the hotels to the restaurants to the museums. The way DMOs are structured, some have memberships and some of them don’t. And often what members want isn’t always necessarily what the consumer is looking for. 

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I’m a DMO that has a membership structure, and I’ve got 15 steakhouses that are DMO members and I’ve got 30 more that are not. If only the 15 member steakhouses are listed on a website, well, the consumer might want to know about all 45. The members say, ‘That’s my membership value. Only list the other 30 if they contribute funding, like I do.’ Well, the consumer doesn’t really care about the model. They want to know, where is the best steak? 

Some DMOs are moving away from even having a membership category, and going into a partnership category. The statistic is 41 percent of our members have a membership [category], 59 percent don’t.

Has the role of advocacy become more important for DMOs?

If President Obama gets travel — and he does, probably more than any other president we’ve had in recent memory — it really gives a lot of momentum to the travel industry. It is important at the national level and certainly it is critical at the destination level, because ultimately, we’re relying on the hotel tax base or the general tax fund to fund our marketing efforts. 

So it’s imperative that the DMO be involved at the local level from an advocacy standpoint to insure that the funding stays in place. We do a survey every couple of years of our CEOs — it’s a financial and organizational profile. In 2012, CEOs reported spending about 80 percent of their time on advocacy-related issues and about 20 percent of their time on marketing and selling a destination. 

Now, that could be a community involvement — it doesn’t mean standing down in the mayor’s office every day — but promoting the value of tourism for your destination. 

Ten years ago, it was just the reverse: 80 percent of a CEO’s time was spent on marketing and 20 percent was spent on advocacy. So the answer is definitely yes.

As more associations and organizations include CSR activities at meetings, what are the opportunities for DMOs in providing support?

If you took the top 10 items that are included in RFP, some kind of CSR question is always going to be included. Seventy-four percent of DMOs report actively recommending local charities for clients to engage with during events. It’s an opportunity for DMOs to help the planners get their jobs done successfully, and with ease. 

Here’s an example. The Virginia Beach CVB recognizes that sending planners to the local United Way, or any other list of 100 charities, puts a lot of work on the planner. So they defined six categories of different types of social-responsibility opportunities. Under each category, they give one to four recommendations for an activity that fits those themes. So it is already structured, it is not overwhelming, and it simplifies the job of the meeting planner.

How has the relationship between DMOs and local and state governments and business communities evolved? 

It’s evolving. That’s how I would describe it. If you take a look in the rearview mirror, I think DMOs were thought of as delivering visitor services, which they do very effectively through visitors centers, and now, an online presence and a combination of both, and of bringing meetings to a destination. 

I think the role of the DMO has evolved over the last few years to one that has the primary responsibility of being able to communicate the economic benefits of tourism and meetings to their specific destination. 

And DMOs have to be the best sales people, because for the most part they’re selling a product they don’t produce and services they don’t deliver. The people selling that destination have to really understand the product and know the services that are being provided in that destination in order to be able to get the meeting planner the best experience.



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