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Call Before You Come

When you need hotel rooms for 40 people, restaurants that can seat a busload of travelers and three days’ worth of activities in a strange town, whom do you call?

Experienced group leaders call the local convention and visitors bureau. These organizations, known widely as CVBs, are the primary tourism marketing arms of their cities or regions. CVB employees can provide invaluable assistance to group travel planners, often free of cost.

You may know the CVB as the place to go for destination brochures or visitors guides in a new town. But the bureaus offer much more than that — for group travel planners, many CVBs can assist in every stage of planning a trip, from the initial research to itinerary planning, accommodations, local guides and more.

Familiarize yourself

Often, the preliminary stages of planning a trip involve finding out what there is to see and do in a town you’re interested in visiting. When you’re planning for a group, that task can be a little more complicated. CVBs offer a variety of ways to find that information, from specialized group tour guidebooks to sample itineraries and even preview tours.

CVB Web sites can be a great place to find information tailored to group travelers.

“Our entire Fun Guide is downloadable on our Web site,” said Cameo Gerdes, director of sales at the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau in Missouri. “Right now, we’re revamping our Web site. The new site will have a whole page for tour leaders, with sample itineraries and other things that will help them.”

One of the most useful tools available to group leaders is the familiarization tour, or fam tour for short. On these trips, which can be taken individually or with other group leaders and tour operators, travel planners get a preview of what their group members will experience on a tour.

“We offer what we call a flexible fam,” said JoDee Hooley, group marketing manager at the Shipshewana/LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Indiana. “We know that not everyone’s schedule coordinates with ours, so we offer flexible fams around a group leader’s schedule. We can take them on one- to three-day fams, depending on what they’d like to see. If they’re trying to do the whole region, they might be here for a week.”

Itineraries and more
CVBs also offer itinerary assistance to group leaders. Many CVBs will work with individual travel planners to customize itineraries based on their groups’ interests.

“We know our destination in ways that group leaders can’t know it,” said Jane Malton-Mages, director of leisure sales at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “One thing we’re finding in this industry right now is that people are looking for that neat out-of-the-way experience. That’s hard to find out about online, but we know about it.”

The relationships that CVB employees have with their local tourism partners can help give groups access to attractions or events they wouldn’t have on their own. When a group visited Joplin the week before Halloween, Gerdes and her colleagues at the CVB helped arrange some special experiences.

“We set up a cemetery tour and some special events at some of the attractions that weren’t really scheduled until later that weekend,” she said. “Having relationships with those attractions allowed us to help that group.”

In addition to helping create an itinerary, some CVBs will even make the attraction arrangements themselves, saving group leaders a lot of effort.

“A lot of group leaders think they have to make all of these phone calls to get pricings and reservations,” Hooley said. “Here, we can take care of that for them. We find out what they’re looking for and then get the price information for them and do all the calling. The attractions will send them a contract prior to their arrival, and it makes it a lot easier on them.”

Meals, rooms and tours
Group leaders can turn to CVBs for help in setting up meals and accommodations, too. At the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau in South Dakota, tourism director Michelle Thomson and her staff will gather room quotes from properties throughout the area and compile them for group leaders.

“If they’re looking for lodging information, we’re happy to send out leads to our hotels,” she said.
“Then they can have the hotels contact them directly, or the hotels can send the information back to us at the CVB.”

CVB representatives often help group leaders pick out group-friendly restaurants in their areas as well, sometimes with a querying process similar to that used for hotels.

Most CVBs will also help groups with step-on guide service once the groups have arrived at the destination. Step-on guides specialize in leading tour groups through the towns in which they live and will join a group on the motorcoach to guide the visit for the day.

In the Shipshewana area, which has a large Amish population, step-on guides often have special ties to the Amish community, which can lead to interesting surprises for travelers.

“The guide is taking them to the attractions, but they’re also helping them to learn about the area and giving them some history and culture,” Hooley said. “They may even have special surprise stops for them, like telling them about Amish church services or taking them to an Amish wedding, for example.”

The CVBs’ assistance can even extend beyond the borders of their own town. Because so many group tours involve visits to multiple cities, CVBs throughout a state or geographical region often work together to make sure that their groups are taken care of at each stop.

“We all work really closely together in South Dakota,” Thomson said. “If I know a group leader is planning on coming through Mitchell on the way here, I’ll make sure [the group leader has] the contact information for the CVB there, and I’ll let the CVB know that this person is planning a trip.”

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