Site Selection Trips – what to watch out for

Planners say misperceptions from people outside the industry can inhibit their ability to adequately evaluate a destination.

As senior manager of meetings, events, and tradeshows for Cardiovascular Systems Inc., Monique Rochard-Marine produces multiple events every year, from meetings for executives to lavish incentive trips for the company’s top performers. To learn about potential destinations and venues, Rochard-Marine regularly attends FAMs, or familiarization trips, that are fully paid for by the host hotels, destination marketing companies, suppliers, etc. More often than not, the destinations are beautiful—places like Hawaii and Mexico and Banff, Canada—because those are places she is considering for future events. And that has created some issues.

“Unfortunately there can be misperceptions that this is just a boondoggle, or that my company is paying to send me to these places,” she says. “We don’t question when executives fly out to do investor meetings or meet with potential clients. When it’s for meeting planning people question it, but it’s the same principle. We are going to conduct business and to see the landscape before we sign a huge dollar amount contract.”

While on these trips, Rochard-Marine creates a Facebook album with images of the properties and activities she is experiencing. She does this both to create an archive for her reference and also to share the experience with planner friends who may not get the same opportunities. But after her trip to Banff last spring, a Facebook friend who is also a colleague shared the album with her company’s executives and questioned why the company was funding her trip to Canada—which they weren’t. “I’ve always known there can be misperceptions, but the fact that somebody would take it to that level really turned me off,” she says. Since then, Rochard-Marine has unfriended all colleagues on Facebook and she now uses her personal time for FAM trips.

“I have to decide for myself what is the gain, is it worth taking personal days and the answer for me is yes,” she says. “Because I get to see properties and I’m building relationships that help me negotiate better rates, better concessions. And for me to sell an event to my executives, I feel more prepared if I’ve been there and experienced it.”

Wendy Porter, owner of Wendy Porter Events, agrees. After 25 years in corporate marketing and event planning, Porter says site selection is critical to the success of an event and nothing can take the place of seeing it in person. “Anybody can make a website look fantastic,” she says. “I had that happen a couple of times where we thought we were honing in on a site, and then one of our leaders happened to be in that area and popped in to see it and said, ‘No way. We’re not doing it there.’”

And it is not just a matter of seeing the physical location. Whether the event is a conference, corporate meeting, or incentive trip, planners know their attendees will evaluate the entire experience from arrival through departure. “So there is value in seeing how staff interacts with customers, how the sheets feel, what it feels like to get ready in their bathroom,” says Kim Montoya, a former corporate planner for 20 years who now owns her own company, Twenty156. “There is something you get from fully experiencing the service of a location that you can never get by just walking through their meeting space with the sales manager.”

Montoya says when she was a corporate planner working in the financial services industry there was a period when she was not allowed to do any FAM trips. Now that she is an independent planner, she realizes that that restriction limited the scope of work. “I didn’t realize what a handicap it was because that was the culture I lived in,“ she says. “Having had the opportunity to explore things more freely now I recognize that there are all sorts of things out there I never would have considered before, simply because I had never been exposed to them. We’re not just ordering chicken and flowers. To be very valuable assets to the companies we are serving, we have to know what’s outside our four walls.”

Rochard-Marine says she understands that some of the bad impressions of destination visits are based on abuse of the opportunities by some in the industry. “When you go on these trips, you are expected to attend everything—the luncheons, the education talks, the nighttime events. And there are some people who don’t show up, who just go to the beach all day. So that’s where it comes from,” she says. “But I feel like the serious professionals really choose the opportunities that are relevant to their business.”