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Roll up your sleeves

Today’s conventions stress community service and team building

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

In the past, people attending conventions in Virginia Beach could look forward to networking, presentations and maybe some down time to enjoy the sun and sand. These days, convention delegates could find themselves picking up trash along the Chesapeake Bay, feeding the homeless or cutting grass at a local youth shelter.
Community service projects ― as well as the chance to inspire team building through cooking classes, wine-tasting seminars and outdoor recreational activities ― are part of a growing trend at meetings and conventions. In a down economy, organizers say audiences want more out of a conference than listening to speakers in a sunless meeting room. “People want to come together and be part of something bigger and better,” says Marti Balcom, president of the Balcom Group, a meeting planning company in Heathsville.

Some groups schedule a day of service in the host community. Others focus on a specific project.  The National Association of Workforce Development Professionals meeting in Virginia Beach signed 800 postcards to send to military men and women serving overseas. “Sending 800 postcards really feels like a big impact and brings the group together,” adds Balcom, who organized the meeting in 2011.

Giving back to the host city is often the extra incentive to attract busy executives. “For us it’s the biggest trend — giving-back projects, what they can do for the community,” says Al Hutchinson, vice president of convention sales and marketing at the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the world we’re living in right now. That’s who we are and what we do in America, and conventioneers are no different. They want to find a way to help our community.”

That’s a plus for Virginia Beach, which has seen fewer conventions make long-range reservations. “Instead of folks booking three or four years out, they’re waiting and booking within a year,” Hutchinson says. Economic concerns, along with the potential effects of sequestration, have especially impacted government travel, which accounts for 19 to 20 percent of annual room nights in the resort city.

The convention and visitors bureau has developed a website — One Beach One World — that lists outreach opportunities for groups meeting in the resort city. “Some groups just want to make a financial contribution because they have limited time,” Hutchinson adds. “Some groups want to create a hands-on activity.”
Delegates have donated toiletries or books to homeless shelters, while some organizations have contributed to local charities. “It helps meeting planners attain their corporate social responsibility goals. We want them to meet in Virginia Beach but also make our community a better place to live.”

The story’s the same for the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association. Last year, it launched Alexandria Cares, a community service program that encourages corporate groups to include service activities along with their business meetings. The ACVA, which booked $3.8 million in meetings and group travel during fiscal year 2012, finds that companies are shunning lavish events in favor of community service projects.

Groups meeting in Alexandria may spend time outside the conference room bowling with underprivileged children, decorating historic sites for the holidays and building bicycles for needy families. “We are very proactive in the corporate social responsibility environment,” says Robin D. Roane, the ACVA’s senior sales manager. “If an organization needs something unique regarding a corporate social responsibility activity, we can certainly create that.”

VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads has been a major beneficiary of the trend toward corporate social responsibility. “We get a lot of corporate meetings where a company will take everybody out of the conference for a half day and do volunteer work,” says Kate Meechan, corporate relations director for the nonprofit volunteer clearinghouse. “The business is seen as giving back, and employees have a chance to do something altruistic on company time.”

Volunteerism not only promotes good will, it can play a critical role in the company’s bottom line. “The whole corporate social responsibility side of business has gone from being a nice thing to do to a need to do,” Meechan adds. “Consumers are able to see every aspect of business on the Internet. They can see if a business gives back, if it’s socially responsible.”

Team-building activities, whether working on a volunteer project, preparing a four-course dinner, or racing kayaks on nearby rivers, are becoming key features of off-site meetings, too.  Marketers say these activities build camaraderie among participants and, as an added bonus, offer a distinctive experience representative of the host region. “Team-building is a trend,” says Tim Bugas, director of sales and marketing for The Homestead in Hot Springs. Corporate groups often take a break from meetings with games of paint ball and capture the flag. Others flex their competitive muscles on kayak or canoe races on nearby waterways. “They’re looking to try to get outdoors a little more versus being in the classroom,” adds Bugas. 

The Homestead’s Canyon Ranch Spa Club, slated to open in May, will tap into the corporate wellness trend. Canyon Ranch nutritionists will be available to lead conference sessions promoting healthful lifestyle choices. “Companies recognize that they have to keep employees not only happy but healthy,” Bugas says. The resort is seeing meeting participants request trail mix, fruits, juices and vitamin water instead of sodas and cookies during refreshment breaks. “It’s not so much chocolate cookies anymore. Those are gone — not all the time — but the majority of the time.”

Meeting attendees at the 12,000-acre Primland resort in Meadows of Dan can enjoy exercise, fresh air and team-building as they participate on a high-tech treasure hunt along Blue Ridge Mountain trails. Geocaching, in which participants use GPS receivers to find hidden canisters, has become a popular exercise for groups at Primland, which hosts about 80 meetings each year.  “Even more so than meeting, they want team building,” notes Dana Puckett, Primland’s in-house group sales manager. “It gives them a chance to interact outside the work area and help each other as a team.” 

Other groups opt to boost team morale in the kitchen. “Food is a great uniter,” says Maria Kopsidas, owner of Cookology, a Dulles Town Center culinary school. “People have been doing cooking classes for a while, but we changed it up and made it into a corporate environment.”

There’s even a bit of Iron Chef-style competition. In one Mystery Basket team bonding activity, participants are divided into project management groups and use a “mystery” basket of ingredients to plan and prepare a meal within 90 minutes. Judges then choose the winning team. “It creates camaraderie,” Kopsidas notes. “They became a group of potential friends and not just colleagues.”

Fortune 500 companies, including Exxon Mobil, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Fannie Mae frequently host meetings in Cookology’s kitchen for lessons mixed with a dash of team building. “We create this really fun situation involving food and wine that mirrors their potential work environment,” Kopsidas says. “It gives people insight to potential leadership ability.”

For groups preferring to let someone else do the cooking, marketers are touting their region’s culinary offerings. “We ensure delegates leave Alexandria with a memorable meeting experience,” says Roane. Alexandria, which hosts small- to medium-size conventions, offers visitors the chance to partake of a progressive meal at three or four restaurants while simultaneously taking a walking tour of the historic district, the third oldest in the nation. “One of the things we take pride in is we can provide the ‘wow’ factor for delegates.” 

In Roanoke, meeting organizers may include time for participants to take in Virginia Tech athletic events or mountain music in nearby Floyd, hike on the Appalachian Trail or bike on the greenway.  “We promote the hub-and-spoke philosophy where people come in for meetings and want to see what else is in the region”, says Landon Howard, president of the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Guests these days, he adds, often extend their business travel to take in an area’s sights. Statewide, about one in five travelers extend their trip for leisure, according to fiscal year 2011 data from TNS Travels America. Bookings for meetings in the Roanoke Valley are currently three to five years in advance, the most in recent history.

The convention and visitors bureau is getting positive feedback from visitors who attend meetings in the city. “When they walk through the city with a badge on, it’s very common for local people to welcome them and offer to assist them,” says Catherine Fox, the bureau’s director of tourism and communications. 

Still, while community service, team-building and leisurely activities are becoming essential to the meeting experience, the typical convention setting is not likely to fade away. “Place and space are really important,” Balcom says. “That’s the challenge. How do you take your meeting outside the meeting environment but still accomplish your goals? I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the conference environment.”

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