BY MADELEINE MACCARThe world just keeps getting smaller as technology, accessibility, and globalization continually work together in making even the farthest reaches not that out of reach anymore. Enjoying the inevitable corollary benefits, business travel is on the rise as the Great Recession becomes more and more of a long-ago bad dream, even if travel budgets have not always kept pace.
With more people hitting the road, all those travelers, all their plans, and all the metal transporting them to and from every point comprise an intricate puzzle with an infinite combination of moves—and infinite potential for miscalculation—that all need to be if not outright predicted then at least well-prepared for.
Destination management companies (DMCs)—the intermediaries who broker the event—and the partners delivering particular services are keenly aware of how much painstaking detail and precise timing goes into pulling off group moves that can safely handle dozens, hundreds, or even tens of thousands of people during peak seasons and large events. The responsibilities of DMCs are many: planning an itinerary; booking hotels, transportation, reservations, and tours (often at multiple properties within each category); creating everything from a group’s manifest to its menus; decorating venues; and coordinating with numerous outside vendors, just to name a few.
In comparison, getting people from point A to point B seems like a cakewalk, but anyone who’s done DMC work can attest to its taxing nature. Never mind keeping tabs on one group: Convention season means scads of people are flocking to one city to reap the benefits of its local allure and convention-destination appeal alike.
The number one benefit of hiring people who worked at DMCs is that you get someone who has the insight, who knows the services and expectations, and also speaks the language.” –Nour Elotmani, President of Destination MCO"
The nature of DMC work is inherently detail-obsessed in a way that is certainly not unfamiliar to luxury ground transportation operators who are used to tackling multi-dimensional tasks that marry in-office staff who can quickly balance reservations, availability, timing, and local know-how with reliable chauffeurs who can pull off the complex choreography of the actual move itself.
Nour and Sami Elotmani of Orlando’s Destination MCO have been working with their top-tier destination city’s DMCs for more than 12 years—nearly the 15-year-old company’s entire existence—and there was a time when roughly 60 percent of their business was derived from their DMC involvement. With a convention season that takes off in October and winds down in May—just in time for the hot season, when more northern convention destinations get their turn as top draws—it’s no wonder the advantageously located company benefits from The Theme Park Capital of the World’s myriad attractions.
“In those early years, our DMC work did accelerate our growth,” Nour says.
The drawback to being so intrinsically intertwined with one sector, however, is that when it inevitably falters, those companies that have become reliant upon that business are also negatively impacted. And such was the case back in 2009, when DMCs became a declining trend in the face of a steep economic downturn that had purse strings everywhere simultaneously tightening.
“DMCs used to make up about 60 percent of our business in our earlier years, before the Great Recession,” Sami says. “The first transportation businesses that disappeared were meeting and events and the DMC business. We had to write off a lot of receivables because so many DMCs basically folded.” And while spending has significantly picked up in the past few years thanks to the ripple effects of financial recovery, other familiar changes are presenting entirely new challenges now.
Take the dreaded gig economy, for example. That disruption spans far beyond the ground transportation industry’s struggles with TNCs and their lack of regulation and exclusive use of independent contractors, as other travel sectors have been impacted by the on-demand expectations they have fueled in a world where immediate payoff isn’t always fast enough—though it allows a transportation company the opportunity to offset that frantic logistical rearranging with incentives that either encourage earlier submissions or charge extra for late ones.
“We used to get the heads up two or three weeks ahead of time and receive that DMC manifest maybe a week prior; now that has dropped to one week ahead of time and we receive the manifest two or three days before,” Sami explains. “Our reaction to that is pricing our services accordingly. If we get a manifest a week ahead, the price is a little bit lower than if we get it two days ahead of the trip.”
Lisa Censullo, vice president of Dav El/BostonCoach who also runs Best of Boston, the company’s own DMC, has seen firsthand how clients—whether they’ll be the end user or are the third-party organizing an event—are becoming more comfortable with last-minute manifest changes when the lead time was already a bit shorter than it used to be.
“Lead time is definitely shrinking,” she confirms. “We used to get a booking one or two years out, but like everything else in the world, everyone wants it faster. But it also depends on the client: We have a 10,000-person group coming in two weeks and we’re still finalizing details for some programs during that event. But then we have a contract for something that we’re doing in 2017 that’s already signed, sealed, and delivered.”
Of course, Censullo understands that, thanks to the nature of the work being hinged upon all of its many moving parts working in unison, sometimes things like completed earnings reports and budget allowances are not hashed out overnight—and as every client is different, so too are their work styles. But with a working budget being a decidedly crucial step in the process, she accepts it as all part of doing the job right.
“Some people do things at the last minute and some people plan in advance,” she says. “I think what’s happening is they realize that in this gig economy, everything’s faster than it used to be. And depending on the industry we’re working with—whether it’s pharmaceutical, bio, or technology—a lot of these companies have to wait to see what their earnings are, what their budget is for the next year. There are so many factors that go into the timing of things.”
As these diminishing lead times becomes less of a novelty and more of an expectation throughout the entire DMC sector, it becomes glaringly apparent that the entire team handing a DMC job needs to be flexible and at the top of their game every time.
“Working with DMCs in general can be very taxing on your team: When you’re running a big group, the staff will be putting in all their time on a regular basis,” Sami says. “Our experience is that DMCs can be very particular about their needs. They want to make one call, they want one point person they can send all their changes to, they don’t want to keep asking the same question—they can’t talk to five or six reservationists or get passed around the office.”
This is partly why Destination MCO is so keen on hiring DMC alumni to help them navigate through the stressors of DMC work. Having staff members who can “speak the language of DMCs” and who know what to expect from this unique sector of travel management minimizes the frustrations and shortens the learning curve of identifying the things that make most DMCs tick—and, of course, demonstrates that the company is fully aware of the demands that will be placed on them when it comes time to tackle the task ahead.
“The number-one benefit of hiring people who worked at DMCs is that you get someone who has the insight, who knows the services and expectations, and also speaks the language,” Nour says. “I found that DMCs identify with that employee very well.”
“Even if you have a dispatcher or a reservationist who’s great, that doesn’t mean they’ll be a great contact for a DMC,” Sami adds. “Their point of contact can’t be unfamiliar with handling an event.”
Not everything about DMCs is equal parts headaches and payoff, though. Censullo has noticed the heartening uptick in clients who are interested in not just visiting Boston but also giving back to it, both byspecifying the support of local businesses and social efforts, like requesting farm-to-table menu items made popular by the national locavore movement, and inquiring about humanitarian endeavors they can participate in during their stay.
“We get a lot of requests for things like farm-to-table menus and food, using local farmers, local flowers—an interest in supporting Boston is definitely more common these days,” she says. “We’re getting a lot more clients who want to do something for the city. So they’ll have a charity in mind or they tie it to their program. We just had a client hold an event at Fenway Park: Before their event, they built bicycles for kids and had the kids come and take a tour of the park and pick out a bike. It was nice because it was a part of their event.”
There are, of course, always the constants that come with not fixing what isn’t broken. Delivering VIP service to each and every DMC client is still the name of the game.
“It’s all about service and going that extra mile,” Censullo says. “Anyone with enough time could go online and find venues and companies and floral displays and people to provide whatever they need: We know how things work in the city, so the high-level services we provide are above and beyond what anyone could do themselves or with a standard planner helping. It’s important to accommodate them and be flexible, because if we aren’t, they’ll go on to the next guy. And it’s really important for us to be the first guy and the best guy.” [CD0916]