Alonzo is now the editor-in-chief for two business travel magazines, Successful Meetings and Incentive, a title he’s held since 2002 and 1999, respectively. He’s seen trends come and go, but one thing remains the same: Meetings and events require the coordination of countless moving parts, and nearly as many dedicated partners to make them go off without a hitch—partners who, as meetings become high-profile affairs, require a local transportation company that can deftly navigate business VIPs through destination locales.
CD recently chatted with Alonzo to get his insights on how the chauffeured transportation world can better leverage itself to appeal to M&E decision-makers, and how those two worlds go hand in hand.
Chauffeur Driven: What is the biggest difference between when you first got into this industry and now?
Vince Alonzo: I’ve been doing this since 1988. When I first got into the industry, it was all going in one direction: The planner would organize the meeting, put together all these speakers, create all these events, and then just throw it out there for the audience—it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Now with the emergence of social media, there’s definitely more give and take between organizers and participants when it comes to an event’s content. Meeting attendees are pushing back and even trying to have an influence on shaping what the event’s going to be.
Another significant change is the attendees themselves. In years past, the vast majority of attendees were white men, which is not the case anymore. Different cultures and lifestyles are being represented and served now—and that’s a good thing. There are all these different cultural perspectives represented at these meetings that weren’t around 20 years ago. The meetings and events world is very representational of the larger cultural picture, and is especially true of the large trade shows and annual conventions where everyone’s coming from everywhere. It’s much more of a rainbow where all these lifestyles and cultures are coming together.
“Duty of care is a very big issue ... What transportation companies have to do is be prepared to show meeting planners the risk management policies and programs they have in the event that something happens.”
CD: What has kept you in the meetings and events world?
VA: It’s a fun industry: It’s all about putting together these lavish events, but it’s also an important part of a company because every meeting is all about marketing—and when I say “meeting,” I mean an event where the company flies everybody to a different city, everyone stays in a hotel, and uses the hotel meeting facilities or meeting rooms somewhere in the destination city. A meeting is a marketing event for a much smaller audience: It’s an internally focused event that’s trying to get your employees on board with whatever your company vision is, and that’s a sales job.
Meetings play a huge role in that, and they also play a huge role in enriching the host city. Even small meetings bring in a lot of money: the hotel costs, hiring private transportation companies to move people around if they’re doing outside events, and the money that attendees will spend in the city themselves. Just the sales taxes that they’ll spend help that destination pay its policemen, its firemen, its teachers, and all those services that the city needs.
CD: Do you see that same synergy working between the M&E sector and their transportation providers?
VA: Transportation is a part of any meeting, even a small one. My magazines’ division does about a dozen events each year where we bring meeting planners, suppliers, hoteliers, and convention and visitor’s bureaus to a destination, and they’ll have one-on-one appointments. These are relatively small meetings of about 100-200 people, yet they use private car services for speakers’ and VIPs’ airport transfers, as well as motorcoaches to move the group during the course of the event. All of that takes coordination between the transportation providers and the event planner, the hotel, and the off-site venues.
CD: How can transportation providers work better with meeting planners?
VA: Duty of care is a very big issue. People want to be safe even though we live in this crazy world where anything can happen anywhere at any time. What transportation companies have to do is be prepared to show meeting planners the risk management policies and programs they have in the event that something happens. Meeting planners want to see that so they can go back to their boards and say, “We’re using this vendor because they have this risk management policy in place and this is what their policy is in terms of dealing with incidents.” It gives transportation companies the one-up on TNCs because those companies simply don’t have to comply with the same rules and regulations.
TNCs typically don’t capture data on a company level. Actual transportation companies are in a great position to capture data just through conducting short polls in terms of what attendees felt about the experience—and that can help a meeting planner justify their cost to the higher-ups by demostrably adding value to the event. Most planners are already creating apps for their events: See if your company could put a survey on it to get additional information—that helps the planner, too. And it’s a way for you to gain information about both your audience and our sector.
CD: How have TNCs been appealing to the M&E segment?
VA: It’s not really an issue, even though Uber is going into the meetings market now. But meeting planners really do need that duty of care aspect, those insurance levels, and the safety and security requirements to go through the traditional procurement process, and I’m not really sure Uber’s up to speed on that. The other thing is, TNCs generally don’t have flexibility in pricing that a traditional transportation company would have.
CD: What is the place of transportation in the production of a meeting, especially in terms of hiring a company?
VA: Their place is to be a good partner. I’ll give you an example: A transportation company worked with us for an event we did this past March in the freezing cold. It was a venue with a huge security system that everybody needs a pass to get into, and we had to give our attendees their passes right in front of the security people—so some of our staff had to stay outside in 10-degree weather. But what the motorcoach company did was, when one bus dropped people off, instead of going right back, the driver waited for the next motorcoach to come so our people could stay warm inside the heated vehicle. When our staff would see part of the group coming, they’d jump out of the bus and give them their passes.
That kind of attention is what planners are looking for.
CD: Are there particular services that a transportation company can either offer or highlight to make itself more attractive to planners and clients?
VA: It all goes back to duty of care. This is especially true on the international level. They need to know that this is going to be a reliable vendor in the case of an emergency. Even though a lot of this is being driven by terrorism and things like that, that’s really a needle-in-the-haystack situation. What’s more likely is that situation where we’re freezing and need a place to stay, or somebody on the trip gets mugged or injured—in those particular incidences, they need to know the transportation company has some sort of a protocol in place to help deal with those things.
WiFi is absolutely important because now everybody’s connected all the time, especially if it’s something where you’re going out to a vineyard or winery where there’s a 45-minute ride—people will be using that time to work.
It definitely helps having that person on a long trip who can bring the destination alive for people, too. The meeting experience has taken on greater importance in the past few years. Planners really had to up their game to make the experience of being at the meeting more impactful for the attendees so they stay with the group, and also as people combine business and leisure travel. In the past, people would go to New York for a meeting; when they went home, people would ask what the city was like and they wouldn’t know because they were in the hotel the whole time. People really want to have more meaning in their lives in a way they didn’t in the past, and the past five or 10 years have really reflected that demand for a travel experience, even at a meeting.
CD: Can you expound on the importance of the meeting experience? How do you deliver the best possible one?
VA: Planners are really trying to bring the destination into the meeting more than they ever have. A big part of that is through food and beverages: They definitely like to highlight what’s going on at a destination in terms of local fare and drinks. They like to bring the culture and the story of the location into the meeting venue and make that a part of it. We chose the Delegates Dining Room at the United Nations as a meeting venue before because it’s an international organization that’s all about cooperation and working together, and our attendees were the people who plan international meetings, Having them collaborating and working together to make a meeting happen from inside this venue, you’re using the destination and the venue to bring that experience to a higher level. And that’s what meeting planners are trying to do right now.
CD: What do you see for the future of convention centers?
VA: They definitely have to get more savvy—and this is true of hotels, too—about the need for WiFi. Convention centers really have to evolve into technology hubs allowing people to use all the devices they want and allowing them to interact in different ways.
The days of the passive audience just sitting and listening to a speaker are gone. It’s really become more interactive, and convention centers are responding to this, in that they’re redesigning their public areas into these “conversation pits.” People can go into a session, experience the content being delivered, and when they come out, they have a comfortable place to sit and talk about what they just experienced. That’s where a lot of true learning comes from: where you’re sharing your perspective on what you just learned and then hearing from someone else about what they thought.
CD: Is there one most important thing or a service to provide if you’re looking to break into meetings and event work?
VA: The one thing they have to know is that this is a completely different audience than the leisure travel audience. A very experienced meeting planner is creating this event and they’re going to want more for their attendees, and they’re going to be a little more vocal about it. Meeting attendees are more high-maintenance, and a transportation company should know that it’s going to be a higher level of service. [CD0817]