Quiet Crisis: CVBs Stick to Positive, Honest Communications as Economy Stumbles

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Executive Summary

  • Honesty is the best policy, but stress the positive
  • Get in front of the public quickly and frequently
  • Keep city leaders and stakeholders up to speed
  • Media coverage of trade shows proves business is continuing

Quiet Crisis: CVBs Stick to Positive, Honest Communications as Economy Stumbles

San Diego, CA
 – While not as dramatic as a hurricane or disruptive as a broken water pipe, the recession has had enough of an impact on trade show venues that convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) should consider a crisis communications strategy for dealing with their local news media and anxious city leadership.

Crisis communications has become a finely honed and required skill for venue managers. The goal is to get the best information out to the media, government officials and the public in timely fashion, and at the same time, keep stakeholders, such as trade show organizers, apprised of how events may be impacted.

This system has worked well for relatively short-term disruptions stemming from a one-time incident, such as a storm or structural problem. It is now being used by CVBs in their public discussions of the longer-running impact the recession is having on the tourism industry in their communities.

“Anyone trained in crisis communications knows that you have to acknowledge the issue first and foremost and also show that you care about what is going on and about the people who are affected,” said Katie Blint, most recently communications director at Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. “The last thing you want to do is not communicate. Furthermore, must communicate in a positive manner.”

Everyone is Watching

Cities have a lot riding on the convention and trade show industry. The industry provides scores of jobs and a revenue stream that is vital to downtown businesses and the city treasury, so a significant and sustained drop in business is naturally going to draw some anxious attention from the media and city hall.

“There are a lot of people who want to know the status of the tourism industry because it is such an important industry in San Diego,” said Joe Terzi, interim president and CEO of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis). Even though there has long been a close relationship between the city’s leadership and its tourism industry, Terzi stressed that ConVis was not taking its support from the city and the public for granted, particularly since the agency is drumming up public support to expand the San Diego Convention Center at a time when attendance at events is expected to be down. “We emphasize that the expansion of the convention center is a key component of the long-term plan for the city,” he said.

Glass Half Full

Experts in crisis communications urge CVB leaders to point out the contributions that conventions and trade shows make to the local economy.  But don’t pretend the recession doesn’t exist. Hotels and restaurants will notice sparser crowds and city official will report flagging hotel tax collections. As is the case when a convention center is disrupted by any crisis, the first rule is to present a complete and honest picture.

The ultimate goal of a recession communications plan should be to reassure the public that the local tourism economy is riding out some temporary rough weather and is not collapsing. “The best way to maintain your credibility is to acknowledge the obvious,” said Blint. “If the economy is bad then you have to say, ‘Yeah, it is bad, but here is what we are doing about it.’”

Laurel Erickson, a long-time Los Angeles television journalist who is now a crisis communications consultant for Crisis Media Coaches, said being visible and even proactive with the public helps assure them that the CVB is doing its best to maintain business as usual and protect the public’s investment. “Appearances and actions point to doing the right things,” she said.

The worst mistake a CVB can make, Erickson told TSE, is not reaching out to the public through their local media outlets. Inaction, she said, can come through either a blasé attitude toward business conditions or a bureaucratic unwillingness to break bad news to the public. “Bosses sometimes will hunker down and huddle instead of reacting quickly,” she said.

Erickson pointed to the so-called AIG effect as an example of an organization that failed to recognize a brewing public-relations challenge over the company’s travel policies until it was too late. “They were so slow in reacting that it gave a whole gaggle of politicians the time to grab a hold of it as an issue,” she said.

Picture Worth 1,000 Words

The best place to demonstrate the vibrancy of a city’s exhibition industry may be on the trade show floor. Television images and newspaper reports of events taking place at the convention center will give the public an idea of the business conducted at trade shows. “It sends the message that business is still taking place,” said Blint, who was the Connecticut Convention Center’s liaison with the Hartford media. “Even in a down economy, people are still meeting and still coming to town to do business.”

Blint recommended CVBs to help their trade show customers drum up some media coverage and assist them in developing story ideas that will appeal to a general news outlet. If the show management prefers to keep the media out, then the CVB must respect their wishes. Some organizers and associations may not be keen on showing off exhibit floors and networking parties that could come off in the media as being too glitzy and extravagant.

But Blint said many of the show managers whose events were featured in the Hartford media were delighted with the publicity. “They didn’t expect to be on the front page or on television or radio,” she said. “It is a very innovative way to nurture repeat business.”

Reach Joe Terzi at (619) 232-3101 or jterzi@sdcvb.org; Katie Blint at  katieblint@gmail.com; Laurel Erickson at (323) 309-7576 or laurel@crisismediacoaches.com