While there are times when natural or manmade disasters make travel unadvisable, often misperceptions are the only real issue. For example, even though Cancun was largely unaffected by H1N1 or the violent outbursts affecting other areas of the country, the rumors nearly destroyed attendance at Moore Stephens North America’s 2009 conference there, according to Jessica Levin CMP, manager of communications and member services.
“The meeting was long set into place prior to the H1N1 outbreak and we had 160 rooms booked. We were expecting 200 persons, including spouses and guests. But we started seeing a lot of pushback, a lot of concern over violence that was 1,300 miles from our destination, and over a virus that hadn’t been reported in Cancun at all,” she said.
Similarly, when Jennafer Ross CMP, owner of Pennsylvania-based JR Global Events, booked an association known for its stand on religious freedom to China to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope, participants were noticeably squeamish about safety and logistics.
“They were worried about communication, transportation, safety — what would happen from the moment we got off of the aircraft,” she said.
Even domestic destinations can raise participant concerns. Maureen Santoro CMP, the director of operations at Atlas Travel in Massachusetts, had problems when all of the downtown Boston hotels were sold out for her medical device industry group, and the client was wary of an airport-based venue.
”They were concerned it wouldn’t be the same caliber,” she explained.
All three planners had issues with attendees’ destination misperception. How they overcame the objections and salvaged attendance at their meetings offers lessons for planners everywhere.
“Perceptions of safety are a prime determinant in how attendees perceive and subsequently evaluate a destination,” said Eli Gorin, CMP, owner of Florida-based gMeetings and Train2Meet.
People rely on perceptions when they can’t get hold of facts but perceptions are not necessarily reality and are influenced by a person’s culture, upbringing, morals, ethics and past experiences, said Gorin. He pointed to the recent struggles of Las Vegas in the aftermath of the AIG effect as an example of when misperceptions cloud fact.
Gorin’s firm took a Planners Perception Survey of 76 meeting planners — a mix of association, corporate and third-party planners from around the country — and discovered that 82% based their perceptions of a destination on word of mouth rather than research or personal experience.
He broke respondents’ concerns into ten categories: safety; government issues (such as corruption, difficulty getting visas and going through customs, etc.); cost; climate conditions; transportation issues such as accessibility; business dealings (whether the destination is easy to deal with, flexible and service-oriented); cleanliness (including the green factor); reputation (boondoggle vs. appealing and culturally rich); description of location (lacking infrastructure vs. filled with activities, scenic) and description of ambiance (overdone, tacky, unfriendly vs. welcoming, peaceful and fun). Gorin said he believes that when these ten factors are examined separately, from a fact-based perspective, often perceptions change.
Here are seven ways to counter misperceptions attendees may have:
1) Acknowledge and deal with perception problems straight on. That’s Gorin’s advice. He said that planners can convince stakeholders/attendees about destinations and issues only after becoming convinced themselves, which takes research, education and an open mind. ”You should develop a plan to sell the client on the destination, perhaps even by presenting the attributes of a destination blindly, without revealing the locale first, so clients understand how the venue suits their needs,” he said.
2) Use Center for Disease Control (CDC) and travel advisory warnings (or lack of them) to reassure: Levin’s solution was to communicate repeatedly with her registrants via email to let them know the situation was under control. “We explained that we were closely monitoring the situation and wouldn’t do anything to put them at risk, We communicated the CDC recommendation, the lack of travel advisories in place for Cancun and also what we were hearing from people who were actually in Mexico. We never let them think that we were ignoring the situation,” she said.
3) Use many methods of communication: Both Levin and Ross said they used all means at their disposal to communicate with potential attendees, including a program website with links to destination sites, email and even snail mail. “There was a lot of pre-event hand-holding,” said Ross. “We sent many emails before they registered and the website had a lot of information on things to know when going to Beijing, what we recommend you bring, what the CDC wants you to bring, this is how you will get around. They knew far in advance that we’d be moving with them every step of the way, there’d be no ‘jump in the cab’ situations,” she said
4) Show that you’re not making decisions independently: Throughout her attempts to quell fears about the selected venue, Levin made sure prospective attendees knew that she wasn’t acting independently of the association’s management. “We also told them that it wasn’t just headquarters making these decisions but also the board of directors, who still approved of our destination selection,” she said.
5) Counter apprehensions before departure: Ross knew that her Beijing-bound attendees were most concerned about communication and personal hygiene in China. To counter their fears about communication, she mailed language cards to attendees’ homes with 10-12 important phrases like “Take me to the [fill in the blank] hotel” and “ I need the police” written on one side in English and the other side in Chinese. Attendees were told they’d get the same cards again upon arriving at their hotel in Beijing—in case they worried about losing them or forgetting them at home. “I also gave them my international mobile telephone number so they knew they could reach me at any time,” she said.
Regarding personal hygiene issues such as at the Great Wall, where bathroom facilities are somewhat primitive, Ross told attendees that as much as possible, they would be visiting areas “which gave a flavor of where they were, but with Western comforts.” She also sent them a “personal amenity kit” prior to departure. It contained hand sanitizer, packs of tissues, hand wipes, bottles of soap, even a hook they could hang over the bathroom door for their handbags. “We also advised them to bring their own emergency kit of Western drugs like Immodium, Tums, anything for gastro-intestinal distress that can occur when you’re eating foods that are different from what you are used to,” she said.
6) Prepare attendees for culture shock before departure: In April of 2009, Ross again ran a program for the same group who had traveled to Beijing, but this time to Istanbul. Ross was aware that it’s a way of life in Istanbul to have metal detectors and conveyor belts at venues, such as tourist attractions, restaurants and hotels so she informed her group about this before departure. “We were staying at the Ritz Carlton, but once you see a conveyor belt and metal detector outside of an airport, Westerners get nervous. We wanted to make sure they knew they were safe, that this was not something that had just gone into effect because of a recent or expected bombing,” she said.
7) Sometimes seeing is believing: With her airport-hotel adverse group, Maureen Santoro arranged a complimentary site inspection for the VIPs at the Hyatt Regency Harborside Logan Airport before contracts were signed. “They experienced for themselves that the hotel rooms were soundproof, the food was up to par — or actually superior — the rooms were nice, the parking was great and they’d have no charges for airport transfers because of the hotel’s shuttle service. They were satisfied,” she said.