Bus shuttles with prizes and entertainment moved hundreds between two hotels at a Kalispell conference
When the Kalispell, Montana, Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB) won the bid to host the annual gathering of Montana’s tourism and recreation industry, they didn’t know it would be the biggest meeting of its kind ever held in Kalispell. The 42nd annual Montana Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation in 2016 brought 477 people to Kalispell, a city with a population of just over 20,000.
Eight months of planning by an experienced nine-person conference committee made up of hotel and tourism specialists paid off.
“It’s an important event. We need to knock it out of the park every time. We were definitely blown away by the Kalispell meeting,” said Daniel Iverson, communications manager for the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development that sponsored the event. They had two hotels, two miles apart, with blocks of rooms and facilities booked in each. One hotel hosted the exhibits and sessions and the other provided lunch. Buses would shuttle conference attendees between the two.
Every other year, this conference is held in Helena, the Montana state capital, to coincide with the legislature’s biennial session so elected officials can take part in the tourism discussions. In years when the legislature is not in session, the conference rotates around the state.
“Our goal for this meeting is a combination of networking and education. It’s our opportunity once a year to bring many of the stakeholders in the recreation industry together to learn about the latest trends on a national scale and learn about what’s going on in the rest of our very large state,” Iverson explained.
“The situation in Kalispell is common for us: there are very few properties throughout the state that can host an event of this size without getting creative with the logistics,” Iverson said. Shepherding hundreds of people onto buses with a tight timeline was tricky.
Dawn Jackson, group sales manager at the Kalispell CVB explained that her biggest challenge was making sure they could accommodate everyone on the shuttle buses throughout the conference. “We needed to transport people to the Red Lion for lunch and back. The morning session at the Hilton ended at 11:45, and we had to have everyone at the Red Lion by noon. Imagine herding 500 people! Lunch was finished at 1:15 and they had to be back at the Hilton by 1:30. We didn’t want people to have to wait for buses. For the most part, it worked,” said Jackson.
At this conference, most attendees drive themselves to the meeting location, so keeping people from using their own cars was a challenge. With the tight timeline, however, it was important to keep the group together. Jackson and her committee came up with a creative way to entice people onboard. Four buses were sponsored by different organizations, and each had signs with the sponsor’s name. Riders could select which bus to ride.
Each bus had a volunteer entertainer or two —an actor, singer or magician. Riders were invited to put in a business card to enter a raffle for a gift basket created by the bus sponsor—there were different gift baskets on each bus.
“People told us they especially loved the entertainment. We had performers from the Alpine Theatre Project (in Whitefish, Montana). They sang for free, since it was a chance to tell people about their upcoming play,” Jackson explained. “Many of the actors and actresses come from New York, and have unbelievable talent,” she added.
A Kalispell CVB staffer dressed like a TWA flight attendant and entertained bus riders by narrating their five-minute drive to the other hotel as if it were a plane trip. A magician on one of the other buses performed tricks and told bus riders about Kalispell.
“The Kalispell CVB set the bar high for our future meetings. They had the bus shuttles running at the right times and took the transportation one step farther and made it something people wanted to ride. They came up with the great idea to make it fun with drawings for prizes, and the transportation kept the conference moving well,” Iverson said.
Jackson said the hardest part of setting up the bus logistics was knowing the number of people they would have to accommodate, arranging the sponsorships to defray the cost of the buses and making sure the Red Lion could accommodate last-minute lunch goers.
“One day we packed the buses and had about ten people left, so one bus had to come back for them. We were in constant communication with the hotel serving lunch, telling them how many extra people were coming and making sure they had seating available for them prior to them walking in the door,” Jackson said.
She explained that setting up and running a complicated meeting with more than one venue was made easy because of the planning committee’s established working relationships with their hotel and transportation partners.
“You have to know your local resources, their capabilities, trustworthiness and especially know that they are flexible. There are always surprises,” Jackson said.
Looking back on this conference, Jackson reflected that their keys to success included having a planning committee that assigned its members specific tasks, had good communication and was supportive. “You also have to make sure you include fun in everything you do. Make it memorable,” she added.
In addition to the creative bus logistics, the meeting had a costume contest at the welcome reception with the theme, “Travelers through Time,” to celebrate 100 years of the National Park Service. According to Jackson, a photo booth added to the fun of that reception, as well as offering prizes. “The anticipation of excellent speakers for the conference the next day was important too,” she said and conference sponsor, Iverson, seconded that thought.
“I prioritize those keynote speakers,” Iverson explained. “That’s the biggest thing people who attend are going to remember. We’ve had some conferences where the food was good or not so good. Not a big deal, but we aim for big keynotes and speakers. We cover all their expenses. It’s worth it.”
We asked Jackson what tips she would give to meeting planners and other CVB staff who are going to host a large conference in a small-to-medium-size city.
“I’d encourage them to start their planning with CVBs. They have existing relationships and a wealth of resources. What the CVB doesn’t know, they can research for you and help you save time. For CVB staff, work closely with your partners, plan weekly scheduled phone calls to relay updated information, work through challenges and keep detailed information, “Jackson said.
This Kalispell, Montana meeting proves that a smaller city can be an ideal place to hold a large conference when creative logistics planning is part of the mix.
“I love when people come here for the first time and are surprised with what Kalispell has to offer. We can have some very nice professional meetings here, and our activities are abundant; we have a very good professional staff at the Kalispell CVB and a friendly city. Why would you not want to have a meeting here?” said Jackson.
By Alison Highberger