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COURTING CONVENTIONS
INSIDE THE CONVENTION BUSINESS
HOW BUFFALO
LURED AND LOST
A BIG ONE

Deborah Curtis tiptoed at 1 a.m. through a hotel hallway in Albuquerque, N.M., this summer slipping customized do-not-disturb signs on the doorknobs of rooms occupied by heavy hitters of the nation's law enforcement establishment.

The signs read: "SHHHH! I'm Dreaming of Buffalo."

She worked with a careful blend of haste and precision, trying not to wiggle the door handles.

The late-night lobbying strategy was one of the last charges in an eight-month crusade to attract the national Drug Abuse Resistance Education convention to Buffalo in 2000.

The next morning, as D.A.R.E. directors knuckled sleep from their eyes, another reminder of Buffalo greeted them: A cardboard icon of Buffalo's unbridled enthusiasm. And if that wasn't enough, the hallways were posted with colorful posters of the downtown skyline, flanked by a banner that read: "The Buffalo You Don't Get to See on the Weather Channel," a poster featuring blue skies and sailboats.

"While our competitors were at the bar, we were walking the halls, putting up these signs," said Ms. Curtis with a mischievous chuckle.

All is fair in love, war and the battle to snare new convention business for Western New York, in this case an influential, high-profile group of law enforcement officers who coordinate substance abuse prevention programs for youngsters.

But despite the months of planning and hard work, in the end the region lost the convention to Nashville, Tenn., as D.A.R.E. coordinators decided that shuttling delegates between the 15 Buffalo-area hotels needed to accommodate them was too cumbersome.

By conservative estimates, the region spent about $15,000 and 500 combined labor hours trying to land a five-day event that would have attracted 3,000 people who would have spent at least $2.5 million. An estimated economic spinoff is about 2.5 times that, or, $6.25 million.

The quest to bring the D.A.R.E. forces to the region is a textbook example of the dozens of behind-the-scenes efforts undertaken each year by the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau to try to land national conventions.

Since late March, The Buffalo News kept day-to-day contact with CVB officials and received a rare inside view of the preparations as coordinators mapped out preliminary plans, forged alliances with 18 local law enforcement agencies and wined-and-dined D.A.R.E. decision-makers.

Showing off assets

Buffalo's bid had powerful attractions in its favor: D.A.R.E. has never held a national convention in the Northeast. The closest that delegates came to the Empire State was Chicago in 1989. Next year's convention will be in Washington, D.C. Previous gathering were held in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Orlando.

The presentation hit hard on the fact that Western New York is within a 500-mile radius of nearly half of the U.S. population and 62 percent of the Canadian population. D.A.R.E. Canada lobbied on behalf of Buffalo's bid, with law enforcers in Toronto convinced that a Western New York venue would help advance their efforts to bolster Canada's profile in the organization.

The CVB staff started making phone calls to D.A.R.E. officials in January. there were dozens of meetings, conference calls, letter blitzes and presentations -- 58 separate initiatives.

Ms. Curtis, sales director at the CVB, said the campaign included everything from a progressive postcard campaign to hosting an elaborate site inspection of Buffalo.

The team even treated the two sons of a visiting D.A.R.E. official to the thrills of Darien Lake while their father conducted business.

"You do what you need to do in order to make a favorable impression," she said.

Especially when your competition is Nashville, New Orleans and Los Angeles. As CVB President Richard Geiger put it, Buffalo doesn't have the "glitz," the concentration of downtown hotels or the bargain-basement air fares that many other popular convention sites enjoy.

Sometimes, the issues are far more mundane than hotel rates. Seemingly trivial details like making sure there are water coolers in every small meeting room can sometimes make or break a deal.

"In this case, the organizers were worried about the availability of water in the Convention Center. Apparently, they had past problems in another city. So we made a point of emphasizing that we would have nice, big water coolers in all their meeting rooms," said Ms. Curtis.

To emphasize the point, she handed out bottled water to each director as she made her final presentation at the D.A.R.E. national convention in Albuquerque.

Lots of hard work

But it was a long and winding road to New Mexico in July and then a tedious one until the final decision went against Buffalo last Tuesday.

After making feeler calls to D.A.R.E. directors in January, CVB officials began contacting major law enforcement agencies in the region in an early step to build grass roots support for attracting D.A.R.E.

A preplanning meeting was held in early April when local organizers sat around a conference table in the CVB's downtown offices, brainstorming about possible themes, special events and pitches.

They decided that an Olympic theme would add an aura of excitement and respectability to the region's proposal. Future brainstorming sessions produced the following theme: "D.A.R.E. to Go For the Gold: Buffalo 2000."

Crafting a slogan was the easy part. Over the next two months, officials pulled together a 100-page presentation detailing everything from how much delegates would pay for hotel rooms to what would be the menu for each meal and where families would spend their spare time.

There were some tricky logistical problems which, in the end, were too much to overcome. Convention delegates would need 2,000 hotel rooms on peak nights, meaning that 15 properties would have to be used -- some as far as 15 miles away from the downtown Convention Center.

There were also transportation issues to address, concerns that contributed to the ultimate decision to hold the convention in Nashville. Last July -- on the day that the D.A.R.E. board of directors was to choose a site for its 2000 convention -- officials decided that old school buses would be unacceptable modes of transportation for delegates. They wanted air conditioned motor coaches.

"The issue came up just as I was scheduled to leave Albuquerque. So I'm checking out of the hotel, heading to the airport and making all kinds of calls," said Ms. Curtis.

After a round of frantic phone calls and long-distance problem solving, officials found a solution, a compromise, of sorts. They proposed shuttling delegates in air-conditioned commuter buses. The only concession -- the vehicles would not have lavatories or reclining seats. At the time, the proposal seemed to be acceptable to the D.A.R.E. contingent.

Site visit key

Two months earlier, D.A.R.E.'s national officers trekked to Buffalo for a three-day site inspection to tour local hotels and the convention center, visit Niagara Falls and enjoyed elaborate dinners and receptions.

The highlight of the visit was a community breakfast where representatives from 18 police agencies and other local organizations pledged their support in brief verbal pitches.

"We don't have all the bells and whistles that some other regions have, so we had to make it clear that we're willing to go the extra yard to make their convention a success," Geiger said.

Buddy Harlan, outgoing president of the National D.A.R.E. Officer's Association, is based in Columbia, Tenn. He said site inspections are critical in the study process.

"You can see it on paper, but that's not always enough. We go to the cities and make sure that the convention centers are large enough and what the hotels look like. And we go there to see if there's a genuine commitment by the local entities to pull this off," Harlan said during his visit to Buffalo in May.

He added that affordability, the layout of the downtown region and the diversity of cultural and recreational opportunities are also key considerations.

As the directors left Buffalo on that Sunday, Ms. Curtis was playing chauffeur by 6:30 a.m., making six separate drives over an eight-hour period.

"It was a chance for me to talk with each of them one-on-one and get their honest, individual assessment," she said.

As D.A.R.E. delegates converged on New Mexico this summer, local CVB officials were optimistic about Buffalo's chances. Two months earlier, organizers had been told that Buffalo was likely to be picked to host a statewide D.A.R.E. conference in 2000 that will attract about 325 delegates.

The CVB could also point to its previous successes in the law-enforcement arena, having hosted large-scale events for groups such as the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.

Getting out to sell

The bureau has enjoyed a good season thus far, bagging several major conventions. They include three major events booked next year by Convention Planning Inc., a company that stages events for Amway groups. The CPI conventions will attract more than 8,000 attendees and will have an estimated economic impact of more than $6 million.

During the first eight months of the year, the CVB booked a record 128 conventions that will use 73,108 room nights over the next few years. The events, with an estimated attendance of 65,626, will have an economic impact exceeding $75 million.

Ms. Curtis is convinced that even the smallest details can be powerful allies in luring convention trade.

That's why she orchestrated the progressive postcard campaign in the days leading up to the Albuquerque convention. D.A.R.E. directors were faxed a series of seven postcards -- one each day -- that tried to propel them 26 months into the future. Ms. Curtis hand-wrote the postcards, dating them July 2000 and using names like "Officer Tough-to-please."

One message said:

"Great choice. The whole community is behind D.A.R.E. Signs are in the local shops. Welcome banners everywhere. There were 18 chiefs of police from the greater Buffalo area participating, working, showing us around town."

Earlier in the season, D.A.R.E. officials received letters of support from more than two dozen local dignitaries, including Mayor Masiello, County Executive Gorski, Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan and local police chiefs. Ms. Curtis said the goal was to underscore the broad-based community support for hosting the event.

Ms. Curtis arrived at the Albuquerque Convention armed with a duffel bag full of props that would assist her during her 30-minute presentation to D.A.R.E. directors.

"I wanted to engage in creative storytelling. The whole idea was to make a pitch that would be remembered -- to hit on our themes in a convincing and sometimes visual way," she said.

For example, as Ms. Curtis talked about the babysitting rooms that would be set up during the convention, she whipped out a Beanie Baby crab, promising delegates that their children "won't be crabs" because of all the toys they'd have during their Buffalo stay.

The CVB also arrived in New Mexico armed with a videotape tailored to the group, even addressing D.A.R.E. directors by name. It was yet another touch aimed at convincing the D.A.R.E. decision makers that Buffalo was hungry.

Try as they might

But the most frustrating phase of the lobbying effort was only just beginning.

Ms. Curtis headed to New Mexico expecting the board to pick a site for the 2000 convention before this year's convention ended on July 11. At the time, outsiders had no idea that there was a festering dispute between two national D.A.R.E. organizations over a memorandum of understanding -- a document that had to be approved before future convention sites could be announced.

CVB officials made weekly phone calls throughout the summer and into September, trying to get a better feel for when a decision would be made. At every juncture, staffers gently pried information, hoping to learn where Buffalo stood. They received positive signals from some D.A.R.E. contacts right until the decision went against them last Tuesday.

Bobby Robinson, vice president of the National D.A.R.E. Officers Association, said last week that the decision was difficult.

"The people in Buffalo went the whole nine yards. The community support was there and the package was strong. But the deciding factor was the number of hotel rooms in your downtown area," Robinson said.

Delegates attending the convention in two years will need 2,000 rooms. At best, Buffalo can offer 900 downtown. The Opryland Hotel in Nashville will accommodate all 2,000 delegates and their families under one roof.

Ms. Curtis said she and other CVB officials were stunned by the loss.

"I still have a feeling that if they had taken a vote at the Albuquerque convention in July, we would have clinched it," she said.

Ms. Curtis said she feels badly for the local law-enforcement community, which she said did an outstanding job throughout the process.

"Handling rejection can be tough for some people who are not in sales, although I'm not sure how good I handle it, sometimes. You just have to move on to the next project," Ms. Curtis said.

One of the next projects could be the national D.A.R.E. convention in 2001. Ms. Curtis said in the coming months, CVB officials will be sniffing around to get a better idea what went wrong this time. The last eight months of exhaustive lobbying could have significant spinoff effects if Buffalo makes another pitch to D.A.R.E. directors.

"Who knows what could happen with the 2001 convention? By that time, we might even have one or two new hotels," said Ms. Curtis.

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