CONVERTING BUYERS INTO FLYERS
THE MARTS ARE DIGGING UP TRAVEL INCENTIVES TO COMBAT WANING ATTENDANCE LEVELS.

Byline: Georgia Lee

It’s no secret that following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, fewer people have taken to the skies and checked into hotels. Airlines, hotel chains and other hospitality-oriented businesses have reacted by offering steep discounts aimed at getting Americans back in the mood to travel.
According to a recent survey by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation, lost revenue from meeting cancellations since Sept. 11 is about $1 billion. The survey also revealed that following the terror attacks in September, hotel occupancy fell to a 10-year low.
Although it’s not new for trade shows to team up with airlines and hotels to offer discounts to attendees and exhibitors, the importance of such unions has increased as trade show organizers try to lure back attendees and exhibitors to exhibition floors. The regional marts and local governments are also helping with the initiative, which trade show organizers hope will offset the low attendance figures that plagued some recent shows.
At the Nouveau Collective, for example, which was held in October in New York, attendance was off 50 percent from its usual 1,000 attendees.
Going forward, New York show organizers are increasing their attention on customer service, including incentives to bring buyers to the Big Apple.
To entice buyers to the Nouveau Collective, slated for Jan. 11-14 in New York, show organizer ENK International has teamed up with the Park Central Hotel to offer a discounted rate of $129, which includes breakfast. The regular rate is $279.
“Times are changing, and we have to react with service on every level,” said show manager Joanne Feinstein. “Specialty stores are more important now, as the center of a town, a gathering place. They need fresh, special merchandise.”
Buyer incentives have been the cornerstone of AmericasMart Atlanta’s growth strategy since 1981, when officials instigated a “field marketing program.” With a hit list of key retailers, Mart officials regularly visit the best specialty stores, making offers retailers can’t refuse.
AmericasMart offers free hotel stays — at properties including Atlanta’s Westin Peachtree Plaza — to 20 to 30 retailers per market. Airfare is not included, since buyers may easily find low fares on the Internet, officials said.
Buyers’ travel arrangements are booked through the Ambassador Housing travel agency. Hotel room blocks are reserved when market dates are set, often years in advance. With five apparel markets per year, and regular gift, merchandise and furniture shows, AmericasMart wields clout, offering corporate hotel rates typically 20 percent off regular room rates.
Free trips to preferred customers can extend beyond one trip, depending on the potential return on investment.
“We carefully target the best retailers and keep up with how much they spend,” said AmericasMart Apparel general manager Peg Canter. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is. It pays off, as 40 percent of people we bring in come back again on their own.”
The Chicago Apparel Center also beefed up incentive programs three years ago with the launch of StyleMax, a twice-yearly show held every October and April in the Merchandise Mart. Each show, including markets in between, has separate marketing programs and budgets.
The Mart offers incentives to stores that haven’t shopped Chicago before, depending on the size of the store and the potential buying power.
The most recent StyleMax show, held Oct. 13-16, gained stores that had canceled New York trips post-Sept. 11, but lost some buyers, who were afraid to travel at all during that time.
As a company, the Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., is the single largest user of hotels in the city, booking approximately one million room nights a year, according to Susan McCullough, vice president, apparel. Working with a travel agency, the Mart has relationships with about 20 hotels — including the Chicago Hotel Monaco and the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Chicago — offering discounts of up to 50 percent, depending on the size of the show. Airfare, through preferred carrier United Airlines, is usually offered at 10 percent off.
With no significant drop in show attendance since Sept. 11, the Chicago Mart has no plans to offer extra incentives for future shows.
Buyer travel incentives at the Dallas International Apparel Center are rewarded to buyers that exhibitors recommend. With its “new buyer” program, the Dallas Mart arranges incentive packages for prospective stores, which vary from store to store. Buyers are brought in three times, before they are weaned off incentives.
“It takes time to get used to the building and to develop relationships with sales representatives,” said Carrie Carter, vice president of marketing.
Working with an extensive buyers’ list, the Dallas market works exclusively with the agency Travel Technology Groups to book through 10 preferred hotels, for the lowest rates.
The CaliforniaMart in Los Angeles is extending marketing efforts and incentives to a broader territory, including 13 Western states. Starting with the recent November market, the Mart increased free travel offers. Working with tenants, the Mart also increased telemarketing and direct mail programs.
“Buyers have become much more selective about where they travel,” said director of marketing Trish Moreno. “Travel used to not be so much of an issue.” Moreno added that more buyers were now driving in, particularly from San Francisco and other California areas.
Working with Tzell Travel, the Mart offers discount airfare and hotel incentives, including complimentary rooms for qualified buyers. Discounts range from a percentage off to “stay two nights, get one free.” Recently, packages have included trip giveaways and tickets to entertainment and cultural events.

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