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Messages from the President

Deep Connections Drive Convention Sales - March

By: Anna Tanski | March 11, 2016

Within the meetings industry the saying goes, "There's an association for everything," including an association for associations. The Midwest Society of Association Executives (MSAE) is the regional chapter of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) representing Minnesota, North and South Dakota.

I first met Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, at a northern Minnesota resort during the MSAE fall leadership conference in 1993. He was strumming a guitar and taking requests around the post-banquet bonfire. Bob is an incredibly talented musician who plays guitar, mandolin and harmonica in a band when he's not busy running the association. Over the course of the evening I learned his state convention had been held in the Twin Cities for 96 years.

Following the conference, I was eager to begin working to convince Bob to give Duluth a try. As the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's sales manager, I brought in my counterpart from Visit Duluth to put our heads together and begin crafting a plan. This connection between the convention center and destination is a critical component to a successful sales effort. Duluth's tight bond between the DECC and Visit Duluth sales teams is unique. Many destinations compete with their centers, creating animosity and strained relations.

For two years we regularly met with Bob, learning more about his association's mission and listening to reservations he expressed regarding holding his February convention in Duluth. Boy, it was a lengthy list. Finally, we convinced him to invite the board of directors to Duluth for their summer retreat and strategic planning session. This enabled the board to experience the hotels, meeting space and enjoy the city the way their attendees would during the convention ... with the exception of the seasons, of course.

We were delighted when the board agreed to allow Duluth to submit a proposal to host the 2001 convention. We pulled out all the stops. Weather was a concern, so we gathered large meteorological charts, courtesy of the National Weather Service, to show typical statewide weather patterns demonstrating that Duluth's weather does not vary significantly from the rest of Minnesota.

We ordered custom chocolates on a stick shaped like tractors, corn on the cob and wheat arranged in small, red buckets. The board is comprised of farmers who manage local co-ops and grain elevators, so this theme was quite fitting.

Finally, we presented our proposal in a box featuring a beautiful image of the Aerial Lift Bridge. When opened, the Lift Bridge horn sounded. These efforts paid off when the board awarded Duluth the bid to host the state convention. They returned again in 2003 and 2011. However, once Duluth had convinced the board that rotating the convention was beneficial, other communities such as Mankato and St. Cloud began vying for, and winning, the business.

It's a highly competitive industry in which establishing relationships can make all the difference. Two years ago I handed sales the torch off to Stacy Oltmanns. She and Sue Ellen Moore from the DECC have continued building their own relationship with Bobby Z, as we've grown to affectionately refer to him. They're bound and determined to bring the Minnesota Grain and Feed convention back to Duluth before Bob retires.

Having a devoted team committed to investing the passion and energy into forming meaningful bonds is essential. Clearly, even with strong connections, competition is fierce. Duluth is fortunate to have Stacy Oltmanns, Julie Johnson Atkinson and Kim Kervina from Visit Duluth partnering with Sue Ellen Moore and Elise Whaley from the DECC. Together they are responsible for generating nearly $40 million economic impact every year.

Often times, having a local person willing to serve on a planning committee or board of directors makes all the difference. If you belong to an organization and are interested in exploring the possibility of hosting their meeting or convention in Duluth, I encourage you to connect with one of these sales professionals.

Convention sales requires tenacity, a thick skin and true love for our city. There are no quick returns or instant results. It's more about the long-term benefits of campfire acquaintances that blossom into cherished friendships.


Anna Tanski, President/CEO