As originally seen in Associations Now

The leading convention city in America shares its strategies for association professionals. 

Top-notch customer service has always underpinned every successful business. But in times of crisis, this pillar is even more important than ever—no matter the industry or business goals. And it’s particularly critical for an industry built upon face-to-face interactions and human connections, like the association market.

With budgets stripped, travel limited, and social distance required in the pandemic era, it’s the meeting sector within the association industry that must devote extra care, time, attention, and resources to customer service that will win the day—amid the ongoing crisis as well as into an uncertain future.

But there’s one city that meeting planners can learn from, and maybe, even steal a few pages out of their book: and that’s Indianapolis. With 4,700 hotel rooms connected via enclosed skywalk to the Indiana Convention Center—more than in any other city in the country—Indy is known to planners for its ease of hosting meetings, even earning the title of top convention city in the U.S., according to USA Today.

Beyond the statistics, it also earns its reputation thanks to individual business owners and staffers who walk the walk, every day, at the street level. Here, Visit Indy’s senior sales manager of business development and customer engagement Emily Scheiderer, shares an inside look at her team’s customer service efforts—and why it’s more important than ever right now.

Why Crisis Calls for Service

The pandemic required businesses to pivot aggressively—but each organization made different moves to suit its own needs, and the needs of its constituencies, in adherence with safety guidelines.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for events in 2020,” Scheiderer says. “We understand that every association, organization, and planner has its own set of variables, so we work with each group on a custom plan to see their event is successful.”

And it can be done successfully through thorough, transparent communication, and elevated execution. “While we are not unrealistic about the obstacles, we do see options and have worked with planners to safely hold more than 21 live events over the past 65 days in Indy,” she notes.

Pivoting to Virtual

While customer service at its most traditional involves face-to-face communication for nuanced relationship building, successful businesses adapt with workarounds for the socially distant marketplace.

One way Indy is meeting the moment? Offering a platform for virtual site visits. “Knowing many planners need to continue long-term planning but are hindered by travel in the short term, we rolled out a virtual site visit platform with a citywide interactive map,” Scheiderer explains. “Our team is able to virtually guide planners through our meeting space to showcase panoramic views of what our exhibit halls or ballrooms look like.”

That means getting a virtual look at the convention center’s new floor plans that account for social distancing and one-way aisles—without being there in person. “Our virtual sites are highly customizable with venue and logistical options tailored to our customer’s event specs,” she says. “Although we’re still happy to have planners on the ground for site visits, we continue to find this tool useful in getting our events back on track.”

Keep it Personal

With physical distancing mandates—and in the absence of face-to-face relationship building opportunities—this moment requires virtual customer connections to be more personal and productive than ever before.

“Connections are one of the key reasons meetings exist, and while we strive to deliver the most meaningful experience possible, we cannot ignore that the pandemic has changed the way we do business and conduct meetings,” Scheiderer says. “The question has shifted from if we will have virtual components to how we will.”

That’s why Indy is the first city in the country to bring key audiovisual partners together to offer a citywide AV and Internet discount for hybrid meetings. The destination also has a certified digital event strategist on staff to help navigate the ever-changing hybrid environment.

This slate of new customer benefits isn’t just a necessary pivot, it’s also a bottom-line boost — bringing in and keeping business at a fragile time for the industry.

“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of contingency planning. And to do that well, the destination has to be in lockstep with the planner and an extension of their team,” Scheiderer explains. “It’s a skill we’ve mastered after decades of hosting large-scale events, and we’re proud to have our team intact to continue to be that sounding board for meeting planners.”