In her 36 years supervising convention services for the Philadelphia CVB, Philomena Petro, who retired at the end of December 2019, has seen that position grow exponentially in importance to bureaus.
“They had a services department at the time,” Petro said, when reflecting on the start of her career at the Philadelphia CVB in 1983. “Bureaus at that time typically hired temps and handed out brochures. I think the reason they hired me is that they wanted to model it after hotels’ convention services departments, so they hired me and said, ‘Write your job description.’”
Although Petro is officially retired as vice president, convention services for the CVB, she’s working on transitioning her role as a consultant for the CVB through the first six months of 2020, as well as wrapping up meetings programs she still has in the pipeline.
There certainly will be a lot of knowledge about the convention services manager role—the frontline CVB position in dealing with meeting and event planners to facilitate successful meetings after the handoff from sales—to transfer to her successor. The knowledge will certainly be helpful to Maria Grasso, who was promoted to Vice President of Citywide Sales and Convention Services at the CVB, a new customer-focused role, in December 2019.
“As I was creating my own job description and watching [convention] services grow and grow, I watched more things come under the services umbrella, like registration, housing,” Petro said. “So it was certainly never dull.”
The Rising Status of the CVB Convention Services Manager
Upon joining the bureau, Petro leveraged skills she gained working for a Philadelphia DMC (destination management company), a hotel restaurant management job and a degree in hospitality management from Penn State University.
Petro also served as president of ACOM, the Association for Convention Operations Management (now ESPA, the Event Service Professionals Association). When Petro joined what is now ESPA, the association comprised convention services personnel from hotels and convention centers, with the role of CVB convention services being new to the association.
“I went to the first meeting, and then they asked me to be on the board,” Petro remembered. “Now, the bureau piece of the ESPA membership is the largest—it sort of exploded over the years.”
As the liaison between a CVB’s sales effort and meeting and event planners, the role of convention services managers such as Petro has become a key tool to drive repeat business to a destination.
“Now, clients want to immerse their attendees in the destination that they’ve selected, so they’re taking meetings outside of the four walls of the convention center, and I think we’re being asked to be more involved in marketing, to help them speak to attendees and make the destination more attractive,” she said. “I call this being the hand-holder. Sales does their job and [convention] services helps planners find everything they need in the destination, and our goal is to have them rebook.”
[Related: How Philadelphia pulled off a historic DNC]
Since Philadelphia is a major medical meetings destination, many of her meeting planner clients seek the help of the convention services staff to discover where attendees can access continuing education opportunities, secure local healthcare experts as speakers and engage in community service projects, in addition to other meeting components.
Photo: Philadelphia skyline night Schuylkill River, Credit: Shutterstock
“We are their allies and help them put their meeting together, and be their advocate,” she said.
Her work facilitating medical, biotech, pharmaceutical and other life sciences meetings and conventions is also personally satisfying.
“When we work medical conventions, we’re bringing in people from, say, the American Association for Cancer Research or the American Academy of Neurology, and they’re giving back to [patients] the information about research,” she said. “They’re working on solutions to these problems that will be a benefit to people in the future, and I think that’s something that we lose sight of. They’re giving back to the community—you see them giving out bike helmets and talking to people who may have Parkinson’s [disease]—and getting together to talk about new discoveries in the field. We’re facilitating that.”
5 Key Moments in Petro’s Career
In announcing her retirement, Petro and the Philadelphia CVB supplied the following top five moments of her career at the bureau:
1. 2015 Papal Visit
Philadelphia was on the world’s stage in September 2015 when Pope Francis came to the city as part of the World Meeting of Families. Petro knew how important the optics would be and worked long days and nights to ensure the visit was a success. With the whole world watching, Petro knew it was critical for Philadelphia to shine. She played a vital role navigating the cardinals and bishops through the crowds, putting her improvisation skills to the test.
2. Politicians and Political Conventions
Hospitality is a non-partisan business. Petro proved this to be true by successfully servicing both the Republication National Convention in 2000 and the Democratic National Convention in 2016, which brought 54,000 delegates and media to the city. Political events are delicate to manage because of their scope—dealing with national security and the Secret Service, managing multiple locations, and the high-profile attention they receive from an international press core. But Petro accepted all of these challenges and also met two U.S. presidents along the way.
3. Advocating for Convention Services While Serving as President of ESPA
During her time as the president of the Event Service Professionals Association (formerly known as the Association for Convention Operations Management), Petro lobbied hard for the work of her industry peers. She championed the profession of convention services as a vital component for any DMO and pushed the industry to evolve by recognizing convention services as its own discipline.
4. Service Manager of the Year Award (PCMA)
In 2006, when Philadelphia hosted PCMA’s Convening Leaders, Petro was recognized by her peers with the industry equivalent of an Oscar, and humbly received PCMA’s Service Manager of the Year award. It symbolizes a devotion to customer service, hospitality and excellence in event management—qualities that Petro has always embodied and instilled in her team.
5. Community-Focused Events
Petro says that the most rewarding aspect of the business is having been able to experience the real purpose of conventions—bringing together experts in a particular field to develop solutions. Over the years, she’s relished the opportunity to help conventions develop programs that local residents could participate in and has supported many conventions in developing public programming on topics like cancer research, diabetes prevention and, most recently, a public Brain Health Fair hosted by the American Academy of Neurology.
Petro said some of the more-quirky challenges she’s dealt with included having to track down 3,000 ponchos for an event under a two-hour deadline, and spending a night in a parking lot with fellow staff members to triage attendee transportation buses stuck on bridges after the governor shut them down during the 2000 Republican National Convention.
Convention Services Advice—and Trends—for Meeting Planners
Petro provided the following advice for meeting planners when working with a CVB’s convention services department.
“We want to know their expectations for their meetings—what are they looking for for attendees? What things do you want us to call out to them in terms of marketing the destination?” she said. “[We want them to share] with us what their history has been in terms of the number of rooms that they currently need, so everybody’s on the same page and we’re not under blocked or over blocked. Also, what are some of the things that attendees have enjoyed and what things have changed since they were there last?
[Related: 6 Tips for Working With a Convention Services Team]
“We provide a lot of assistance with marketing and attendance creation,” she added. “We really want to know their expectations so we can create a plan to meet them. It’s not transactional. It’s all relationship driven as well. We’ve known these clients for years, and we work with them every time they come through, so that certainly helps.”
Key meetings trends Petro has seen include a heightened awareness of security issues and the inclusion of wellness components.
“The client is taking more responsibility for protecting their attendees and drilling down in the plan that the city has in place. More and more groups are providing you with their history of what may have happened to them in another city and asking the destination about the details of their emergency preparedness plan,” she said. “There’s also a whole bent toward wellness. Pretty much every group coming through is asking us about wellness programming and connecting them with local service providers. They’re actually doing wellness sections in the exhibit hall and asking if there is someone that can do yoga, offer a wellness program or healthy eating, and include puppies.”
Although leaving the Philadelphia CVB entirely after July, Petro said she hopes to continue working in an industry that has become such an important part of her life.
“I’m staying on through July of 2020 to assist with several conventions I’ve been working with,” she said. “Beyond that, I want to stay in the industry. I will be living in Florida part of the time and then back in the Philadelphia area. I want to stay involved in this industry I love, but obviously in a different capacity.”
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