Brand USA Talks Travel: Patrick Higgins

Brand USA Talks Travel: Patrick Higgins, SVP at Connect Meetings and BizBash Sports, Talks Benefits from a LinkedIn Travel Group with 6,500+ Members.

Patrick discusses how the online travel group he manages benefits the travel industry, his specialty work in international sports tourism, and how MICE is moving forward in 2024.

"I created this as a way to serve destination marketing organizations and the service providers that serve them, to help all of us along each of our journeys."

Intro: This is Brand USA Talks Travel, elevating the conversation about international travel to the United States. Here's your host, Mark Lapidus.

Mark Lapidus [0:09]: You've been working at the intersection of sports and travel for over 20 years. So if you could watch only one sport for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

Patrick Higgins [0:17]: Well, Mark, this call just so happens to catch the Higgins family in the middle of our high school seniors final basketball season, and the playoffs just started last night. I'm in no way prepared for this season to end, so I'm going to have to go with basketball.

Mark Lapidus [0:29]: Today I'm joined by Patrick Higgins, Senior Vice President at Connect Meetings and BizBash Sports. Patrick has also held leadership roles at Visit Salt Lake, Greater Palm Springs CVB, and Reno Tahoe USA. Welcome to Brand USA Talks Travel, Patrick. Excited to have you here.

Patrick Higgins [0:45]: Thanks, Mark. Happy to be here.

Mark Lapidus [0:47]: I'd like to dive deep into something you've done for a number of years on a volunteer basis that I don't know much about. The subject concerns running a LinkedIn group, and in your case, this one is specific to the travel industry. First, for those unfamiliar, could you start by describing what a LinkedIn group is, and tell us how they get created and managed?

Patrick Higgins [1:06]: Yeah, sure. So LinkedIn groups really provide a community for professionals, either in the same industry or if they have similar interests. It gives them place to share insights, experiences. They can ask for help or guidance and build connections through that platform. And anyone can create a LinkedIn group - it's actually a pretty easy process - but once your group's created, you can select options like if you want to approve new members, if members can join immediately, who can post content, things like that. I found the LinkedIn groups can be a powerful resource, but they do take time and effort to grow them in a meaningful way.

Mark Lapidus [1:38]: The LinkedIn group you manage is called Destination Marketing Professionals. Last I checked, the group had 6,651 members, although it might have changed since yesterday. How have you grown the size of that group? It's pretty big.

Patrick Higgins [1:50]: Yeah, we're actually at about 6,700 as of today, so we have some new members.

Mark Lapidus [1:54]: There we go.

Patrick Higgins [1:55]: You know, Mark, just like with any other social media channel, new members, followers, engagement, that'll tell you if your group has value or if it's of interest. And I first started a LinkedIn group back in 2008 when I was serving as Director of Convention Sales at Visit Salt Lake. As a former athlete, I'm programmed to be very competitive, I want to beat everybody all the time, and I wanted all of the meetings and events business to come to Salt Lake. I wanted them to choose us. And after speaking with some of my colleagues and counterparts at other destinations in our comp set, I realized and ultimately embraced the fact that while we're all competing for some business, we're not all competing for all business. So I created this as a way to serve destination marketing organizations and the service providers that serve them to help all of us along each of our journeys. And since joining the Connect Meetings team back in 2012, I've shared administrative access to our award winning editorial team. And they do such a great job of keeping the conversations going, posting great stories, editorial features, highlighting the rock stars in our industry. And they've really taken the content to places I couldn't have by myself.

Mark Lapidus [3:02]: So how do our listeners join?

Patrick Higgins [3:04]: You can find us on LinkedIn, just do a search. We're very fortunate as we have an engaging community. They're sharing content, we're creating visibility just because our members are so active.

Mark Lapidus [3:13]: Does an admin actually authorize the person joining, or does the joining happen automatically?

Patrick Higgins [3:19]: That is such a good question. So when we first started the group, anyone could post anything they wanted, and we had it open for all folks that wanted to join. And what it turned into was almost a Craigslist marketplace-type environment.

Mark Lapidus [3:31]: I bet.

Patrick Higgins [3:32]: People were selling things. I think we saw somebody was trying to sell old office furniture, so we quickly cleaned that up. So at this point, if somebody does want to become a member, they do have to go in and request that our team quickly reviews that and make sure that they have a meaningful role in the industry and that they'll benefit from the conversations and by being a part of the audience.

Mark Lapidus [3:51]: Can anybody post to this group? I assume you look at the messages before they go up, right?

Patrick Higgins [3:56]: Exactly. That's very important. We really want to protect the integrity of the experience.

Mark Lapidus [3:59]: What is most of the discussion about currently, and how would you like to see those topics evolve in the future?

Patrick Higgins [4:05]: We found that surveys are a great way to engage our members, because what we'll do is we'll take the survey results and our team will break those down, we'll actually put them into a white paper and send that out to the audience, and people can download that and learn from how everybody responds to those surveys. So some of our recent surveys around event technology, what DMOs are doing to actually close the deal on winning new business for their destinations. We've had great participation from members, and the results, like I said, are really helpful. But regarding the topic evolution, the great thing about this particular LinkedIn group is that content and topics are always going to be relevant and timely, because our members are sharing what they're doing that's new and different, or they're asking for help or advice on new challenges. So we pay close attention to that. But we find that the content in this particular group almost immediately reflects what's going on in the industry at the time.

Mark Lapidus [4:54]: And can you tell where the posters are posting from? Like, do you know what countries they're in?

Patrick Higgins [4:59]: Yeah, we can see all the profiles. In fact, we've had some great international participation this week. Somebody posted some things that they're doing on tourism marketing in Israel right now with the difficult times that are happening over there. So it's really relevant, very timely.

Mark Lapidus [5:11]: This whole discussion gets me thinking, are there other travel industry groups on LinkedIn that we should know about?

Patrick Higgins [5:16]: There are a lot of them out there. The one that I been impressed with, and this may sound self-serving, but our BizBash Event Pros Gather LinkedIn group.

Mark Lapidus [5:24]: Yes, it does.

Patrick Higgins [5:25]: Shameless plug - that has almost 80,000 members.

Mark Lapidus [5:28]: Oh, get out. Really?

Patrick Higgins [5:29]: It's massive. It is such a great job of creating a community for event professionals of all types, with a big emphasis on planners and buyers. So it's not just room night generating planners, it's also planners that maybe their sole responsibility is to plan a successful gala or fundraiser, or if there's a product launch or something like that. So it's citywide convention planners, incentive organizers, special event organizers, and more.

Mark Lapidus [5:54]: I must admit that when I need a little bit of a break when I'm working, I spend my time on LinkedIn, just seeing what's going on in the world. What else do you do on LinkedIn?

Patrick Higgins [6:04]: I'm no different than you are, Mark. I start my day with a hot cup of coffee, and I'll spend 10 to 15 minutes scrolling through LinkedIn. Just kind of start my day. And I personally enjoy seeing the success of my friends and colleagues in the industry and celebrating their wins. And I have yet to see a post from someone that says something like, "Well, despite our best efforts, the ABC association decided to host their 25,000 person convention somewhere else. But hey, we tried." So most of the engagement on LinkedIn is positive, and it gives people a chance to celebrate their wins. And I love to stay up to speed on things. But then also, if there is somebody that I'm friends with or either professionally or personally, I do like to celebrate their wins and their successes.

Mark Lapidus [6:42]: Okay, let's turn the conversation toward your actual, real job. As I mentioned at the top of the podcast, you're at BizBash Sports and Connect Meetings; are the two connected, and what's the mission of each?

Patrick Higgins [6:53]: They're very connected. Connect has served the MICE industry since the 1970s. Earlier last year, we were purchased by Informa, the world's largest trade show organizer. And since then, we've restructured things a bit internally under the direction of our managing director, Matt Johnson. And we've really decided our core values and the three pillars that we're going to stand on will be meetings, sports and travel. And what we found is that a healthy destination marketing organization really has the ability to successfully welcome, host and provide a great experience for all three of them - meeting, sports and travel. So we produce several B2B hosted buyer events each year. Our two largest will be our Connect Spring Marketplace in Las Vegas in April and Connect Marketplace in Milwaukee in August, and that'll bring together thousands of meeting planners, sporting event organizers and travel buyers together with DMOs, hotels, resorts, event technology providers. And what we found is that meetings and sports have so much more in common than they often get credit for, and that planners of all types, regardless of the audience they serve, can learn from one another. And often it keeps them from getting stagnant. There's great cross-pollination of ideas, whether it's site selection, contracting, event technology, how to serve audience, or athletes. So we bring that entire group together at the same time and give everyone a platform to cross train and learn from each other.

Mark Lapidus [8:13]: Post-pandemic, what do you find MICE people talking about the most?

Patrick Higgins [8:16]: What we found is that the conversations we've had in the education sessions that are the most requested are more about how productivity, time management, leadership, working remotely, working from satellite locations. But also it's starting to transition a little bit as we move away from 2020 and early 21.

Mark Lapidus [8:34]: Thank goodness, right?

Patrick Higgins [8:36]: Could not have happened soon enough. But what we've really found is that there's a big emphasis on personal brand building, and things that people could do to manage their day to day lives at a personal level, which obviously will benefit the professional side, too.

Mark Lapidus [8:50]: Patrick, you appear to be a very busy guy. Walk me through a typical day of you working in the travel industry.

Patrick Higgins [8:55]: I think we're all busier than we were before 2020, but I'm a West coast guy working with a team that's primarily based in Peachtree Corners, about 45 minutes northeast of Atlanta. So I align my office hours with theirs. So yes, I get started a little earlier than my neighbors, but things do slow down for me in the early afternoon, which allows me more time to work on some bigger projects, and like most of us, my day is made up of a combination of Zoom calls, Slack huddles, Teams calls, and I found that - I'm sure you have too, Mark - that the traditional phone call is about to become extinct. Unless it's a last resort. When all other technology fails, then I get a phone call.

Mark Lapidus [9:34]: Or it's an emergency, right?

Patrick Higgins [9:36]: Absolutely. But most of my time right now is being spent preparing for our BizBash Sports Leadership Summit in Las Vegas this April.

Mark Lapidus [9:43]: I can't believe how much WhatsApp has taken over my life, because we do all of our work internationally, obviously. So I'm always chatting with people overseas or getting messages from them. And it is the ubiquitous app internationally. Like, you can't live without it anymore.

Patrick Higgins [9:58]: I hadn't even heard of it before we started working with our colleagues in the UK. And now that seems to be the platform of choice.

Mark Lapidus [10:03]: Well, it's become their phone service. I mean, I don't know how any of the telecoms stay in business anymore in Europe and Asia. They probably don't. Are there ways in which you feel that you're disrupting or pushing the industry forward when it comes to meetings, end events, or sports?

Patrick Higgins [10:17]: 100%, yes. We're not a company that has ever wanted to provide the same experience twice. That'd be boring for our attendees, for our suppliers, exhibitors, and honestly, it'd be boring for us to have to do the same thing every year. So we do have an industry reputation for being the place where business gets done, and we put business first, but we also put a tremendous amount of time and effort into getting the right people in the right place at the right time, sharing the right experiences. Because business gets transacted at a people level, we don't want to take that for granted. So we're always looking for fun and meaningful ways to build networks and business. If you go to one of our events, we have coed basketball tournaments, pickleball tournaments, three point shooting contests, cornhole. All of those are held right on the trade show floor, right next to the technology exhibitor area, right next to where our one on one appointments are being held. People walk through the trade show floor and we want people to have fun. We want them to break down those social barriers that they may have come in with and just share experiences, build relationships. And we found that that's where business gets done, and it often gets done quicker.

Mark Lapidus [11:21]: It's a good thing that people in the travel industry are dressing down these days, because I can't imagine that happening in suits and ties.

Patrick Higgins [11:27]: Speaking of that, we just announced Lil Jon, who performed at the halftime show at the Super Bowl. He's going to be performing at the Connect Marketplace in August. That in itself is a huge disruption. So I'm curious, we were talking about internally, like, what happens to the dress code when you go from B2B during the day to a Lil Jon concert at night? We're going to find out what that looks like in August.

Mark Lapidus [11:46]: I'm sure everybody listening would agree with me when I say partnerships between destinations and the sports industry have a huge economic impact. What advice do you have for destinations who want to attract more sports business?

Patrick Higgins [11:57]: I don't think any destination should ever turn their eye on sports. Some of our most successful clients will tell us that sports is their number one room night generating market segment. Others strategically position sports to really fill their off seasons or their shoulder times. But regardless how sports fits into a destination and their profile and their community, everybody needs to put the time in to build relationships. Our events are highly connected, oftentimes with our sports audience and our sports attendees when they get together at our events or other industry events. It's more about picking up where you left off when you last saw each other than it is about starting the conversation and being front of mind. So no one should ever turn their eye on sports and they should do everything they can to at least. If you don't have two feet in, you should at least have one foot in.

Mark Lapidus [12:43]: Do you find that international travelers like different sports than Americans?

Patrick Higgins [12:47]: Oh, absolutely. I learned more about rugby and cricket in the time I was working with our colleagues in the UK than I ever did as a kid growing up. But I've also had to teach them about baseball at the same time.

Mark Lapidus [12:57]: Well, that's a fun thing. So how do we get more of them to actually go to the games?

Patrick Higgins [13:01]: You figure that out, you're onto something.

Mark Lapidus [13:03]: We're working on it! I mean, believe me, we're working on it.

Patrick Higgins [13:06]: Now I've seen some successful international events. San Francisco recently hosted the Rugby Sevens. Those events by themselves, they bring out the international crowd that lives within the community. But it's casting a spotlight on sports people may not have known existed, which I think is going to pay off in the long run.

Mark Lapidus [13:21]: Well, we find that international tourists actually love to go to things like baseball games because it's such a unique experience for them. And sometimes it's minor league, it's not even major league. They just want to go see what a game looks like and have fun at that game and just enjoy the family experience.

Patrick Higgins [13:35]: No, it's a distinctly American experience, but I don't think it's going to stay that way for long. Looking at how things are expanding internationally.

Mark Lapidus [13:41]: I'd like to hear more about the Connect Sports Marketplace.

Patrick Higgins [13:44]: So back in 2012, before Connect Sports was even born, I was attending connect events as an event planner. I worked with organizations like USA Fencing, USA Volleyball, national senior games, and a few others. And the Connect experience was different. It was fun, it was exciting. And while there were existing shows that served the sports tourism audience, it was pretty clear that by applying that connect formula of hosted buyer attendees, compatibility based one on one, matching with people they can do business with, and a lot of fun shared experiences, we could provide a highly compelling, valuable resource for the sports tourism folks. And within our first year, and we still maintain this to the day, we are the largest gathering of sporting event organizations in North America.

Mark Lapidus [14:27]: Oh nice. And so what is the typical attendance like?

Patrick Higgins [14:30]: It's part of the overall Connect Marketplace crowd. So we'll have association, an association track, a corporate track, a sports track, and a specialty or Smurf track. Sports is roughly, depending on the year, 25%-35% of our overall attendance. And it's about a one to one ratio in terms of sporting event organizers and suppliers, or DMOs.

Mark Lapidus [14:51]: How are you involved with professional or high impact sports?

Patrick Higgins [14:54]: So BizBash Sports, it's been around for about a year and a half now. BizBash has been around for decades. It's a well known, well established name. But what we saw was about a year and a half, two years ago, these professional sports subscribers to BizBash Sports newsletters and content and the engagement on the professional sports level, there was a groundswell. They were following us, they were engaging, and we couldn't quite figure out why because we didn't deliver a lot of sports specific content at that time. So we formed BizBash Sports. We got an advisory board together in April last year of the NBA, ESPN, Barstool Sports, the Pac-12 conference. Then we also had some service providers and AV companies, but we brought everybody together and we said if there were to be a live event, a hosted buyer event, what would it look like? What should it be? What shouldn't it be? And they really helped us set the framework for BizBash Sports. So looking forward to this year, we're going to have about 70 total buyers in Washington DC this November, and realizing that DMOs at tier one cities, they're being tapped with creating just incredible experiences for fans. The FIFA World cup in 2026, so many of these host cities are going to have to create their own fan zones and fan engagement areas. So we're going to be really providing a fantastic platform for tier one cities to learn directly from the folks that have been planning NBA All Star games, MLB All Star games, things like that. So really getting the right people together again at the right time, but delivering value and experiences and networking for tier one cities, which has never been available before.

Mark Lapidus [16:26]: Well, as you mentioned before, so much of this is about education.

Patrick Higgins [16:30]: Oh, absolutely. And networking. When we asked this group, where do you go to find innovation and new ideas? The number one answer was our own networks. So they're talking to each other. Who do you use for this? Hey, I saw you did a drone show two weeks ago. Tell me about that. So the platform that BizBash Sports exists on is just expanding networks and making sure that folks walk away with new contacts at a personal level.

Mark Lapidus [16:51]: Out of curiosity, how do you market yourselves?

Patrick Higgins [16:53]: Well, last year we were just getting started and there was some email marketing. We leaned heavily on LinkedIn as a resource for us to share this. What we found was most beneficial last year was as our attendees were joining our roster, we were just sending out little customized graphics with their name and logo on them where they could share with their own networks that they were a part of this. So we saw a big uptick in interest once those graphics started being circulated. But this year we're putting more of an emphasis on email marketing. We're going to be talking about BizBash Sports and some of the major industry shows, and a lot of it is going to be our personal outreach and phone calls and just talking to our audience that's leaned on us to help them on the amateur sports side with Connect Sports, letting them know that we now have an opportunity for them to engage with the professional sports side of things.

Mark Lapidus [17:38]: Thanks so much for joining me, Patrick. I really appreciate it.

Patrick Higgins [17:40]: Now, Mark, thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Mark Lapidus [17:42]: If you'd like to join the Destination Marketing Professionals group, search for it on LinkedIn and click the Join button. And to learn more about Connect Meetings, you can go to connectmeetings.com. Beginning next week, you'll be hearing a series of podcasts for International Women's Month, hosted by our Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman and featuring leaders in the travel industry. I know you're going to enjoy it. And that's it for Brand USA Talks Travel. I'm Mark Lapidus, thanks for listening.

Outro [18:07]: Your feedback is welcome! Email us at [email protected] or call 202-793-6256. Brand USA Talks Travel is produced by Asher Meerovich, who also composes music and sound. Engineering by Brian Watkins. With extra help from Bernie Lucas, Nthanze Kariuki and Casey D'Ambra. Please share this podcast with your friends in the travel industry. You may also enjoy many of our archived episodes, which you can find on your favorite podcast platform. Safe Travels!

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