Visit Detroit is helping drive a growing trend toward the development of more educational and immersive destination experiences for convention attendees.

For example, during the ASAE Annual Convention & Exhibition in Detroit last month — a gathering for executives running large associations — Visit Detroit developed a dozen EduTours in partnership with some of the city’s most innovative local companies.

The Henry Ford Innovation Institute, The Parade Company, Detroit Opera House, Detroit Historical Museum, Shinola Watches, and other companies developed events where attendees got a chance to explore behind the scenes at each distinctly Detroit venue.

At the same time, executives from each of those venues hosted interactive sessions where they explained how they’ve successfully tackled specific challenges that also applied to the association executives in attendance.

It’s rare for a bureau to create such a comprehensive roster of fully customized activities for an individual convention, especially that provide both professional continuing education opportunities and immersive travel experiences for the attendees.

For example, The Parade Company, which produces parades around the country, has achieved a great deal of success developing its volunteer base. Likewise, the Henry Ford Innovation Institute is a healthcare research facility that’s developed unique internal communication tools to respond quickly to new ideas that arise among the staff. Over at the Detroit Historical Museum, they explained how they’ve raised $21 million in five years as a non-profit.

In addition, senior association executives paired up with the in-house speakers at each EduTour to help facilitate the session and make sure it aligned with the needs of the association attendees.

According to Renee Lewis, executive director of Visit Detroit’s local organizing committee who helped develop the EduTours, she says there’s been a growing demand for more enriching educational experiences during conventions, especially that tie into the local community. Her assertion is based on the shift in feedback she’s receiving from the pre-arrival surveys sent to attendees with requests for their elective session choices in the convention agendas.

Traditionally, many tourism bureaus have simply offered convention-goers their usual lineup of iconic tourist activities repackaged as “customized” group programs. Or, attendees are simply pointed to a list of local attractions that they can explore on their own.

Visit Detroit wanted to do something different, especially for ASAE because many of its attendees are responsible for developing large association conventions in cities like Detroit.

“There seems to be this trend among association memberships with people asking themselves what they can do to maximize learning,” Lewis told Skift. “Our goal is to showcase the destination as best as possible, so we wanted to figure out how to marry that with the associations’ goals.”

Lewis suggests that professional development events like EduTours, created by the bureau versus the association, present an opportunity for tourism bureaus to differentiate themselves. If Visit Detroit can create real learning experiences that are valid for continuing education credits, and also satisfy attendee demand for immersive travel experiences, then the bureau is providing a higher value proposition for its customers.

“The EduTours are basically similar to school field trips that we all loved as kids, or some people call them ‘placemaking education,’” explains Lewis. “The bureau wants to put meat behind this by developing more sessions that grant CEUs. The bigger story is that Detroit wants to continue offering these types of programs to other groups, because we see the value they provide to differentiate ourselves and support association attendees’ educational mission at the same time.”

EduTour Pros & Cons

The EduTours aren’t as easy to put together as making a few phone calls, because they require a lot of time and manpower to organize.

One of the EduTours took place at General Motors’ OnStar Command Center, whose representatives were unavailable for comment. Because certain Visit Detroit board members are affiliated or friendly with GM’s top brass, the bureau was able to develop this EduTour for ASAE. Lewis said she doubts the OnStar EduTour could be repeated on a regular basis without a lot of preparation.

“These aren’t places that you just call up and ask to go inside,” she explains. “You need to know their teams.”

Ward Detwiler, associate director at Henry Ford Innovation Institute, also says that the EduTours aren’t something they would necessarily do anytime someone asked because of the time commitment to organize. While he explains it all depends on a case-by-case basis, the Institute participated in ASAE to be a good community partner in the interest of promoting Detroit to association planners.

“The EduTours are an interesting way to get into a city beyond the typical attractions,” he says. “In terms of the education, we talked about how one can unlock research and innovation within the members of an organization, and strategies for how you can incentivize innovation and create a culture where innovation is embraced.”

As an example, the Institute hosts events like a Frugal Innovation Challenge that prioritizes “creativity before capital” to seek solutions for challenges impacting the organization.

“So the themes here are not necessarily healthcare-specific,” Detwiler says. “The common theme is more about a collection of talented and creative people coming together to share ideas about innovation in general.”

Meanwhile, Kim Lowell-Leverett is the director of volunteer & tour services at The Parade Company. She is fully in support of the EduTours and ready to do it again with any association interested in learning how to build its volunteer membership. The Parade Company has a database of over 3,000 volunteers that it regularly communicates with to keep them in the loop and make them feel appreciated.

Exactly how the company engages volunteers was the topic of discussion at ASAE.

“The people who participated in our EduTour were people who were starting new volunteer programs, or people who wanted to learn how to better recruit, train and retain volunteers,” says Lowell-Leverett. “I thought it was great, because you’re only as good as your volunteers and the strength of your community. That’s something we’ve learned in Detroit. We watched everything fall apart but it all came back together because we’re a very, very strong community.”

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Photo Credit: The EduTour at Detroit Historical Museum focused on strategies for non-profit organizations to raise money. Detroit Historical Museum