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A Quiet Crisis: Convention Center Marketing

Tuesday, June 3, 2003 at 12:26 PM

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An investigation into the spending practices of the Convention and Tourism Bureau is underway. The head of the agency is on leave while auditors pour over the books. They want to find out if money spent on things like sporting events and trips abroad can be justified. The prying eyes of investigators may have come at a bad time. Plans for a new convention are the subject of great debate. Issues of where to put it and how to pay for it are still up in the air. That’s why supporters can’t afford any financial doubts concerning the CVB. Also at issue, how to fill the new convention center when - and if - it's built. ideastream’s Mike West has this report on marketing the new meeting facility.

Hundreds of people who work in the hospitality industry recently gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland. Perched in auditorium-style seats they listened to the country’s top hotel and convention consultants. Speaking from remote locations and projected on theater-size screens, they predicted the convention and hotel business will pick up as the economy improves. They also emphasized the value and importance of making a personal appearance at conferences like this one. One of the headliners was Steven Hacker. The President of the International Association of Exposition Management shared this advice on Cleveland’s efforts to attract convention business.

Steven Hacker: Visitors want a complete experience, when their work day is done they want something they can sample in the way of unique and usually colorful local environment. That means different things in different places. In New Orleans it means extraordinary food and cool jazz, in New York it means a Broadway show, in Miami it might mean a night in South Beach, you can go on and on.

Image means a lot in the high stakes game of attracting conventions. That’s why convention, tourism and business leaders are trying to figure out the best way to showcase the city to meeting planners.

Steven Hacker: In every city if it covets the business traveler and the leisure traveler as a source of economic development would be well advised to develop that personality, that distinctive charm that will bring people to the city and bring them back money more times.

So what is the image and personality of northeast Ohio? CVB officials say it’s sports and rock and roll. But Cleveland may be wise to expand on that. Hacker says it’s a perfect time to re-think how the area is marketed.

Steven Hacker: You’ve got the opportunity to come up with a grand master plan to create a synergy between the restaurant community and the nightclub community and you could brand that kind of unique experience, the Cleveland experience, you got the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But you have to remember that these days successful cities even if there have terrific food and cool jazz have got to diversify their offerings because the leisure traveler and the business traveler today defy any conventional generalization, there are so many different needs and interests.

Many groups are working to improve the city’s image and sell it to outsiders. But most of the responsibility falls on the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Cleveland. Executive Vice President Joe Zion says he uses a two-pronged approach.

Joe Zion: On the convention side, I think our brand is serious business and serious fun. And from the business side, I talked a little bit about that making sure that people truly understand the compelling reasons about this market.

Those serious business virtues include northeast Ohio’s factories (and) it’s world-class hospitals and universities. The serious fun can include, arts, entertainment, night life and amusement parks.

Joe Zion: I would say the brand that we have continued to use is: Cleveland - it will rock you. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is truly in the convention market the number one message that’s delivered back to us when we out into that market area. I’ve been there, I’ve heard about it, it’s wonderful, gotta get there. So we’ve created this brand, it’ll rock you to help shape that energy.

Zion says marketing efforts in general could be expanded with a new convention center. Perhaps more sales staff could be added and offices in other major cities opened. Zion insists they’re doing the best they can to promote the convention business, but he feels there’s no point devoting extra time and money now, because Cleveland is rejected by most convention planners because of its limited size and amenities. Maybe a nickname for positive branding would help attract conventions. After all, Seattle is the Emerald City, New York is the Big Apple, even Cincinnati is the Queen City. But in Cleveland - nothing.

Dennis Eckart: A few years ago Cleveland’s bumper sticker was Cleveland’s a Plum and then we followed it with the North Coast. In the early 90’s we were the Comeback City. I think what it underscores with me is that your theme really might change from year to year depending on what your newest assets are as well as what your competitors are doing.

Dennis Eckart is the president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. He discounts the need for a nickname. Eckart thinks the convention marketing plan should focus on natural connections with the types of conventions the city wants to attract. For example, our hospitals should draw medical conventions and the polymer industry is a natural for plastics meetings.

Dennis Eckart: I think what you’re known for is important, but I think who you market to is more relevant. You market to businesses and industries and the leading professionals in those industries that will find a great deal of comfort, because when they come to Cleveland, they’ll see a lot of their brothers and sisters, they’ll know that this is a community that respects what they do. But also knows how to appreciate the economic value that they have. It would become for someone at the growth association an opportunity to seek a retention or expansion opportunity for an existing business.

Five sites for the new convention center are under consideration. Once city leaders feel they have gathered enough information they are expected to pick one. Early cost estimates for the project are between about $300 and $500 million. If the plan moves forward taxpayers are the likely target for picking up the tab. The issue could reach the ballot as early as this fall. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

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