|By Joyce Gannon, Pittsburgh
Post-GazetteMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 2, 2007 - Robert Imperata launched his career out of high school as a front desk clerk at the Penn Sheraton Hotel, Downtown, which is now the Omni William Penn. That interest in the travel and hospitality industry would lead him to the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, now called VisitPittsburgh, where he spent 39 years marketing the city as a destination for conventioneers and tourists. He retired Friday at age 68.
QUESTION: Do outsiders think of Pittsburgh differently than they did when you began promoting the city four decades ago?
ANSWER: If you were to ask me 39 years ago if we would still have a perception problem [today], I would have laughed at you. Unfortunately, no matter what happens and how many awards we win and how many times we're ranked as America's Most Livable City, there's still skepticism out there.
The partial solution to that is that once people come in and look at us and spend time here, they become believers. So we spend a lot of energy and time on bringing prospective clients into the community. -- What we find is that 85 percent of those we bring in and give us a chance to show off our convention center, hotels, restaurants and other attractions, turn around in due time and sign a contract with us. Any industry in the world would be happy to have an 85 percent conversion rate.
The biggest problem is they have to go back and sell Pittsburgh as the place to hold their convention to their board of directors, site selection committee or in some cases have their membership vote, which is somewhat barbaric.
And there is still a perception in people's minds that Pittsburgh is still a smoky city. We're making progress but -- the educational system in this country and other countries keeps showing, when you open up the [school] books, pictures of Pittsburgh back in the 1940s.
Q: You saw two convention centers constructed in the city during your tenure. How did those facilities impact Pittsburgh's ability to draw convention business?
A: In the 1970s we started talking about the need for a convention center. Up until then we were using the Civic Arena as an exhibit hall and meeting space sharing dates with minor league hockey before the Pittsburgh Penguins. We had very limited access, a limited amount of space and certainly not anywhere near what the professionals expected when they came to the city. --
The original David L. Lawrence Convention Center opened in February 1981. It was a vast improvement over what we had at the Civic Arena ... We wanted to build a 300,000-square-foot exhibit hall but the political community decided we should have a much smaller one. They built a 131,000-square-foot center, which of course caused us in turn to build the new building we have now. But the good news is the lesson was learned.
Q: What changed in how you marketed the city from the time you started in the 1960s?
A: The city has changed dramatically and the competition has changed dramatically. In order to keep up with or keep ahead was why we needed to build a convention center and why we needed to have the right hotel mix.
The Pittsburgh International Airport [which opened in 1992] was a major, major step in the right direction.
There are three factors always in play when you are trying to bring a convention to Pittsburgh. The planners say: Can my people get there? When they get there is there a place for them to sleep? And is there a place for them to meet? We have first-class, top-notch capabilities in those three areas now. -- The third piece of the puzzle is the convention center. And the [new one] I can say with pride is well designed, a very functional building and a green building that's gone a long, long way to help us in the marketing strategy as well as contributing to the sustainability of Pittsburgh.
Q: What about another major hotel attached to the convention center? That's been talked about for years.
A: We need a headquarters hotel, and that's the only thing I feel is being left out of my accomplishments, if you will -- to get that headquarters hotel built. I think it's around the corner.
If it's tied into the Westin Convention Center Hotel, we would like to see 500 to 600 rooms. That would give us a 1,200-room hotel under one operator. That puts us in competition with Indianapolis, Charlotte and Louisville, which we compete with [regularly].
When the old convention center was built, the Vista Hotel (now the Westin) was built to adjoin it and sufficed at the time with 600 rooms connected to a 131,000-square-foot building. Now we have a building three times as large with the same 600 rooms attached to it.
We've lost opportunity after opportunity when organizations want to come to Pittsburgh and they want rooms right at the convention center rather than a distance away.
Q: What was the most challenging convention you attracted here?
A: We hosted the American National Red Cross a number of years ago. It was a quite a challenge because the city we were bidding against was Honolulu. Who would have thought Pittsburgh could beat out Honolulu? We did because we used all the things we have and sell well: geography, close proximity to membership and cost savings vs. going across the Pacific.
Q: What events rank as the highlights of your career?
A: Some of the events that really capture the community: The Major League Baseball All-Star games in 1994 and 2006, the National Hockey League All-Star Game in 1990, and a number of U.S. Open tournaments in the same time frame. Those are events the average person hears about, knows about and participates in.
A convention comes and goes, and too few people in the community actually know it's taking place.
Q: How did you utilize those high-profile sporting events to enhance Pittsburgh's image elsewhere?
A: I'm convinced -- we were the first city to ever promote ourselves to a national TV audience on "Monday Night Football." We convinced the local ABC affiliate, WTAE-TV, to go to ABC in New York and ask if we could entertain the broadcast team at lunch on the Monday the Steelers were playing in 1984.
Channel 4 was skeptical, but I said, "Let's just ask them anyway." They did, and surprisingly [ABC] said we could; and the [broadcasters] were Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and O.J. Simpson. We put together a lunch -- with Mayor [Dick] Caliguiri, [Steelers owner] Art Rooney Sr. and some ABC officials from New York. It gave us an opportunity to pitch Pittsburgh to them; and all through the broadcast that night, they told the world about our transformation.
Now everybody and their brother does it throughout the country.
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