|By Rick Alm, The Kansas City Star, Mo.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 15, 2005 - Check a map. There's New Orleans and New York City, but also New Philadelphia, New Boston and even a New Baltimore, for goodness sakes.
Why not New Kansas City?
OK, we probably won't change our name. But a vibrant, new Kansas City is under construction.
And the selling of this neon-bathed, party-hearty, reinvented metro downtown to tourists and the nation's convention industry is building steam for a spring launch.
A $1 million advertising campaign kicks off in April with the unveiling of a top-secret new marketing slogan and "brand" image intended to capture Kansas City's new spirit -- not to mention travelers' fancy and the contents of their pocketbooks.
There's a $4 billion building boom going on here, and more than half of it is being spent downtown, where massive chunks of real estate are being transformed into hard-hat zones.
Construction dust begins clearing later this year, with ribbon cuttings scheduled well into 2008.
The convergence of so many projects heralds a hoped-for Golden Age for Kansas City tourism.
Chris Bergen, of Kansas City ad agency Barkley Evergreen and Partners, said the city must seize the opportunity and market itself as nothing less than "the Nordstrom's of convention destinations."
When all the pieces are in place, Bergen said, Kansas City will compete on any playing field with anybody's nightlife, pubs, restaurants, shopping, theaters, museums and entertainment from sports to symphony -- much of it just steps from a newly renovated Bartle Hall.
For decades downtown has been the Achilles' heel of Kansas City's visitor industry, said Jill Raines, marketing vice president for Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City. "There's nothing to do," she said. "The downtown is kind of dead."
Conventioneers, said Raines, simply do not warm to the idea of ending their work day at Bartle Hall, then stepping outside into … nothing.
Kansas City learned that lesson the hard way. Bartle Hall opened in 1976 and was upgraded and expanded in 1986, 1994 and 2004. All the while, downtown decayed. Convention business flattened and then tanked, posting its weakest numbers in a decade last year. The occupancy rate for Bartle's main exhibit floor last year was a dismal 44.9 percent, its lowest point since at least 1995.
Bureau President Rick Hughes said during the past two years, 140 planners representing an estimated $155 million in visitor spending considered but rejected Kansas City for their clients' events.
"Ninety percent of them said downtown wasn't right for them or the convention building wasn't right. We listened to them. … We're fixing it," Hughes said at the recent ribbon-cutting for Bartle's remodeled, mahogany-trimmed, state-of-the-art meeting rooms.
A cautionary study released a few weeks ago by the Brookings Institution hasn't dampened the city's enthusiasm. The study lamented what it called the "arms race" among cities to build bigger and better convention centers amid a travel depression and an evolving marketplace that has embraced Web and video conferencing.
The study issued several cautions, including advice that "a new or ever-bigger convention center cannot in and of itself revitalize or redeem a downtown core."
In that respect it appears Kansas City finally is doing its downtown redevelopment right. After false starts with downtown revival efforts like Centertainment and Kansas City Place, there's now a mix of residential, retail and entertainment projects to complement the city's again expanding public meeting space.
More than 15,000 people live downtown today, including 5,000 that have moved into an estimated $1 billion worth of new lofts and condo units in the past four years.
Corporate and government projects -- from H&R Block's new headquarters building downtown to Internal Revenue Service and Federal Reserve centers near Crown Center -- will inject more people and more economic energy into the heart of the city.
The seven-block Kansas City Live! entertainment district, Sprint Center arena, the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center and much more on the drawing boards will provide the daily dose of fun for natives and visitors.
The coming ad campaign and image makeover are being hatched now in Barkley Evergreen's think tanks.
What's remarkable is that the company is doing all that creative work pro bono.
Last year the agency's dozen or so employees with Kansas City account duties performed an estimated $250,000 worth of work for the city, said Mike Swenson, president of the company's public relations operation.
"The simple answer is we wanted to get involved to help the city, our city," said Swenson. "What's good for Kansas City is good for all of us."
Besides the helping hand from Barkley Evergreen, the Missouri Division of Tourism's co-op marketing program is picking up a whopping $460,000 of the Bureau's ad placement tab this year alone.
Most of the ad budget is earmarked for an $800,000 television blitz, still to be created, aimed at weekend and leisure visitors that will air in target markets still to be determined.
Meanwhile, $270,000 worth of ad space has been purchased in eight industry trade journals to persuade the all-important meeting-planner community to start pitching the new and improved Kansas City.
Both campaigns will unabashedly push pleasure buttons.
The print ads start in April with half-page cardboard inserts that will literally pop magazines open.
Shaped like standard hotel room door hangers, each has a tongue-in-cheek message from an imaginary and awestruck Kansas City visitor.
Says one: "Knock Softly Please -- My night started at a French restaurant and ended at a craps table."
Others: "Nothing to clean here -- I've only been in the room for a couple of minutes … There's so much new stuff to do around here."
Steve Spencer, a Barkley Evergreen creative group vice president, said the door-hanger idea is an anti-ad of sorts, a reaction to dozens of cities' "look-alike" magazine ads that "all say the same thing … the same way," touting new convention facilities, handy airports, beaches or whatever. "We wanted to make an emotional connection," he said.
The groundwork is being laid by people such as Denise DeJulio, the bureau's director of convention sales. She has been selling Bartle Hall and Kansas City for 20 years. Selling Kansas City's central geography and Midwest cost of living has always been the easy part, DeJulio said.
The new Kansas City she's selling "is really like a new destination for them to look at," she said. "Now we feel comfortable selling Kansas City."
Sprint Center and much of the rest of the renaissance becomes reality in 2007 -- which is today for DeJulio and her bureau colleagues who live in the future.
Meeting planners typically book events at least two years out, and they are shopping 2007 and beyond right now.
"We've being bidding on 2012 and '13 this week," said DeJulio. "We were talking to one group this morning about 2016."
The challenge, said Barkley Evergreen's Bergen, is for Kansas City to get its sales-pitch foot in the door, to get past the negative perception fostered by years of negative word-of-mouth about Bartle Hall and the ghost town that surrounded it.
Some say that perception already is changing.
"Kansas City is on everybody's radar right now," said Lawson Hocking, vice president of Virginia-based IMN Solutions, which books more than 500 meetings a year for its association clients.
"Because of the upgrades downtown they've become very much a prime destination," said Hocking, who was among the first wave of booking agents to hear the bureau's sales pitch about what's coming.
It worked. Hocking recently booked the Public Safety Communications Officials convention at Bartle Hall that will bring 6,000 visitors here for five days in August 2008.
"Kansas City has come a long way," said Hocking. "Refurbishing of the convention center was big. The old meeting rooms were sort of like a dungeon."
Larry D. Collins, planner for the North American Christian Convention, recently booked Bartle Hall for the summer of 2007. He said his group preferred to stage its family-oriented event in the Midwest, and was here in 1997.
"Our decision to come to Kansas City in 2007 was an easy one," said Collins, in light of the revived downtown plus what he described as the city's "charming" tourism industry professionals, who appeared eager to accommodate the group's needs, including youth and religious events.
"Some cities have the glitter, but they don't have the hospitality and customer-service focus," he said.
Both planners said handy entertainment and dining amenities around a convention center can tip the selection scales toward a city, but only if primary considerations of economics and security are equal.
In that, they said Kansas City brings built-in advantages to the table, including its modest Midwest cost of living, an easy drive from any direction, convenient lodging and airline connections, and a downtown convention district that boasts a reputation for visitor safety.
Kansas City's timing may be impeccable. The worldwide travel slump that began amid recession in 2000 stabilized in 2004 and is projected for a full recovery by 2007.
Last week the Travel Industry Association of America issued its first upbeat business travel forecast since 2001.
"Given the improved economy, rising business confidence and very positive financial performance of many U.S. companies, it is somewhat surprising that business travel has not come back more quickly," said association research vice president Suzanne D. Cook.
While business travel fell 14 percent between 1998 and 2003, Cook said it was up 3.8 percent the first six months of 2004 and is expected to exceed 4 percent, reversing the 2 percent decline in 2003.
The outlook for 2005 is good, with one survey finding 74 percent of corporate travel managers anticipating increased travel by employees.
Business travel is a $153-billion-a-year enterprise, and the convention industry slice of that pie is significant. Recent nationwide studies estimate the average conventioneer spends as much as $974 during a typical multiday visit.
Meanwhile, Jeff Marvel, the dean of Kansas City's lodging consultants, said area hotels also are emerging from the darkness.
Marvel & Associates last week reported average occupancy grew in 2004 for the first time in four years, to 57.5 percent from 2003's historic low of 55.8 percent.
The really good news, added Marvel, is that virtually all of last year's growth came during the second half, and that the surge appears to be carrying into 2005.
Area occupancy topped out at 70.8 percent in 1996 before a wave of new supply washed out demand growth.
Negligible supply growth last year in the area's inventory of almost 30,000 hotel rooms allowed average room prices to nudge upward to $72.89.
Now, said Marvel, the local industry is cautiously watching as another supply wave builds, particularly around Kansas City International Airport and Village West, where a conference hotel could be the next big thing.
There are other signs of returning health, said Marvel, including talk of a new 1,000-room hotel downtown, and the simple fact that Marvel's own hospitality industry clients are actively sniffing for investment deals in Kansas City.
In fact, Marvel said outsider investors may be more enthusiastic about Kansas City's revival than many skeptical locals.
"Local people are still afraid of downtown," said Marvel. "The-out-of town pros are going to make a killing."
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