|By Steve Wartenberg, The Columbus
Dispatch, OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 24, 2013--Everywhere Brian Ross looks, the Experience Columbus CEO sees competition for those oh-so-precious and coveted convention and tourism dollars.
"They continue to raise their game, to get more aggressive," he said of the convention and visitors bureaus that Columbus competes against in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cleveland, to name a few.
"And it's getting tougher," Ross continued. "Nashville is opening a new convention center, Cleveland is opening a new convention center, Charlotte hosted the Democratic convention (in September).
"That was a game-changer for them."
Aggressive is a word Ross uses often and embraces as a sales strategy to bring more meetings, people and a game-changing national convention or sports event to Columbus, such as one of the 2016 presidential conventions.
The stakes are higher for Experience Columbus, as well as its sister organization, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, because of recent developments.
The 532-room Hilton Downtown Columbus opened in October, and the city recently increased the amount of money Experience Columbus gets from area hotel bed taxes.
Experience Columbus has developed a five-year plan designed to bring in more big meetings and propel Columbus into a top-five spot among its 10 benchmark cities, which are considered second-tier convention cities behind the likes of Orlando, San Diego and Atlanta.
"We're on the other side of the recession and we are seeing destination-marketing organizations hiring additional staff. They are upping their game," said Kristen Clemens, spokeswoman for Destination Marketing Association International, a trade association for convention and visitors bureaus.
Travel and meeting spending, she said, have finally rebounded "and are hitting their pre-recession spending levels."
Leisure travel spending totaled $564 billion in 2011 and business travel an additional $249 billion, the U.S. Travel Association said.
Columbus is ranked seventh among its competitive set of 11 cities, based on hotel occupancy percentages, room rates and other industry metrics, Ross said. Pittsburgh is No. 1, followed by Nashville, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Cleveland.
"The competition has never been more stringent and we're all fighting for business," said Craig Davis, CEO of VisitPittsburgh. "And we're not just fighting each other. Many times we're fighting with the first-tier cities, like Chicago and, in our case, Philadelphia."
It's a dog-eat-dog world to land pet expos, as well as other large meetings.
"We really are looking at taking business away from each other," said David Gilbert, CEO of Positively Cleveland. "It's something we recognize and talk about and how we measure ourselves against one another."Columbus has taken a few bites out of the competition. The city's hotel occupancy rate is 62 percent, the highest it has been in several years."Certainly Columbus is on our radar as a city we know we go head-to-head with," said Chris Gahl, Visit Indy's vice president of marketing and communications.
The massive USA Volleyball Girls' Junior National Championships were held in Columbus in July, generating 55,000 hotel room nights and $30 million in visitor spending.
"We are seeing more (visitors and convention bureaus) approaching us," said Kristy Cox, USA Volleyball's senior manager of events. "And more are getting support from their city and state to bring in more business."
Two cities on the move
Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have done well in recent years, spurred by sporting events, revived downtowns and even the shale boom.
"There are many conditions that make a destination successful and we've been lucky," Davis said. "We're feeling positive effects from the Marcellus shale boom and we're a banking city, and that's creating a lot of transient business."
The Steelers, Pirates and Penguins are factors as well.
"Having three major pro sports teams does translate into more hotel occupancy," Davis said.
Sports were a big factor in drawing business to Indianapolis, which has been a host city for the men's NCAA men's basketball Final Four several times, the Super Bowl in 2012 and the Indianapolis 500 every year.
"We have a proven record of hosting major sporting events and this is a key reason we've emerged on the national scene," Gahl said, adding that sports success has led to booking numerous nonsports meetings.
"We intend to bid on the 2018 Super Bowl," he said.
The Cleveland effect
Cleveland soon will become more competitive, as the city's $465 million Convention Center & Global Center for Health Innovation opens this year.
"We've been functionally out of the convention market for 15 years," Gilbert said.
And there's the always-popular Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which draws 500,000 visitors a year.
"The hotel occupancy in Columbus is more heavily weighted on meetings and conventions, maybe about 80 percent," Gilbert said, adding that the opposite is true in Cleveland, where tourists outnumber conventioneers.
Pros and cons
Columbus has a lot going for it, Ross said, including a highly rated zoo, science museum and library system. Hotel rates are low, it's easy to get here and many amenities are within walking distance of the convention hotels, he said.
"Columbus is talked about in the same breath as Indianapolis," Gahl said. "It's an affordable, family-friendly destination."
"It's well-known for its food scene and amenities," Davis said.
But still, there's work to be done, Ross said, adding that airline connectivity is the key.
"We have to get more direct flights here and international flights," he said.
And, while there are plenty of attractions, from Ohio State University south to German Village, it's a long hike between the two ends of town. Cleveland has a light-rail system in its downtown; Cincinnati is getting one.
"We need to be able to move people around our tremendous city in an efficient way that will meet the needs of residents and visitors," Ross said.
Make it Columbus
The National Association of Counties will hold its 2017 convention in Columbus.
The Franklin County commissioners did much of the heavy lifting to land it, Ross said, adding that this is an example of the "Make it Columbus" initiative. Experience Columbus is encouraging local companies to hold their meetings here and executives to lobby national associations or boards they are members of to hold their annual meetings in Columbus.
Cardinal Health will hold large meetings Downtown for the next three years, each expected to attract about 2,000 people.
"Folks underestimate what Columbus has to offer," said Shelley Bird, Cardinal Health's executive vice president of public affairs.
She was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., talking to executives from other companies, "and they had no idea about Columbus. They had no idea all the big companies located here, all the things there were to do."
A big part of the Experience Columbus plan is getting out the word on what the city has to offer.
A signature event, or several events just below signature status, would go a long way toward putting Columbus in the spotlight, Ross said.
The NHL All-Star Game was scheduled for Columbus in January but was canceled because of the lockout.
Hosting an NCAA women's Final Four would be a step in the right direction, Ross said, and landing one of the two 2016 presidential conventions would be a huge leap forward.
"We're in the process of putting together a committee to see what the requirements are," he said. "There's no doubt we would love to do it."
Experience Columbus also pursues large medical conventions.
Hosting big events will change the way people across the country view Columbus, Ross said.
"The No. 1 reason we get when we lose a group is their overall perception of Columbus," Ross said. "They feel, from a national standpoint, they won't get enough people here to be successful."
What's so frustrating, he said, is that once people get here, they like Columbus.
"It's changing," Ross said. "We're making inroads, but we still have a long way to go."
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