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Destination Cleveland expands reach to sell city to future residents, workers, students

December 2, 2018

Destination Cleveland expands reach to sell city to future residents, workers, students

CLEVELAND, Ohio – By all measures, Destination Cleveland has done a strong job of attracting short-term visitors to the region.

That success has led to an intriguing follow-up question: Could the organization be similarly successful in attracting people to Cleveland with longer-term interests? The tourism bureau believes the answer is yes, and has launched several initiatives this year with an expanded reach.

The goal: Make the region more attractive not only to visitors, but also to potential employees, college students, future investors and the like.

The impetus for this expanded mission came as Destination Cleveland began fielding calls from local organizations and companies that wanted to know: Can you help us sell Cleveland to (fill in the blank) future employees, future residents, future college students, future investors?

Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to those requests, the organization set out to adjust its message for a wider audience.

“It’s about expanding this message to be about Cleveland – not just about tourists coming to Cleveland,” said Dan Walsh, chair of Destination Cleveland’s board of trustees.

Listening to leaders ­– and freshmen

Late last year, officials with Destination Cleveland launched a “learning and listening tour,” meeting with more than 400 people representing 250 local organizations and businesses.

One of its primary goals: How can we help you?

Out of those meetings came several specific proposals, including:

The new Cleveland Brewery Passport, which connects and promotes the city’s thriving brewing industry. Visit eight participating breweries and receive a free gift.An effort, still in its early stages, to connect the region’s many disparate bike paths into a user-friendly network, with signage, public art and more. “Our role isn’t to build bike paths,” said David Gilbert, CEO of Destination Cleveland. “But we can help make them a more usable and friendly experience.”A survey of local college students that asks about their impressions of Cleveland and whether they’d think about sticking around after they graduate.

The surveys were given this fall to freshmen at Cleveland State University and Oberlin College. Among the questions asked: “Did the fact that Cleveland State was in Cleveland play a factor in choosing it?” “If a friend or family member came to visit, name three places you would take them,” and “At this point, do you plan on staying in Cleveland after you graduate?”

Even though a large majority of CSU’s students come from Northeast Ohio, that doesn’t mean they really know the city, said Matt Knickman, the director of Cleveland State’s Center for Student Activities and Involvement.

“It may be really exciting for some to be in the heart of downtown. But for some, it’s scary,” he said. “We talk about the city as our campus. We want students to see this city as their home.”

Cultivating a relationship with Destination Cleveland is a first step, said Walsh. “They’re going to be here for at least four years. We’re here to make that experience better, to make them ambassadors of the brand.”

Tourism still the top priority

Boosting the region’s tourism base will always be the group’s top priority, said Gilbert. But he believes the organization can do more, building on the success of its 2014 branding campaign that is widely credited with, at least in part, increasing the number of visitors to Cleveland at a rate higher than the national average for several years running. (Related: Greater Cleveland attracts 18.5 million visitors in 2017, another record)

“If you have something that’s working to change people’s minds – you can use that to change minds in lots of different ways,” said Gilbert. “Someone who is looking to move here is not going to experience a different Cleveland than someone who is coming here for three days. In the end, the city is the city.”

This expansion of Destination Cleveland’s mission is part of a global trend of visitors bureaus moving beyond traditional tourism marketing in an effort to boost their region in economic development, population growth and other benefits.

In recent years, for example, the popular “Pure Michigan” campaign has morphed from a traditional tourism slogan to an anthem for the state. “I amsterdam,” in the Netherlands, is another branding effort that has come to define the city.

The ‘authentic’ Cleveland experience

In addition to talking with colleges, Destination Cleveland also has hosted numerous conversations with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, whose goal is to boost population in the city’s neighborhoods.

Among the topics discussed: the creation of more authentic neighborhood experiences to appeal to both visitors and residents, including, for example, an ethnic food experience in AsiaTown, winery tours in Hough or an overnight at A Christmas Story House (those last two experiences already exist).

A new partnership between Destination Cleveland and Cleveland Leadership Center aims to cultivate those kinds of experiences. Starting next year, the Leadership Center’s Accelerate competition will include a new category for Authentic Cleveland Experiences. Winners will receive a cash prize.

“We want people to learn more about our neighborhoods, to explore our neighborhoods,” said Jeff Kipp, director of neighborhood marketing for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. “We have many locals who could benefit from those experiences.”

Changing perceptions

Still other opportunities involve tweaking the message to be used by human resources and recruitment personnel.

In 2016, officials at University Hospitals queried their prospective residents and fellows about their perceptions of Cleveland. They were alarmed at what they saw: only 50 percent of interviewees had a positive impression of the city.

“We knew we had some room to promote Cleveland,” said Kerwin Samson, pediatric fellowship education coordinator for University Hospitals. “We reached out to Destination Cleveland to help us fill that gap.”

In just one year, she said, those perceptions had improved by 20 percent.

Gilbert said it’s not his organization’s role to sell a prospective employee on a new job in in the city: “Our expertise is getting people to think differently about Cleveland.”

‘High value’ targets

Still-developing initiatives include targeting certain “high value” visitors – think Cleveland Clinic Medical Innovation Summit attendees, for example -- in the hopes of shaping the way they think about and support the city in the future.

Indeed, this week, Destination Cleveland is managing the city’s Blockland Solutions Conference, a major gathering of business, government and technology leaders, centered around emerging blockchain technology. Among the attendees are top executives from Oracle Corp., AT&T and Wikipedia.

Gilbert said the results of some of these new efforts probably won’t be known for years.

But consider, he said, that not too long ago Seattle was considered an aging Northwest manufacturing town. Efforts to rebrand that city extended far beyond any impact on tourism.

“We can have an increasingly important effect on the future of Cleveland. That’s what we’re in it for,’’ Gilbert said. “That’s why we exist.’’

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