Columbus, Ohio: Convincing Stakeholders to Invest in the Destination Organization

Nearly doubling a US$6.4 million budget in four years is no easy task for a destination organization, especially given the fiscal politics that can at times place significant pressure on the destination’s decision to invest in travel and tourism, and by extension, the destination marketing organization.

By actively engaging in stakeholder relations as a part of its development strategy, Experience Columbus has successfully positioned tourism as a city-wide priority and rallied stakeholders to invest in its longterm success through the organization itself.

Targeting the Right Stakeholders

Destinations and their marketing organizations put significant effort into getting visitors to come, but the other side of the equation is ensuring that the destinations are prepared to receive that increased business.  As Carl Wilgus, President of the Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau says, their primary focus is tourism marketing and sales but second to that, is advocacy because it’s an opportunity to advance the tourism industry to get all stakeholders aligned and ready to receive the business the destinatinon organization is bringing in to the destination.

Experience Columbus faced a particular challenge of operating independently as a nonprofit but missed the resources to really position tourism as a community agenda. “We’re not the biggest organization on earth and there is a lot of stuff going on in a city like Columbus,” said Michael Brown, Director of Development and Public Affairs at Experience Columbus. “We had to come back and show the community how important this sector was.  We put a specific strategy together with the involvement of multiple stakeholder groups and leaders in the community.”

For Brown, it was important not to target those stakeholders from government, within the industry, or from the general community, not just because they had the title, but rather engage those who are actually helping to drive economic development to the region. Asking who is the power center behind the government funding, the private sector funding and then also who possibly is not on the destination organization’s side, are all important questions that Experience Columbus considered and strove to reinvent those key relationships. “In Columbus we had created a culture over decades in which the arts community, the human services community and our community from non-profit travel and tourism, were all funded from the same pot of money and therefore treated each other as adversaries,” explained Brown. “One of the first things we did when we launched this new campaign was going to those people who had been seen as political adversaries for finances, break down the walls, get all of our presidents and boards together and talk.”

This was only the first conversation of many, as now Experience Columbus engages in monthly sales and marketing conversations across multiple entities, where distinct groups work together on to best serve each other’s interests and grow the entire industry, not just find funding for next year’s cycle.

Really involve those who are overseeing these funding decisions and put more of those individuals or the people who influence our political leaders on [the] board.

Michael S. Brown, Director of Development and Public Affairs, Experience Columbus

Looking Beyond Traditional Partners

Traditionally, there has been a lot of focus on hospitality industry leaders, hotel general managers, and similar stakeholders as critical to a destination organization’s success. For entities like Experience Columbus, the majority of our funding comes through a bed tax. However, like so many other places, those funds are also subject to fund other groups. “There have been a lot of people in the industry represented by the board and at the end of the day while they were all important partners and members of our core group, they weren’t writing the checks that paid for the marketing and sales work,” said Brown. “A fundamental challenge we had to overcome was deciding to really involve those who are overseeing these funding decisions and put more of those individuals or the people who influence our political leaders on our board.”

Bringing those stakeholders into Experience Columbus’s organizing leadership was a critical step to engaging their interest in tourism. By involving those who make funding decisions, Experience Columbus put them in a position of ownership for the industry and the destination marketing organization. They are voting members of the board and include Columbus’s City Council President, Chief of Staff, Mayor’s Chief of Staff, and Mayor’s Communications Director.

Painting a Collective Vision for Columbus’s Tourism Opportunities

Providing a vision for the local tourism opportunities and backing that vision up with reliable, economic data and research was critical to Experience Columbus’s communication plan. The organization performed a study with Tourism Economics about the potential of the tourism market based on its facilities, size, location, and trends. Armed with a clear report on how much potential growth Columbus had in this market now, Experience Columbus was able to grab the attention of elected leaders and corporate leaders, to sign onto a single vision for how to fuel economic growth.  “2010 wasn’t the best year in the business. 2009 was horrible, so to people who care passionately about economic development, we presented some low-hanging fruit” said Brown. “Here, in our own backyard, the travel and tourism industry was ready to grow, ready to go with job creation and tax impacts, actual private sector and public sector return on investment. We had to go and make that case.”

The low-hanging fruit of economic development where the destination had already built the infrastructure, the convention district, the arenas, and the convention center was already in place. The next step, was really the sales and marketing, which is where Experience Columbus fit the job requirement to simply finish the task. “Suddenly there were stories in the paper.  There were editorials in the paper. The mayor spoke about this mission in his annual state of city address,” said Brown. “We were able to rally the community behind key priority areas.”

To achieve such high levels of support within four years has allowed Experience Columbus to hit on the cylinders, taking leadership and promoting collaboration through multiple meetings lasting several hours long to outline an aspirational plan that all parties could sign on to. “It took us being able to knock at many doors with this economic development message to bring her back to funding a travel and tourism campaign,” reflected Brown. “We are just now in the very beginning of that so in the next four or five years you’ll see that roll out more and more.”

Taking the Final Step to Commit to the Investment

“Reform” was a commonly used word when Experience Columbus embarked on this mission to make marketing the city an shared priority. “We needed to reform the system, and that’s one of the reasons it was so important that we had the arts community and the human services community on our team,” said Brown. “It wasn’t always comfortable, but they now are on our team and we’re working together because they agreed that it’s not working for any of us. The funding system doesn’t work. The impact that we’re having doesn’t work, and at the end of the day we were not getting the return for the community so that means all of us are falling farther behind.”

By admitting that a change was needed, Experience Columbus was able to move past the funding politics and build momentum behind the new and different plan. “Wee listened, we took all kinds of feedback and criticism but from civic leaders, from the president of the chamber, the representatives of the to CEOs, mayor’s chief of staff again, all these other people were in the room and we just hashed it out,” said Brown. “We had some of our top hotel leaders in the room and others but we just asked ourselves, ‘Where are we trying to go, and how are we geting there?’”

As a result, the proposed changes made its way into a whole reform package to build a more competitive Columbus through collaborative economic development, and Experience Columbus was able to legislatively change the way it got funded. The organization was able to change the bed tax code in the city of Columbus, noting that if Experience Columbus is going to do all the proposed work for the community, which various stakeholder groups support, then the funding must be real, permanent, multi-year commitment.

The change ultimately amounted to nearly a doubling of the percentage that goes to Experience Columbus, thereby allowing the organization to focus more readily on the task for selling and marketing Columbus, versus battling for relevance and defending its budget with every funding cycle and shift in political priorities.