Growing Together: Working With Local Stakeholders in Columbus

Experience Columbus is challenging the perception of a “second-tier” city. When the Harvard Business School did a case study on the city’s unique cooperation between private, public and civic communities during the decision-making process, the school coined this bold approach “The Columbus Way.” It’s a powerful thing to see what can be accomplished when stakeholders come together. 

The Many Pieces of a Meeting

Successful meetings, conventions and events are inherently complicated. There are the hard numbers: is the meeting space large enough? Are there enough hotel rooms? Can we cater enough food? Then, there’s the logistics of travel. Planners look into direct flights, rental cars or rideshare services, walkability of the area and public transit. And to make an event truly shine, cities need to provide a seamless experience from start to finish.

But beyond logistics, to pull off a great event there has to be an element of local pride. What makes a city unique? Maybe it’s welcoming, exciting, vibrant or laid-back. That special mix of elements that you can’t find anywhere else are what will keep people coming back. And for that to shine, local stakeholders have to work together.


The Columbus Way

“No matter if you’ve been here a year or 70 years, you have a seat at the table,” says Brian Ross, President and CEO of Experience Columbus.

Ross is referring to the strong spirit of collaboration in this midwestern city. Often referred to as “The Columbus Way,” the concept is simple and effective: bring together the private, public and civic communities to problem-solve and work for the greater good of the community.

“We’re a large city but we’re small enough that we can get those individuals in the room and we can talk and put the community’s best interest at the forefront and walk out together in tandem,” Ross says.

This spirit of collaboration is more than a fun tagline. It has contributed to Columbus’ success within the meetings space, making it more adept at providing what meeting planners need. For instance, Columbus hosted ASAE’s Annual Meeting thanks to the collaborative efforts of over 50 organizations providing everything from volunteers to financial assistance and intellectual capital. ASAE is the essential organization for association management, and its annual meetings bring together thousands of association professionals.

Ross emphasizes that local community support, involvement and advocacy are to key to successful events. And this is what makes Columbus unique. For a city of its size, it offers a seamless experience. But this success is something that’s been long in the works.

Building Success

Before Columbus could host associations like ASAE, it needed to bulk up its infrastructure. Experience Columbus and the local community worked on strengthening three key areas: convention hotel infrastructure, direct flights and city perception.

With the support of the community, each challenge was tackled head-on. In 2012, the Hilton Downtown was built, adding needed hotel rooms to the Greater Columbus Convention Center. With that success, the city was able to gain support to expand the hotel and nearly double its size, providing 1,000 rooms.

Direct flights have also been added throughout the years with direct flights to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Salt Lake City, among others. And the city is working on adding more direct flights, focusing particularly in West Coast cities as well as international flights.

Finally, changing perception is an ongoing goal of Columbus, one that it works on many fronts. Hosting major events such as ASAE brings large groups to experience the city first-hand. In 2018, Columbus hosted the NCAA Woman’s Final Four, showcasing the city’s sportsmanship, passion and diversity. In fact, Ross says Columbus’ brand essence is an organic outgrowth of its community: inclusive, diverse, welcoming and progressive. And as Ross also points out, Columbus combines those traits with being safe, clean, walkable and affordable.

The work Columbus has put into its convention and hotel infrastructure, direct flights and perception has strengthened the city and made it a place that continues to grow. Experience Columbus knows what it’s doing is working and has backed up its work with research.


The Power of Tourism

Most CVBs know the positive impact of tourism is huge, but it can be difficult to convince stakeholders. Early on, Experience Columbus worked with the local community. The goal was not to simply get “heads in beds” as was often the moniker of the past, but to have a measurable positive impact on the local community. And Experience Columbus has done just that.

Ross says tourism and meetings impact three major areas: Economic and human development, image and perception, and quality of life.

The Greater Columbus area welcomes 41.1 million visitors each year and those visitors directly spend $7 billion at local businesses. Tourism supports nearly 78,000 jobs in Columbus and Franklin County– which is 1 in every 12 jobs in Franklin County. Tax revenue generated from tourism supports local human services, economic development and the arts.

Experience Columbus and the local stakeholders understand the vital part tourism and the meetings industry play in supporting a healthy, prosperous community. With this knowledge, they are poised to continue nurturing better events.    

More for Meetings

Event planners can choose from more cities than ever. Places that were once considered “second-tier cities” are now dynamic destinations with all the ingredients needed for events and conventions of all stripes.

Experience Columbus built the infrastructure it needed, and now, with its collaborative approach, it has the deep ties needed to bring events to the next level. It’s the team, Ross says, that makes Columbus great for meetings.

“We know when a group is coming in, how we can help magnify their success based on what they’re trying to accomplish,” Ross says.

The deep connectivity to the community makes it possible for Experience Columbus to secure internationally known speakers from places like Ohio State and to support efforts such as social responsibility.

The local infrastructure also continues to grow with the expansion of hotel rooms and more direct flights. And another major initiative is enhancing the visitor experience with increased options for mobility.

Looking forward, Ross says Experience Columbus is aiming to be a top 10 city for meetings, conventions, tradeshows and events. It’s clear that Experience Columbus is vested in this goal and is continually working on vesting the right assets in the community, so everyone grows together. Columbus was recently announced as the host for the PCMA Convening Leaders convention in 2023, just one more step toward achieving this goal.

Columbus understands the community support, involvement and advocacy needed to pull off top-level events. Investing in true collaboration benefits everyone, including the event planner. Columbus is a brilliant example of what events are like when everyone works together. 

For more on Columbus, watch The Connectors, a series invested in the events industry.