When David Gilbert joined the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission as its president and CEO in 2000, the city was far from the destination location it is today. By the time Gilbert assumed an identical role with Destination Cleveland in 2011, Cleveland already had established itself as a hot spot for large-scale sporting events.
During the 19 years that Gilbert has promoted the city for both national and international events, one thing has never wavered — the boundless enthusiasm he feels for his hometown.
“We started out with two employees,” Gilbert remembers from the organization’s downtown offices. “It was a start-up nonprofit, and we spent nine months building a business model. We received a lot of help from organizations in the community. Our idea has always been the same — to deliver more service than any other city in the country.”
“We were small when we started, but we never thought small,” he says.
Gilbert’s leadership has played a key role in the commission’s ability to impact the economy of Greater Cleveland by attracting, creating, managing and enhancing sporting events. Since 2000, the commission has attracted and created more than 190 major events, resulting in $850 million in economic activity in and around the city.
Destination Cleveland has a similar mission to drive economic impact and promote Cleveland as a vibrant destination. The 52-year-old Gilbert has been able to build synergy between the two organizations by making sure everyone involved shares his passion for the city.
The early days of the commission were filled with trial-and-error experiences. It was up to Gilbert to establish a new way of thinking to secure events that had been previously hosted by other cities. “We sort of went after anything and everything,” he says. “There were some defining events we attracted early on. Had they not happened, the organization may not have gone in the same direction.”
One such event was the 2004 International Children’s Games. The event had been previously held in Hamilton, Ontario, a city with similarities to Cleveland. “We ended up putting together a terrific bid that no other city in the U.S. knew about,” says Gilbert. “Mayor (Michael) White did a great video for us. After they gave it to us, we looked at each other and said, ‘What did we just get ourselves into?’ Back then our budget for the year was about $300,000.”
The Games went off extraordinarily well, attracting the largest international gathering in the city’s history at the time. “It gave us a sense that we could accomplish anything we wanted to,” says Gilbert.
The commission’s progressive approach to finances proved to make all the difference when the city hosted the U.S Gymnastics Championships in 2002.
“What was interesting with that was a business model that came with a significant bidding fee,” says Gilbert. “We proposed an entirely different structure that shared risk and reward for the event. We ended up splitting the ticket revenue, which had never been done before. Now many deals are done like that.” Any large event entails elements of the unknown, whether it involves logistics, transportation or finances. “We have always had a very entrepreneurial nature, which our board is all for,” says Gilbert. “There is often risk, but it has been measured risk.”
The commission has been instrumental in attracting such events as the NCAA Women’s Final Four (which returns to the city in 2024), the National Senior Games and the Gay Games. But the dynamic really changed on July 8, 2014, when Cleveland was awarded the 2016 Republican National Convention, an event that would showcase the city to the world.
“That was the most challenging and fascinating (event) because of the size, scale and complexity,” says Gilbert. “It was all hands on deck. There were so many moving parts and so many partnerships. It’s something that is almost set up for conflict…healthy conflict but conflict nonetheless.”
Despite the egos involved and the scrutiny placed on the city’s security forces, the RNC went off smoothly with very few minor disruptions. “I remember one newspaper headline that read `They Came for a Riot and Got a Block Party,’” says Gilbert. “The convention was very impactful for Cleveland. We had all parts of the city rowing in the same direction. For someone like me, whose career has been focused on trying to make the city better, it was so gratifying.”
Gilbert says the commission’s work in the past 10 years has laid a foundation that can be capitalized on for years to come. “It’s like being open to a long-term relationship after a first date,” he says. “People who come here for the first time are always surprised, and that never gets old to hear.”
When asked what differentiates Cleveland from other cities across the nation, Gilbert has two answers. “No. 1, we believe that we provide more service than any other city in the country. No. 2, we take it more personally than other places do. That’s something we hear consistently.”
Utah’s Enid Mickelsen, who headed the rules committee for the 2016 RNC, told Gilbert: “We thought you wanted it more than anyone else.”
“That’s the secret sauce,” says Gilbert. “To me, that was an unbelievable compliment. You can’t buy that, you can’t create it. You can’t fake being genuine.”
Gilbert, a South Euclid native with degrees from The Ohio State University and Cleveland State, maintains his passion for the city’s professional teams and is already anticipating the 2021 NFL Draft, which is expected to generate an economic boost of upward of $100 million for the city while attracting an estimated 250,000 attendees.
“For eight straight years our growth in visitors has been faster than the national average” he says. “Looking at what’s on the horizon, there is nothing we can’t do or can’t get here.”