It was born as a slogan out of a public relations campaign from the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. Back in the late 1940s and throughout the ’60s, it also was a rallying cry for our city.
With our strong manufacturing base, proximity to major markets and being within a day’s drive of more than 50 percent of the population of both the United States and Canada was trumpeted as “the Best Location in the Nation.” As a community, we weren’t afraid of puffing up our chest and bragging about it.
There is a newspaper legend from that era that our local Chamber of Commerce wanted to place a full-page ad in the New York Times proclaiming Cleveland as the “Best Location in the Nation.” But the paper refused to publish the ad until our chamber was able to prove it.
According to the legend, it ran in the Times a week later.
Sadly, nothing lasts forever. Our manufacturing base dwindled in the late ’60s through the ’70s. Young people left for better opportunities in the Sun Belt. It wasn’t long before Cleveland became synonymous with the Rust Belt, a city of decaying manufacturing plants and broken dreams. It wasn’t exactly what you would call a tourist destination.
While we saw flashes of a resurgence in the ’80s, the last eight years have seen an unparalleled rebirth of Cleveland. Our image is changing and evolving. We’ve redefined our employment base, switching from heavy industry and manufacturing to medicine and education. There has been a rebirth of downtown, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.
But only time will tell if we can reclaim our title of “Best Location in the Nation.”
Many challenges still lie ahead. Much needs to be done. To grow, we need to continue to redefine ourselves to outsiders. And we need to create a new culture among Clevelanders.
Long before the Cleveland Cavaliers took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, you could sense a resurgence of civic pride in Cleveland neighborhoods — like Little Italy and University Circle to the east, and Tremont, Ohio City and Washington Park to the west — as real estate and commercial developments went up. But people across Northeast Ohio were not as tuned in as the denizens of those neighborhoods. And some are still unaware of the resurgence of downtown and its close-in neighborhoods.
While it has been recognized as important to overall economic development, the impact of travel and tourism goes much deeper. Its jobs directly support lodging, food service and hospitality industries, but it also can attract residents, companies, other jobs and students to our area.
1. Following the Economic Impact
The travel and tourism industries already have a major impact on our state and local economies. They not only create new jobs — they also help foster the idea of Cleveland and all of Northeast Ohio as a destination. But that's not just for people on vacations or day trips.
“We have gone from 61,000 travel and tourism jobs in Cuyahoga County to just over 66,000 in just five years,” says David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland. “Between 2011 and 2016, based on our number of visits, travel and tourism in our city is growing at twice the national average.”
When it comes to our state, the numbers are no less impressive, according to Tourism Economics, an organization that tracks the industry. The tourism economy supported 427,000 jobs in 2016, up from 420,000 in 2015. Tourism visits have grown from 207 million in 2015 to more than 212 million in 2016.
“So tourism plays a major role in the economic development of our entire state,” says Matt MacLaren, director of TourismOhio. “The $43 billion in revenue brought in by industry is very important, but the 427,000 jobs across the state that the industry supports is a number that we are proud to see growing year over year.”
A recent study from Oxford Economics, which included Destination Cleveland, shows that destination promotion acts as a catalyst — or an engine — of economic development in a much broader sense. The study found that destination promotion raises the amenities and quality of life in a region, raises the profile of the destination, helps to build transportation networks and, ultimately, attracts strategic events.
Cleveland’s experience with the 2016 Republican National Convention bears that out.
“Two years out, when we were first bidding for the RNC, the groups supporting the bid were very vocal about the three overall reasons that were driving our desire to host the event,” recalls Gilbert. “The third of those reasons was the actual economic impact of the visitors’ spending, as significant as it was.”
The RNC played a major role in getting significant projects accomplished, including the remake of Public Square, the new Hilton Cleveland Downtown and major improvements to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, among other projects.
“You can argue that any one of those projects would have happened on their own, but hosting the RNC certainly accelerated them,” says Gilbert.
Perhaps even more important, the RNC changed the narrative of our city at the national and even international levels. Fifteen thousand credentialed journalists who came along to cover the convention broadcast scenes of the city to a rapt audience, which included plenty of decision makers. Some of these people will be tasked with planning a trip for the family, or a meeting or convention that could bring in thousands of guests.
“I overheard people talking, just after the RNC was over, and they were all excited about how it was such a great event,” says Melinda Huntley, executive director of the Ohio Travel Association.
“The RNC really introduced the conference and convention industry in Cleveland to so many new people,” she adds. “When someone asked, ‘Now what are we going to do?,’ another person answered, ‘We have 10 groups coming in tomorrow.’
“The fact is, we now have dozens and dozens of conventions and conferences coming to Ohio, performing the same function as those groups did when they came to Cleveland after the RNC,” Huntley explains.
Still, even the most vocal supporters of our community and the travel and tourism industries are quick to admit that mega-events like the RNC are hard to come by.
“The world of meetings and conventions is a lot like a pyramid,” says Gilbert. “The higher you go up the pyramid, the fewer meetings and conventions there are.”
And those meetings and conventions often require a larger infrastructure than we already have.
“If we doubled the size of our convention center, we might be able to go higher up the pyramid in terms of the size of the conventions and conferences that we host on a regular basis,” Gilbert explains. “But the universe of those larger conventions also gets smaller, and the number of cities that are able to host those conventions gets smaller as well.”
So, should our city be going after mega-events like the RNC, or stick to more mid-sized conventions, like the recent National Pavement Expo and Conference, which pulled away from Nashville last year and was recently hosted by the Huntington Convention Center in February? The answer, says Gilbert, is both.
“For the vast majority of the meetings and conventions that we go after, there is an ideal size that fits our convention center and our hotel package, and those are events that require 1,200 room nights at their peak,” he says. “That being said, the sky can also be the limit, like the RNC. Our efforts don’t necessarily need to be constrained by the size of our convention center.”
The bottom line is that it still makes sense for the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, for instance, to go after the MLB All-Star Game, the NFL Draft or other events like the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which were held at Quicken Loans Arena in March. They are bigger than ideal for our convention center, but since they don’t mind taking up 10, 15 or even 20 different hotels, it’s still a win for the city.
2. Singing from the Same Hymnal
Attracting major events, as well as those mid-sized events that we are naturally suited to hosting, requires a unified and consistent marketing message. That means an investment in both time and capital from travel and tourism industries, as well as the business community in general. The latter involves understanding how tourism affects the business bottom line. Once the city becomes desirable as a location for a visit, it also becomes a desirable location to live, build a business or grow a family.
“Once they experience our region, then they’re ‘sold,’ ” says Joe Savarise, executive director of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association. “But to get them here, we have to do what everyone who wants to successfully sell a product does — we need to market what we have. We need to reach more audiences and different audiences to bring them to experience the diversity that we have. When selling a destination, ‘build it and they will come’ won’t work.”
We are still “strategically situated in a location that attracts a majority of the U.S. population with a short journey,” adds Savarise. “We need to capitalize on that. It takes dollars to impact perceptions via advertising, PR, social media, promotions and more. We need to work on this together at the local, regional and state level with TourismOhio, the state’s destination marketing office.”
A company or business relocating its headquarters to an area, “usually starts with a single visit,” says MacLaren. “They decide it’s a place that they want to live and work, and then they bring their business here.
“It’s part of the reason why we created the ‘Ohio: Find It Here’ brand,” MacLaren adds. “It’s an emotional campaign that shows people enjoying iconic images from all around Ohio. It instills a connection to the state, and it makes people want to carry through and visit.”
It’s also why TourismOhio is expanding the geographic scope of its campaign this year.
“We launched in 2016 and had our first full year of advertising last year,” says MacLaren. “Last year, we went across our state, up to Michigan and into western Pennsylvania. This year, we’re expanding to Indianapolis, all of Indiana and down to Charlestown, West Virginia.”
The messaging is having a positive impact on major travel destinations like Cedar Point and Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
“But it’s also having an impact on tourism-related businesses like Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and the Great Wolf Lodge in Sandusky,” MacLaren adds. “While many of the businesses we see expanding in Ohio are tourism-related, we’re also starting to see businesses considering Ohio for their corporate headquarters, and that is partially because tourism is strong here.”
Collaboration between our tourist destinations, travel and tourism organizations and local business is key.
“Collaboration has proven time and time again to be key to our hospitality industry’s success,” says Gregg Mervis, president of the Akron/Summit Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Recent examples of blurring geographical lines for major international/national events (like the Gay Games 9 and the RNC) have proved that working together and combining resources reaps tremendous rewards.”
From direct visitor expenditures on accommodations, dining, retail and entertainment to the added value of positive public relations and press coverage, the Akron/Summit Convention and Visitors Bureau and its destination marketing colleagues “are always in pursuit of initiatives that leverage our collective message and reach,” says Mervis.
But it all starts with a continuing dialogue with parties that can sometimes have competing agendas. While communities should protect their ability to compete in the travel marketplace by making sure they are promoting their assets, they also should make sure that tourism leaders are at the table during economic-development discussions. This is about more than just one industry — it’s about bolstering an economic driver that changes perception.
“We need to make sure policy decisions don’t have unintended consequences that could decrease market share or impact the visitor experience,” Huntley explains.
“We all need to be singing from the same hymnal,” adds Savarise.
3. Understanding Why Travel and Tourism matters at Home
Successful travel and tourism campaigns, while an important part of overall economic development, also can impact the public’s opinion about where they live and work. As proof of that, we are seeing a dramatic culture shift starting to happen across Northeast Ohio. But there still is a lot to be done.
“Communities need to recognize and appreciate the full power of inviting and hosting travelers, whether these guests have traveled 50 miles or 500 miles,” says Huntley. “Yes, travelers spend money locally when we host them, as well as contribute tax dollars to support public services and other needs. Yes, this spending supports jobs, including full-time professional careers in sales, engineering, management, hospitality, culinary and dozens more.”
There are other benefits of the travel economy that impact our lives at home. It helps develop an employable and trained workforce and contributes to the economic development in our smaller towns, the region and throughout the state.
U.S. Travel followed the career paths of travel employees for 30 years and discovered that those who started working in the travel industry end up making more in their careers than those who started elsewhere, except for financial services, says Huntley.
“Front-line jobs in museums, hotels, restaurants and attractions develop our ability to work with people and create a customer service work ethic,” she explains. “This is important to most employers, whether they work in the travel economy or not. These jobs are important in the workforce-development pipeline and should be leveraged.”
Educational institutions across our state are becoming increasingly aware of the need to prepare people for careers in the travel and tourism and hospitality industries. For example, Bowling Green State University’s Firelands campus will soon offer a resort and attraction management degree that is expected to come on line in the fall of 2020.
It’s a great example of how travel and tourism businesses, government and higher education can come together to fulfill a need. Cedar Fair will invest $15 million to $25 million to build dorms for an estimated 200 students. The company also will provide educational support as well as summer internships for students.
The City of Sandusky has committed to providing the land and tax breaks, while the state has committed to an additional $800,000 for the project.
The curriculum will cover the last two years of college with the goal of preparing people for the increasing number of jobs at Cedar Point as well as other attractions-based businesses. But the program also will help transform Sandusky’s seasonal economy to one that’s more year-round, which will only enhance the city as a destination for new businesses.
Longwoods International, a market research consultancy with offices in Toronto and the United States, studied how travel marketing and visitation influence perception of a place in terms of identifying a good place to live, start a business, retire, attend college, purchase a vacation home or start a career. One of the places it studied was the Lake Erie Shores and Islands region in Ohio.
“When we market a place, such as the Lake Erie Shores and Islands region, Cleveland or Ohio, we are changing the story,” says Huntley. “For example, in the Lake Erie Shores and Islands study, those who had seen advertising from the visitors bureau in that area were 161 percent more likely to view this region as a good place to start a business and 132 percent more likely to view it as a good place to live. Similar results occurred when they explored the change in perception after someone had visited the region, with an image lift of 150 percent when viewing the area as a good place to start a
The same messages being used to tout our area as a travel destination can be used by local developers or chambers of commerce when trying to entice a company to move to here. Similarly, a company that is trying to recruit employees at the national level can use those messages to attract top talent.
“When we talk about trying to convince someone to move here, to invest here and start a business here, that change of perception is critically important,” says Gilbert. “We’re not making Cleveland a destination for visitors, but a destination — period.”
4. Connecting the Dots
Achieving a greater connectivity between major travel destinations across Northern Ohio, those attractions in our city and the various neighborhoods in and around the city has always been a challenge.
“Our research has shown us that we have great dots, but we don’t necessarily do the best job of connecting the dots,” says Gilbert. “If you look at any product, whether it’s a city or a laundry detergent, you have to get and retain customers by delivering on your promise and getting people to like your product.
“People may come here and like what they see in our arts community, sports venues, Rock Hall or culinary scene, but if their experience in the community at connecting those dots isn’t positive, then they are not apt to come back, nor tell their friends and family to visit,” he adds.
Still, we have good stories to tell. According to a recent economic impact study from Tourism Economics, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum generated $199 million in total economic impact in our city last year, with its visitors ponying up an estimated $127 million directly to on-site and other businesses. And, while 60 percent of visitors coming to our city said their reason for a visit was the Rock Hall, increasingly those same tourists are visiting other destinations such as the West Side Market.
But, as Clevelanders, we can’t always see the Forest City for the trees.
“As a resident, we don’t really see what’s going on that brings people into our community,” says Huntley. “And we don’t see the marketing that brings people in because we are not necessarily the target of that marketing.”
That’s why Destination Cleveland has recently started doing feedback research on a visitor’s experience.
“Cleveland has not thought of itself as destination, nor even acted like a destination for visitors for decades,” says Gilbert. “We’re currently doing 1,200 feedback surveys a month, and hope to have it close to 2,000 a month by year’s end. It’s a great tool to see what a visitor thinks of their experience. And it is giving us all kinds of information that we need to make a difference.”
Part of that difference could come in the form of creating unique local experiences, like a tour through the Cleveland Metroparks or something called a Beer Trail — a tour capitalizing on our many breweries in the Greater Cleveland area. It’s expected to come on line this spring. The Columbus Ale Trail has been around for a few years, and Summit County started its Summit Brew Path last year. Each has been a resounding success.
“In terms of tourism, we obviously want that long four- or five-day vacation, but we also want the mother and daughter who take a one-day trip just for the experience,” says MacLaren. “To do that, we need to create strategic alliances with travel and tourism businesses, travel agencies and business in general.”
It will go a long way toward making Cleveland a desired destination both for tourists and new businesses. But it will also change the way we see our city and ourselves.