With Destination Cleveland’s annual meeting a few days off as of press time for Community Leader, David Gilbert, president and CEO of the travel and tourism organization, shares some insights as to what might be on the industry’s horizon in the coming year. Some of the city’s key players also share what they have done to help overcome the negative effects of the pandemic, as well as the ongoing impact those effects are having on Cleveland’s travel and tourism industry.
“To start with, the numbers are trending in the right direction and the recovery is looking very strong,” says Gilbert. “All of the numbers we have so far this year are tracking better than the rest of the nation in terms of our recovery, and all of the indicators are pointing to the fact that we are getting back on our feet.”
Although the conventions and meetings business is looking much stronger, business travel is still lagging behind the rest of the industry, Gilbert admits.
There are a couple of reasons Cleveland is doing better than the rest of the nation, including the hosting of blockbuster events such as the NFL Draft in 2021 and the NBA All-Star Game earlier this year.
The Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, of which Gilbert is also president and CEO, estimates that the NFL Draft, which took place from April 29 through May 1, 2021, had an overall economic impact of $42 million on Cleveland. Attendance, despite lingering COVID-19 fears, was estimated at 160,000 visitors with 40.1 million watching on television nationwide across the three-day event.
Held less than a year later, in February of this year, the 2022 NBA All-Star Game (and associated events) provided Northeast Ohio with an economic impact estimated to be just south of $250 million.
That really helped offset the dramatic downturn caused by COVID-19. For 2020, Cuyahoga County registered 13.8 million visits, down 30% from 2019; and economic impact slid to $7.1 billion, a 27% drop. Both declines resulted from the immediate shutdown and prolonged contraction of the travel industry. Visitation to Cuyahoga County declined at a similar rate to U.S. domestic visitation, a drop of 32% in 2020.
Although business bottomed out at the height of the pandemic, Destination Cleveland is quick to add that the Cleveland brand was and still is on the upswing. The consideration of Cleveland as a visitor destination by the target audience of millennials grew from 14% to 36% from 2014 to the present. And resident recommendations (by Northeast Ohioans who recommend Cleveland for a visit), increased from 34% to 81% during the same period. The NBA All-Star Game and NFL Draft only help bolster that brand awareness.
Indeed, some economists are now using the term “psychic income” for what happens when cities such as Cleveland host major sporting events. When citizens of a community host a major sports (or political) event, people feel better about themselves, and their emotional well-being goes up. When people feel better about themselves, they feel wealthier and spend more. They go out to eat more. They also spend more on clothing.
If that sounds like promotional poppycock, think again.
Professors from the School of Economics and Management at Shanghai University of Sport and the Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University, confirmed the economic impact of “psychic income” on communities either participating in or hosting major sports events — the latter being especially true if local residents were educated on the importance of such events. Using the Shanghai Tennis Masters as an example, the study found that “sports events are considered to have a significant impact on sustainable community development in the host country, especially economic, social and cultural development.”
That same phenomenon is also seen when an area’s sports teams do better, which was witnessed when Cleveland’s downstate football rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, made their Super Bowl appearance earlier this year.
Building Upon Success
“We had the Stonewall Nationals and the Tall Ships in July,” says Gilbert. “The Cleveland Air Show is also back this year, which should provide us with a nice economic boost as well.”
Although not as big as the NFL Draft or the NBA All-Star blockbusters, these are the types of events that will help bring the industry back up to pre-COVID-19 numbers, actually building a more solid economic base for the local travel and tourism industry.
Make no mistake, supporting travel and tourism is an areawide effort, especially within the business community.
“From the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s angle, we are just a piece of the puzzle,” says Yvette Ittu, president of Cleveland Development Advisors, an affiliate of Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP). “We work very closely with our partners and others who really feed the efforts of Destination Cleveland, which does an amazing job, and where there are opportunities to partner on various initiatives. We are all in to collectively work on travel and tourism.”
Certainly, one of the more important civic organizations directly involved with travel and tourism is Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA), which was formed as an outgrowth of other civic organizations in 2006.
Michael Deemer, president and CEO of DCA, says he believes the way to lure people off of their couches and out of their home offices to Downtown Cleveland is by providing “unique, authentic, one-of-a-kind experiences that you can only find in the city center.”
“We need to … give them opportunities to have the kind of human connection that we all crave, really remind them of what they love about being in cool, fun, vibrant places,” Deemer says.
In May, DCA launched its Connection to a Stronger Downtown campaign, an effort that includes a calendar of warm-weather activities and events. It kicked off with Lunch in the Lane, which closed a different street from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. once a week through June for what Deemer calls a “popup block party” with live music, games and giveaways. Other series listed on downtowncleveland.com include new additions such as Music on the Malls, which puts live music and food trucks on Mall C from 5 to 7 p.m. every Wednesday through August, as well as old favorites such as Take a Hike, free guided and self-guided walking tours of areas that include the Flats, Playhouse Square, Public Square and the Warehouse District, which are offered through September.
“In addition to programming downtown with cool and fun experiences, we fully recognize the downtown experience begins with a clean, safe and welcoming environment,” he adds.
To help provide that environment, DCA employs between 100 and 120 cleanliness, hospitality and safety ambassadors. From 7 a.m. to midnight each day, they pick up litter, provide safety escorts and serve as a uniformed presence offering directions and other assistance.
“It’s a great opportunity to have an impact on the city and help facilitate our city’s recovery,” Deemer says.
Celebrating the City’s Cultural Assets
One of Cleveland’s greatest sources of civic and cultural pride won’t even be in town for a couple of weeks this fall. Instead, it will be spreading the word of the city’s cultural assets and attractions on an international stage.
In August and September, The Cleveland Orchestra and its Music Director Franz Welser-Möst embark on their 20th international tour together, with 12 performances in nine European cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Hamburg, Linz, Lucerne, Prague and Vienna. Over the course of three weeks from August 31 to September 16, the tour’s concert programs will feature the music of Berg, Bruckner, Rihm, Schubert, Strauss, as well as Mozart with pianist Igor Levit.
That kind of international exposure is sure to draw in people from around the globe.
The Cleveland Orchestra is a proud ambassador for Ohio, carrying the depth and breadth of local arts and cultural understanding across the globe. The 2022 Europe Tour is part of the Orchestra’s 105th season and the 21st year of the ensemble’s acclaimed partnership with Franz Welser-Möst.
This is the orchestra’s 53rd international tour. Most recently, the Cleveland Orchestra toured Asia in spring 2019 with performances in Beijing, Macao, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Taipei and Wuhan.
The orchestra’s most recent European tour was during the 2017-18 Centennial season with stops in Vienna, Paris, Linz, Hamburg and Luxembourg, and 2017-18 touring also included performances at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. The orchestra’s last scheduled European tour during spring 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic.
“Nearly every season over the past half century, the Cleveland Orchestra has toured internationally,” says André Gremillet, the Cleveland Orchestra’s president and CEO. “We are eager to perform once again for our European audience and proudly represent and promote Cleveland and Ohio internationally.
“The Cleveland Orchestra, universally recognized as one of the finest orchestras in the world, is a great example of the quality that can be found in so many industries and organizations throughout our state. It also represents the very best American culture has to offer the world. Touring remains essential for our orchestra, both from an artistic and an audience development perspective. Music truly is a universal language that transcends cultures and connects us all, and that connection is probably more important today than it has ever been.
“The Cleveland Orchestra’s standing as one of the very best in the world results from a commitment that is first and foremost to our great city of Cleveland,” Gremillet adds. “Our loyal and broad constituency at home in Northeast Ohio and around the world has supported our work for more than a century. In turn, they have fueled our mission of serving Cleveland and its surrounding communities through our performances, as well as education and community engagement programs — all of which are created to connect people to the power of music in the concert hall, classrooms and their everyday lives.”
When you talk about valuable cultural assets, you simply can’t leave out Playhouse Square, which has been an important fixture in the Cleveland community for more than 100 years.
“A recent study completed by Oxford Economics shows that our annual economic impact on Northeast Ohio is $359.1 million,” says Gina Vernaci, Playhouse Square CEO, who is planning to step down next year. “We take pride in being the home of seven resident companies, a regional economic engine and an ambassador for our city and its people.
“This August and September, we are welcoming out-of-town visitors and Clevelanders alike to four weeks of Disney’s Frozen, the return of the much-loved Cinema at the Square series, concerts by Gregory Porter and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and a performance by comedian Mike Epps — to name just a few events on our calendar.
“Though entertainment is at the heart of what we offer, we are more than the largest performing arts center in the nation outside of New York — we are stewards of our vibrant downtown district and a champion for arts education as we continue our mission of making the arts more accessible for all.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a lot like the artists enshrined in it: It remains a big draw for decades, even during the most challenging of times.
This year, the landmark has welcomed about 80% of the 563,000 visitors it saw in pre-pandemic 2019, according to Rock Hall Hall of Fame president and CEO Greg Harris. That year it boasted an economic impact of $225 million, a figure that translates into providing 1,872 jobs.
“We think we’re going to have a strong summer,” he says. “We think that we will be over 500,000 visitors.”
Over 80% of those visitors come from outside the area — people who patronize hotels, restaurants, retail establishments, etc. A large percentage are leisure travelers. But Harris notes that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame remains a much-in-demand corporate and private event venue. The 200-plus events booked each year range from small lunches to celebrations honoring top-performing employees to marquee affairs staged by the likes of the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, the 2021 NFL Draft and the 2022 NBA All-Star Game.
“Every major citywide conference or event does their opening or closing at our place,” Harris says.
Current attractions include The Beatles: Get Back to Let It Be, an exhibit the Rock Hall describes as “an immersive complement” to the Peter Jackson TV docuseries The Beatles: Get Back that shows how the legendary band wrote and recorded many of their songs, and a Legends of Rock exhibit that’s been expanded to include artists such as Alice Cooper, Def Leppard, the Doobie Brothers and the Mamas and the Papas.
The annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, along with accompanying events from the Nominee announcement to HBO broadcast, provides the Rock Hall with valuable media exposure, even when the ceremony is conducted in New York City or, as it will be in November, in Los Angeles. Harris says this year’s inductee announcement alone generated 14 billion media impressions in the first 48 hours.
“The media value was $158 million,” he says. “It gets people excited about visiting the museum and about visiting Cleveland.”
A study conducted by Tourism Economics shows that the Cleveland Orchestra, Playhouse Square and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are among Cleveland’s most lucrative institutions. But so is the internationally acclaimed Cleveland Museum of Art.
In 2019, these four institutions had 2.6 million total combined attendees at their events, exhibitions, concerts and shows. Of these, approximately 1.4 million traveled to Cleveland from outside of the region. Visitors from out of town accounted for $317 million in on- and off-site spending.
The museum has such an impact on tourism in Cleveland because of its contents and the particular way it’s managed. Since it was founded in 1913, the museum has remained completely free of charge, a trait in museums that’s become less common even with organizations less than half of the size of the Cleveland museum.
The museum’s collection of 45,000 pieces has also been met with acclaim. In 2016, Business Insider ranked the Cleveland Museum of Art the second-best museum in the country, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A noteworthy museum exhibit taking place in August is FRONT International, a contemporary art exhibition with seven installations on view from late July until early October.
Noteworthy museum exhibits in September include: The New Black Vanguard Photography Between Art and Fashion and Impression to Modernism, The Keithley Collection, which features impressionist, post-impressionist and modern European and American paintings.
Bringing People to the Waterfront
Cleveland’s large appeal as a travel and tourism destination is the centrality of its location and the diversity of its offerings. The city has it all — arts, culture, world-class restaurants, wineries, breweries, trails, parks and, of course, a Great Lake.
“The Nautica Queen exposes visitors to several of those assets, giving them a chance to experience Cleveland’s shoreline, skyline and historic bridges,” says Ellen Kelley, director of operations for the popular cruise ship. “I think that’s important. We contribute to the vibrancy of downtown (people love to wave as we pass by), and we employ around 70 seasonal and full-time employees.
“The Nautica Queen has indoor and outdoor spaces which, coupled with our voluntary reduction in capacity, give passengers opportunities to spread out. It was a little quiet downtown for a while there, and we’re excited to see the activity building now and to be one of the reasons people come to the city.”
The Nautica Queen is a great way to see next month’s Cleveland National Air Show.
“The Cleveland National Air Show is always a major event for us and sells out very quickly,” adds Kelley. “I think overall though, the Nautica Queen is a spot for your major event. People come aboard to celebrate personal milestones. We’re a special spot for reunions, proms, birthdays, anniversaries and weddings.”
In increasing numbers, the lake has become a destination for pleasure and dinner cruising. With its connection to the St. Lawrence Seaway, it’s also bringing people to Cleveland from all over the world, especially Europe, thanks to luxury travel cruising. That returned to the city in a big way this year, starting with the Ocean Voyager’s stop in Cleveland earlier this year.
“Over the past five or six years, we have had people approach us at the port to help out welcoming cruise ships,” says Jade Davis, vice president of external affairs for the Port of Cleveland. “We are expecting 36 cruise ships this year, but we could be looking at 10 to 20 more than that next year.”
Prior to the pandemic, the port had already invested in a customs clearance facility with work that started in 2018 and was completed in April of 2020. Sadly, the facility couldn’t open because of a lack of vessels due to COVID-19.
“So it sat dormant for two years, but we opened it this April,” says Davis. “It’s working just as designed, and we are excited. We’ll be here to help this business grow by as much as we can.”
The ships coming into the port aren’t as large as the cruise ships in Miami or other ocean ports. After all, they do have to fit through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal.
“So they typically only hold about 300 passengers as well as the crew,” adds Davis.
With 36 visits this year, the numbers do add up.
“We are considered one of the most popular destinations on the Great Lakes,” says Davis. “Routinely, we are in the top two ports on the Great Lakes, the first being Mackinac Island.”
Those ports include major metropolitan destinations like Toronto.
“People love to come here because of attractions like the Rock Hall or the Flats,” says Davis, “But they also come here to visit the Cuyahoga Valley National Park or our Metroparks.”
All About the Animals, Too
Although many of its indoor programs and facilities had been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cleveland Metroparks never shut its doors during the past several years to nature or to the outdoors for Northeast Ohioans or tourists. In 2021, Cleveland Metroparks drew more than 19 million recreational visitors for only the second time on record. (The highest visitation was 19.7 million in 2020.)
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo also attracted more than 1.3 million guests in 2021, the highest annual visitation in a decade and the fourth highest annual visitation on record. If it squawks, screeches, trumpets or roars, people want to see it.
A study in 2018 by the Trust for Public Land showed that Cleveland Metroparks contributes $873 million annually to the regional economy, a significant portion of which is attributed to direct visitor spending. Expanded parks, improvements to reservations and the completion of the Re-Connecting TIGER Trails, plus better access to Lake Erie through trails created and/or managed by Cleveland Metroparks, all make a huge difference in enhancing the region.
“Over the past several years. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo [has invested] in animal habitats like Asian Highlands and the Daniel Maltz Rhino Reserve that enhance animal care and create more immersive experiences for our guests,” says Chris Kuhar, PhD, Cleveland Metroparks executive director. “Community-driven after-hours events, including the Asian Lantern Festival and Wild Winter Lights, and new offerings like the Eagle Zip Adventure, also have helped attract new guests.”
And of course, there is nothing quite as effective at luring zoo visitors than introducing new baby animals like Kayembe, the first gorilla ever born in Cleveland. Can you say, “adorable”?