Destination Marketing: Creating a Unified Brand Experience, with David Gilbert

Episode 128

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David Gilbert serves as president and CEO of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, an organization dedicated to making Greater Cleveland a premier destination for amateur sporting events, and Destination Cleveland, the region’s convention and visitors bureau. The Greater Cleveland Sports Commission is responsible for attracting, promoting, and managing major amateur athletic events, and for creating sporting opportunities for youth and amateur athletes. Since 2000 the organization has attracted or created more than 190 events, including 25 NCAA championship competitions. These events have contributed more than $570 million in local economic impact. At Destination Cleveland, David is responsible for carrying out the organization’s mission to drive economic impact and stimulate community vitality by positioning and promoting Cleveland as an exciting, vibrant destination. Among many accomplishments, they notably landed the 2016 Republican National Convention. David serves as vice president on the board of the International Children’s Games based in Leucine, Switzerland, and sits on the boards of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. He was named by Crain’s Cleveland Business as one of Cleveland’s 30 top influencers of the past 30 years, Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and in 2016 he received the SME Cleveland Business Executive of the Year award. On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with David about making destination marketing more entrepreneurial and working more strategically at creating a unified brand experience. All destinations have unique challenges. How do you encourage locals to promote tourism? How do you reach out to potential visitors and make your destination their top choice? David and Cleveland have faced some unique challenges and found some remarkable solutions.  

What You Will Learn on This Episode:

  • Why DMOs need to become more entrepreneurial
  • The many ways tourism and economic development intersect
  • How to shape the perception of your destination
  • How to be more strategic in your tourism branding
  • Ways to create stronger alliances between DMOs and stakeholders

We’re All in This Together

Unless you’re a literal island, no travel and tourism entity can afford to function as an island unto themselves. When organizations think that way, everyone suffers. Part of the challenge David faced was to help all the various cultural institutions, museums, sports teams, and local legends to realize they were part of a broader ecosystem. Together, they could accomplish far more than they could alone. But local DMOs also need to make sure all these groups understand the value a DMO can add- then the DMO needs to deliver.

Brand Perception

“Yeah, but you’re Cleveland.” A decade ago, Cleveland had a perception problem. Outsiders had a visceral (read: negative) reaction to the name. A significant portion of the population would not recommend it as a place to visit for friends and family. As you can imagine, that is a LOT to overcome. But overcome they did. David and Nicole explore how he and the team at This is Cleveland flipped the script. They did it through some very deliberate steps in reshaping the City of Cleveland brand in a way that was both authentic and positive. “If it’s not real, and if you don’t deliver on the brand promise, everyone will be able to see that.” David shared. There is some great conversation about finding the promise of your brand and then living up to it. To sum it up, David says, “You don’t have a brand for different audiences. A brand is a collection of stories about who you are. And if you hit it on the mark, that’s not going to change. The way you deliver it might change, but the brand will not change.”


Nicole Mahoney: 00:24 Hello listeners, this is Nicole Mahoney, host of Destination on the Left. I am passionate about travel and tourism and love learning from the experiences of professionals in the industry. That is why I’m so excited to introduce today’s guest, David Gilbert. David serves as president and CEO of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and organization dedicated to making Greater Cleveland nations for most destination for amateur sporting events and activities and destination Cleveland, the region’s convention and visitors bureau. David reestablish the sports commission in 2000 and assumed his role with destination Cleveland in 2011 from April, 2015 through December, 2016 David also served as the president and CEO of the Cleveland 2016 host committee for the Republican National Convention. The Greater Cleveland Sports Commission is responsible for attracting, promoting, and managing major amateur athletic events, and for creating sporting opportunities for youth and amateur athletes. Since 2000 the organization has attracted or created more than 190 events, including 25 NCAA championship competitions. These events have contributed more than $570 million in local economic impact at destination Cleveland, David is responsible for carrying out the organization’s mission to drive economic impact and stimulate community vitality by positioning and promoting Cleveland as an exciting, vibrant destination. He serves as vice president on the board of the International Children’s games based in Leucine, Switzerland, and sits on the boards of the rock and Roll Hall of fame, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission and the Maltz Museum of Jewish heritage. He was named by Crain’s Cleveland business as one of Cleveland’s 30 influencers of the past 30 years, Ernst and Young entrepreneur of the year, and in 2016 he received the s m e Cleveland Business Executive of the year award. Thank you for joining me, David.

David Gilbert: 02:19 Oh, glad to be here.

Nicole Mahoney: 02:21 I know our listeners are going to learn so much from you today, but before we dive into the questions, can you tell us a little bit about your story in your own words? The bio that I get to read only really gives such a small glimpse.

David Gilbert: 02:34 Yeah. Grew up in Cleveland and can be where that’s relevant as I just, I’ve always really loved my city, love my community. And um, for at this point, almost 25 years I’ve been involved

David Gilbert: 02:52 in, um, uh, a couple of different organizations related to attracting people to clave on him. Really, really almost all my career has been involved in, in sort of civic work and Cleveland and I actually run two separate organizations. One is the greater Cleveland Sports Commission, so we have about 14 staff people and we’re, we, we compete to attract and host major sporting events, um, in Cleveland. Um, and then for the last eight or nine years, I’ve also been running destination Cleveland, which has our DMO and it’s interesting set up their, their, um, a separate organizations, separate boards, effort, staff, separate funding, certainly complimentary to each other and, and we’d found nice ways to tell play off of each other. But, uh, um, you know, sometimes it makes time a challenge, but it’s also very enjoyable.

Nicole Mahoney: 03:50 Yeah. I think that’s really interesting how your community has put both your DMO and your sports commission together. Um, you know, under a shared leadership, uh, team. Um, and, and I’m curious, uh, how did, how did that come about?

David Gilbert: 04:06 Well, I, so I had, I had been running our sports commissions since we restarted when back in early 2000 and startup. We had a, a great board, um, which was, which was really helpful. It started with just myself and that was able to hire one other person and, and grew and about, uh, probably about eight or nine

David Gilbert: 04:28 you’d be better part of 10 years in. I was asked if I was by the board of our DMO asked if I was interested in, in, um, leaving the sports commission to come run the DMO and, and um, uh, I really wasn’t, I mean I probably, other than more money, there wasn’t anything about the one job that interested me more, you know, sports commission was very entrepreneurial, really loved it. And then they came back. And so if we can work with the board of the sports commission where you would be able to report both, would you be hoping to that? And again, so, um, that’s ultimately what transpired and, and um, yeah, I think, I think it was a little, um, it w it took a little bit to figure out and I probably had to go a little bit overboard, uh, in the first year or so on even more time on the DMO side more more because I think, you know, there was this feeling, well, hey, this would be the sports commission guy and that the emo would sort of be that stepchild and, and, uh, it certainly wasn’t the case.

David Gilbert: 05:31 And, and both organizations have have grown really, really well and, uh, um, and again, unique that they’re completely independent of one. Another one interesting thing is in the first year we had separate offices and, and I probably didn’t, I probably underestimated how difficult that might be in terms of just not being present. Um, and they were only a couple of buildings away and serendipitously for two separate reasons, each organization had to move offices. Uh, when up getting one office space at, they’re both housed in an, I just sort of have a kind of an office in the middle and uh, and, and can be present for, for both organizations.

Nicole Mahoney: 06:16 Yeah, that’s a, that’s that’s really, really great. I was going to ask you actually about the offices and kind of how it’s structured and, and you mentioned your sports commission team is 14 people. What is your destination Cleveland team?

David Gilbert: 06:28 We have about 70, and we’re actually in the process of going through a really interesting internal, uh, of significant staff reorganization. I’m really just based on a lot of the work we’ve been asked to take on and I think we’ll probably grow probably by five or eight people this year. Um, and uh, so we’ll probably be somewhere in that 75 to 80 range.

Nicole Mahoney: 06:56 Yeah. So two very different, uh, different organizations. Then I’d imagine, uh, you know, that’s the smaller staff might be a little bit more entrepreneurial. The larger staff, even though, you know, you might have to have more of those, uh, structure, more structure in that environment. Um, and I’m curious what you can share with our listeners about kind of what surprised you when you brought these two organizations together and in what kind of benefits have you seen by, by being involved in kind of comingling them that way?

David Gilbert: 07:28 Well, I think that that, um, one is, um, I, when I was asked by the board of destination Cleveland to, to run the organization or company that we love for, for gestation Cleveland to have a culture more like the sports commission, again, just, just, uh, a more entrepreneurial, more risk taking. And, and so that’s been a very enjoyable to, you know, to kind of work on trying to, to adjust the culture, which, which we, thankfully I think we’ve done. Um, and then the, the other was, was that, um, it’s, I mean, very different skillsets. So our sports commission, I think most of the largers Ford’s commissions in a country, they’re very extraordinarily service oriented. And most of the work begins once an event is, um, is, is awarded to a community so that it almost operates like a small sports management agency that all of the servers are provided to try and make an event better.

David Gilbert: 08:33 And it’s full time event management, sponsorship, marketing communications, but really focused on enhancing the event. Um, and, and, um, some of those are skills that, that our DMO doesn’t have. So they can, they can, when needed, you know, a, um, again, they’re separate organizations, but they, you know, they’re, did people each other so much, they root for each other so much that, you know, tapping into advice and so on. Um, is, is really important. And I, and the sports commission, you know, it’s one of the big things is portrait, which has not a DMO. It is not, it doesn’t have the resources or the charge to really, um, be, be marketing and promoting our community on a broad scale. It’s much more focused on, on the event side. And I think there’s a lot of learning from one another in, in how they do their work and, and where they, they can, you know, they really can, can do a great job of feeding off on one another.

Nicole Mahoney: 09:38 Yeah, I think that’s, that’s really awesome. I was just listening to a podcast on my way to work this morning and they were talking about, um, building these craft teams. I thought it was a really interesting take and basically what they were describing is kind of what you just talked about, but they were describing, um, within their own, you know, within an organization, the ability for professionals to build their craft and to learn from each other. Um, and, uh, I, I think that that, that just brings that to mind. What you just described,

David Gilbert: 10:10 that’s a very significant restructuring that we’re, we’re going through with destination Cleveland is, is, is really focused on a lot of that, you know, and working far more in project management teams and allowing people to focus on their craft, but learn, uh, you know, work in teams. So the, you know, the, everybody is working very collaboratively together. And, um, you know, I would tell you so much of our work now and, and, and, and I think, I really think in many ways, this is where we see a lot of the DMO world going. And actually we’ve studied a lot of it in Europe. They, I think in a lot of cities in Europe, they look at, at, at the, the whole notion of destination marketing very differently than most cities in the u s do. And, and it is, um, they’re just, there it is, it is more entrepreneurial. It’s less transactional. Um, and, and it really, they do so much of, of understanding how destination marketing and economic development, marketing, um, and it is all tied together. Um, and, um, and I just, I think that is, is a, um, a significant trend in our industry and we’re, we’re trying to be out ahead of that.

Nicole Mahoney: 11:46 Yeah, absolutely. And I know we’re going to talk about some of the initiatives that you’re working on it that crossover into that space as and it, and, uh, I think that that’s, um, that’s just really good perspective and, and what we’re seeing in the industry right now, I think that’s awesome. I think I mentioned to you before we got on this interview, I was just at a museum association of New York State Conference and, um, that was the message that was coming through there as well. How intercoastal museums are, um, to the economic fabric, right? The economic fabric or the economy of the communities where they serve. And, and it was really, um, at the conference was challenging museum professionals to think more, um, in that, in that way as well.

David Gilbert: 12:30 Great. I think that entities think that way. Um, the better off communities they’re going to be because absolutely none of any of us do can be done on an island. And, and, um, you know, we, we talked a lot, we just had a recent annual meeting and it was really neat a bat. And we talked a lot about, you know, the whole notion of one plus one doesn’t always equal two. And, and you know, the sort of have a choice, you can make it less than two or more than two. And, and you know, kind of goes with that notion if you realize you’re part of a broader ECO system, you could do better for yourself and better for everybody around you.

Nicole Mahoney: 13:13 Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I like to say one plus one equals more than two. Yeah, absolutely. Well, I appreciate that kind of deep dive into, into your organization and how the two organizations kind of coexist together. Um, I want to shift gears here a little bit and talk about creativity, which already I feel like we’ve touched on that so much in the creative way that, that you’re managing these two organizations. Um, but I, I’m, I’m wondering, you know, as competitive as it is in the tourism and hospitality industry, there are so many choices for a potential visitors, even for residents, right, of things that they can do. Um, and one could be to stay home or spend time, you know, spend time with family. Um, how do you really kind of stand out from the crowd and, and really inspire people to get out there and visit Cleveland?

David Gilbert: 14:17 Well, you know, we, we really started to dive into this five years ago, six years ago, really seeing it as a business problem. And so, you know, Cleveland’s been in this interesting place of, of MMM, nope, really having difficult times for, you know, three or four decades in the last eight or 10 years has really started to change dramatically. And you know, you go from being a city a hundred years ago was no sixth largest city in us. All this great stuff when you know more Hatton’s per capita than any city in America that, you know, one of the wealthiest cities in America, obvious sort of, it was sort of the Silicon Valley of the industrial revolution. And they went through a very tough time. And so there were a number of facts when we were kind of resetting ourselves as an organization, you know, really relying on a lot of research.

David Gilbert: 15:13 And a couple of really important facts and one is that advice from friends and family is one of the, the three most used resources that someone will choose and making a decision on where to visit and you know, not, not surprising and especially in the rise of social media when we also did some research on, um, that showed 34% of people in our county would recommend Cleveland as a place to visit for friends and family. So he had this really interesting business problem that, you know, one of, one of the groups that you rely on most to increase the number of visitors is our locals. And yet our locals, we’re, we’re, we’re saying we wouldn’t recommend. So we started one with a really, uh, um, uh, a significant campaign back about six years ago. We got a lot of our local media involved, um, for free.

David Gilbert: 16:11 They saw this was a big business issue and it was really focused on is Hashtag thisis cle. We actually had over a million people over a three or period locally that, um, uh, posted to it. It’s pretty amazing. The whole thing was about just show the world what you love best about cleaning. It wasn’t, it wasn’t, hey, everybody needs to go to the rock hall of fame. Everybody needs to go to a browns game every but whenever. It’s not necessarily that the traditional touristy stuff, it was all about what do you like best about your hometown? You know, it could be your favorite sandwich at a place up the street and you know, all kinds of stuff. And, and um, and so we spent a lot of time doing that. And interestingly over four years, so in 2013, we measured it and the number was 34% we measured it. And by the way, that number in our, our pure regional peer communities, he’s like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis was traditionally hovering around 60% so we’re way behind. We measured again two years later, same study, and it actually hit, we were saying, hey, we’d be happy if I move the doubt up to 40%. I was actually at 54%.

David Gilbert: 17:25 We also, you know, we had just a huge burst of, of energy and good news, you know, we hit, we won the competition for it. Hosts had a great Republican National Convention in 16 and the Cavs won the championship. The names were in the world series. A lot of great pride, a lot of enormous, um, do development taking place downtown. That number is in 17 was 77%. So it had gone from way below the regional average to way above, like commensurate with cities like Seattle and Portland. And so we said, okay, that’s great. Now we’ve, uh, we have, we have locals who are saying they would recommend Cleveland to their friends and families a place to visit. Now how do we get them to do that? We, you know, and so we know our job as a DMO is not, is not to get locals to go visit local places.

David Gilbert: 18:17 You know, we know as DMO their job is to get out of towners to come visit, you know, and economists will tell you that, you know, if a local goes to the movies or the rock and roll hall of fame, it’s zero impact on the community because they were going to spend those dollars here anyways. The key for us was how do you get more people, locals. It’s really a combination of two things. And we just started a new campaign. We had a visit me and cle campaign and they we’re doing at a, um, a hometown weekend and at first of all a really encouraging local stick it out and discover more of their community. Then also give them the tools to invite their friends and family to come do the same. And so we’re, we’re doing these really interesting campaigns, but there again, they’re not th they, they are all geared to getting locals to promote Cleveland as a place to visit to their friends and family. And so it, it, you know, it’s, it’s uh, um, you know, we think especially for a city like Cleveland that has battled image issues and self image issues, that it’s really important to do that.

Nicole Mahoney: 19:26 Yeah, I think that’s a, that’s really awesome. And you just really provided so much insight for our listeners to think about. You know, I love how you kind of started with, you know, sort of the history right out of Cleveland and kind of the struggles that you’ve had, which I think are not uncommon uncommon for many, you know, cities that are Midwest or even for where we are and upstate New York kind of some of those struggles. And then really we’re able to pinpoint where is the place where we can make the biggest impact. Right. And that whole idea of getting the locals to encourage friends and family to come visit. And it’s all based in, in statistics and you were able to measure I think is just just fantastic. And then because you were doing all of this, when all of that started to happen in 2016, with all those eyes on Cleveland, um, you know, with the, with the RNC and the Indians and the Cavs as you mentioned, what a great catalyst.

Nicole Mahoney: 20:22 You already had it, you know, you already had all these programs started and working. And, um, I think that’s just really awesome. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah. Um, so just kind of switching gears a little bit and, and you’ve actually already touched on this, but I always like to ask my guests to share with us a time where there might’ve been some sort of a challenge or adversity that you faced and uh, cause I love to hear the creative solutions that come from that. And so I’m wondering if there is a, uh, challenge that comes to mind for you and if you can share with us some of the creativity that came from that.

David Gilbert: 20:58 Well, I think, um, yeah, I can think of a couple. I think in a, in a, in a broad sense, it really, um, uh, um, had a lot to do, a lot of the rise of where, where we’ve come as a community and organization. And thankfully the numbers, we’ve just had seven straight years where the number of visits for leisure and business travel is, is um, on a percentage basis growing faster than the state average and the national average. We know we have a, a, a, you know, kind of hard for us to think that travel and tourism is a major growth industry, Cleveland, but, but, but it is and I think a lot of that goes back to about seven years ago. Um, when we, we spent about a year developing our new brand and, and I really, I I, it really is the first time that I, you know, I’ve been around, are working in our community for a long time.

David Gilbert: 21:54 First Time we’ve ever really had a um, true strategic travel and tourism brand. And, um, it was the, the, the, I give a lot of credit to collect Jones who’s our VP of marketing. Brilliant, comes from a consumer products background. And her, one of her notions is, which is great as you know, we are, our job is to, to look and think of Cleveland as a branded products. And, and you know, she, she was, she was a project manager for Wrigley for orbit gum. You know, how do you compare a destination to a gum or a fabric softener or you know, toothpaste. And also you, you need to get people to, to try your product, to, to, um, to like your product, to become a, of ideally a repeat user and an advocate. And, and, um, and if you have a brand promise, if you’re a toothpaste and you are, and you’re selling that, that are, you know, we have a toothpaste that whitened is better than anybody else and people try it and it doesn’t work and it doesn’t live up to the promise.

David Gilbert: 23:04 You know, research will tell you you’re worse off than if you had never told him that in the first place because they’re going to spread the word that you’re lying and you’re not what you say you are. So w we, we, we, we did a national RFP for, for a, uh, for a new destination brand if the local firms and, and a lot of the best out of town firms. And, um, we ended up choosing MMGY global who’s widely considered the largest and, and, you know, one of the most accomplished destination branding firms in the country or even in the world. And interestingly, they, they, there were two reasons they said that they, they agreed to bit, we certainly were not going to be enormous customer, you know, compared to some of the other big ones. But they said a, that they, they felt Cleveland, quite frankly, was an enormous challenge, you know, based on, on the research they did.

David Gilbert: 23:57 And second was when they came here and they immerse themselves, they just fell in love with it. So when they did the research, this was fascinating is they did a couple of things that were very important. One was they really, they did a lot of research on what, what Cleveland or said about their own city and what others said about, and it was very different. Clevelanders, you know, Cleveland leaders would say, this is a wonderful city, you know, great arts, great sports, great parks, cost of living, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff. And that, and they showed that that five w no, we’re not, we’re not marketing Cleveland. And Cleveland’s perception on the outside was very different. And what they said was that Cleveland was, that there was more of a, you know, this was seven years ago, more of a visceral reaction to the word Cleveland in any other city or destination they’d ever tested.

David Gilbert: 24:49 And um, and it was sort of a, a I in a good way of good slap in the face that’s okay to local. Like we can’t, we may know this is a wonderful place, but outsiders who’ve never been here, we have to understand our job isn’t to create a brand that speaks to us. Our Dev is creative brand that speaks to two outsiders. And most importantly, a brand that is very authentic to what that destination is. It’s critical to do that. So when people come, you’re going to align with that brand promise. They’re going to experience that brand promise. So ultimately the brand they created has been so incredibly popular. Not only is a bit did it win lots of awards, which is fine. They won major national awards like destination brand of the year. But most importantly, when we’ve utilized that in our, our, our marketing, it is, it is the conversion rates are off the charts.

David Gilbert: 25:42 And when we compare it to even things like pure Michigan and others around us, it, it is, you know, the, the, the conversion, the dollar conversion per dollar spent is absolutely off the charts. And, um, it’s, we’re not actually getting ready to do a, um, uh, look at it, keeping the brand. But you know, now we are a different city than we were six or seven years ago. Um, but it’s been, and so how do we, how do we continue to evolve the brand? Um, but what it’s done is so many interesting things. One, it’s manifested itself all over town. So we didn’t have a tagline and they said, we don’t, you aren’t about a tagline. You need to change the narrative of that word Cleveland, because we first have to do is get people to consider Cleveland. You have to get up in that funnel of information.

David Gilbert: 26:30 Cleveland is not in a place to lead with an attribute. You can’t go out and say, we have this unbelievable arts community because people in other cities will say, well, yeah, but your Cleveland, our arts community has to be better. Yours or our culinary has to be because you need, they first have to get past the, yeah, but your Cleveland and we know from our research and that is absolutely happening. But it was so brilliant on their part to have that insight of this isn’t a slogan. It is. It is literally all about the word Cleveland. Even the brand itself is more, is more manifested by this. You know, our, our, we call our brand anthem video and you know, people will Google Cleveland brand anthem. It’ll, it’s not a commercial, but it really shows the essence of, of exactly what we’d in everything we do is within that brand voice, um, consistent with that brand anthem.

David Gilbert: 27:21 But this script, Cleveland we created with it has just taken off locally. There’s, it’s on the sides of buildings. It’s in local artwork. It’s in, it’s, it’s statues everywhere. Like people, locals have just taken to this thing that that has been, they said they’ve never seen a physical manifestation of a brand, um, like they’ve seen in Cleveland. And so it’s been, I would say it’s, it’s, it’s really been neat to see how the issue of pride, of having a brand that absolutely captures your essence for locals and for visitors has really, has really worked very, very well. And, and, uh, um, you know, clearly I’d say it as much as any city in the country. Um, you know, the, you know, the, the problem is that Cleveland battled a, and certainly does, still does not nearly to the extent of battling a perception issue.

Nicole Mahoney: 28:19 Yeah, absolutely. I love how you highlighted, you know, the research that they did. Um, and this whole idea around the brand perception and what Clevelanders think versus what other people think, and then recognizing we need to get out of our own way. Because, you know, it’s not about what we think. We were not trying to reach us, right? We are, we’re already here. So, um, I just think that’s awesome. And, and in the end, it sounds like it boiled down to a pretty simple, you know, brand, right? I mean, this is Cleveland, right? This is it.

David Gilbert: 28:56 Yeah. Yeah. This is who we are. And they may not be for everybody, but, but for those who it appeals to, it’s unbelievable because of the wealth of Cleveland hundred hundred 20 years ago in particular, we have some of those well endowed and

David Gilbert: 29:16 mmm. Arts institutions in the country and, and you know, several that really are considered worldclass. I mean, it would New York Times just named the Cleveland Orchestra, the number one orchestra in the world. I feel it would never think, but, but we, we have these focus groups and we actually had to show the orchestra staff, we had these focus groups in Pittsburgh, Columbus in Detroit, and, and it was just kind of average person on the street, you know, about 20. They didn’t know it was about Cleveland. They were getting asked questions about different cities, but you know, we, we were obviously, you know, interested in the Cleveland answers and one of the questions, does Cleveland have an orchestra? Not One person knew Cleveland an orchestra and say, what will we have an orchestra? Now, if you’re an orchestra, efficient auto in those cities, you’re going to know Cleveland as an orchestra.

David Gilbert: 30:01 You’re going to know it has a wonderful orchestra. We, and I was, you don’t have to worry about those people. They know what, but eat those people couldn’t, if they, you know, seven years ago they couldn’t get past the gap, but your Cleveland, so they could never imagine that Cleveland could have a great orchestra, great art museum or second largest theater district and all this stuff. And so, you know, they, they knew the Rock Hall and they knew the browns are Indians. And that was, you know, and you know, and you know, the sports teams in the Kazakh. So it, it was what we, we had to show a lot of this to local. So, especially the people around our organization, you know when you’re a DMO, a lot of people think as when I got here, if you’re not putting them on the cover of your visitor guide or on the front page, your website, you’re not helping them.

David Gilbert: 30:49 And, and it just, it’s just the way it is. And so we had to take a lot of this stuff and do a whole road show to dozens and dozens and dozens of groups and organizations to unveil the brand. And we did a big unveiling in front of about 700 people. And it was good. We did. It was, you know, it was really neat. We had how it was done. They had it. They had to hear the whole story leading up to it because it’s not like, here’s a slogan, do you like or not like the slogan? Those things can be so subjective. It was about the research behind everything we did because our job is to solve for a business problem, not all for a creative problem. Right. So, so it was, it was, I mean, that’s really, it also taught us a lot of discipline because, you know, again, in any brand, you have to, you can’t be all things to all people.

David Gilbert: 31:38 You’re always, because there’s always going to be people, uh, who, who, who whenever you put out there doesn’t appeal to. And that’s okay. And you don’t want locally is pay all that. I don’t like that, quite frankly. If, if the head of a local company or the head of a local foundation or doesn’t like it, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean it’s not good. That’s just their individual opinion. But if we’ve tested with the audiences that we believe are, are our most important for our message and it tests well, that’s what’s important. So I think it not only have to have that business discipline, but sometimes you need to show it to them, to others locally so they understand how you got there.

Nicole Mahoney: 32:22 Absolutely. And I love that you keep coming back to this is a business problem. It’s not a marketing problem, right? It’s, it’s grounded in, in business. And, um, and really that road show kind of helped you sort of where you started with this, when you started to describe this whole process, but helped you communicate to the, uh, to your stakeholders that it doesn’t matter if we like it, we’re trying to get the outsiders and here’s the, here’s the research, here’s the data that backs it up as to why, why, why, why this will work. Um, so I, I think that’s great.

David Gilbert: 32:58 Very tough time. I’m sure it’s private. It’s been talked about on here, you know, because they’re all funded through public funding, but they’re not public entities. But it’s also, you know, everybody’s a marketer. And I think if you, if you, if you make your argument, if you’re trying to justify what you do just based on activity and creativity, you’re never ever going to win ever. And people will never value what you do. You have to base it like any business on, on, on facts and research and numbers. And, um, and, and if, and I think for, for Demos, if, if you can’t do that, um, and you aren’t doing that, you’re, you’re, you’re always going to be looked at with skepticism.

Nicole Mahoney: 33:44 Yeah. I think that’s a great point too. I mean that some of those things you mentioned like, um, you know, creativity and, um, you know, activity, right? Tactical execution. Some of that stuff has really been commoditized. You can get it in so many places, but it’s being able to bring that consultation or that strategy that, that high level thinking to the table that’s really gonna make a difference. I think that’s a great point. So, uh, David, I’m wondering if, um, I’m going to give you a minute to talk about, or a few minutes, however long you need, um, looking into the future, are there any really exciting projects or programs that you’re involved with that you’d like to share with our listeners?

David Gilbert: 34:24 Well, I think we’re, we’re in the midst of something really interesting. We starting about probably about two years ago, we started to get approached more and more by, um,

David Gilbert: 34:40 companies and becoming their progressive insurance. And our university hospitals system and, and others along with some other, um, different nonprofit organizations asking us to partner to utilize our brand. And, and the employers are coming saying, can you were having a hard time attracting talent? And we love the way that you promote Cleveland. We love the way the story that you tell and, and, um, and would, how can we utilize that? Even our Cleveland State University are our largest local university. They were doing a search for a new, hired a search firm to hire a new, uh, president of the university. And they came to us that would you write the whole introduction for us? The all about, not about the university, but the about Cleveland section. They said, we can, we write

Nicole Mahoney: 35:37 stuff

David Gilbert: 35:38 about what there is to see and do, but we want it to be in your voice. We, things like that were happening over and over and over. And, um, and, and then we actually, we did what we call it a learning and listening to her kind of, as a result, we ended up, we did over a six month time. We had, um, a handful of our staff and it was largely led by four or five high level board members. And we hosted these w we, we went out and we did a presentation, kind of a road show, um, that talked about the work of the organization, what we do, how we view it. And it ended up being too about about 150 different groups, about 500 different people and, and including our group of about 50 CEOs in town. And we had one of our corporate CEO’s hosted these sessions and, and we, we, all we wanted to do was they were, was talk about ways we could be more effective in advancing the community.

David Gilbert: 36:39 That was really the question. We weren’t asking them for anything. And what, what kept coming up over and over was, um, really a lot about talent attraction. And, and so we started doing a lot of research and, um, and some modeling of, um, uh, of, of how we can utilize our brand, um, and, and, and what we, what we do and how we do in terms of attracting people to Cleveland to visit. And, um, and how do we, um, how do, how do we, we, you know, turn that slightly to have it be used for, um, for attracting talent. And then the other piece is this, you know, again, all to research, what we’ve realized is that, you know, by, by the perception of people who’ve never visited Cleveland versus those who have the dramatic difference, dramatic difference, you know, probably as large a gap as anywhere in the country.

David Gilbert: 37:48 And some of those, there’s a low bar to begin with. You know, if you’re going to go to Disney and, and you may love it, but you, you’re, you’re probably have very high expectations going in. So maybe we’re, we’re fortunate that there’s low expectations by a lot of people buy. But thankfully what we know is when visitors come, they’re the, they’re, they’re, um, they leave with a far, the gap between their perception from before and after is amazing. So we’re, we’re developing an entirely new strategy and it’s very much a mentioned re, you know, the, the reorganizing of our, of our staff around what we’re, we’re calling harnessing the power of the visitors. And, and you know, this, this is the thing I think that is really important are, you know, the DMO industry traditionally is a pretty, um, overall, I would say a pretty short term thinking and transactional, um, industry enlarge it, you know, it’s, it’s, it stands to reason.

David Gilbert: 38:50 It’s born out of the hotel industry 75, 100 years ago. A lot of cities formed convention and visitors bureaus where hotels collectively put in money to collectively market there. Their destination and hotels by nature overall are usually short term. You know, think about the turnover in gms. Think about, you know, the, your, you know, your monthly started porch, quarterly reports. It’s not, it’s not traditionally a longterm thinking, um, uh, type of industry and, and the way, and you think of pretty much every, every community. Okay. Um, and, and the statistics of how our industry is measured is number of visitors and the dollars they spend. That’s basically yet a lot of great things from that. The jobs that are created, the tax that are creative. But, but I would contend, particularly for a city like Cleveland, not every visitor is equal. So the, I mean we have to think of it, you weren’t thinking of it in a few different ways.

David Gilbert: 39:55 One visitors here, they’re our customers. If we think of our city as a branded product or visitors, our customers, and it’s not just about the dollars they spend, it’s about, it’s about the influence that they have on changing their perception of our community. And we also know because of getting through a lot of research that when people visit, you know, it’s sort of like it’s, you know, we have these millions of first dates every year. How do we convert some of those in the marriage? And so if we have companies that are looking for talent and we have P and we have millions of visitors each year that are coming here for leisure travel, business travel meetings, conventions, how do we capture at the end? And we know that those people’s perceptions are, are much higher when they come here. They’re, they’re our best shot at conversion to fill new jobs, their best shot at conversion for investing in Cleveland for, uh, for, for one way or another, having a longer term relationship with our community that just that weekend they might’ve spent here that three or four days is so, so we’re really getting into a whole new way of thinking and, and we’re, we’re shifting not instead of what we do in our traditional attracting meetings and conventions and leisure travel, but adding on to entirely new dimensions of our organization, really focused on harnessing the power of the visitor.

Nicole Mahoney: 41:24 Yeah. That’s amazing. I, um, I really appreciate what you’re, uh, what you’re pointing out here with the, you know, kind of the nature, the industry and the way deemos are measured and how that causes this more kind of short term thinking. Um, we actually had an episode, episode 44, I interviewed Rick Ant Ansen who you might know. We talked all about cathedral thinking and, um, I just love that concept of cathedral thinking. And really, you know, the whole premise of that is back in the, I think it was the 16th century, I care, I can’t remember. I’m not going to get the number right. But when those kids, thedral builders were building cathedrals, they, the people who are laying those initial bricks knew that they would not finish this project in their lifetime. And to have that vision of something that you’re building that’s going to live on and not even really be complete in your lifetime, I think is, is really what you’re talking,

David Gilbert: 42:24 talking about here. You don’t plant a tree. Do you plant a tree for your kids to sit under it? Yeah. And where we get what we’re doing, you know, it’s, we’re not doing this for the next political cycle. We’re not doing it. So, so we see it in, in immediately and what we’re doing. Um, but, but I’ll tell you, we believe so strongly, Nicole, that the work we’re doing here is so fundamental to the future economy of our community. You know, potentially one of the single most fundamental, uh, um, building blocks. And, and it’s not because we’re attracting more visitors who are spending more money. We are, but that’s, that’s not, that’s the short term part. It’s that we, we are at the central point of, of changing perceptions of a community. A few are from the outside for a city who dramatically needs that in depends on it. And, and, and, and I, I think it’s why we are being looked at differently in our community and our are being asked to, to have a seat at the table or a seat, oftentimes at the head of the table for some things that would have of been unthinkable for an organization like ours 10 or 15 years ago.

Nicole Mahoney: 43:48 Yeah, absolutely. And so I’m so excited that you shared this with us and, and I felt this building as you were describing everything that’s been going on in your organization, at least for the last seven years or so. Um, but, uh, for our listeners’ sake, the reason, one of the reasons why I invited you to be on the show is because I had seen a campaign that you had recently, uh, launched, um, Hashtag come back cle. And I’m wondering if, uh, if this is part of that harnessing the power of the visitor and if you can talk a little bit about that campaign. Yeah.

David Gilbert: 44:23 Um, um, we, it actually, we did this campaign really is research. So we, um, we did a campaign, um, folk in Chicago. Um, you know, Chicago is sort of the, in the Midwest, you know, it’s sort of the capital of the Midwest and you get a lot of people from cities around the Midwest. If they’re going to go to a bigger city, you know, Cleveland, a pretty big city, what they’re going to go to a big city there, you know, more often that kind of harsh. So we did a campaign in, in our brand and our brand voice, um, and we built, we built a backend to it, um, with, with, um, a website information on the community and so on. And, and we, it was a campaign about coming back to Cleveland to work and it kind of a very cute way be launched on Valentine’s Day and it was about, you know, we want you back.

David Gilbert: 45:15 And it was not, you know, it was not you. It was us, you know, the fun you can play off on that. And, and we, we did it for an expat audience that we had identified and a Chicago, you know, uh, expect cleaners living in Chicago. And then we also did it for a general audience and we did it not to fill jobs per se. We did it to study how the ex pats and how people in Chicago reacted to it. What was the conversion like once, if, if it was converted that they at least went onto the site? Where did they go when information were they, what were they doing? What kind of, uh, w w how often did they use the customer service reaction? We had available live chat and, and, uh, um, um, and, and, um, you know, uh, and, and phone calls and, and it’s provided some really fascinating insights for us.

David Gilbert: 46:08 Um, our goal is that by probably by the end of this year with a number of other partners, we are going to launch a, a comprehensive talent attraction strategy. Um, and, and again, what our part is, what we know, what we know how to do on the visitor side and we feel confident we’ll do it on the, on the attraction side is fill up that, that top of the funnel with customers in our community work. Kind of figure out what’s, what does that bottom of the funnel look like? You know, what, what are the, you know, w w w we know how to do it on the, on the visitor side. We’ve spent a lot of years developing that, you know, the, the, where do you send people for their information, for their experiences, for their customer engagement, all those things. But we don’t have it in our community. It’s pretty fractured in, in how that stuff will work for town attraction.

David Gilbert: 47:02 But this, this, um, uh, this campaign in Chicago was a really a first, um, a pretty big first step for us in some of the research. And like I said, it’s provided some really, really valuable insights. And was it, um, what are the positives? I mean it’s some of your hunches. Um, I think, I think what, you know, it’s funny it you said that I would say in some ways not so positive in a way that’s taught us to learn. So a lot of it’s no different. It kind of helps reinforce to us we need the same process we did when we were developing the brand to visit. And that in that, um, it’s eight year in a very competitive space and we have, locals will bring companies together to say, well, of course people will want to come to Cleveland. It’s a wonderful place.

David Gilbert: 47:53 We’re here. We get all the things that are great about it. We get the affordability, we get the amazing parks, blah, blah, all this stuff. That’s all very true. The stuff that, when you know, there’s always the same, you know, we, it’s hard to get people to come here. It’s harder to get into the league and in that there’s a lot of truth to them. And so, but yet our audience is not Clevelanders. So when we’re out in a big market like Chicago and where marketing just say, hey, you know, it’s a even in a really creative way, you know, we, we, we have great jobs here in Cleveland. Um, it’s in just a general audience if you’re not, if you’re, we are, we are leading with an attribute and we can’t do it in that space either. We are very targeted to who our audiences are and now we’re actually shifting more of the money back to it.

David Gilbert: 48:38 This x test strategy, knowing that’s lower hanging fruit, you know, tens and tens, hundreds of thousands of Cleveland next paths. And then you can target by age, demographic type of job and now a data. There’s so many ways to do that. And, and you know, they’re, they’re an easy low hanging fruit. They have, they’re from here. So many of them want to come back here. They have the connections here. We don’t have to sell them on Cleveland if they didn’t like it when they left. It doesn’t matter what we say. For those who really liked it, a fond memories, it could be a nice place to come back to there. It’s much easier to convert them. So, um, I would say it really reinforced for us that, um, that, you know, it’s the same challenges and we know how to deal with it. One of thing though I think that is really within all this that’s is also fascinating is you’re starting to see there’s this great conference called um, city nation place and, and um, they’re really, it’s relatively new.

David Gilbert: 49:36 Um, and they hold one in the u s in one a year, but it’s really focused on that cross section of place, marketing place, branding destination or an economic development marketing. And what it really reinforces is a brand is a brand. If you have a brand that works, a brand that speaks to who you are, if you, I mean the best cities, you know, what, what’s not going to be effective as try to have one brand for a different, you don’t have a brand for different audiences. You know, brand is a collection of stories about who you are. And if you hit it on the mark, that’s not going to change for a live audience, a work audience, a student audience, how you get to them and how that manifests is, is different. But it’s, it’s so interesting to see some of these things starting to really take root as it, particularly

Nicole Mahoney: 50:28 in Europe. Um, but, but more and more in the U S and, and um, you know, I think, I think that even what we’re seeing in Chicago is some of the same. Yeah, absolutely. I hadn’t heard of that conference, but that, that sounds amazing. I’ll definitely want to check that out. Um, and, and one of those challenges and you know, bringing those brands together as traditionally you’ve had different organizations, right? Handling all of those different facets in the community. Yes.

David Gilbert: 50:57 Yeah. It’s, I know, you know, we’ve always had, I heard someone joke has Cleveland is a town of long toes get stepped on. You know, we’ve had to be careful, even though we’d been invited to weight into this space and we’ve had to, you know, be careful on doing it the right way and the right partners. And we’re not trying to do other people’s jobs, but what we know how to do really well and we have the numbers to back it up is change people’s perception of Cleveland and convert them as a, the Cleveland as a place to visit. And so that, that, you know, when we start with that fundamental, it’s, it’s, we find that that organizations kind of what back off and say, okay, I get it and now how do we take what we do really well? Combine it with what you do really well to make that one plus one equal more than two.

Nicole Mahoney: 51:52 Right. Exactly. Well David, this has been just an awesome conversation and I’m sure we could go on and on so many more questions I could ask you. Um, but I, I want to be respectful of your time and have our listeners’ time. So, um, before we wrap up, are there any final words that you’d like to share with our listeners? Anything that maybe I didn’t ask you that you wanted to share?

David Gilbert: 52:16 Um, no, other than a guy I really appreciate your, uh, um, your, your, you’re inviting me to do this. And I, I, you know, I just, I’d encourage more and more people within our space, within our industry to think differently. And, and, you know, that cathedral mentality is a, is a, a, a beautiful analogy for it. And, uh, um, and, and I feel like deemos have a, particularly in some places around the country, can really be absolutely a central force in the future economic growth of our cities.

Nicole Mahoney: 52:54 Yeah, absolutely. Totally agree. Thank you so much, David, for your time and we’ll look forward to, uh, to following the success of this, this new venture that you’re on and, and definitely visiting Cleveland soon.

David Gilbert: 53:08 Good. I appreciate it.

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