by Leo Jakobson | December 01, 2014

A few years ago, all that anyone heard about Detroit was about its dying auto industry, looming bankruptcy, and those TV news aerial shots of whole blocks of abandoned homes -- so many that the city was talking about how best to raze thousands of them.

Then, however, something happened. Detroit refused to give up. The auto industry's Big Three began to revive, making cars that people wanted to drive. News stories began to crop up about Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, moving his company offices into downtown Detroit and encouraging start-ups and young companies to follow. Despite a drawn-out and contentious bankruptcy, the city kept investing in itself. An award-winning rebranding campaign, "America's Comeback City," helped change the tone and tenor of national news coverage. In January, CNN Money called Detroit "The New Brooklyn," and in May, USA Today named its Midtown neighborhood one of "10 Up-and-Coming Neighborhoods Around the USA." A revitalization campaign began transforming the five-and-a-half mile RiverFront area, making it a place people wanted to be. A $279-million plan to restore the Cobo Center, the city's 2.4-million-square-foot downtown convention center located on the banks of the Detroit River, started attracting attention. As a result, convention bookings are up 145 percent so far this year, after rising 208 percent in 2013.

Nor is Detroit alone. Oakland, CA, is turning itself from a crime-ridden city happily separated from San Francisco by a bridge into a growing outpost for start-up tech firms fleeing the rising rents of Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

A pair of cities further along in the process of reinventing themselves are Cleveland and Nashville, says Felicia Brent, vice president of strategic sourcing for Experient, a Maritz Travel Company. Calling them "frontrunners" in the up-and-coming cities category, Brent notes that Cleveland recently completed a major renovation to its convention center and Nashville just finished a new one.

"Both Cleveland and Nashville boast vibrant entertainment districts unique to their cities, offering live music, unique and local restaurants, entertainment, arts, culture, and sports. It gives meeting attendees an opportunity to experience the flair of each city and all within walking distance of the core hotel package in the downtown areas," she says. "Both cities offer great value in terms of affordability, access into the city from the airport, and great hotel packages."

What all these cities have in common with top meetings venues such as Las Vegas, Orlando, and now Chicago -- which just this year finally beat out those perennial contenders to secure the top spot on Cvent's list of top event destinations -- is that they are investing in the meetings and convention market.

"It's a theme across the last several years that when destinations invest in new hotels, convention centers, attractions, or transportation/infrastructure improvements, it does have a big impact on whether planners want to go to that destination," says Eric Eden, vice president of marketing for Cvent.

But there's more to it than just the infrastructure, he adds. There are "some destinations planners are aware of, like Vegas and Orlando," Eden says. "But it's one thing to say somewhere is a good tourist destination, but people are not always aware of things like whether there is a good convention center there, or if they have new hotels or attractions for attendees at conferences. Marketing is necessary."

Here's a look at three cities that are making a move: Detroit, which is building on a grassroots revitalization effort; Oakland, which is leveraging its location and growing gentrification to pursue the tech industry; and Chicago, an always-popular destination that climbed back to the top thanks to an administration dedicated to the meetings and conventions industry's needs.

Detroit: Building on Hometown Passion
When the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau asked the planners of PLM World -- a 2,000-person annual convention organized by an independent nonprofit association that calls itself "the Voice of the User" of Siemens' hugely popular Product Lifecycle Management software -- to hold the show in Detroit, they were, to say the least, skeptical.


Detroit's Greektown is one of
a number of newly hip Downtown
and Midtown neighborhoods offering
dining and nightlife choices that make
them attractive to meeting and convention goers

Detroit-based auto manufacturers and supplier companies use the software and make up the biggest concentration of PLM World's members. Despite this, in the past 15 years the association had not brought -- or even considered bringing -- its annual convention to Motor City. Long seen as the poster child for the decline of the American Rust Belt, Detroit only emerged from a long and highly publicized bankruptcy last month.

"The Detroit CVB begged us to come on a site visit, and at first, we put them off," says Beth Ewing, business director of PLM World. "We have a site selection committee on our board of directors and we all looked at each other and said, 'Are you out of your mind? Why would we want to go to Detroit?' We have a member who works in that area, and he wasn't even excited about it."

Eventually, however, the Detroit CVB's persistence paid off, and Ewing and three site-selection committee members gave in. "We were all in shock, including the gentleman who lives nearby and works in the auto industry," says Ewing. "People don't understand that Downtown Detroit, where the convention center is located, is not the area you think of when you think of the trouble with Detroit."

Overcoming that perception is a challenge that the CVB has been working on for several years, and with some success. Its award-winning rebranding campaign, "America's Comeback City," has helped change the tone and tenor of news coverage, says Bill Bodhe, senior vice president of sales and marketing of the Detroit CVB. "We made a significant push to show the media that Detroit is not just blight," he says. "We had to show them the rebirth of Downtown and Midtown."

Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert may have the highest profile of Detroit's backers, spending $1.3 billion on downtown commercial property and moving his own 12,000 employees there, but he was not alone in this fight. Detroit recently broke ground on a $140-million, 3.3-mile streetcar system partially funded by private businesses and philanthropic organizations. A "grand bargain" raised more than $800 million to save the collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts from being auctioned off.

And, of course, there's the $279-million renovation of its convention facility, the Cobo Center. "That has brought a lot of credibility and excitement to the convention marketplace," Bodhe says. "We have adjusted work rules and put new management in place. It is a great experience."

No matter how impressive the infrastructure was to Ewing and her colleagues, it was the CVB itself that put Detroit over the top, she says. "I went and I saw Detroit, and it is great, but if I can't sell it to my members, it's not going to work," Ewing notes. "It comes down to them wanting to be here."

The CVB gave her group a great presentation about the city, Ewing says. "But it was also about how they want to help us market their city," she adds. "More than any other city I've been to, I feel that now they are a team member. It is much more of a partnership than any other city I've worked with."