The Best of the Midwest

The Midwest learns the benefits of a little boasting

Convention and visitors bureau executives across the Midwest have kicked their marketing efforts into high gear to show planners that these cities will appeal to groups that might never have considered them before. 

“We rolled out a new brand strategy at our annual meeting that was really based on a new, more bold and confident voice,” says Warren Wilkinson, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau (CCTB). Wilkinson adds that the Midwestern quality of humility is “great to have in a person; not so great as a destination. We need to have a little more swagger.” So the focus has been on sharing Chicago’s attributes with the world. 

One component of the program is the tagline “Chicago: Second to None,” a nod to the “Second City” nickname that is often misunderstood to mean it falls into second place behind New York. (It refers to the city being rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.) The CCTB is also reopening international sales offices and targeting markets like winter sporting events and drive-in visitors.

Chicago resonates as a fresh choice for planners like Leslie Blair, account executive with Viktor Incentives & Meetings, who placed a group there last June. 

“It was a small incentive program, but the highest-level stakeholder for this particular corporation. We decided that by choosing Chicago, not only could people drive, but we could probably do three nights and still provide a great program. We booked the Four Seasons Hotel, did the welcome dinner at [noted eatery] Spiaggia, did an architectural river cruise, and offered a choice of other options,” she says. “It was a smash hit and we got some of the highest survey scores ever.” 

It is clearly working for planners of other events too: Chicago is hosting major events like the G8 and NATO summits, to be held here next May.   

Two Cities Evolve
Nearby Detroit is a city that lives comfortably in its thick skin, having endured years of negative press. This has allowed residents to develop a self-deprecating sense of humor and led to marketing campaigns like, “Who’s the genius who picked Detroit? MENSA” around the society’s 2010 annual conference held there.  

The city’s tourist board recently embarked on a new campaign to spruce up its image and attract new groups, called Detroit 3.0. “I was asked to think about how we could position ourselves moving forward and it occurred to me that we were seeing the third iteration of Detroit,” says Chris Baum, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Detroit. “But what is our third act?”

As it happens, Michigan has become a major producer of wind turbines and solar cells, a center for clinical trials, a leader in the defense industry, and a hotbed of urban farming among other unexpected niches. The World Stem Cell Summit held its 2010 event at the Detroit Marriott last October and Baum is quick to point out that “it wasn’t a mercy booking; they came here because it made sense for them to come here.”  

The Detroit 3.0 campaign is ultimately about encouraging people to look at the city in a new light. “We know that if people come here we almost always get their business,” says Baum. “We can almost predict what they’ll say on the last day: ‘It’s so much better than I expected.’ It’s a compelling package, but you have to take a look.”  

Also helping is that Michigan tourism officials continue to push the very successful Pure Michigan campaign, which saw its budget rise to $25 million this year after being cut sharply during the depths of the recession. 

Midwestern stronghold Cleveland is parlaying its to-be-completed Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center into future bookings as city officials and venues work with Positively Cleveland to attract new groups. In July, the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials announced it will bring its 2013 national conference here with 1,500 attendees and an estimated economic impact of $5.6 million.

At the time, David Gilbert, president and CEO of Positively Cleveland said, “Our city and this entire region are experiencing a significant change with new construction, new facilities, and a new attitude about our ability to bring major events to Cleveland.”

He later told Successful Meetings: “With the promise of a two-facility slam dunk (the I-X Center, which is one of the largest exhibition halls in the nation, and the new downtown convention center scheduled to be complete in 2013), we are introducing Cleveland to a wider variety of meetings and conventions.”

Hidden Gems
Other cities also remain hard at work, upgrading offerings for groups; Indianapolis is in the midst of $3 billion in new construction and renovation in the downtown area—all of which is set to be complete by year’s end. 

And don’t forget about St. Louis, says Dianne Davis, vice president at TulNet Meetings and Events. “I was amazed by what a cool location it is. It is easy to get to and my attendees could make it from the airport to downtown easily and inexpensively with the light rail. [There is a] very good downtown area with clubs, restaurants, and the Cardinals,” she says. “Ultimately I was able to see an excellent value for price paid.” 

So it might be time to rethink that vast swath of land between the coasts. What it comes down to, says Baum, is “we, and other cities in the Midwest, can offer a refreshing alternative.”