How does a city attract people? Particularly, groups looking for a venue for their annual convention, trade show or exposition? After the ultramodern convention center is built, the spiffy slogan unveiled and the sidewalks swept, how does a city promote itself as a desirable destination?
In 1896, Detroit journalist Milton Carmichael asked the same question. His solution was to form a group of local businessmen to promote the city. The group represented the city’s hotels and could make bids to attract conventions. Originally called the Detroit Convention League, the group evolved into the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the CVB was born.
By focusing on marketing and functioning as a community’s public relations agency, CVBs produce billions of dollars for metropolitan areas. These days, many rural regions also have a CVB.
Conventions are a lucrative business. Las Vegas, for example, hosts more than 20,000 conventions a year. While Vegas’ attractions are well-known, other cities popular on the convention circuit include Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago and Louisville.
Charleston might not compete with those large municipalities, but the hospitality and tourism industry is still big business for the region, generating $565 million in annual spending, supporting 5,000 jobs, and bringing in $50 million in state and local taxes, according to Alisa Bailey, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Like most CVBs, the Charleston CVB is funded by a lodging tax on hotels. The tax is 6 percent on each room rented. The CVB gets 3 percent of that and the other 3 percent goes to the city.
“We have to project our budget based on what we think we’re going to get, which can be a little tricky. We get anywhere from $1.4 million to $1.6 million each year,” Bailey said.
Bailey describes a CVB as a “nonprofit commerce agency,” whose goal is to increase the city’s tax base through tourism.
“We seek to brand the city as a great place to live, work and play,” she said.
To do this, she uses the FARM strategy — a marketing acronym short for food, art, recreation and music.
“Our promise to meeting planners is that with world-class foods, arts, recreation and music set against a scenic and historic backdrop, your visit to Charleston will be inspirational.”
Numbers tell the story of the economic impact of travel and tourism in the Charleston region. According to statistics from the Charleston CVB’s 2019 Sales & Marketing Plan, between 2013 and 2018, Charleston invested millions in infrastructure improvements geared to travelers. These include the $100 million for the expansion and renovation of the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center, $18 million for the Shawnee Sports Complex and $8 million in exhibits and improvements at the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences.
The biggest draws to a city are its events. “People are always looking for things to do,” Bailey said. “About 78 percent of the visitors to our website are there to see what’s going on. The concerts, festivals, museums, the Clay Center, Power Park — our job is to promote all the wonderful events going on in Charleston.”
Other than branding, Bailey said the second prong of a CVB is to attract groups that will spend the night. “About 80 percent of our effort is to go out and get large meetings and conventions. Since 2012, we have booked close to 160,000 rooms. A conservative estimate is that these bookings have led to a $10 million influx for the city. This is just for meetings where we can track the bookings. We have no idea how many leisure travelers stay overnight.”
Bailey said the region’s biggest success has been in the competitive sports market. For example, two major youth soccer tournaments have been hosted recently in the Kanawha Valley. The Shawnee Sports Complex and Barboursville Soccer Complex jointly hosted the U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Presidents Cup in June and the USYS Eastern Regional Championships in early July.
During these five-day events, the teams and their families filled the area’s hotels.
“Believe me, you couldn’t get a room in this valley,” Bailey said.
Among other markets, Charleston does well with religious groups.
“We almost have a niche with faith-based conventions,” Bailey said. “Jehovah’s Witnesses have been coming here a long time, and, more recently, Baptist and Methodist groups.”
One of Charleston’s strengths is its “walkability.” “That you can easily get around in our city by walking is a big plus. People can go to their meeting at the Convention Center, walk to their hotel and walk downtown,” she said.
There are also issues that need to be addressed. These include the store closures at Charleston Town Center and the overall safety and security concerns about venturing into downtown Charleston, according to the Sales & Marketing Plan.
While the city has more work to do, the new Convention Center is proving to be a boon to the city’s revitalization.
“The meeting planners we’ve been bringing in are impressed with the facility. It’s not just the expansion of space, it’s the whole architecture and aesthetics of the Center,” Bailey said. “This is helping us compete with cities like Lexington, Roanoke and Columbus.”
Other CVBs, tourism groups
The Charleston CVB is one of several in Kanawha County. Central CVB gets funding from hotels outside the municipalities; South Charleston, Nitro and Dunbar also have CVBs.
There are also a couple of state associations: the West Virginia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus and the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association. These collect dues from members and serve as education and lobbying groups for the tourism industry.
“They lobby for laws that will help us and tourism at large; and, at the same time, the state association works to make sure no laws are passed that would hurt CVBs,” Bailey said.
“For example, it was the tourism industry that got the Brunch Bill passed,” she said.
Bailey is referring to the “Sunday Brunch Bill” passed by the Legislature in 2016, which made it legal to sell alcohol on Sundays after 10 a.m., if municipalities and counties chose to do so. Before the new law went into effect, restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol before 1 p.m. on Sunday. Business owners and tourism officials complained the old law was holding the state back economically.
“We also lobby to stave off anti-LGBTQ legislation,” Bailey said. “We have to brand the state as being welcoming to all, particularly with meeting planners. If you recall, when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in North Carolina, the NCAA pulled its championships out of state. The monetary impact of anti-gay laws can have a severe impact on the economy.”
CVBs aren’t required to be members of the state association.
“Joining is optional, but it’s a good model,” Bailey said. “They help make sure you’re running like a professional organization. There are a lot of things to learn, particularly in the digital marketing world. You need these outlets.”
South Charleston: Events draw locals and visitors
For Charleston’s neighbor city across the river, the appeal is to locals as well as out-of-towners.
South Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Vicki Vaughan says collaboration is key to making the city stand out and succeed as a tourist and business destination.
“The main purpose of a CVB, our job, is to bring out-of-town folks to our area because we want them to spend their money here,” Vaughan said from her D Street office, which doubles as the city’s Visitors Center, at the LaBelle Theatre recently. “If we can put a head in a bed, then they’re going to eat in our restaurants, they’re going to shop here, they’re going to buy their gas here.
“We’ve got the Mound, the Interpretive Center museum next door, the LaBelle Theatre. Events are a big deal here. We’ve got our Summerfest coming up in August. ... Events are a good way to draw those out-of-town dollars. Yes, your local people are going to enjoy it, but that’s a good sell to bring those out-of-town folks in. South Charleston residents will invite their friends and have class reunions during the week of Summerfest.”
Summerfest became a popular music festival under Vaughan’s predecessor, former SCCVB executive director Bob Anderson. After a long career of promoting South Charleston, Anderson retired last year due to health reasons. He died Saturday at age 75.
Diversity and growth
A strong selling point of South Charleston, Vaughan said, is its diversity of restaurants.
“South Charleston has the biggest collection of ethnic restaurants. If you think about South Charleston — including Southridge and Spring Hill and here on D Street — we have over 60 restaurants ... from fast-food to fine dining to international dining.”
To augment its tourist outreach, the SCCVB has also begun partnering with other area CVBs to promote their various attractions. A visitors’ guide with combined information will be released in July.
“We’re working together, because we want to give the visitors the best experience they can have,” Vaughan said. “We feel we’re a little bit stronger if we market the whole valley.”
The SCCVB is funded through a hotel/motel tax. “And when we have events,” Vaughan said, “we always ask businesses and people to make donations.”
Social media and advertising are vital tools for promoting South Charleston, she said, and city officials are integral in developing promotions.
“I have a board of about 20 folks and we meet once a month. They provide me with direction. That board is made up of local business folks, the mayor, a couple of City Council folks, the Chamber of Commerce and some hoteliers. It’s a really good mix of businesses giving direction and saying, ‘Here are some things we need to think about,’” Vaughan said.
A new shopping center, Park Place, being constructed at the former FMC Fly Ash Pond, will also bolster tourism significantly when it opens, Vaughan predicted.
“Our mayor is really progressive,” she said. “Think about how many people shop at Easton. Those outdoor mall venues are really a good sell right now. I anticipate that’s going to be a huge draw, because there are a lot of people here who travel to Easton. If we have something like this here in the valley, those people can shop here and we can draw from out of town, too.”