‘Detroit, America’s Great Comeback City’ woos conventions

Tom Walsh| Detroit Free Press

Jamie MichelsonAfter five years of virtual silence during the region’s economic free fall, Detroit is on the verge of mounting a major marketing push to reestablish the city as a host of state and national meetings and conventions.

“Detroit, America’s Great Comeback City” will be the tagline for the new campaign, to launch around July 1 with national TV, radio and print ads, plus social media outreach.

It’s the first national sales pitch in five years, but this time it’s built on existing momentum, including a 68% increase in hotel night stays from 2011-2012. There’s also the $300-million expansion and upgrade of Cobo Center to brag about and some impressive already-booked business to build upon.

One crucial audience for Detroit’s message, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), is bringing its annual convention to town in August 2015, the summer following completion of the Cobo work.

“It’s the Super Bowl of the trade show industry, and it will bring 6,000 meeting planners and other attendees here for four days,” Bill Bohde, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau (MDCVB), told me last week. “What a way to be able to put on a great show and change the perception of a destination.”

That perception, for Detroit, needed some serious spiffing up.

When Michigan’s economy was already in a tailspin 10 years ago, Cobo was deteriorating while other cities were building impressive new convention spaces.

During late 2008 and early 2009, hotel occupancy in the Detroit region plunged to around 40%, according Smith Travel Research. The state of Michigan’s hotel vacancy rate was the nation’s worst “for nine, 10, 11 quarters in a row,” Michigan State University professor Sarah Nicholls said last month at a tourism conference in Detroit. City and state hotel numbers have since edged upward near the national average around 60%, but a city’s image among meeting planners may take longer — thus the new marketing push.

SMZ Advertising of Troy landed the account and will present the concepts and strategy Monday to a key advisory board of the MDCVB.

“We have not had an agency of record here since the downturn in the economy in 2008, and we felt it was time for us to advance our visibility and really get our story out,” Bohde said last week. He didn’t reveal how much the campaign will cost, saying only that there will be “substantial increase” in the marketing budget.

SMZ and convention bureau officials will be sharing the Detroit comeback story at both the 2013 and 2014 ASAE conventions in Atlanta and Nashville, touting the Cobo renovations, the addition of major new hotels in the city, plus a more vibrant retail and entertainment scene, fueled by business growth, job creation and movement of young professionals in Detroit’s downtown and Midtown.

Bohde had held similar convention bureau sales posts in Kansas City and St. Louis for the past 15 years before coming to Detroit a year ago. When a recruiting firm called him about the available Detroit job in January 2012, he said his response was, “No way I’m going to Detroit.”

What Bohde now calls his “naïveté” about Detroit turned to enthusiasm as he did his homework on the region, learned about the creation of a regional authority for Cobo and the subsequent renovation project; the construction of Ford Field and Comerica Park downtown the decade before; the casino-hotels in 2008, and the energy surrounding the moves of Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield and other employers into downtown.

“I saw that Detroit truly is in a transitionary period. The opportunity ahead was really great and I was going to experience something very, very special, and that’s the comeback of a great American city,” Bohde said.

Jamie Michelson, the president of SMZ, was no stranger to Detroit when he pitched Bohde and the MDCVB brass for the agency assignment recently. Indeed, SMZ has represented the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings for years and also done work for the Fisher Theatre and Woodward Dream Cruise.

“Our approach, having worked with sports teams for so long, was that comebacks come from the people on the field, the people on the ice,” Michelson said.

Not from the owners or the play-by-play announcers, in other words. Cities can make comebacks, he told the DMCVB officials, but people make cities.

So the new comeback-city ads, Michelson said, will be “testimonial based” with real local people in very Detroit settings.

People skeptical of Detroit’s comeback — and yes, they are plentiful — will no doubt recall a long litany of image-boosting attempts over the years, dating back to 1980 or so when downtown shopkeeper Emily Gail was the booster behind the “Say Nice Things About Detroit” slogan of that era.

Ernst & Young did a study back in 2003 that showed the then-new metro Airport terminal to be an image booster, but it also acknowledged that Cobo, a shortage of downtown hotel rooms and safety fears were negatives that pushed Detroit below the likes of Cleveland and St. Louis in the opinion of conventioneers.

Bohde said the quantity and quality of the region’s hotel options have been steadily improving of late, and the impending reopening of Crowne Plaza Pontchartrain and development of the Aloft hotel in the David Whitney building will be two more welcome additions.

Ground transportation options, especially from the airport to hotels, remains a negative for the region, but he said the DMCVB and Wayne State University have done a study on options including a super-shuttle service that could soon make airport-to-hotel transit more available and less expensive.

Detroit’s comeback as a meetings and convention destination, he said, is already picking up steam: the number of room nights booked for conventions, trade shows and meetings in Detroit area hotels jumped from 109,000 in 2011 to 183,000 last year, and is on pace to exceed 200,000 in 2013.

“We’re definitely in a catch-up mode, and we have a lot to be proud of,” Bohde said. Soon we’ll see if the nation’s meeting planners are buying into the message.

Contact Tom Walsh at twalsh@freepress.com or 313-223-4430

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