St. Louis’ largest meeting venue was recently invaded by comic book characters, wizards, “Star Wars” droids and other sci-fi devotees, often in full fandom regalia. The America’s Center Convention Complex will also host real-world robots and the youth who built them — along with a cadre of parents and supporters — at the 2017 FIRST Robotics Championship April 26-29.
The St. Louis region, which competes for convention business against metro areas like Nashville and Indianapolis, also must sell itself as a meetings destination in the face of concerns about crime and outmoded facilities. Still, local business and civic leaders are optimistic about St. Louis’ future as a desirable destination for business and leisure travelers alike.
"The most difficult thing about selling my city is fighting the perception that there is nothing to do in St. Louis," said Angie Weigel, president of Destination St. Louis, a destination management and event services company. "When given the opportunity to visit, we hear time and again, 'I had no idea there was so much to see and do.' We have several world-class attractions that always impress. We are an undervalued and underappreciated city. If we can get them here for a site visit, the city and all we have to offer does the selling."
Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, previously was executive vice president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, where she gained experience with efforts to repair and renovate convention venues. Those investments were made out of necessity, however, as the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and Superdome were used as emergency shelters when Hurricane Katrina tore through the city in 2005.
“The convention center and Superdome had horrific stories and images associated with them internationally, and neither was intended to be a shelter,” Ratcliffe said. “The issue with both those buildings was getting a fresh start. It was repairing damage. It was new carpet and paint. It was inviting the media to help tell the new story.”
St. Louis’ story is one of a successful venue, the Cervantes Convention Center, which had its latest chapters dictated by the needs of an NFL owner and team rather than by meeting planners, Ratcliffe said. Although the convention center underwent an expansion in 1993, the upgrades were already a compromise to accommodate the planned domed stadium that was added a few years later to host the Rams.
The Cervantes, which opened 40 years ago, is now part of the America’s Center Convention Complex, which also includes the vacant football stadium.
“So, for 20 years, we have managed these two facilities that sit side by side, but don’t really work very well as one,” Ratcliffe said.
According to Ratcliffe, the complex needs improved, multipurpose meeting spaces and wider passages between the dome and convention center, among other upgrades. Local tourism officials are expected to seek refinancing as well as an extension of the dome’s bonds to help fund renovations.
“We haven’t kept up our facilities. So now we’re behind, way behind,” Ratcliffe said. “St. Louis deserves to compete with Indianapolis, Nashville and other cities that have made investments in their buildings. But, in order to do that, we are going to have to make similar investments.”
An image problem?
Meanwhile, officials also have an eye on the region’s image, which is often framed by crime statistics.
Unlike many other metro areas, St. Louis-specific statistics are frequently separated from those reported by surrounding suburbs that might otherwise mitigate crime numbers, according to local tourism officials. St. Louis annually ranks near the top of cities with the highest violent crime rates, according to FBI statistics, but information on the Explore St. Louis website encourages potential visitors to look at combined data for the city and county. The site also highlights an overall decline in crime within the city proper from 2006 through 2015.
Local meeting planners, who often field clients' questions about the city’s safety, want to disseminate that data and dispel doubts.
“Reports from the news media play a big role in influencing perception, which is not always accurate but gets conveyed to potential clients,” said Weigel, of Destination St. Louis. “As the bulk of our business is in downtown St. Louis, we are big champions of sharing how safe St. Louis is when we are working and playing in our city.”
In recent years, many of those media images came from Ferguson, Mo., which gained international attention in August 2014 after a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, after responding to a report of a convenience store robbery. The situation sparked racially charged protests, some of which turned violent.
Weigel said Explore St. Louis quickly provided travel professionals with useful talking points to share with concerned clients and even took meeting planners unfamiliar with the suburb on a field trip to Ferguson to give them a more complete picture of the area.
Explore St. Louis’ Ratcliffe said she implemented many of the same strategies used after Hurricane Katrina to manage questions and concerns about Ferguson, which is about 20 to 25 minutes from the downtown convention center by car. In both New Orleans and St. Louis, Ratcliffe and her staff enlisted a team of volunteers to help with a variety of tasks such as public relations.
Following the events in Ferguson, everyone collaborated using the online project management tool Basecamp to communicate with meeting planners whose events were scheduled for St. Louis in coming weeks or months, disseminate updated information to media outlets and others, or handle other assigned tasks as quickly as possible.
“In crisis, time itself is the most critical factor because, for every news story that penetrates the public consciousness, your job becomes harder,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s harder to reframe the way people are thinking, so you can’t afford to let any grass grow.”
St. Louis hasn’t been the only city in the headlines because of police-involved shootings and related protests. Last August, Milwaukee experienced a weekend of violent protests following the police shooting of a 23-year-old black man. In that instance, the man was armed and the officer was also black. But the protests in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Sherman Park shared similarities with those in Ferguson because violent outbreaks were confined to very limited areas, said Kristin Settle, director of communications for Visit Milwaukee.
“Some news media made it look like the city was on fire when, in fact, it wasn’t. It was a few businesses on a few streets in a neighborhood outside of downtown,” Settle said.
Tourism officials updated the Visit Milwaukee website to address that point and other safety concerns, Settle said. They also reached out to individual meeting planners who had upcoming events in the city.
“I just think it’s important for cities that experience this to be proactive and reach out to their convention attendees and meeting planners to reassure them,” said Settle, who added those efforts helped the city avoid any convention cancelations.
Marketing activities, attractions
While upgraded convention centers definitely polish the pitch for some cities, others can sell themselves by focusing not just on facilities, but on what meeting attendees can see and do after their convention agenda ends.
“When most people go to choose a destination for a conference or convention, it’s not because of a convention center, it’s because you have things to do at the end of the day,” said Roger Brooks, a tourism consultant, author and speaker. “So if somebody goes to a conference and they are there from 7:30 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, are they just going to go back to their hotel and watch TV because there’s nothing going on?”
To sell a city as a convention destination, Brooks recommends tourism officials spend about 10 percent of their budget marketing hotels and meeting venues, and 10 percent touting transportation to and around a metropolitan area. He then advises that the remaining 80 percent of the destinations’ marketing dollars be devoted to highlighting a handful of top attractions. Efforts should sell the destination to meeting planners trying to select a site and to potential convention attendees trying to decide whether a particular event is worth their time and money.
“Tell people: ‘Here are the top five to seven things to do while you’re here,’" Brooks said. "That’s what closes a sale.”
Along those lines, Ratcliffe said St. Louis has been able to strengthen its brand as a destination over the last several years, but still has work to do when it comes to promoting world-class destinations like the St. Louis Zoo and unique draws like Grant's Farm.
"A broader goal for our organization is to break through perceptions of St. Louis related to crime or as a fly-over Midwestern city and help make it a destination choice for people," Ratcliffe said.